Reading local newspapers about yearly school progress can certainly be discouraging. And as backwards as it may seem, each article makes me wonder if we are indeed setting the "bar" for success too low? Too low, you say, when students often do not make the minimum proficiency set by each state?
Let me explain.
Recently, the number of schools that met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in Hawaii was adjusted due to the formal appeal process. This has become an art form in itself: the method of validating which school "makes AYP" and "which one does not." For those of you to whom AYP is not a part of your daily lives, AYP can be viewed as an iron chain -- all its links must be equally strong. Any weakness in any link in the chain means failure, and a school does not "make AYP." For example, if you did not have 95 percent or above in student participation on the standardized tests, or if you had a subgroup (defined by ethnicity) of third grade students that did not score highly in mathematics, then your entire school does not "meet" AYP. It is an "all or nothing" score whose impact is tied to multilevel federal actions if the school accepts Title I federal money.
Therefore, we celebrated when four more schools were added to the list of making AYP in Hawaii, bringing the number of schools who are making progress to 51 percent (145 schools out of 286). In determining AYP progress, the cut off rate, or the "bar," was set by the state at 58 percent of the students meeting proficiency in reading, and 46 percent of the students meeting proficiency in mathematics. You heard that correctly: only 58 percent and 46 percent.
Looking at the Past
So, while I am not one to be negative, I am still one who wonders: What happens to the other 42 percent in reading and 54 percent in math who, year after year, are not the students who "meet proficiency"? As I reflected on this, I thought back to my own school years during the fifties and sixties.
Nearly fifty years ago, in 1962 and during another type of race (this time against the Soviet Union for world power), Admiral Rickover advocated for a drastic change to our nation's schools. He insisted that we add rigor back into our curriculum by focusing first on the three R's: reading, writing, and arithmetic, with less time for sports and "frill courses."
To his credit, he wanted more hours in the school year, criterion testing, and logical benchmarks for measurable progress so that parents could also understand the school system and their child's place within it. The admiral also pushed to abolish school principals and let the teachers run the schools. He showed very little respect for school boards and berated some teacher colleges, calling them "time-wasting seedbeds of boredom and illiteracy."
Obviously, the admiral had a firm line on his vision for school reform. But in reading this history behind his efforts, it brings us back again to the question: Why is it so that more than five decades later we still have almost half of our schools in a failing pattern of student achievement?
Through a New Lens
Maybe, if we reset the "bar" for a higher proficiency score, we might gain a larger picture of where the gaps are. It might be said that right now we are only looking at the 58 percent and 46 percent of the students who are in trouble. The picture might be vastly more challenging to our creativity if 95 percent of our student were not proficient in each area. We might even recognize improvements can still be made at higher levels than the schools.
For instance, in 2003, I remember sharing with the California Education Secretary Kerry Mazzoni that instead of issuing multiple or single subject teacher credentials, we should consider reclassifying the levels into grades K-3, 4-8, and 9-12. My logic was that there are many adults who would make great K-3 teachers, with the infinite patience and enthusiasm to perform the repetitive tasks it often takes to reach a younger child; yet these individuals are not entering into the teaching profession because of their fear of the skill sets needed for the current K-6 praxis testing.
I also pointed out that the angst for students transitioning from sixth grade to middle school would be minimized because their teachers would be trained to work with the unique needs of students in grades 4-8.
I know that rethinking how to get the most effective support to help our students reach a much higher "bar" is going to be on the top of my priority list this next year of 2011. Care to join me?