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Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Proficiency "Boogie Man"

Everyone screams something about the State of Ohio Proficiency Tests. Most of these screams are shrieks of terror and acquisitions of unfairness. First of all, we should define the word itself. The quality of the state of being proficient is "being able to do something very well; progression in knowledge; improvement; adeptness." Nothing in the definition mentions mastery or excellence. Passing scores on the proficiency tests are meant to reflect adequate progression in grade-level knowledge. These are skills students should have already proficiently displayed by the time they reach appropriate grade level.

The proficiency tests have been passed by the State of Ohio as law, but they have been created by Ohio teachers of subject matter. Proficiency test committees are aided by Ohio Department of Education officials and test company administrators. Teachers meet with these people view the tests, to set the score points and to grade actual samples to determine proper passing marks. No one entity is to blame for the content of the tests.

Also, because parents play a vital role in the education of Ohio’s children, the Ohio Department of Education  formed a statewide Parent Advisory Council (PAC) in 2002 to provide a much-needed connection among Ohio parents, their children and ODE. PAC members work to increase parent and family engagement in education through effective communication while empowering and advocating for all families. They attend regular meetings to learn about what is happening in education in Ohio and provide feedback and input on new policies, products and materials for families.

All students in grades 3-8 now take the new state achievement tests based on Ohio’s Academic Content Standards. The High School Ohio Graduation Tests will be administered to 10th graders as a graduation requirement. Ohio’s Grade 3-8 Achievement Tests in reading, mathematics, science, social studies and writing are aligned to Ohio’s academic content standards. Ohio Graduation Tests are assessments aligned to Ohio’s Academic Content Standards of graduation in reading, mathematics, science, social studies and writing. To graduate high school, students must show this proficiency.

The Ohio Department of Education offers parents and students practice for the test, released questions, and other resources online. The department also sells materials for review in the subject areas as well as materials for over-all test readiness.

I believe the State of Ohio began administration of proficiency tests because of the public's outcry that curriculum in the state was being "dummied down" to accept ridiculous levels of proper attainment in skill levels. Much of the complaining came from parents with children who believed such a shift was causing their sons and daughters to be constantly remediated in the regular classroom in order to allow the vast majority of students to pass classes.

In truth, the public got what they wanted. Standards were set, and tests of proficiency were made and administered to assure skill levels were met. Yet, after the administration of the proficiency tests, many people were shocked as they realized that numbers of students had failed in certain areas. Poor grades and delayed graduation became underlying reasons for new investigations into the stress levels produced by testing, the socio-economic unfairness of contents, and consumption of time spent in class review for the tests.

Haven't teachers dealt with these differences in the everyday classroom throughout their careers? Proficiency tests became the new "boogie man" of those dissatisfied with American education in general. Public education began a witch-hunt either to kill or to control "THE TESTS."

From teaching experience, I know most students have difficulty with proficiency tests due to their acquisition of basic thinking skills conducive to higher learning. For example, in Ohio graduation level writing, students must understand concepts of addressing the audience, creating purpose, developing ideas through examples and details, demonstrating coherence and organization, using a variety of sentence structures, and exhibiting effective vocabulary and style. Is this an unattainable set of skills for a high school graduate? Surely, any decent writer would answer "no."

Many people gripe about those students with good spelling skills, decent grammar, and proper usage falling short because of their exclusion of these greater considerations on actual tests. But, one must ask on a tenth-grade level "What makes writing proficient?" not "Can Johnny spell and practice subject/verb agreement?" It is up to the student to display the most necessary qualities of good high school writing. Mom, dad, teacher, state, or society offers no "cheat sheets" on test day. The student is simply asked to display his proficiency at a given level. Period.

No doubt, test anxiety has affected scores. In what other academic application is this false? I believe a proper question is "Do the instructors of content realize the biggest weaknesses of non-proficient students?" For example, what tenth-grade composition teacher would try to cram an entire writing review of nine previous grades into proficiency test readiness? That is an impossible task. The job of the grade teacher is to find and replace the vital "missing parts" not build the machine from ground up.

If the teachers don't know the several weak areas to reinforce, how in the world will the non-proficient student know? I have scored hundreds and hundreds of Ohio Rangefinder papers, and I guarantee you that most students who fall short do so because of three or four major concerns. For everyone's sake, all involved (parents, teachers, students) must read, understand, interpret and practice the rubric! Don't complain about ineffective teaching as a whole. Every teacher at every grade level must incorporate the appropriate skills of subject mastery. No one can fail to do so.

And, don't ask me why all subjects do not require proficiency. I don't know. If the public wants improvement in only the current proficiency curriculum, fine. But, if the public wants to help insure needed adjustments in subjects such as computer science, health, foreign language, home living, and business, people should hold instructors of these subjects accountable with proficiency testing. Why would the state pour money into programs not essential to making a student a proficient graduate/citizen when funds are such a needed commodity?

Any good teacher of subject matter can adjust and teach to needed standards. Those who can't should not teach. The responsibility is actually not only shared by teachers and state officials but also shared by parents. A steady diet of video games, cell phones, and television will not produce students conducive to formal learning. Even though the world requires both parents to work, parents must make their homes into learning factories for their children. Are there sufficient books, supplies, encouragement, and models needed for active learning at home, or do the parents merely expect schools to bear the entire burden for educating their children?

Once a healthy quest for knowledge is instilled, most students will willingly and even gratefully tear into subject matter. The honest answer to being successful with proficiency is "My student became proficient because I took the time to explain unknown concepts and encourage him/her to seek answers through thoughtful investigation." No one should really have to worry about proficient students: if the proper motivation, instruction, and materials are supplied and used, proficiency is nothing but an imaginary line surpassed long before grade level.

Lastly, teachers are public servants. They are paid to impart the knowledge required by the State of Ohio. In my opinion, their biggest resource is time. Time is limited while these successful classroom teachers face the stresses of innumerable stressful variables every day. Cooperative, attentive students fill time well. Disruptive, selfish students hurt their own progress and the progress of many other children in their classes.

And, so the old question goes, "Why doesn't Johnny have trouble with his coach, just his teachers?" Think of the time most parents spend with their children in honing their athletic pursuits compared to the time spent in developing any academic pursuits. Think of the limited number of students coaches must teach. Think of the student's attitude partly developed by the parents that "sports are fun" or "you have to pass to play sports." We pay coaches extra, even high negotiated salaries. We give them more time during the regular schedule. We come out on Fridays by the hundreds to support them and their products.

Fill up the schools with coaches if you want, but then read your proficiency scores. Any coach worth a damn will agree with me -- athletics are secondary to the primary role of providing a student a good classroom education. If he/she doesn't believe this, he/she is not a good teacher, just someone who plays games. After graduation, match the paychecks earned by ex-students with good coaching skills versus the paychecks earned through good classroom skills. I think you will see a huge difference.

Do you understand what I mean? Time and money is needed by some teachers to develop better students. Do you, the public, really even know what you want? Money priorities -- Ohio State's Jim Tressel made $3.5 in 2009. Ohio State University President Gordon Gee, the country's highest paid public university president, earns about $1.5 million a year. And, a full professor with tenure at Ohio State earns about $126,000 annually. Is Ohio State all about the money generated by the football program?

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