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GRAVES: Get ready for some bad news

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opinion Mitchell,South Dakota 57301
The Daily Republic
GRAVES: Get ready for some bad news
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Recently, I was reading Scott Adams' (creator of Dilbert) new book, "How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big." (Yes, in fact, I would appreciate it if you would refrain from commenting on why I would read a book with such a title.) In it, Adams lauds the virtue of simplicity and in fact points to capitalism as a system that works incredibly well for many reasons, one of which is the simplicity of its goal: profits.


I have long envied that very point about capitalism, i.e. profits, but not because of its simplicity but rather because of its generally agreed upon purpose and indicator of success. Oh, sure, people talk about any number of worthy pursuits of private business -- employing people, going green, creating philanthropic endeavors, etc. -- but everyone also knows that if you aren't profitable, then you will soon be out of existence. In capitalism, there is a single, agreed-upon, historically consistent measure of success, and you can compare successes not just at a single point but over decades and even centuries.

I envy it because, of course, education lacks a single indicator of success. Even if most people can agree that student achievement is the point of education, there is still that angst-producing problem of just how such is measured. I have now been fortunate enough to serve as superintendent of schools here in Mitchell for 14 years, a relatively long though certainly not unheard-of tenure for superintendents, but a blink of an eye in terms of educational history. Yet, in those 14 years, I have watched as we've looked at student achievement with three different measuring sticks -- the SAT9 test, the Dakota Step test and the Smarter Balanced Assessment. And each time we use a new measuring stick, the old data become all but useless. This is not a new problem. We have file cabinets of old testing data going back into the 1980s and even earlier, all of which has lost most of its utility because of subsequent assessment changes. When I look back at those lineal yards of data, I understand how the wealthy Confederate holding wads of Jefferson Davis-emblazoned currency must have felt on the day of Lee's surrender.

And that's not the half of it. New assessment measures essentially change the very nature of the game for schools and educators because they gauge something different than the old measure. The Common Core standards are intended to give us a national point of comparison, and that will definitely have some value, but it will also provide the latest "cliff" in student achievement usefulness. There will be almost no way to compare data before it with that coming after.

Yet, comparisons will be made. And those comparisons will provide America's schools with the latest in a long line of black eyes because proficiency rates -- the percentage of students deemed competent or better in reading and math -- on the Smarter Balanced Assessment (created to test students on the new Common Core standards) will plummet compared to those under the Dakota Step (which measured students on the former state standards). Over the years, schools were able to raise student proficiency rates on the Dakota Step because they dug in to the data and the standards and adjusted teaching according to the identified weaknesses of students. If students scored relatively poorly on dividing fractions or identifying the main theme in a written passage, teachers spent more time on those topics or developed new, better ways to teach these concepts.

With a brand new assessment, schools will have to return to the starting line and begin pushing that Sisyphean rock back up the hill. But that is only one reason proficiency rates will fall. The other is that the Common Core standards and the Smarter Balanced Assessment designed to test them are qualitatively different than what came before them. The new standards attempt to get students to a higher level of thinking and the assessments of them, therefore, are more than simply multiple choice exams. Using the ubiquitous technology in schools these days, students are now asked to justify responses, to provide short answer responses, etc. -- all impossible for past standardized testing. This is in many ways a very good thing, because standardized testing has always been criticized for its necessary testing of lower-level skills. But it also compounds the problem of the changeover to a new test, foreshadowing a calamitous drop in test scores.

And these are not just uncorroborated predictions. Last year, Kentucky became the first state to test on the Common Core standards and proficiency rates dropped like a parachutist with his lunch strapped to his back. The results in 2014, the second year of their testing, was frankly none better with some scores moving upward while others dropped even further. This year, New York joined Kentucky. There, proficiency rates dropped from 55 percent in reading and 65 percent in math last year to 31 percent for both this year. In other words, the percentage of students now deemed proficient dropped in half. In New York City, according to The New York Times, overall results were similar but -- just to kick them in the pants as hard as possible -- "In none schools, no students passed the math exams." None. Nobody. Nada.

My advice to South Dakota educators as student achievement data is released over the next two years? Get ready for some bad news -- perhaps really bad news. But also get ready to dig into the resulting data and change our teaching and our time allocations to meet the new challenge head on.

My advice to the nine New York City schools in which not a single student reached math proficiency? Start mandatory classes on Adams' new book.