Proficiency requires focus
November 18, 1999
Rigorous new tests in Colorado are driving a change in public schools that is both exhilarating and painful. Exhilarating because schools are digging deeper to do better jobs teaching youth at higher levels than ever before. Painful because everybody and their six chickens are pointing fingers as to why scores are disappointingly low.
Teachers have had little voice in the maelstrom of politics surrounding these issues. However, they are the ones charged with bringing student academic performance up to the standards that have been set. Since they’re pretty busy doing that, I’ll mention a few things they would probably want the public to know as test scores are discussed in our respective communities.
First, these tests are much harder than yesteryear’s. Everyone figured out long ago how to take the old achievement tests. They required 45 minutes per subject to fill in the bubbles and kids were pretty good at guessing at those items they didn’t have time to finish. Contrast that with today’s fourth-graders who spend no less than six hours completing a state performance assessment on just reading and writing.
Incidentally, performance tests have very few bubbles. They require high degrees of critical thought and articulation in writing. For example, according to sample questions released by the state Department of Education, the fourth-grade test has, in the past, asked students to create a story about a cat finding a new owner. It gives a page for students to plan their writing with webs, clusters, lists or story maps. Then it gives three pages for a first draft. After that, it gives three more pages for revision and asks students to consider their adherence to topic, essay organization, support of main ideas, word and sentence variety, word choice and reader friendliness.
This is great stuff! Fourth-graders with those kinds of skills will enjoy advantages that many adults have never known. And that’s the point. Teachers are breaking new ground by preparing a generation of readers and writers with skills far beyond their parents.
It should be noted, too, that it may take a few years to get 80 percent of all students (the state goal) to that level. There are short term things that teachers can do to affect the outcome of student testing, but the best results are those reflecting true student skill level.
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Along with that, when the state deems a student to be proficient, it really means that the student is totally proficient in over 20 different categories. Readers are invited to guess what kind of fourth-grade student is identified by the following description quoted directly from a student performance report on the state reading assessment: “Students use context clues to comprehend words, recall detail, skim to locate limited number of details, categorize facts, identify and use information in text, classify vocabulary in a basic way and have a literal understanding of text …”
Believe it or not, this describes the performance of a partially proficient fourth-grade reader. According to the state, this reader is not proficient and is declared by politicians and pundits to be illiterate.
Second, children come to school with incredibly diverse backgrounds. Some have never seen scissors and crayons prior to entering a schoolhouse door. Some don’t speak English, some can’t sit still for more than five seconds, some are hungry, some have suffered serious mental and physical trauma, some have incurable learning disabilities and some exhibit all of the above characteristics.
In short, many children come to school already three years behind in their intellectual development. That is a tremendous challenge for teachers. It’s like a track coach starting a slow runner 50 yards behind everyone else and encouraging him to catch up to the speedsters. Society bears a responsibility for sending children to school prepared to learn.
Third, school boards, administrators, teachers and parent committees are leaving no stone unturned in their quest to develop the right techniques to significantly improve the academic performance of their students. Expanded blocks of time for reading and writing are now the norm. Learning time has increased and play time decreased. School is becoming more focused and serious.
Teachers and principals are learning, too. They are undergoing intensive training and retraining. They are sharing ideas and resources in new ways. They are holding themselves accountable for the performance of their students. They celebrate when scores are good and redouble their efforts when scores are low.
Lastly, a caution. An over-reliance on test scores may do a disservice to youth. Schools are full of artists, musicians, poets and dreamers who may not show particularly well on academic tests but who will go on to be great contributors to society. Their talents should not be stifled for the sake of a test score.
Please keep all these issues in perspective. Many educators out there are dedicating their lives to improving the lives of the next generation. They are totally serious and totally focused on improving the academic performance of their students. They deserve our praise. (Janet Bohart is director of curriculum and staff development for the Moffat County School District.)