As the head of a school for children with learning differences and as a person with dyslexia, I have both a professional and personal perspective on school assessment and reform.
We here in the United States have got school reform and school assessment all mixed up. We have the cart before the horse and it’s time we impose some common sense in determining what truly makes an educational system effective.
First, we need to stop using high stakes, summative tests to measure student learning and instructional effectiveness. Our over-reliance and emphasis on state-mandated tests, as well as SAT & ACT tests, has created an artificially competitive environment that skews what teachers do in the classroom and impacts negatively what children experience in school. We need to reform how we conduct our business when it comes to figuring out what a child is actually learning from us, and how well we are doing as instructors.
Second, we need to think differently about school reform which, up to this point, has relied too heavily on these high stakes test results – which measure neither individual student progress nor instructional effectiveness.
We need to reform and re-fit our teachers and classrooms with more precise, frequent formative assessments. Rather than using these annual, high-stakes, state-mandated tests to determine who our children are as learners, we should be administering frequent, briefer assessments that can measure progress more accurately across time. Trying to measure progress or assess what tools students need to succeed as learners by looking at the results of one big test is like trying to determine your child’s health by taking their temperature once a year.
Progress monitoring assessments such as AIMSweb and DIBELS provide us with accurate, benchmarking outcomes that allow us to really zero in on the specific skills and knowledge students need to acquire, and then adjust curriculum and instruction to personalize and maximize the learning opportunities in each classroom.
We can do this; we can change the way we assess our children. And, if we do, we will have less reason to reform schools – because our schools will be performing far better than they do now.
Said another way – school reform has failed miserably, in part, because we do not seem to be able to figure out what to assess, when and how to assess, and finally how to apply and implement assessment results in order to improve instruction and drive student outcomes – otherwise known as learning.
Sound simple? It really is, but we seem to have become confused, lost our will, and lost our way as a nation. It is why I have a major, chronic case of agida (Italian for indigestion) when I think of our failure to teach children to read and learn proficiently.
In the interest of full disclosure, I come from a working class family. My brothers and I were all educated in public schools that, at the time, had sound programs. I was four years old in 1954 when Sputnik blasted off from Russia and triggered a deafening hue and cry for educational improvement and investment in R&D from all over our country. Sputnik created sense of urgency to improve teaching and learning in science. The country responded.
What will it take now?
For many years I have watched dedicated educators with the best of intentions fail to educate a significant percentage of the students who are counting on the schools to teach them how to read and calculate. The failure in regard to reading achievement has continued for decades and has stubbornly persisted, despite various and repeated attempts at school reform advanced by presidential administrations as diverse as Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush.
I now call this a public health crisis rather than an educational problem. It is a threat to the future of our democracy, a threat to the future of our economy, as well as a threat to the prospects of millions of children directly impacted by our school’s failure to teach them to read.
Don’t just take my word for this.
Check out the New York Times in March of last year where Arne Duncan and President Obama announced the education stimulus package:
“Mr. Obama spoke in terms that everyone could understand when he noted that only a third of 13- and 14-year-olds read as well as they should and that this country’s curriculum for eighth graders is two full years behind other top-performing nations. Part of the problem, he said, is that this nation’s schools have recently been engaged in ‘a race to the bottom’ — most states have adopted abysmally low standards and weak tests so that students who are performing poorly in objective terms can look like high achievers come test time.
The nation has a patchwork of standards that vary widely from state to state and a system under which he said ‘fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming — and they’re getting the same grade.’ In addition, Mr. Obama said, several states have standards so low that students could end up on par with the bottom 40 percent of students around the globe.”
The outlook is more severe for students who learn differently to begin with. According to the National Institutes of Child Health and Development in Washington, D.C. about 15% to as many as 20% of all school children struggle with language-based learning differences variously referred to as a learning disability, specific learning disability, dysgraphia or dyslexia. In addition we now understand that about one-third of these students also have challenges focusing their attention.
These children fall further and further behind their peers as they move through the grades. They are far more likely to drop out of high school – and only about 13% of the students identified with learning differences who do make to their senior year in high school ever go to college, despite the fact that they have the same levels of intelligence as their normally achieving peers. These students are at risk for drug abuse and other equally disastrous outcomes. Our failure to educate these children results in lost lives —and huge costs to our society.
Our educational woes impact more than the students we focus on at Lawrence. All through the Clinton years (before No Child Left Behind) and throughout the Bush years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – a nationally standardized and rigorous measure of basic skills obtainment – indicated that a significant percentage of the nation’s school children in 4th and 8th grades could not read or compute at proficiency levels. In Ohio, for example, the numbers are startling: only 32-36% of the state’s 4th and 8th graders tested in 2004 and 2008 could read or calculate at levels considered proficient or above. That means a majority can’t read a newspaper with a satisfactory level of understanding.
We rely almost completely on annual, high stakes, summative test results to tell us everything we think we need to know about how we are doing in the classroom, how our students are learning, and how we rate our schools. (By the way, these are tests that are scored on a state by state basis, using different units to report results.)
School reform initiatives such as No Child Left Behind were created by looking almost exclusively on aggregated summative test data. The result is that each state now engages in statistical acrobatics each year to maximize their yearly progress numbers – without moving the needle in terms of actual proficiency. NCLB touched off our most recent ‘race to the bottom’ because we have confused testing and assessment.
NCLB was a race to the bottom because it left so many children behind so early and so often that there was no way to catch them up. And race to the top will be a race to nowhere if we continue to hope that ‘standardization’ equals high standards or positive student outcomes.
We fail to measure progress in a meaningful way for individual children, and then we aggregate that misinformation and pretend we know whether or not our schools are effective. Additionally, we are making it impossible for our teachers to follow the passion that brought them to the profession in the first place – helping young minds to successfully learn and grow.
It is all preventable. We have the knowledge, the tools and technology to ameliorate this situation.
We need to reform the way we assess student progress and outcomes. And here’s the kicker: we must apply the results of these assessments to adjust instruction and delivery of content to maximize student learning! This is simple common sense and it is sorely lacking in our schools – and it is not generally taught in teacher preparation courses.
At Lawrence and at hundreds of other similar schools across the country, we call the dynamic between assessment and instruction ‘diagnostic teaching’. This can be done for large groups of children in primary school and, if it were done, we could dramatically change the abysmal outcomes in reading and math for our nation’s children. If just one or two teachers per grade were trained and competent in diagnostic teaching methods, we would not need school reform movements!
Yogi Berra once said, “We are lost, but we’re making good time.” So it will be if we continue down the path of expecting our current system of assessment to bring about reform. We will have exhausted students and teachers who will sprint to the finish line of standardized exams, wave their test papers proudly, and still be no better prepared for the challenges of real teaching and learning.
Education is not a race, it is a journey.
And learning is a personal experience: one size fits few.
What will it take to create an appropriate sense of urgency regarding the fate of our nation’s children?
What will it take for us to end the political posturing and view our obligation to educate children as the most important responsibility of stewardship now to ensure that they – and we – have a future?
If not now… when?
If not us… who?
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