As our state has worked through the process of replacing the hated PACT with the new Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, many hands have been wrung over ways to protect our public schools from criticism from those who advocate public investments in private and home schooling options. We have "re-aligned" our reporting for the federal No Child Left Behind system in pursuit of even-handed comparisons of our schools with schools in other states.
But I worry that by making these comparisons seem fair, we are shortchanging students.
I want to be compared to those who are achieving, improving or making progress - not those who are slipping. I seek meaningful measures, not lowest common denominators. Whatever changes have been made to appease a flawed federal system, we must guard against also making cosmetic changes to our own state system that do little to help students. It makes little sense to make schools look better in the eyes of federal government officials if we are reducing the quality of education that our children are receiving.
The debate often devolves into discussions of the perceived fairness of the ratings assigned to schools. Some argue that our state's rigorous academic standards, which have not been changed, maintain our commitment to high performance, or that current expectations are overly demanding and, therefore, unfair to teachers and administrators.
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To me, fairness should be gauged by the impact on students. Are students learning what they should be learning? More precisely, are they learning what they need to learn to be successful in the future, be it the next grade level, the next school level or life?
Is it fair to risk the academic future of a student by not identifying performance problems as soon as possible? Is it fair for a student to just get by from one grade to another, eventually failing because minimal performance across multiple grades is insufficient by the time he reaches middle school? Early identification allows parents, educators and communities to invest as problems surface rather than later, when challenges have become virtually insurmountable.
The Education Oversight Committee recently renewed its aspirations for South Carolina by establishing a 2020 Vision: "By 2020 all students will graduate with the knowledge and skills necessary to compete successfully in the global economy, participate in a democratic society and contribute positively as members of families and communities."
We set good benchmarks for measuring achievement of this vision: student reading proficiency, high school graduation, preparedness for post-high school success and the number of schools rated at-risk. Each of these measures incorporates state assessments and national comparisons as well as triennial targets and attention to historically underachieving groups of students.
But the only way to achieve the 2020 Vision - or any meaningful aspiration we set for ourselves or our state - is through hard work directed toward meaningful goals and appropriately rigorous standards. No magic. No miracles.
We must keep the nationally acclaimed academic standards upon which teaching and learning are based. We must continue to acknowledge the magnitude of achievement gaps, which suggest an abandonment of our collective responsibility to serve all young people. Finally, if we do not improve the levels of literacy among our total population, students will not be successful.
There is a danger in assuming that a new test means students suddenly will know more and be able to do more this year than they did last. But while a new test with adjusted performance levels might result in higher school ratings or relief from a competitive educational marketplace, it won't improve education.
How then do we achieve meaningful, rather than cosmetic, improvements?
We recognize that accomplishments are earned every day in every classroom. We support families, prepare teachers for an increasingly diverse student population, ensure that schools provide options so that every student succeeds, and we measure our success.
As citizens of South Carolina, whether we serve on a public body or act individually, we must demand that our schools educate every child according to his ability. We must be outraged when we are asked to look good for the sake of protecting status quo structures rather than instituting substantive changes for the benefit of students. It is not time to ease the intensity of our scrutiny and demands for improvement. It is time to champion the potential of our students and schools.
Our state accountability system earned national respect because of its aspirations, its willingness to measure those aspirations and its courage to recognize that the minimum is not good enough. That respect is now being threatened. As we incorporate these new assessments into our accountability system, we should look beyond what is comfortable and earn that respect anew.