Data Must Drive Education Decisions

One of the phrases I often hear regarding the Common Core Standards—and the PARCC Tests aligned to these standards that are being rolled out throughout Illinois this year—is that this will lead to an “over-reliance on testing” in our public schools.  I have always found this notion confusing because, outside of public education, I have never heard anyone express a concern about an over-reliance on data.  Imagine your reaction if your doctor suggested a course of treatment and, when pressed for an explanation, could only cite a “feeling” that you might benefit.  Most of us would find this unacceptable.

I understand those who find standardized testing to be troublesome.  It is time-consuming, the technology necessary to do it efficiently may be lacking, and neither parents nor students are enthused about the stresses it inevitably causes.  These complaints are not baseless, and I have always advocated for cooperative efforts to make standardized tests less frustrating and fraught for all concerned.  Any process can be improved with a little thought and discussion.

However, the zeal with which some battle against outcome measures in public education—now including, I am sad to say, the new President of the National Education Association—has always baffled me.  I cannot see how taxpayers can be expected to spend billions of dollars on our public school systems every year to support educational practices based on anecdotes and hearsay.  The national pushback against the Common Core Standards is understandable to me only to the degree that it is based on concerns that are largely divorced from the educational needs of our children—turf battles, paychecks, and political posturing.  Moreover, if all the time, effort, and money invested in the implementation of outcome testing aligned to the Common Core Standards are abandoned, I wonder what information will be used to drive our nation’s policy decisions on improving public education in the years ahead.

Recent data—that troublesome word—indicates that our nation’s high school graduates are less prepared than we would hope.  According the US Department of Education, approximately 60% of our incoming community college student—and a surprising 20% of students entering four year colleges—will require remedial coursework in writing, reading or math.  In other words, those students will have to spend their money to learn material that should have been mastered in high school.

Much ballyhooed improvements this past school year in college and career readiness among Illinois students are due less to any measurable test score improvements and are more the result of the decision to drop the traditional ACT outcome measure in favor of a self-designed scale that had the net result of nearly doubling the measured readiness for work and higher education of Illinois’ high school graduates.  Although this move has some political utility, it points to the critical need for reliable data regarding student achievement in our public schools.

Therefore, I have a suggestion for those who believe standardized testing in our public schools is untenable, unreasonable, and unfair: look at the national and local data on the numbers of college freshmen who require remedial coursework when they enter college and see where students who graduate from your local district stack up.

Given that some passionately feel that testing in our public schools is rife with problems, perhaps a more persuasive case can be made for examining what happens to our area high school graduates (and the sub-groups of those graduates) after they receive their diplomas.  Our area colleges and universities gather student data that matches their high schools with information on who requires remedial courses upon admission and who—in the ultimate outcome measure—actually graduates from that college or university.

This would be very instructive information to make available on a school district’s website because it will allow local residents to have a very clear snapshot of whether their high school is better or worse at preparing their students for college success, and it would allow us to really drill down into what our schools are—and are not—doing well.

Weak high school academic outcomes and the problems they cause are a national problem, but perhaps we can at least start a local dialogue that is firmly grounded in data.  Given the important role high quality public education plays in the economic, social, and political health of our region, state, and country, this seems a reasonable way to begin our discussion in a manner that removes a polarizing element from the equation.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( November 9, 2014

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