The recent debate that has occurred within the Ohio Department of Education Board of Education about changing the scores on state tests at which students are considered proficient exemplifies the lunacy that dominates nearly every educational discussion at the state level. It is mind boggling that a group of educated people continue to engage in these inane discussions, but, by golly, they do.
To bring you up to speed, in their never-ending quest to “prove” to the public how inept public schools are, when students began performing too well on state mandated tests to support political claims of ineptitude, lawmakers decided they couldn’t have that. So, they mandated harder tests. Then, they warned us that students would achieve lower on these tests than on the previous, easier tests. But, they assured us not to worry, that they were looking out for the betterment of us all, and that they were just increasing standards so children would be better prepared for the “real world.” They created these harder standards as if every child lives in an environment in which they will achieve better if someone just sets the bar higher for them. This is hogwash, but that’s what they want us to believe.
Well, lo and behold, the students’ performance on these more difficult tests was even worse than they thought it would be, so the geniuses who created this debacle were faced with quite the dilemma. How, pray tell, could they explain to the public that students who were performing quite well just one year ago are so completely inept this year? Coming up with a reasonable solution to that problem has dominated their discussions in recent weeks. To watch them attempt to wiggle out of this one is actually quite entertaining. Disgusting, but entertaining.
Instead of engaging in any meaningful dialogue about how invalid all of this foolishness is, they decided to talk about changing the test scores students needed to be labeled as proficient (aka “cut scores”) so the failure rate wasn’t so high. Now, if a group of people sitting in a room deciding to randomly change a score a student must achieve to be considered successful doesn’t raise your antenna, it certainly should. Stated more bluntly, look no further than this for proof of what a joke this entire process is. Their solution to students “not doing well” according to a randomly selected cut score is to simply change the cut score.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Despite all the political hyperbole uttered by our “leaders,” a bunch of middle class or upper middle class people sitting in a room “raising standards” or changing cut scores doesn’t do a single thing for kids who live in a fractured, loveless environment with parents who couldn’t care less about their academic success, or, frankly, about their own children’s well-being; for students who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from; for students whose parents don’t take care of their most basic needs; for students who live in drug infested war zones where bullets are flying through the air on most evenings; for students who don’t attend school on many days because no adult will ensure that they attend; and for students whose skills have been limited by not being exposed to enriching life experiences. And, frankly, I am sick and tired of them acting like it does.
One state school board member, AJ Wagner, God bless him, has tried his darnedest to force rational conversations to occur on this topic, but he is fighting a losing battle. When he and others like him try to engage decision-makers in conversations about how we can really help students become successful, they are often shouted down by the “raising the standards” crowd, despite the fact that we have two decades of data showing us that approach does not work. The result is that discussions about changing test scores continue while all the important issues I raised above are ignored as if they don’t exist. Well, they do.
Even worse, when Mr. Wagner tries to point out that we have proof that raising academic standards and changing cut scores does nothing for disadvantaged and disenfranchised children, people like head of the Senate Education Committee, Peggy Lehner, who created the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee,” will gladly use invalid data to “prove” that her idea of raising standards does indeed work. In fact, in a recent discussion about this very issue, she pointed to how the passing percentages of third graders has remained steady even after harder standards were implemented. This, she claimed, is proof that children will rise to expectations placed upon them. Of course, in making her proclamation, she forgot to mention that coupled with the implementation of these harder standards were alternative, easier methods by which students could “pass” the reading standards. That’s a pretty meaningful piece of information to share when using passing percentages to prove a point.
But, that’s politics for you, where honesty is optional.
Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.