The Dallas Morning News is publishing a multi-part series on important issues for voters to consider as they choose a president this year. This is the fourth installment of our What’s at Stake series, and it focuses on American culture. Find the full series here.
What a year to be the parent of a child in the public school system. Of all the disruptions and heartaches caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the effect on how and where we educate our children has been among the most striking.
Though we are rightly distracted and stressed by this, we shouldn’t lose focus on what’s most essential in education, especially at the voting booth this fall. We need to keep our eye on what is key to our country’s future, and that is a quality education for all children.
Achievement gaps have persisted for way too long, leaving children of color, those who are economically disadvantaged, disabled or who speak English as a second language, behind their more advantaged peers. Now is not the time to let our guard down and allow soft-boiled expectations for learning creep in.
Though we can certainly recognize that schools’ priorities right now should be health and safety, we still need to hold them to high educational standards. One way to do this is to rely on data as a tool for keeping schools, and our elected leaders, accountable for figuring out how to fix inequities. Parents can be a strong voice for change, particularly when they are empowered with data.
Good teachers want to improve results for their students, but they need administrators to set clear goals for getting there. Jasmine Lane, a high school English teacher in a school district north of Minneapolis and an opinion writer for Education Week, issued a clarion call this summer urging educators not to lose focus on content and excellent teaching as they strive to help heal their students’ wounds, especially those of Black students. “Our schools must be places of real learning driven by evidence for how to best teach and improve outcomes,” she wrote, “not last week’s education fad.”
Figuring out the best teaching methods to improve outcomes has been a central conundrum of public education for decades, especially when it comes to boosting proficiency in reading and math. The latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to a representative sampling of students in each state every two years, were disheartening. The test, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, showed that the percentage of fourth graders testing at or above proficiency levels in reading in 2019 was 35%, down slightly from the level two years earlier. Math scores for that grade level remained about the same at 41%.
That’s bad news, even worse when you consider that students in the lowest two percentiles of proficiency were below where they were a decade prior. The shift to remote learning may exacerbate these problems further. A Dallas Morning News analysis showed that more than 100,000 children in Texas never engaged in assignments or prematurely ended their participation in remote learning last spring, potentially putting them as much as a year behind. How are schools going to make progress on closing these long-standing gaps when budgets are tight, some teachers are quitting and many students are simply not showing up? In the absence of easy answers, data can guide the way.
Counter to popular opinion, state testing required under federal law can help. The latest version of this law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, had broad bipartisan support when it was signed in 2015 to replace the much maligned No Child Left Behind Act. The ESSA gives states more flexibility in how and when they administer testing, and though it holds them accountable for making sure students reach proficiency in reading, math and science, consequences for not meeting those goals are mostly supportive rather than punitive. Schools should not fear what data might show; they should welcome it as a chance to make improvements.
My son has Down syndrome and attends a public middle school, where he is educated in the general education classroom along with his nondisabled peers, rather than in a separate setting. The ESSA requires that public schools do more than simply give him “access” to the general education curriculum and grade level standards. His school must work to ensure he is making actual progress. But how can they measure this progress? With assessments.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently told states they shouldn’t expect waivers from federal testing mandates this school year, as they did in the spring due to emergency school closures. The collective groan from parents was deafening, but this is the right approach. Without data, there is no way to see where struggles exist and which students need the most help. Without data, we might even miss silver linings. Karin Chenoweth, a writer for The Education Trust, a nonprofit focused on equity in education, has built an impressive body of work based on data that showed where districts have delivered extraordinary results for students of color and those from low-income families.
Education Trust and 18 other advocacy groups or institutions, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urged DeVos in July not to grant waivers for statewide assessments due to the pandemic this school year, because delaying them “risks the loss of critical information that would highlight opportunity gaps and help policymakers celebrate and learn from schools that are helping students through this crisis.”
That some schools tie annual state assessments to student promotion or spend an inordinate amount of time prepping children for these tests is the fault of the schools, not the federal law. It is these practices that have turned many parents so virulently against testing that they are opting their children out — and this was before the pandemic hit. I urge parents to consider all the angles before opting out of state assessments, especially if they are part of a historically marginalized subgroup.
The ESSA allows states to administer alternate assessments to students with the most complex cognitive disabilities, but caps participation at 1% of special education students — this means that states must look closely at districts that funnel too many students into alternate assessments, which have lower standards. (States that may exceed the cap can apply for temporary waivers.) My son will take the regular grade assessments as long as he is able; that is our tiny contribution to ensuring that our schools bring their best efforts to educating students with intellectual disabilities.
This is no time for parents to sit out of the PTA or school board meeting; attend the meeting, most are virtual anyway. Look up the latest end-of-year testing results for your school and district. You should be able to compare results for subgroups like Black students, Hispanic, Asian and white students with overall statewide results. The report for Dallas ISD for 2018-2019 is found under Texas Academic Performance Reports on the Reports and Data tab at tea.texas.gov. Here you can clearly see the unfortunate statistic that less than half of Texas third graders were at or above grade level in reading for 2019 based on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR.
Ask the candidates for school board and the Texas Legislature about their plans to improve achievement gaps. Ask how they will assess student progress this year and beyond. Ask what they are doing to make sure all stakeholders are involved in school improvement plans. Vote accordingly, then do your best to become one of those stakeholders, for the sake of your children. For the sake of all children.
Vicki Vila is a freelance editor and writer in Charlotte, N.C.
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