Scores on school assessments are no longer going upward in Kansas. This may be the only good news in education for the last decade.
Why celebrate the leveling off of student achievement scores? Simple. It finally brings some common sense to the insane idea that 100 percent of students can be proficient at grade level.
That scores gradually increased over the last decade attests to the ability of Kansas teachers to drop everything else of educational value and teach to the tests. But that effort has reached its limits.
The curriculum narrowed as schools reduced or eliminated time for anything that was not tested. Students who were not making progress were double-scheduled into more math and English. Students above grade level were often left behind. In some cases, veteran teachers art and math, courses that are not tested, were fired. The whole climate of Kansas classrooms changed from kindergarten to high school. Administrators became foremen and teachers became assembly line workers in test-prep factories. Many teachers no longer enjoy teaching and many students no longer find learning exciting as lessons reduce to drillwork for the test.
Some Kansas educational organizations proudly pointed to rising scores as proof of better learning outcomes. But these rising scores were merely an artifact of teaching-to-a-narrow-test.
Kansas student scores on the ACT and NAEP never went up. Nor did university professors see any corresponding increase in language and math abilities is this last decade of students. Schools just taught more students to take the tests better, and lost the soul of teacher professionalism and the excitement of genuine learning in the process.
Why can’t we close the gap and move one hundred percent of students to proficiency level?
Prior Education Secretary Spellings always cowed anyone who said it couldn’t be done by asking “What if it was your child?” But that was a cheap shot based on pollyanna reasoning.
Of course we want every child to learn just as we would want everyone to live.
But the best of doctors lose patients and the best of teachers lose students. And for much the same reasons.
Some patients come to a doctor already terminally ill. And some children enter school after living in a home where parents were cooking meth. Some teenagers fry their brains on drugs.
Less dramatic but no less debilitating are the cases of children who have never had a book read to them before they entered school. Others may be quite capable—but not in English—and communication is the skill central to teaching and learning.
Half of Americans get divorced and single parents who have to work may not be at home for their child after school. Teachers cannot undo all the damage that poverty causes.
Even the most advantaged and high work-ethic child who just learns that his or her parents are getting a divorce is not going to be able to concentrate and learn well until home life becomes more secure.
These situations and others exacerbated by rising childhood poverty are the reasons that the student achievement curve, no matter how measured and no matter how valid, will never climb to 100 percent.
These are not excuses but descriptions of the realities that teachers face and politicians ignore. Single high stakes tests based on everyone reaching a standard level are not what American education has been about, and the damage they have done trying to reach that goal can be undone if we realize that an examinations are not the full measure of an education.
We shouldn’t standardize students and now we know that we can’t.
Just as we shouldn’t penalize doctors for losing patients, this curve leveling off shows why we shouldn’t penalize teachers for losing students.