My former Principal’s an exceptionally smart guy. I served on his Building Leadership Team a few years ago and I would say he picked his team well. I’m not sure any of us even minded the prospect of all that extra work we put in to prepare a plan for the state showing how we were going to raise school test scores.
Here’s the problem, though: All across America, school districts have been working furiously to bring up their test scores, running like desperate hamsters trapped in endlessly rotating wheels. Because we are running at top-speed, not nearly enough teachers and administrators on America’s school-improvement teams — or regular folk across the nation, for that matter — are asking critical questions: To what extent are the tests themselves and the scores themselves creating our problems? To what extent are the test-associated curricula themselves and increasingly difficult standards that create these curricula themselves creating our problems? To what extent are the tests and curricula themselves forcing the purchase of inappropriate materials? To what extent are those Common Core-adapted books themselves adding to our problems?
Too few people are asking whether raising test scores is the best or right strategy. We are told higher test scores are necessary to prepare students for college. We are told all students must be made college-ready. What if we are wrong?
I am reminded of the joke about the man looking for his car keys:
A cop walking his beat one night finds a man down on his knees, searching for something on the street.
“What are you doing?” The cop asks.
“Looking for my car keys,” says the man.
The cop helps him look for awhile without success, then says, “Think back. Where were you when you last had your keys?”
“I don’t know,” the man answers. “Down the block on the other side over there, I think.”
“Then, why are you looking here?” the perplexed cop asks.
“Because the light is better under the streetlight,” the man answers.
This hackneyed joke fits today’s educational climate perfectly. Current strategies usually involve forming committees and discussing the problems that are keeping test scores down – without regard to whether or not test scores are actually the problem or merely the symptom of another, greater challenge that needs to be addressed.
Rather than forming multiple committees and launching into lengthy debates about where the test went wrong, though, and why not all our students are ready for college, I know what we ought to try first: Take 20 students at random from a failing school and have each student try to read one page of their science book aloud. Then check for understanding. Many students can pronounce words that are pretty much nonsense syllables to them. Repeat this page-reading exercise in other subjects. This is so basic I feel stupid writing it down, but many people who ought to be smarter seem to miss a large point nowadays: If a student can’t even understand the simplest paragraphs in a textbook, learning new material becomes hard — or even impossible.
Some students who are being used as fodder in this college-for-all plan are ludicrously far from ready for college – and I am certain textbook choices and time lost to testing and test prep are contributing to that lack of readiness. When we prepare all students for exactly the same test, a portion of those students are being prepared for an inappropriate test – an act tantamount to being taught inappropriate material, material for which they are not yet ready and cannot be made ready with a couple of hours of after-school tutoring. At least part of every grade’s student population in the U.S. today is being prepared to be hit up the side of the head by an educational battleaxe. Test results document this. These are the students on the farther left side of the testing bell curve.
State test preparation creates its own knock-out blow for these “left-side” students. We hand “Ezekiel” a literature book he cannot read. We know he can’t read the book or we figure this out quickly. Do we then select an appropriate book or class for Zeke? No, we can’t do that. If we’re a poor district, we may only have that one book. Textbooks are expensive. Some of them cost over $500 apiece, although most cost a more “reasonable” $70 to $100+ something. Even a more prosperous district may not choose to change the book or class, though, because Zeke is supposed to learn what is in the book he was given: This book has been specifically prepared to match the content of the state standardized test.
If Zeke is highly motivated, or his parents are highly motivated, he may come for tutoring or seek help in a resource class, trying to understand what his book says, assuming tutoring is available. My former middle school didn’t offer resource classes the year I first scribbled this down in a notebook, although we did manage a couple of months of Illinois State Achievement Test prep classes after school. We offered free tutoring with outside firms to qualifying students that year, but transportation and language issues often rendered this tutoring unusable. Teacher tutoring time was scarce, between the busses arriving 15 minutes before school, endless meetings after school,* and the natural reluctance of students to give up their half-hour lunch.
One year, a government grant provided funding for a few days of afterschool tutoring each week, along with a Friday homework/test make-up session, but even with those additional learning hours, many students had no chance to catch up to the material being presented each day in class. The one woman tutoring math some days might have 20 students from three grades to help. Those required unit tests written by the outside consulting firm on the East Coast thoroughly documented our failure to catch students up with tutoring. Official, after-school tutoring disappeared again the next year. The district had received a fat grant, too. I am not sure what led to the death of official tutoring. Maybe the absence of any evidence that tutoring was improving test outcomes?
In a lower-scoring school, Zeke’s teacher can have many Zekes. That teacher may be trying desperately to help students read the district’s math or literature book, or he or she may be illegally copying some other, better book, burning through paper in an effort to teach the curriculum without books. (An unreadable book might as well be no book.) Regardless, Zeke may quickly decide he hates his classes, especially if his teachers decide to slog through the books that Zeke cannot understand.
*Meetings varied, but I might have all-school, science, mathematics, and bilingual meetings to fit in.
Eduhonesty: One-size-fits-all testing has to stop because it leads to one-size-fits-all educational approaches that grossly underserve many students — not to mention ridiculous numbers of useless or nearly useless meetings. Getting together to figure out how to teach students the same thing at the same time, regardless of whether these students are in bilingual programs, special education or regular classes, inevitably leads to substandard teaching to exceptional students, those students who are unready or long-past-ready to learn the agreed upon Single-Content-to-Rule-Them-All.