I just finished reading an article about 2011 NAEP results. In fact, I’ve read several in the last weeks. All of them analyzed the results of the test as if it’s the holy grail for summarizing educational achievement in public schools. It’s absolutely not, and there’s a question that needs to be asked. Does the NAEP test actually assess true student achievement? This year’s national report card revealed “flat” growth in 4th and 8th grade reading scores compared with two years ago. Scale score averages also showed a climb of only 4 points on a 500-point scale since 1992. So, what does this mean? Do we believe the analysis that says our students aren’t getting smarter quickly enough? Are our students getting dumber? Is the United States breeding generations of people who are slowly becoming illiterate? The answer is no. But there are plenty of articles that analyze and apply the NAEP results to problems in today’s schools. Unfortunately, the experts who study the results fail to ever apply them to the practices that are actually occurring in public classrooms. The media will submit these results as evidence of complacency or lack of educational rigor in our public schools. State education commissioners will scramble to provide evidence of the recent change in standards in their states. Superintendents and principals will reflect and converse with one another, likely about the recent adoption of something called a “comprehensive reform agenda” in their districts. Nobody will ask the teachers. But the question that keeps coming to my mind is this: How can the education world be so focused on achievement results and data that they miss the fact that there’s a lack of innovation happening in our educational process?
Please don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing wrong with assessing, looking at data, or having urgency in determining areas for improvement. We must look at data. But I think the majority of policy makers and many educators are, in fact, asking the wrong questions about the data, if they’re asking anything at all. True educational improvements are made when we can read and interpret data in light of how to better adapt to the learners in our classrooms.
In my opinion, a key question of successful education is whether schools and teachers adapt to the needs, aptitudes, interests, and motivations of their students. Standardized tests don’t assess this. Successful education doesn’t have to occur in formalized settings, although it can. Successful education doesn’t have a narrow definition either. It happens when young people are prepared to be a productive, contributing members of our society. It takes place in environments like Rafe Esquith describes in his books, in the Ron Clark Academy in Georgia, in well funded classrooms, and equally in rundown underfunded classrooms all over the country. Unfortunately, that is not the way successful education is officially defined. Thanks to national government initiatives, successful education is currently determined solely by states’ assessment results and results tests like NAEP. Are they good, comprehensive assessments that analyze the skills and knowledge that students possess? No. For example, the chosen assessment for the state of Tennessee (TCAP) determines only the presence of particular skills set and knowledge a student has compared to a specific grade level set of standards. The NAEP is even more generic in terms of assessment results.
So, what are the results of poor performance on these state assessments? Surely that isn’t the end-all for decision-making in school systems and certainly not for individual students…right? Wrong. At the very least, low test scores result in increased state and federal mandates, less creativity and exploration time for students, and even less room for teacher innovation. Here’s where the lack of common sense becomes the most obvious to me. Schools with failing scores want to improve. They want to innovate. In our society, progress usually comes as inventions move directly to users. But currently, there is so much bureaucracy in the public school system that schools and teachers may innovate and do things differently only with permission. Education becomes viewed now as something that adults do to children. Students learn in school. The state defines what students should learn at exact grade level intervals. Experts report how teachers should teach. They publish ‘what works’ and promise that replicating it will bring about student growth, never taking into account the students’ needs, aptitudes, interests or motivations. Add in a layer of panic and urgency from the recently imposed government mandates from poor test scores, and you’re left with teachers and administrators who unknowingly abandon common sense about teaching.
My point in all of this rambling is that schools need to innovate with learning. Successful systems use data but don’t dwell on it to the point of stagnation. Successful systems have student needs and interests at the very center of the curriculum. Most importantly, they show change through innovation in a context of choice. One method is digital software. Electronic technology can now individualize, varying the pace of learning so students move faster if they can and more slowly if they need to. Personalization is another dimension of choice. It’s a dimension that matters almost more than any other. It frees teachers from being the holder of all knowledge and places them in more of a coaching role. Personalization also provides tremendous motivation for students. Students who become workers, along with teachers, on the job of learning, make the greatest strides in becoming productive contributing members of society. The use of electronic technology, personalized learning, innovation in the classroom and similar student-centered concepts are constantly magnified in educational research. But teachers are so constrained by the high-stakes, grade level-defined, federally mandated state test requirements that they are losing the autonomy to try new things. That’s just the bottom line.
If public education is to remain a successful system, it should be open to the idea of professional teachers choosing what they think will work for their students. An interesting thing happens when people have more real choices in their lives, whether it involves education or other matters. A dynamic marketplace appears, a marketplace fueled by people acting in the exercise of their freedom and determining what is best for them. THAT will lead to a self-improving educational system. The one size fits all mentality just simply has no place in education. Programs of reform, grade level standards, well-defined tiers of intervention, one standardized test; although all are necessary, none of those things simplify the teaching and learning process. The narrow concept of achievement, of simply reading and computing, will never allow for excellence in education. And despite the enormous amount of articles that came from it, the NAEP test will never, EVER reflect accurate educational growth.