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The Definition of Insanity

Here we go again.

Math Scores Slide to a 20-Year Low on ACT, Education Week breathlessly reported in October.

ACT Scores Show Drop in College Readiness, Especially in Math, blared the headline in the Wall Street Journal.

ACT Math Scores Sliding, reported Capitol Hill insider publication Politico because, of course, student test scores are as political as the president’s tweets.

Among the more overused and mis-attributed quotes in all of journalism is the old saw that proclaims the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Unfortunately, that describes our national obsession over standardized test scores. Our obsession over these scores is so deeply ingrained in our culture, our politics and our education policy that it makes it nearly impossible for educators to actually increase the scores for which they are held accountable.

Yes, the scores are down. One-tenth of one point over a 20-year period. Education Week reports “the average math score for the graduating class of 2018 was 20.5, marking a steady decline from 20.9 five years ago, and virtually no progress since 1998, when it was 20.6.”

I’m not a psychometrician, nor am I a data researcher, so I’m not going to dig deeply into the analysis of these numbers. It is worth noting, however, that two times as many students took the test in 2018 as in 1998. More economically disadvantaged students. More English Language Learners. More students who took the test because it was a required summative assessment — as the SAT is in Michigan — than a test taken only by those students who were preparing for college, as was the case for both the SAT and ACT in in 1998..

To underscore that last point, 615,888 of the test takers in the ACT national report for 2018 responded they had no declared major or were undecided on the list of 294 majors from which they can choose. That’s nearly 10 times the most popular major selected, which is nursing. Does that tell you anything? It tells me there are a lot of students who don’t know why they’re taking the test, don’t know what they’re going to do in college, and don’t have a clear career path to follow.

The Definition of Insanity

So, why the “definition of insanity?”

Because our obsession with test scores, which began with the “A Nation At Risk” report commissioned by Education Secretary Terrel Bell in 1983, has become so complete that virtually everything educators do is driven by these assessments. It comes at the expense of our students.

How do I know this? The Nation at Risk report warned the “rising tide of mediocrity” evidenced by our nation’s SAT scores demonstrated our failure to adequately prepare for a future society in which computers and computer-controlled equipment would penetrate “every aspect of our lives — homes, factories and offices.”

Well, guess what. We owned the computer revolution. We owned the communications revolution that began with the cell phone and brought with it the internet and social media. And the economy for which the report feared we would be unprepared? It grew exponentially. The Dow closed at 1046 on December 31, 1982 just months before the release of the Nation at Risk report. It is now over 25,000.

The U.S. Gross Domestic Product has grown from $3.634 trillion in 1983 to $19.485 trillion in 2017, more than 500 percent under the management and innovation of the very students who represented the “rising tide of mediocrity” decried in the Nation at Risk report.

We are so driven by our irrational obsession with these test scores that we cannot give our educators the flexibility they need to create a more engaging form of instruction for those who aren’t natural test takers. For those who don’t understand how they’d use trigonometry in the real world.

Here’s just one example from the Upper Peninsula, where, perhaps, schools are somewhat insulated from the group-think inside Capital Beltway in D.C. or I-496 in Lansing. There, in just three years, Sault Ste. Marie teacher Becky Arbic’s class of formerly low-performing math students have outperformed the regular geometry class by more than 20 points on the NWEA assessments. This group, which includes special education students, are challenging the performance of honors geometry students. They fell just one-half point below the overall performance of the district’s honors geometry students last year.

How’d she do it? By embedding her geometry standards and content instruction into the residential construction program. Learning by doing. Creating relevance for students who had little understanding of how they would use geometry when they solved problems on worksheets, but who performed at a high level when they saw how it was used in the real world.

Arbic, who also teaches traditional math sections, says she nearly has to stand on her head to get students’ attention in traditional classes. In residential construction, they’re motivated, they’re engaged and they’re so successful the parents of honors students now want their children in residential construction.

Why don’t more teachers go Back to the Future in their classrooms? Because their evaluations depend on student scores on the test and, if they’re new to the profession, they don’t know anything else. It’s easier to focus on marginal increases in test scores than it is to totally change instruction. And, of course, changing instruction requires resources, equipment, professional development — time and money most don’t have.

Thirty-five years since A Nation at Risk and we’re still using standardized test scores to predict the demise of our economy and the failure of our public schools. This despite an economy that grew more than 500 percent during that time period and remains the envy of the world.

We do have reason to be concerned. Our schools are not meeting the needs of all children, nor are they meeting the needs of all employers. Why? Because we are so focused on these tests that we forget students must be able to communicate, to collaborate, to think critically, to demonstrate creativity and to master content in a way that they can confidently apply that content in real-world applications. None of those skills come from rote memorization, nor do they come from exhaustive test preparation.

Let’s stop it. Let’s stop it now. Let’s make student engagement — the enthusiasm students show for learning — the most important measure of teacher and school performance. If students are excited, if they’re engaged, they’ll succeed.

If we’re measuring career and college readiness, let’s make earning career credentials and the attainment of college credits and degrees the measure of success. Sure, we need test scores as interim measures of content mastery, but let’s not make them the sole measures. After all, they’re the mile markers, not the destination.

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education.


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