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Exemplary schools *September 4, 2007*

*Posted by Jeff in Uncategorized.*

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How would you feel if you knew that your child was going to a school where fully 1 out of every 10 students last year scored less than 60% on a test of basic skills?

Before you answer, let’s also assume the following:

- “Special ed” students or students with learning disabilities aren’t included in this statistic. We’re saying that 1 out of every 10 students “in the regular classroom” scored less than 60% on a test of basic skills.
- The test is a multiple choice test where blind guessing will yield an average score of around 25%.
- The students taking these tests do not come from “economically disadvantaged” homes.
- The students’ parents are more likely than not to have some college, if not one or more college degrees
- The students’ parents typically have well-paying, white collar jobs
- More than likely, education is something valued highly at home for these students

A “basic skills” test for an eleventh grader might include a Social Studies question like, “Which of the following is an example of the system of checks and balances in the United States federal government?” Students would have to select an answer like, “Congress must approve Presidential judicial nominees.” A “basic skills” test for a third grader might include a math question like, “Which of the following has the most sides? Students would have to select an answer like “octagon” over other choices like “square”, “rectangle”, and “pentagon”.

Would you be concerned that 1 in 10 students described above couldn’t answer enough questions like this to make a grade of 60% – just 35 percentage points above the result of blind guessing?

As a parent, I would be very concerned – that the school’s academic rigor is not up to expectations, that the teachers or students at the school have low expectations for achievement, that the school is not performing well. However, not all share my concern. In fact, the State of Texas classifies such schools as “Exemplary” – the highest and most prestigious of all the school ratings it gives out. Exemplary schools, according to the State, are those that have 10% (or fewer) students failing to “pass” the basic skills test (the “TAKS”), where passing is defined as a percentage between 50% and 60%, depending on the subject of the test.

Now, we should have a bit of perspective on the “Exemplary” status. My dad was, for many years, the superintendent and principal of schools that were consistently rated “Exemplary” or “Recognized” (the next-highest rating), in spite of, rather than because of, the educational values the students were taught at home. Dad motivated the teachers that worked for him and helped the students in their classes to see the vision and importance of overcoming such short-sighted values and of being successful in an academic endeavor, even though it went contrary to what the students had learned at home. This is impressive performance in a school district where so many students are “economically disadvantaged” and where their parents are less likely to have attained any education beyond high school.

The same performance – “Exemplary” status – becomes less meaningful in a school district such as the one that we live in now – where most schools are in neighorhoods with few (if any) “economically disadvantaged” students and few students from the traditionally lower performing minority groups that the Texas Education Agency chooses to segregate in their ratings. “Exemplary” means “worthy of imitation”, but is a school really worthy of imitation if it has only 90% of its students capable of making a 60% or better (the “90/60 rule”) on a basic skills test? If we were talking about advanced skills like computing the integral of a function or determining the best answer for an SAT-level analogy problem, I could understand that the 90/60 rule would be “Exemplary”. When the test is of basic skills, such a label does not seem appropriate.

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