My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


Education Reform That Matters, part IV 

Authentic Accountability

What do I mean, "authentic?" The Colorado Student Assessment Program already has accountability--when a school fails our students repeatedly, it gets turned into a charter school. Isn't that enough accountability?

Well, NO.

You see, the schools do not take the test, the students do. And the schools have no authority to use the tests to make decisions about student advancement or metriculation or graduation or any other way to "encourage" the students to perform well on the tests.

In fact, every year we are regaled with stories at testing time of students who refuse to take the test--or, to be more accurate, of parents who refuse to "let" their students take the test. If this were real accountability, every student would take the test, and every educational decision would take those test results into account, at the very least.

Let me say that again--EVERY student would take the test and EVERY educational decision would be at least partially based on those test results.

You mean educational decisions don't take into account the results of the test?

Not at all. In fact, when CSAP results were first announced, I had a lot of fun with this little nugget of wisdom:

For the first time, the department this year dissected data from the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests to show how students progressed over the past two years. . .

Two-thirds of the third-graders who scored "unsatisfactory" — the lowest level — in reading in 2005 are still at that level, the data show.

There IS NO ACCOUNTABILITY FOR THE STUDENTS. If you fail the exam in third grade, what test should you be taking the next year? does it make any sense to ANYBODY that the answer to this is "the fourth grade test?" That's insane.

On the worksite, if one of your people fails the skills test for driving the heavy machinery, next week does he get to move on to operating the cranes and back hoe's? I hope not. If so, then remind me to stay clear of your construction site!

But it's far more disturbing than that. The fact that skills assessments of this order are only administered once a year, at the end of the year, and that the results don't even come out until the following August (which, by the way, is probably past class registration time in many schools) is laughable. First of all, if we want to hold teachers and schools accountable, how do you do that when most students change teachers at semester for at least some of their classes?

Mr Norton, Bobby did really bad at the math portion of the CSAP last Spring. Do you have any explanation?

Well, Prinicpal Evans, he was doing fine in my class when he left it in December and went to Miss Hawkings' class.

Miss Hawkings, what happened to Bobby second semester last year?

He just didn't come to me with the skills and understandings we expect second semester to be successful.

You see the dilemma.

But even better, wouldn't it be good to know what the truth was? Wouldn't it be nice to have a record of Bobby's actual achievement in the first semester? That way we could know if he should have moved on to the next level at all.

Isn't that, after all, what colleges do? If you fail Physics I first semester, do they just blithely allow you to be in Physics II second semester? Of course not.

What I would propose would be several-fold:

First: testing should happen three times a year, in December, May and August (with August being primarily for make-up or the hyper-ambitious). This would require the test to be far more focused on a specific skill set for each subject in each grade level. It would also require the test to be shorter, so that it could be graded relatively quickly. As it is, the test takes elementary schools roughly 22-30 hours of class time--OF CLASS TIME--to administer; by contrast, the SAT, which measures ten years worth of learning, takes FOUR hours.

Secondly: students MUST demonstrate competence on one skill set before being allowed to progress to the next level. Does this mean it's likely that there will be many MANY more students held back? Almost certainly. But, hopefully, it also guarantees that either a. students will take both their learning and their testing more seriously, or that b. students will require far less remediation, because they HAVE TO GET IT RIGHT to move on.

This is certainly the harshest portion of my proposal, which will impact the most students and families BY FAR. It is also, I think, the the one most likely to create a real energy for improvement in our education system. And, oddly enough, some part of this is already being embraced by the Denver Teachers' Union.

Third: student achievement must be measured in terms of semester-to-semester progress, and EVERY SCORE MUST HAVE THE STUDENTS' TEACHER'S NAME ATTACHED TO IT. If you really want to know how teachers and schools are doing, then you have to create enough data to evaluate this. If one teacher, or one school, is continually failing to get students to make one years' progress in one years' time, then you will know that you have a problem on your hands. One that can be addressed.

Fourth: there MUST be the ability or the opportunity to allow advanced students to demonstrate their skills early, so that the really high achievers have an opportunity to shoot for college classes and etc before the end of twelve years of public schooling.

Now, I feel as if I've addressed some of the myths around education, and tried to propose reasonable solutions for some of the systemic failures of the current education system. Many of my conservative friends out there will now be wondering "What about the teachers unions that encourage mediocrity and reward survival over achievement?"

Never fear--they're next.

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