Found on a hallway floor this morning, a student's notes on a letter that we send home to parents in preparation for the next round of state (NECAP) testing in two weeks.... a telling reminder of the impact and importance of this testing on our students, despite the high stakes nature of the test.
About 10 years ago I was part of an inclusive policy-making process led by the Chair of the RI Board of Regents for Education, James DiPrete, a 40+ year teacher, principal and superintendent in RI, to develop the state's new graduation requirements. Educators, parents and students from all over the state were invited to public forums to discuss, debate and become informed about the new requirements over a period of several years while the policy was being written. Those regulations stated that state test scores would not count for more than 30 percent of a student's graduation decision. The other 70% would be decided by a choice of proficiency-based graduation requirements in conjunction with the student's four-year academic record as decided locally by the high schools.
Since then, a Board of Education that is currently chaired by a personal injury attorney and populated by a doctor, a lifetime state administrator, two teacher's union administrators, two politicians, an accountant, two other lawyers and a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel decided unilaterally, without public debate, in a closed meeting that students will not graduate without achieving at least "partial proficiency" (a '2' out of '4') on the NECAP test in reading and math (Note: 4000 students in RI did not meet that math standard last year). "Partial proficiency" is, of course, an interesting term, as the "cut score" for any given level of proficiency can be manipulated from year to year, as has been done in other states for political expediency.
The board, voting in another recent closed session, rejected an ACLU petition to hold a new series of public hearings on the NECAP in regard to high school graduation. The Board's Chair, Eva Marie Mancuso said to The Providence Journal, “The time for discussion is over … . We are using the NECAP as a graduation requirement, period.” When asked about the relevance or fairness of holding all students accountable for their performance on a single test that will decide their graduation, Mancuso responded, “It’s the excuse given by a vocal minority. ‘Blame the School Department. Blame the teachers.’ Let’s keep the focus where it belongs. We have to do something different [sic].”
I could not agree more.
A single test, taken in six 90-minute periods during the first month of a student's Junior year may ultimately deny them graduation- regardless of the success and proficiency that they may have demonstrated over the 5040 70-minute periods of teaching, learning and rigorous evaluation that they achieved over their four year high school career.
A single test that does not measure academic progress or learning.
A single test that, despite the droning of education "reformers" has no way of demonstrating that it makes any student more "college and career ready" than the four years of varied evaluation and assessment that they received in our high school classrooms.
While we are on the topic of "college and career readiness," what if you want to be a plumber, carpenter, or electrician? A soldier? A policeman? A firefighter? An entrepreneur? A computer programmer? An actor or musician? Exactly, how does state testing make you more "ready"?
Is there a single career that doesn't place tremendous importance on critical thinking, problem solving, verbal communication, presentation, the ability to research, to learn, to work with others in groups or to demonstrate proficiency in any area aside from reading, Algebra 1 and 2 and Geometry? NONE of those aforementioned skills and competencies are tested by the state, but all are superseded by the NECAP tests.
In fact, most of those skills are effectively minimized in many schools because of the amount of time devoted to test preparation for skills that will be unused or completely forgotten by the vast number of students almost immediately after graduation... unless of course you find yourself using that Geometry and Algebra 2 every day in YOUR office.
Asking kids to take more and more higher end math that they will never again use will not create more college students or scientists for America, but data (or any guidance department) will tell you that it definitely is producing more and more feelings of inadequacy, stress, frustration and dropouts within our student population. We are not making anyone more "ready" for colleges and careers, we are impeding their progress.
The reality is that colleges and companies are not willing to devote capital to remedial training and development of their students/employees... so they are passing the costs down to high schools... but ultimately that is becoming a human cost, not a financial one.
The simple fact is that state testing can't and won't ever be able to measure thinking, learning or complex thought and can't avoid cultural or socioeconomic bias. It does do a great job of measuring family income, but it can't measure non-verbal learning (or any other kind for that matter) and has no way of actually predicting anything- particularly future success in college or any one of the 800 different career categories cataloged by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But aren't American schools lagging dangerously behind many other countries because of our public school "crisis"?
Here's the truth that no one with a "reform" agenda wants to admit: unlike those other countries, America educates and tests every student- students with significant learning handicaps, severe physical and mental illnesses, extraordinary poverty, homelessness, transiency, those for whom English is a 2nd or 3rd or 4th language, and those scores are all lumped together in the "reformer's" data.
What is rarely discussed is that when scores of the disadvantaged are not counted into the mix (as happens in nearly all of those "top" countries- many of whom simply do not even educate students living in those circumstances), American students are at the top. But our values and our public schools demand that all lives are worthy of the same significance and are worthy of an education that will give everyone a chance to become successful in a career that appeals to their background, interests and aptitudes.
As I discussed previously: English, Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2 (those things tested on the state tests 2 years and one month into your high school career), are only viewed as "vital" to a 21st Century education because back in 1892, the president of Harvard University said that those subjects should be the basis for all high school classes. If you happen to be interested in something else – psychology, communication, computer science, marketing, architecture, international business, designing video games? Sorry. Those subjects weren't very popular at Harvard in 1892, so they aren't important enough to count towards your "college and career readiness" in today's "21st Century" curriculum.
As I looked at the note below this morning, I couldn't help but be reminded of what Education today is a terrible violation of every student's individuality and spirit. They are all cast in a formulaic worker-bee system designed to increase their value to the nation's workforce.
Each student is unique; our goal should be helping all youngsters -- rich, poor, boy, girl, black, white -- realize their best. This means not only helping each student achieve one's best in classrooms, on athletic fields, in community service and other activities, but in one's personal life -- behaviors, attitudes, problems, sense of purpose, peers, family, etc.
This is exciting education -- helping youngsters discover a best they never knew they had: an education that reaches their spirit, motivation, deeper potentials and sense of purpose, not a system designed by a self-serving trio of business, political and college/university interests.
I don't know who you are, note writer, but your voice was heard very clearly by me today. And now I am giving your voice some amplification... I hope that many educators, parents, decision makers and "powers that be" will listen and begin a dialogue about what we are doing to public schools and students in this country.
You are NOT number 4.
You need to be Number 1 when we look at public education policy. I will always fight for you.