Friday, September 03, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Our pupils are learning

Arkansas had had no shortage of good news about its schools since it began implementing the federal No Child Left Behind Act eight years ago. Like those in the other 49 states Arkansas’ children made roaring progress on the end-of-year exams that were supposed to measure how much kids learned of what they were supposed to learn.

Pupils at Arnold Drive Elementary School on Little Rock Air Force Base have consistently scored above the state average. The school is ranked third statewide in math achievement, 18th in literacy scores and eighth overall. Stagecoach Elementary in Cabot is 16th in math and 20th overall. Cabot Middle School North is 20th in math, while Magness Creek is 17th overall in the state.

More good news: Cabot's ACT scores are above both state and national averages.

There were laggards here and there, but generally schools made, or seemed to make, dramatic progress. The law was written in a way to effectuate that result, or at least that appearance. Each state could establish its own standards and its own way to measure success. State policy makers wanted to improve the schools but they also did not want to look bad. There were consequences for looking bad. It was impossible to say how much real progress schools in any state were making unless you happened to compare them on a nationally normed test. Then the schools didn’t look so good.

One result of the law was that in far too many classrooms, the incentives to look good on the tests were so overpowering that the tests became everything. Under pressure from administrators, teachers taught the state’s benchmark test and sometimes not a lot else. Knowledge and skill were subordinate to the test score.

This week, we had some real good news for education in the Natural State, not once but twice.

First, the smaller but more tangible good news. The state disclosed the first results from the Arkansas Advanced Initiative in Math and Science. Thirty-one secondary schools have joined the initiative, which is supposed to increase the number of students taking Advanced Placement exams and improve the instruction and raise scores on national Advanced Placement exams. Dr. Ann Robinson, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, obtained a grant to join the national project. UALR and other state universities supervised the project, which was designed by Tommie Sue Anthony, a former Jacksonville teacher, Pulaski County Special School District gifted-education coordinator and now a UALR professor.

The results: Students in the original 10 schools posted an overall 68.9 percent overall increase in the number scoring 3, 4 or 5 on science, math and English AP exams, which was almost five times the national two-year increase of 13.6 percent. A score of 3 or above will qualify high school students for college credit in many colleges and universities or placement in advanced courses in other institutions of higher learning. The second group of 14 schools to join the initiative a year ago recorded a 73.6 percent increase, almost 10 times the national one-year average. For African-American and Hispanic kids, the results were even more dramatic. Minority students in the first group of 10 schools registered a 202.4 percent increase in passing scores on math, science and English tests.

That looks like unalloyed good news, unless you want to detract from it by pointing out that Arkansas students had a lot further to go than most. We’ll take it. Now, what will it take to bring this program to all Arkansas high schools?

The other, more cheering news is that Arkansas has joined the national commitment to reform the No Child Left Behind testing regimen so that it may indeed produce the grand results that described in the act: to make a literate and skilled citizen of every single child. It may prove to be President Obama’s worthiest contribution to the country.

Two groups of states, 44 in all, will scrap their state exams and strive for nationally normed tests that will measure not only the minimal knowledge required on most benchmark exams, but higher-order thinking skills. The tests will be computerized and given not just at the end of the year but several times during the year so that every teacher can see the students’ weaknesses and alter his or her lessons to compensate for them. The tests will be useful for the teachers rather than a final measurement of their and the students’ failures after it is too late to make corrections.

Arkansas and the other states agreed this year to adopt common academic standards in English and math that are certain to be more rigorous than their own. The two groups of states will pursue somewhat different strategies so that ultimately we can see which is the more effective. Arkansas is part of the group of 25 states called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. They will share $170 million of federal stimulus money to devise and implement the tests.

The initiative will put new stress on Arkansas teachers, but we imagine most of them will welcome it. The tests will immediately identify for teachers the concepts that their students have not yet learned and will require them to adapt their instruction to make use of the results.

“This could be one of the greatest challenges our teaching force has ever faced, to teach the new concepts embedded in English and math standards and to adapt to these new tests, Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research and the former commissioner of the national testing program, said last week.

It cannot come too soon. Gov. Beebe and the state Education Department deserve some credit for leaving the safety of the old testing scheme that allowed the state to brag every year and instead strike out boldly for the unknown. For all our kids, that good news is real.