On July 1 the Idaho Statesman published Common Core benchmark data derived from Idaho students’ first real run at the new Idaho Standards Achievement tests last spring. Reactions have been predictably mixed to scores that are mixed: test scores outpaced expectations while simultaneously providing a snapshot of how poorly Idaho students are prepared to meet the standards. Based on these scores — and on Idaho’s commitment to the Common Core framework and associated costs — Idaho teachers have their work cut out for them.
Idaho third grade teachers, for example, can assume that roughly every other student they’re in front of lags behind in reading comprehension and writing ability. Boise School District third grade teachers will fare a bit better; 55 percent of Boise District third-graders (slightly more than one out of two) earned proficient status. Math teachers are looking at a dismal 20 percent drop in proficiency between third and 10th grade. Statewide, 50 percent of third graders scored proficient in math; 10th graders a cringe-worthy 30 percent.
The question is whether or not Idaho’s education bureaucracy will stay the course and up its game. According to a recent report in the Huffington Post about state-to-state differences for measuring academic achievement, Idaho is one of many states that has set a low bar for far too long. Many people, myself included, acknowledge Common Core standards as relevant and substantive improvements for lesson planning and instruction, but achieving across the board improvements without increased investment is unlikely. If the costs associated with maintaining programs, materials and the human capital necessary to achieve CC goals and high-performing public schools are approached half-heartedly, I fear this experiment will be short-lived and the disinvest-from-public schools crowd will have another banner to wave.
This essay is part of our occasional TBR Teach feature, a discussion about school policy by Boise teachers. For other takes on Common Core, see recent TBR Teach posts.
In the meantime, the American Institutes for Research bill is due. AIR is the Washington, D.C. based non-profit, big data contractor the state hired to design and manage all the elements of statewide testing. According to a copy of the State Department of Education’s contract with AIR, which Jeff Church, SDE’s chief communications officer provided me, 2014-15 costs for AIR’s large-scale state assessment “deliverables,” including test development, administration, scoring and reporting “shall not exceed $3,468,874.29.” For nearly three and a half million dollars in assessment services in the first year alone, Idaho can’t afford to be indecisive when it comes to implementing Common Core reforms.
Hopefully, stronger commitments to strengthening academic achievement than Sen. Steven Thayn’s will prevail. Thayn, an Emmet Republican, responded to this first data set in the Statesman piece, with predictable pushback: “How reliable is the test? What is it testing?” he asked. “Results might be great numbers or might not be.”
This response is not encouraging. It seems that Thayn, who initially voted to back former Superintendent Tom Luna’s push to adopt CC standards in 2011 and then changed his mind, remains more dedicated to an uninformed pushback against CC rather than working to understand how it is rolling out in Idaho’s public schools. For the sake of our students, parents and teachers, let’s hope he’s in the minority.
Public education is analogous to many other forms of infrastructure that require ongoing, unceasing attention to form and function: How to provide service? How to adapt to changing realities? How to build a genuine framework for difficult-yet-attainable goals?
Years of public education disinvestment will not be easily or rapidly turned around. If ongoing, serious reforms to address rapidly changing norms for post-secondary competitiveness are to be addressed realistically, one of the most important changes the state could make would be to mount a massive campaign to improve school readiness. This begins with positive and consistent messaging to champion families’ crucial roles in public school success, mandating kindergarten and providing pre-K options in every district.
Teacher preparation too should be revamped to reflect more challenging standards for vetting candidates to the profession, as well as continuing to provide teachers with collaborative in-service opportunities aimed at building their practice over time. Also, although it pains me to write this in the middle of a gloriously mild day in July, Idaho public schools students should either have much shorter summer breaks, or engage in district-designed extended learning throughout the summer, such as literacy clubs or science camps to stop the summer brain drain.
Idaho is not an isolated island where shabby or desultory education should be tolerated and defended as adequate; on the contrary, Idaho students and their families should be able to rely on the public education institutions they fund and depend on to serve them at the highest level possible. Common Core instructional reforms and assessment are part of how “highest level” might be defined, but any serious reform cannot succeed without mindful attention to detail, and consistent nurturing of the collective will to succeed.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.