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When impressions matter more than results

By Trevor Bothwell
web posted January 10, 2005

Arizona state senator Thayer Verschoor emerged as an unlikely hero to many Arizona high schoolers last week, announcing his intention to dismantle the state's AIMS test, an accountability measure that essentially acts as an exit exam for potential graduates.

Verschoor, a Republican who favors school choice and private school vouchers, is being embraced by many parents and teachers' union officials who have alleged that the test is unfair and even discriminatory. Standardized tests are anathema to school bureaucrats loath to be held to account for the quality of education they provide.

According to The Arizona Republic, Sen. Verschoor believes that graduation requirements "should be a local control issue," stating, "This should not be mandated by big government and a state school board. To me, we are saying that we don't trust our teachers."

Sen. Verschoor is correct, inasmuch as our responsibility for providing public education should not fall under the auspices of the federal government. Indeed, the best thing we could do with the U.S. Dept. of Education would be to turn it into a parking garage.

But the senator's claim that administering high school exit exams implies that we don't trust our teachers misses the point. Tests such as the AIMS exam are implemented by many states precisely because we often cannot trust many of our public school teachers and administrators, who have methodically dumbed down academic standards over the past few decades through their condemnation of fact-based instructional methods and student discipline.

Similar outcry erupted in 2003 over Florida's FCAT exam when some 13,000 high school seniors failed to pass the test that year and were in danger of not graduating in the spring. Amazingly, students only needed the relative equivalent of a 40 percent to pass the FCAT -- a benchmark that was originally set higher, only to be lowered to save about a thousand more students from failing.

Any test that requires students to demonstrate knowledge of only 40 percent of material is most likely bunk to begin with. That such a so-called standard is applied to a year-end exit exam is evidence that standardized tests may be no better a measure of academic achievement these days than are teacher accounts of student performance in the first place. In other words, if students fail to rise to the level required to achieve, we'll lower the bar to make it look as if they have. Indeed, what more would it tell us about the quality of education in Florida if 100 percent of its students passed the FCAT, if the score required to pass were a mere 10 percent?

Overnight ideas like high school exit exams are nothing new. Education reformers have tried for years to convince taxpayers that standards in America's schools are not disastrously low. For instance, syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell has written that several years ago Virginia required its students to pass a state exam in order to retain its accreditation. When 93 percent of all students failed to pass, the requirement was waived.

As these examples tend to reveal, the biggest problem with one-shot exit exams is that they're not necessarily used to indicate the achievement of potential graduates, as school officials like to claim. They are too often used simply to give the impression that the majority of students are receiving an adequate education, much as social promotion is used throughout the grades to give the impression that students have satisfied yearly learning requirements. In reality, the direct opposite is often true.

We are in dire need of a serious discussion in this country about the importance of public education, how it should be funded, what our children actually need to learn, and the extent to which quality instruction exists currently. Believing that simply tossing billions of federal dollars at schools will magically account for leaving "no child behind" is reckless. Likewise, failing to hold parents accountable for raising their own children by expecting teachers to cure every social ill during the school year is equally irresponsible.

But most importantly, our schools can't continue to neglect to teach kids rote skills such as spelling, writing, multiplication and division tables, and geography in the early grades, and then expect them to pass an exit exam in high school that likely tests such cumulative competence. Parents and educrats in Arizona are rallying around Sen. Verschoor because he too believes the AIMS test to be unfair. But it isn't so much the exam itself that is unfair as it is the poor preparation many of these students have received from the beginning of elementary school.

It is counterproductive to lower standards to the point where our children fail to gain the knowledge that society demands. Only when we focus more on instilling academic values in students instead of worrying constantly about hurting their feelings or damaging their almighty self-esteem, will our schools finally begin to recover ground lost to the specter of low expectations. Doing so will do more to account for increased standards than any exit exam ever could.

Trevor Bothwell is a writer living in Maryland and is host of The Right Report. He is a former fourth grade teacher and college instructor. Contact Trevor at bothwelltj@yahoo.com. ©2005 Trevor Bothwell


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