Amorphous Terms – How something undefined defines North Carolina public education

To say that public education in North Carolina will be a focal point in this year’s state elections is an understatement.

Consider that when the NC General Assembly reconvenes, there will be many who seek to advance privatization of the public schools and present legislation to further weaken public schools. Rep. Rob Bryan has pushed for Achievement School districts. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest has touted charter schools. Rep. Paul Stam has openly suggested merit pay.

Those who seek to “reform” will all use numbers and figures that portray student achievement in public schools as lagging. They may talk of low student test scores and graduation rates that are not high enough. They may talk about school performance grades and teacher evaluations.  Yet their arguments rely mostly on hazy premises and vague assumptions.

That is because when speaking of “student test scores”, “student achievement”, and “graduation rates”, you are speaking about three of the most nebulous terms in public education today. And while I applaud anyone who wants to improve student outcomes, one must be willing to see how each of those terms can be defined with political spin by those who want to paint public education in a certain light to further a political agenda.

When speaking of “test scores”, we need to agree about which test scores we are referring to and if they have relevance to the actual curriculum. Since the early 2000’s we have endured No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives that have flooded our public schools with mandatory testing that never really precisely showed how students achieved.

In my years as a North Carolina teacher (1997-1999, 2005-2015), I have endured the Standard Course of Study, the NC ABC’s, AYP’s, and Common Core. Each initiative has been replaced by a supposedly better curricular path that allegedly makes all previous curriculum standards inferior and obsolete. And with each of these initiatives comes new tests that are graded differently than previous ones and are “converted” into data points to rank student achievement and teacher effectiveness.

There seems to be no consensus and continuity in what tests effectively and consistently measure “student achievement” over time. That does not even begin to cover the amount of local assessments that have been created to measure how well students might perform on ever-changing state and national tests. It almost boggles the mind to see how much instructional time is lost just administering local tests to see how students may perform on state tests that may be declared invalid with new education initiatives. Even as I write, most states are debating on how they may or may not leave behind the Common Core Standards and replace them with their own. Know what that means? Yep. More tests.

This past year, the Council of Great Schools released a bombshell of a report on the negative effects of testing in public schools that so rattled the status quo that even President Obama had to address its findings over the next weekend and amend his stance on standardized testing.

The Washington Post in a story printed on October 24, 2015 entitled “Study says standardized testing is overwhelming nation’s public schools” reported on the Council’s study stating:

 

The study analyzed tests given in 66 urban districts in the 2014-2015 school year. It did not count quizzes or tests created by classroom teachers, and it did not address the amount of time schools devote to test preparation.

 

It portrays a chock-a-block jumble, where tests have been layered upon tests under mandates from Congress, the U.S. Department of Education and state and local governments, many of which the study argues have questionable value to teachers and students. Testing companies that aggressively market new exams also share the blame, the study said.

 

“Everyone is culpable here,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “You’ve got multiple actors requiring, urging and encouraging a variety of tests for very different reasons that don’t necessarily add up to a clear picture of how our kids are doing. The result is an assessment system that’s not very intelligent and not coherent.”

 

The study also states that many of the tests given are not even aligned with the curriculum standards that are supposed to be measured. With such an emphasis on these tests, can one be really certain that “student achievement” has actually been correctly measured?  And if not, then why are school performance grades and teacher evaluations (especially North Carolina) so reliant on those same tests?

Along with “student test scores” and “student achievement”, “graduation rate” might be one of the most constantly redefined terms in public schools. Does it mean how many students graduate in four years? Five years? At least finish a GED program or a diploma in a community college? Actually, it depends on whom you ask and when you ask. But with the NC State Board of Education’s decision to go to a ten-point grading scale in all high schools instead of the seven-point scale used in many districts, the odds of students passing courses dramatically increased because the bar to pass was set lower. That drastically affects graduation rates.

Add to that, it takes fewer credits to graduate (20-21) than it did 15 years ago (24+), and in many cases students are taking more classes to pass fewer credits because many systems have adopted the block schedule. In fact, most all high school teachers are teaching more classes and more kids because of removed class size caps and overcrowding in schools and altered schedules.

And many want to claim that graduation rates are strictly tied to teacher performance. That’s like redefining what it means to be obese in medical communities by raising the threshold for weight. All of a sudden more people are not considered overweight, but their health does not change and you place all the blame on doctors.

If student achievement and graduation rates rest totally on the shoulders of teachers, then that’s narrow-minded and biased. Other scholarly research continues to point out that there are other influences such as socio-economic factors which affect student outcomes like poverty, health care access, and resources at home. Those are factors that the very politicians in Raleigh who complain about school performance can do something about.

As a veteran teacher, I believe that schools and society are mirror reflections of each other; strong communities help strengthen schools which in turn support communities. Teachers do make a great impact on the lives of students no matter what, but when teachers, parents, communities, and government work in synchronicity with each other, the greatest of impacts happen.

A successful public school system is not a product-driven industry. It is a people-powered process. It is not a test-taking machine, but a community that nurtures skills and promotes responsibility. It does not look solely at test scores from one day in a student’s life, but rather looks at the growth of the student over time. A successful public school system values the student-teacher relationship, not a bottom line defined by non-educators.

In schools that received a “D” or “F” in their performance grades, there are students achieving and strong teachers overcoming obstacles to help students. The teacher who may be attached to low test scores on EOCT’s may in fact have fostered more growth in students than teachers who have high test scores on their evaluations. You do not know unless you investigate, because fuzzy numbers do not always tell the entire story.

You do not have to solely believe what people in Raleigh say about our public schools. All you have to do is visit yourself and see the great work that is done in public schools.

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