Sometimes life gets so frustrating that it seems like "you just can't win for losing". Setbacks knock us off balance and there's nothing we think we can gain from it. But often times we actually can. We just don't get that winning and losing - succeeding and failing - are closely linked, and that we can't have one without the other. So what do we do? We often quit when success is almost within our reach because we view failure as a fixed and final outcome. And we end up failing to see the lessons we can learn from the failed efforts we make. It's clearly a design flaw in our culture. Yet, if we just paid attention, we could turn many of the trials we inevitably experience into eventual triumphs. We could actually win for losing. Well, guess what? The Governor of Connecticut and Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) may be trying to do just that.
I won't waste space or time rehashing the criticisms and complaints many have already expressed about Common Core Standards and Smarter Balanced Tests - although I will suggest it's the latter and not the former that seems to rile most people. Instead, it's worth noting that Governor Dannel Malloy and the CSDE have recognized their failed efforts in rolling out this grand plan and they seem intent on learning from it. Evidence of this comes with the recent announcement of a request for proposals that are designed to reduce testing in the 11th grade - a year already "testing" many 16- and 17-year-olds - and may even consider such well-known (everyone will agree on this) and proven (plenty will disagree) standardized assessments like the SAT and ACT as replacements for Smarter Balanced. Other states have already dumped the latter and replaced it with the ACT. It's clearly a bold move on Malloy's part (many, I'm sure, view it more as a political move in an election year). But it's a move that shouldn't stop there. Here's why.
College and career readiness have been buzz words in talks regarding education for several years now, even if few people really know what these buzz words mean. Take a look at the CSDE definition of student success and extract this line - "All students must graduate from high school and be prepared to continue their education..." Fair enough. But how do you know if you're prepared to continue your education? If you're thinking that a high school diploma is sufficient evidence, well we wouldn't be messing with assessing in the way that we currently find ourselves if you were right. The reality is that little value is now given to a high school diploma by itself. It used to be that a high school degree was like money in the bank. In a sad twist of irony, it still is today. It's just that the money in your bank account, like a a high school diploma, earns you nothing. So, how do we know then what these buzz words mean? What's odd is that, in all this chatter, there has been no mention of the "prerequisites" for achieving college readiness, even if we could measure it in some credible way. Well, there actually is a prerequisite - and it has been conspicuously absent in any discussion heretofore about college readiness. It's high school readiness. Moreover, it can be measured.
High school readiness has been marked, at least by the ACT after extensive research on its part, the BEST predictor of college readiness. A report, entitled "The Forgotten Middle", recently examined the level of preparation for eventual success in high school that 8th graders had exhibited on the basis of their scores on ACT's EXPLORE (the 8th-9th grade precursor to PLAN and the eventual ACT). The data showed that "fewer than two in ten eighth graders are on target to be ready for college-level work by the time they graduate from high school." The report goes on to state that, under current conditions, "the level of academic achievement that students attain by eighth grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school than anything that happens academically in high school." The benchmarks achieved on these measures turn out to be much more powerful predictors of college and career readiness at high school graduation than any other factor - including students' family backgrounds, high school coursework, or high school grade point average. So why are we waiting until 11th grade to find out what we could have learned years earlier - and had time to "fix"?
What if college/career readiness was defined in part by the ACT benchmark of 21 (or SAT score of 1550 if The College Board offers a similar package - it supposedly soon will) and was used as a measurable? The ACT can provide extensive research to support its number, and it's all available at the click of a mouse or tap of a finger (just check the research). In fact, the ACT even makes it easy by linking its test to common core standards. If a student reaches, at minimum, either benchmark, then the number provides valid and reliable evidence that s/he is ready for success in life-after-high-school. That number - 21 (composite score) - represents the bare minimum. It's the "tipping point". You can argue the difference between a 21 and a 23 or a 1550 and 1650 as relative predictors of success later on, but the tipping point has been set at 21 (and 1550 by The College Board). It's in the data. It's a vital statistic - like blood pressure limits, blood sugar levels, pulse rates, and cholesterol counts. With this goal in mind years before being realized, assessments administered to students in earlier grades that are aligned with the ACT (or SAT) could measure and provide feedback for readiness during each step (grade) along the way - including readiness for high school. In real life, we (should) learn from the tests we face each day, anyway. Make mistakes, learn, and adjust.
Critics will argue that success should not (and cannot) be reduced to a single number earned on one benchmark. Fair enough - except that what is the bar exam to law students, licensing exams to the vast majority of trades, PRAXIS to aspiring teachers, sales targets to salespeople, enrollment benchmarks to enrollment managers, bowl-eligibility to college football coaches, season win-loss records for high school coaches and tournament eligibility, APRs to college sports programs, judges' scores at gymnastics competitions and musical auditions, and...? Heck, what's a 20-minute job interview if not a test? Or even a first-time date, for that matter? You know what, though? In virtually every case here, you get a second chance, and even a third or fourth. You make mistakes, learn, and adjust. The point is that a benchmark has been determined and participants are measured against it. Much of life is a series of formative assessments and not summative ones. We learn through this feedback and - if we pay attention rather than become paralyzed by the failed effort - we move on to learn more. The "F" doesn't have to be the "scarlet letter" we make it out to be. Failure is neither fixed nor permanent (and neither is success). Here's a lesson in the "hidden" curriculum: students may actually learn that they can win by losing - that they may not be successful YET, but that persistent and intelligent effort could eventually deliver success. Let's make these assessments formative as well.
So this is where the Governor and CSDE should keep moving forward. Examine ACT Aspire as a viable replacement to the current assessment plan in place. The ACT has a battery of assessments that spans grades 3-12, and each links to the next in scaffolding connections and vertical integration that eventually leads to a postsecondary readiness index (21). This number is already widely accepted by postsecondary institutions (test optional schools aside - this is a topic that requires more space than is available here). Think about it - how valued was CAPT in the postsecondary admissions process? I'll tell you - not even the state's flagship university considered CAPT. Smarter Balanced may be a new and improved assessment, but it's still CAPT 2.0 in the view of college admissions and, thus, rendered useless in terms of measuring college readiness.
Let's face it. Tests aren't going away - in schools or in life - and they actually may be used as measures of growth. This piece, by the way, is not endorsing standardized assessments for inclusion in teacher evaluations. Blaming educators for the growing number of ill-prepared students graduating from high school is a lot like blaming doctors for the rising levels of obesity in this country (both are really much more complicated public policy issues). So, let's curl up our pointed fingers that blame others. Let's stop politicizing educational matters. Let's also give up the "teach to the test" distraction and instead make "learn from the test" the focus of our efforts. Assessments administered in the 11th grade should be closely linked with assessments in the earlier grades. Like it or not, postsecondary institutions use them. So it's a two-for-one benefit with an 11th grade assessment that also serves as a postsecondary benchmark. Doesn't it make sense to use a battery of assessments that provides formative feedback and predictive power in assessing one's eventual readiness for postsecondary options? Shouldn't we find out before it's too late?
The CSDE should expand its request for proposals to include grades 3-12 and not just the 11th grade. In fact, it should go even further and join the other states that have already replaced Smarter Balanced with the ACT. It should also incorporate the vertically integrated assessments in the earlier grades. We can't forget the middle child in our discussions about college/career readiness if we want these same kids to eventually grow into healthy and productive adults. It makes sense. The CSDE has an opportunity to show students (and parents and educators) that they can win for losing by providing a real live example. It tested an assessment tool and learned from the "test" - that there may be another way to do this. There is. And, for the record, I really don't care which political party implements it. I just care that we learn from our mistakes and get this right - that we win for losing.
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