2019-12-04 ed-robmillerp2


The discussion surrounding the annual release of Oklahoma School Report Cards has descended into little more than stale theater — a well-rehearsed ritual in which people recite predictable lines in a formulaic manner and generally wish the experience ends quickly.

With each announcement of school report cards or student test results, state education officials will speak to small increases and/or decreases in a few tested areas while lamenting the overall lack of progress relative to student proficiency on “higher, more rigorous” academic standards.

In response, school district leaders will detail efforts to “carefully review” the results, focus on curriculum alignment and teacher training, and implement interventions to assist struggling students, while espousing that students are always more than just a test score.

Then we’ll come back and regurgitate similar lines a year from now.

We know the script well because it’s been recited by scores of state and national education leaders for nearly two decades, since the passage of the No Child Left Behind in 2001.

A generation of students later, we are still trying to figure out exactly what we mean when we say “proficient.” We are so accustomed to throwing this word around to describe our student’s abilities and their level of achievement, we have lost sight of the fact that the term often doesn’t mean what we think it does.

The problem is there is no clear and universally agreed-upon definition of “proficient” when it comes to math, reading or much of anything.

OK, that’s not entirely true. When it comes to state testing, “proficient” does have one very specific meaning — having scored above an arbitrarily set cut score on a multiple-choice standardized test.

Yet, like the similarly obtuse term “student achievement” (which literally means “test scores”), it has been carefully chosen because it suggests so much more than it actually means. Therefore, when a child is deemed “proficient” on the appropriate state test, we are told we can take that one-day snapshot of a child’s performance on a computer-based multiple choice test and extrapolate it into some kind of false equivalency about being “college- and career-ready.”

Here’s a simple thought experiment. Suppose in 2020 that 90% of Oklahoma students mastered the academic standards and earned “proficient” scores on their tests. Would our politicians, policy makers and newspaper editorialists nod their heads in frank admiration and exclaim “Wow, those teachers are good”? Not likely. The truth is this type of across-the-board student success would immediately be interpreted as evidence that the tests and the associated standards were too easy.

“High standards” by definition refers to standards that everyone won’t be able to meet. If every child could meet them, that would be proof the standards were too low — and they would then be escalated upward — until failures were created.

Despite the pleasant-sounding public relations rhetoric, the standards and accountability movement is not about helping all children become better learners. It is not committed to leaving no child behind. It is little more than an elaborate sorting system, separating supposedly good schools from poor ones and “college- and career-ready” students from students who need to be “fixed.”

Can we seek consensus on the notion that a standardized test is a terrible way to measure the “proficiency” of a human being, because humans are not standardized? Likewise, can we agree a school report card based almost exclusively on how students perform on a once-a-year test is wholly imprecise and delusory?

If we could find common understanding, maybe we could begin to move past our current school accountability system which, more than anything else, reflects the average size of the homes around a particular school and, instead, move towards a more pragmatic system which acknowledges the challenging yet beautiful diversity of our children and celebrates the incredible work of our state educators in cultivating this uniqueness.

That’s a line I wouldn’t mind repeating.

Rob Miller is the superintendent of Bixby Public Schools

Oklahoma School Report Cards: See the grades of each TPS school


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