Regardless of the education metrics, let’s move #oklaed forward

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COMMENTARY

If Oklahoma adopted the metric system, there would be plenty of griping. For one, the highway markers would be changed from miles to kilometers. As the day approached for changing signs from miles per hour to kilometers per hour, would we wring our hands? After all, the roads would still cover the same number of miles as before (and they’d have the same number of potholes).

So why worry so much over the first result of changing education metrics from the old, unreliable scores to a new, science-based system for measuring meaningful learning?

The State Department of Education released 2017 test scores yesterday, and, as predicted, those outcomes dropped sharply. But that should be an opportunity to urge districts to emulate its professionalism. Sadly, we’re already hearing grumblings about an honesty gap.

Hofmeister explains need for ‘total reset’

In an Oct. 6 YouTube post, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister prepared Oklahomans for the new scores (see video above). In a separate but related report, she and her experts present an evidence-based case for abandoning the state’s old, indefensible, bubble-in accountability schemes and explain why we need a “total reset.” The SDE has drawn upon the nation’s top testing expertise to encourage standards-based instruction that stresses critical thinking and the skills required in a 21st-century economy. They acknowledge that the proficiency rates in similar states dropped by about half after they made such a change, but the costs of failing to assess what matters would be greater.

Also in the report, Hofmeister explains the challenges that students in hypothetical “Mrs. Smith’s” fifth-grade class will face. When they were in second grade, 46 percent of Oklahoma’s workforce needed only a high school diploma or less. When they graduate in 2025, only 23 percent of jobs will require no more than high school. Now, 81 percent of community college and 70 percent of college students need to take a remedial math course. Often, they go into debt while failing to catch up and graduate. If Oklahoma continues to kick the assessment standards can down the road, Mrs. Smith’s class will be at an even greater disadvantage in the global marketplace.

Further, the SDE understands what too many education leaders fail to grasp: High-poverty and low-skilled students can master the more challenging standards, but progress will be slower. Urban districts are likely to see a greater drop in the new proficiency rates and slower improvement in subsequent growth rates. In other words, it is even more necessary for the Oklahoma City Public Schools to renounce the failed teach-to-the-test pedagogies and grant educators the autonomy necessary to teach in a holistic and meaningful manner. Such a challenge will be the most frightening for OKC’s highest challenged schools.

Teachers, students must relearn how to learn

Until two years ago, the OKCPS faced a terrible dilemma: Bubble-in accountability punished individual students, denying a diploma to kids who failed to pass end-of-instruction tests (EOIs). The system had little choice but to use boring, basic skills instruction and nonstop remediation to prevent a disastrous increase in the dropout rate. Much of the joy of teaching and learning was driven from classrooms. This in-one-ear-and-out-the-other learning drove student performance down even further. Now, teachers and students must unlearn the bad habits developed over the last 16 years. They must now relearn how to learn.

Oklahoma is now back to where we were in the early 1990s after HB1017 gave us a chance to build a 21st-century education system. Then, as now, the SDE and Oklahoma’s learning standards were highly respected, typically earning B-pluses on national rankings. Back then, and even throughout the first eight years of NCLB, there were few official sanctions that could be used to compel reform. The only meaningful “stick” was testing that would produce a nonstop parade of headlines about “failing” schools.

Had schools focused on teaching the learning standards instead and not on the standardized testing results, they could have improved – not undermined – instruction. Then, like now, educators should have used assessments for diagnostic purposes and mostly ignored end-of-the-year test results, focusing instead on meaningful learning. Educators broke down, however, complied with test-and-punish policies, and engaged in teach-to-the-test malpractice. We squandered nearly two decades of opportunities to prepare Mrs. Smith’s students for 2025.

From 1992 to 2006, the gap between Oklahoma’s primitive state tests and NAEP grew at one of the fastest rates in the nation. The gap between fourth-grade reading scores on state tests and NAEP was 51 points. For math, it was even greater: 60 points.

Miles, kilometers: Who cares?

And that leads to the parts of the issue we often ignore: First, when state scores take off as other, more reliable test results remain flat, there are two parts to the story. NAEP scores, nationally, had long grown incrementally. Growth slowed after NCLB and almost completely stopped after corporate reformers tried to hold individual educators accountable for increasing state scores. This means that we all failed our students. At a time when we should have been teaching even more critical thinking, we allowed the quest for knowledge to be undercut.

Second-most ignored, the rise in those test scores meant that teachers and students were working harder to meet top-down mandates. We didn’t ask for the imposition of a test-and-punish scheme that squandered our energies in an unworthy effort to jack up accountability scores. We should have fought harder against NCLB-type accountability but, still, we worked our tails off trying to obey orders and get scores up.

Yes, the new lower scores will be a shock to the system, but we’ve had plenty of reasons to complain about test-driven micromanaging. Now, there are no state or federal demands for us to continue to violate our consciences to conform to an invalid accountability system. It doesn’t matter whether the path to high-quality education is measured in miles or kilometers. Let’s get back on the road, sharing the adventure of teaching and learning for the 21st century.