Looking to future of educational success
The recent release of 2023 statewide school testing scores reveals some bright and dim spots for Southwest Minnesota public schools.
Since the last testing cycle students have made gains in math scores, and reading scores have improved for English language learners. But testing scores in science and reading for other learners indicate that many students have lost ground. These losses are not entirely surprising. Efforts to boost testing scores were no doubt hampered by the move to digital classrooms during the COVID-19 virus epidemic, which led many students to struggle while adapting to the on-line format of instruction. The resulting lapses in educational competencies will likely follow this generation throughout the upcoming years unless special steps are taken now. Acknowledging the unusual causal factors behind low scores does not mitigate the need to try to improve student proficiency.
It is a complex problem requiring complex solutions. Improvements will require efforts from many social sectors and perhaps a shift in thinking about the usefulness of the “No Child Left Behind” measurement as the primary gauge of student success.
Lower test scores naturally spur many to look to the schools for solutions. It seems obvious that improving student competency in science and reading will require more teachers, time, tutors, and one-on-one instruction. Smaller classrooms can help improve the quality of teaching, and send the message that concrete, trusted professionals care about students’ academic growth. Educators are hopeful that such aid is forthcoming in federal programs like the READ Act (Reading to Ensure Academic Development). This Act provides training for teachers and volunteer tutors to help develop basic reading skills. Another promising component includes a return to a phonics based approach to reading, teaching students to sound out unfamiliar words rather than simply to guess at them.
The shift back to phonics instruction is supported by research that demonstrates its superior success in teaching students how to read. Similar research is needed to identify what works to improve skills in science, as well as how teachers can cater to different learning needs across a diverse student body, post COVID-19. It makes sense to rekindle respect for the experience and expertise of teachers who know from practice what works best for their students.
Legislators, families, and community members can also help with achieving the goal of improved learning for students. In the face of budget surpluses, legislative increases in educational funding and state pedagogical initiatives can help make some of the needed changes. Family members are also part of the solution, but their ability to help must be realistic.
Families struggle to keep pace with inflation, with parents and guardians sometimes working multiple jobs, limiting time to help with homework as was the case in the past. Better communication between care-givers and teachers, and giving more direction on what constitutes the highest use of family time could help boost academic reinforcement of skills in the home. Community members can help by volunteering to work with students during or after school. Libraries and other social institutions are also good resources for extending educational opportunities. For the short term anyway, we might also reconsider the disproportionate emphasis on sports and extra-curricular activities that compete with students’ academic focus.
But If the COVID-19 epidemic has taught anything, it is that a one-size-fits-all approach to life and education is untenable. Accordingly, it may be time to reconsider the use of testing as the primary gauge of student success, a remnant of the “No Child Left Behind” federal educational legislation implemented in 2001. While this legislation was commendable in setting uniform national standards for academic expectations, increasing school choice, and incentivizing schools to do better by tying funding to concrete results, it has had its drawbacks as well. These include approaching educational settings as uniformly similar rather than as tremendously variable across time and place, and by measuring academic success purely in terms of rote test scores, incentivizing teachers to “teach to the test”.
Not all students do well at standardized testing, and such exams are not conclusive or comprehensive measures of competency and knowledge. Perhaps it is time to consider some alternative and more flexible measures of achievement. Southwest Minnesota school systems are to be praised for their successes under trying circumstances. The factors contributing to better-quality test scores should be analyzed and included among other creative approaches to those areas still in need of improvement.