In our public schools we need to change the way we keep score, Part I

In any game, the strategies of the participants are driven by the manner in which the game is scored.

We evaluate student performance in the classroom by assigning a letter grade to the quality of work the student completes during a grading period or semester. We evaluate teacher performance, and also school performance, on the basis of their students’ performance on annual, standardize competency exams.

Public school teachers are rebelling against the heavy reliance on state competency exams as a measure of their performance. “It forces us to focus on test preparation rather than real learning,” they say. Teachers assert that how well a student performs on such standardized testing is influenced by much more than just the quality of instruction they were given by their teacher(s).

Teachers are correct that exam scores are an unfair assessment of the quality of effort teachers put forth because the exams do not take into account the myriad of problems with which teachers must contend. They are asked to accept responsibility for a diverse population of students with a wide variance with respect to academic readiness; motivation to learn; and ability to conduct themselves civilly. That variance extends to the level of support teachers receive from parents and the students and their family’s relative position on a poverty-affluence continuum. Some educators also argue that test results are an unfair comparison when their school is being compared against other schools with fewer special needs children.

All of these criticisms of the utilization of standardized competency examination results as a basis for school and teacher accountability are correct. These educators are absolutely correct when they say that the reliance on test results shifts focus to test preparation and away from real and sustainable learning.

Standardized competency examinations provide little if any benefit in improving the quality of education for the students who are taking the tests. With the exception of such tests that, in Indiana, are called End of Class Assessments (ECA) in English and algebra that must be passed before a student is eligible for graduation, there are very few formal processes to provide remediation for students who perform poorly on annual exams. Students unable to pass ECA exams are given one or more opportunities to retake the exams, often after having spent time in remediation classrooms that we often call math and English labs. If still unable to pass, students are given the opportunity to obtain a waiver by providing other evidence demonstrates their readiness for graduation.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, I point out that annual, standardized competency exams are like quality inspections of an earlier era. I wrote that:

“Formerly, inspections were done at the end of an assembly line to insure that only output of the highest quality would end up in the hands of a customer. By the time the inspections were completed, however, the damage was already done and the discrepant material would only provide clues to indicate what had gone wrong, when, where, and, why. In the interim, production would continue producing both good and bad product and the scrap pile of discrepant material would grow, along with its cost.”

One could make the point that the English and math labs are the Twenty-first Century education equivalent of a 1950’s scrap pile in a manufacturing plant. The cost to the taxpayers of our communities is staggering; the cost to the lives of our children is a lifetime of unfulfilled expectations. We have taught them how to fail when our job was to teach them that they can learn.

From the 1960s until present time, manufacturing and assembly plants have developed sophisticated quality systems and companion performance management systems so that such problems can be identified at the time of production and then remedied to insure the highest possible quality of product while minimizing production costs.

The only thing preventing us from integrating quality and performance management systems into the traditional American educational process, much as we have done in industry, is our intransigence. In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, I show exactly how to assure a child’s success and how to integrate quality into the educational process.

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