Which report card is accurate? Is it the "nation’s report card" that indicates only 25 percent of our high school graduates know enough math to compete against their global peers or the PISA (Prog-
ram for International Student Assessment) results showing that Massachusetts’ 15-year-olds successfully compete with their international peers? Is it the optimistic report indicating that in Massachusetts, more students are graduating (80 percent) and fewer are dropping out or is it the dire report issued from the same source suggesting that many of our graduates must take remedial courses in order to matriculate in college?
Or is it the equally worrisome report that despite a 13-year compulsory obsession with high stakes testing and data driven instruction, there are still huge performance gaps between "cohorts." And when gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker suggests that we need more Level 1 schools so that children can have a Level 1 K-12 experience, are all of those Level 1 schools really excellent or have some simply mastered the MCAS preparation and benchmark game? Would their graduates be capable of writing an essay that departs from the obligatory five paragraph formula or would they be unable to make the leap to six or eight paragraphs without an emotional meltdown? Do their students rely upon thoughtful analysis of writing prompts or patterned practiced responses?
And now we even have folks with obvious public relations skills to explain how success breeds failure. Disappointing test scores are now rationalized by pointing out that the reduced drop-out rate means that more students are taking senior exams and that those who would have dropped out often earn poorer test scores that negatively skew the over-all results. This is the art of using a positive to explain a negative and perhaps an unintended admission that we knowingly graduate students who have not acquired skills commensurate with a high school diploma.
Then you need to factor in the contributions made to this confusing and unstable picture by some of our colleges and universities. To meet their expenses and maintain their financial health, their classroom chairs must remain occupied. Tuition money must flow in or "institutions of higher learning" are forced to cut back staff and reduce operating expenses.
Since cutbacks do not attract additional students, some schools have all but eliminated failing grades to make sure that those chairs remain occupied. If some instructors demonstrate the courage to resist the pressure to comply with this plan, their career opportunities may become limited. All too often, security and advancement require silence rather than integrity, compliance rather than principled opposition. Such compromises, antithetical to academic rigor, are skillfully camouflaged by slick marketing experts who can make warts look like beauty marks.
Some college instructors have told me that their students can’t write cogent paragraphs, yet those students successfully navigate through some halls of higher education and graduate with their peers. When students know that an inadequate product will suffice, where will they find the incentive to improve? This mishmash of financial pressure, tolerance for failure, bureaucratic demand to either improve or to create the impression of improvement and other related influences have forced educators to embrace many false messiahs. Among them are business accountability models and the mistaken belief that we can test our way out of this mess.
Where do we go from here? We might benefit from wiping the slate clean, putting high stakes testing on hold and then rethinking the entire process, beginning with the day a baby is brought home from the hospital. What skills and knowledge should that baby eventually acquire as a graduated high school student and what specific steps are needed to get there? This approach makes the education of each child everyone’s responsibility including the parents and/or guardians. Another distinct advantage would be to engage all the stakeholders in determining what should be taught and how it should be taught without depending upon high stakes tests to dictate our direction.
Without clearing the slate, we will continue to use a growing variety of assessments (tests) that will yield contradictory findings about how well or poorly we are educating our children. When one assessment becomes more critical than all of the others, we will teach to its specific requirements. We will be forever claiming and disclaiming prog-
ress, narrowing or expanding our instruction to accommodate the test of the day.
If those in higher education want to see better prepared students, then they must set a better example and require their graduates to meet more rigorous standards. With higher standards at the very pinnacle of the education chain, every link will become stronger.
Our nation is starved for clarity and sound direction and it won’t be well served until we restore integrity and authenticity to the process of educating our children. If we fail to distinguish between what is fair or foul, right or wrong, expedient or authentically productive, how will we ever determine the best path to take?
Edward Udel is an educator and frequent Eagle contributor.