Higher expectations for students justify end to false claims of proficiency

I learned something in the seventh grade from the good sister who taught us at St. Isidore's Catholic School in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. "Mr. Cole, you are bold, brazen and contemptible, too."

Sister Ann Rosari, who lost her sense of humor during the Truman administration, aimed this reprimand at me and my twin brother whenever either one of us failed to sit still, which happened regularly.

She began the year by bestowing checks for every involuntary twitch. Before long, she was assessing 10 or 20 at a time for every imagined contemptible act.

Even then I knew the shortcomings of measuring educational progress on a rigid numerical basis, especially when the scoring system had obvious weaknesses.

I thought of this while reading about the new state test scores, which are distressing, though they don't tell the full story of education in Alaska.

Test scores don't measure leadership or how someone can walk into a room and either quickly grasp group dynamics or remain as oblivious as a machine.

They don't show whether a student can collaborate with other people and improve the performance of the group.

The numbers don't measure persistence, energy, the ability to learn from mistakes, the magic that leads to innovation or how to respond to inevitable failures.

What test scores measure is important, it's just that they don't measure everything that is important.

If the new scores are still a bit of a shock to the system, that's because the state is correcting a serious error in public policy that took place more than 15 years ago.

After the passage of the bipartisan No Child Left Behind act in 2001, with its unreachable goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014, Alaska and other states defined proficiency at a level that should have been labeled marginal or mediocre.

It was an understandable and predictable bureaucratic reaction.

Under the federal law, any school with one student below the proficient level by 2014 would have been deemed a failing school.

That never made any sense, but Congress and the White House didn't consider the long-term consequences when they adopted the catchy educational slogan. Proficiency became political.

This led to years of misleading reports by school districts and the state about educational performance in Alaska. These inflated reports encouraged complacency, showing that three-quarters of students or more were performing as they should.

The new tests, with performance levels established through a review by teachers, school administrators and others with a grasp of the essentials, will do much to end the complacency.

With 60 percent or so of the students testing at levels below proficient, we now have a more rigorous and demanding set of expectations for students. This is the only way to prepare students for the more-demanding world that awaits them.

One bit of evidence that tends to confirm the lower scores is the record of performance on the so-called National Assessment of Educational Progress. The proficiency levels on that test have long been close to those on the new Alaska tests. There are weaknesses in the national test, given to some students in fourth and eighth grade every two years, but it is a useful barometer.

The state tests may have to be adjusted somewhat to ensure that they are aligned with what students are supposed to be learning.

Some politicians blame teachers and schools for the proficiency problem and lower test scores, claiming this proves that public schools don't work. The schools have to do better, but so do the politicians, the parents and the students.

There are many issues here, some of which are often ignored or not discussed because they are politically sensitive. It's popular to demand that teachers be held accountable. Holding parents and students accountable is another matter.

If children are to learn, they have to be willing and eager participants. They won't succeed if they are not prepared, which is the responsibility of the parents and of the students.

If the children have parents who don't have the energy or the power to make learning a family priority, it will not become one, regardless of what happens in school.

In my case, thinking back a half-century ago, I had to defend every report card to my father in a one-on-one session in which complaints about the nuns were not deemed just bold and brazen, but contemptible.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com.

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