Proficiency tests

A state commission reviewing the much-maligned proficiency tests has but a handful of teachers among its members, and that has invited criticism that the deck is stacked against reform.

By appointing only three classroom teachers to the Commission for Student Success, Gov. Bob Taft may have handed ammunition to proficiency-test critics who contend that teachers’ opinions don’t get adequate consideration. That’s one reason the proficiency tests have been under fire. When state leaders cooked up the tests, they didn’t get enough feedback from the pros on the front lines in the classrooms. Hence, a disconnect between what is being taught and the standards the tests are designed to reinforce.

Taft announced the creation of the 33-member task force during his State of the State address earlier this year, a speech laudably heavy on the importance of education to the future of our state. The so-called Fourth Grade Guarantee will be among the areas getting heavy scrutiny. The Guarantee is a mandate linked to the test taken by all Ohio fourth-graders. Children scoring inadequately on the reading portion of the exam may be held back a year beginning in 2002.

This has many parents and teachers up in arms. There is widespread feeling that this provision is unfair and counterproductive on the face of it, and that the test itself is flawed. Indeed, 40 percent of the state’s fourth-graders could have been held back a year if the provisions for 2002 were now in force.

There is a loophole in state law that allows teachers and principals to override that provision if they agree that a student is capable of fifth-grade work. But, clearly, something’s very wrong with a test that flunks nearly half of the state’s 9- and 10-year-olds.

A recent study commissioned by the state validates this and suggests that the passing grade is unnecessarily rigorous if the purpose of the test is to measure the ability of fourth-graders to be successful in the fifth grade. The study, while preliminary, recommends revising the passing score to lower the failure rate to 8.5 percent – a number still controversially high.

No provision of the proficiency tests has done more to galvanize opposition than the Fourth Grade Guarantee. Among those most vocal is Jenny Rytel. She’s a mom from Upper Arlington and doesn’t mince words in expressing her disappointment over the lack of teachers on the governor’s task force.

“This was our last hope for including parents and teachers in the conversation about proficiency testing,” she told Dayton Daily News reporter Mark Fisher. “But now it’s clear we’re not that important.”

Taft’s office denies that. Still, the governor made clear before appointments to his commission were named that he had no intention of overloading the panel with proficiency-test critics. Taft has staked out education reform as a central area of policy in his administration, and he is an unapologetic supporter of vigorous standards. He did not want to create a task force that would undermine him.

That’s understandable. But having fewer than one in 10 commission members drawn from the ranks of classroom teachers is arguably skimpy – notwithstanding that there are representatives from school boards and the university community as well.

It would be wrong, though, to condemn this effort so early in the process. A lack of teachers on the task force does not necessarily mean the tests won’t get a thorough and impartial review. We need to give the commission a chance. A look at the task force’s membership shows good and fair-minded people among its members. Brother Raymond Fitz, president of the University of Dayton, is among them.

Fitz was reassuring when asked about this. “I think it will be a balanced look,” he told the newspaper. “All of it will be public.”

One thing you can count on: There will be plenty of people watching.

Copyright, 2000, Jeffrey C. Bruce. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply