The Kentucky Human Rights Commission joined the chorus condemning Woodford County High School for its recent ill-advised letter to African- American parents announcing a special assembly to discuss the academic performance of black students.
When parents raised a ruckus, the school canceled its plans and the Woodford superintendent apologized, acknowledging that the letter was "poorly worded." Education Commissioner Terry Holliday sent a stern warning, calling the letter a "lapse in judgment" and calling for corrective action to assure such an event doesn't occur again.
While the leadership of Woodford County High deserves this criticism, it would be a shame to let this episode pass without reflecting on what would motivate a school to send such a letter in the first place.
State and federal school accountability laws hold educators responsible for improving the overall test scores of students who are African-American, Hispanic, have disabilities or receive free or reduced-price meals. There's a good reason for this. Historically these groups have significantly underperformed whites and students without disabilities and those with higher family incomes. Beginning with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, policy-makers recognized this unacceptable disparity; educators have responded with strategies to close the achievement gap.
In many schools, however, this has led to an overemphasis on students' membership in various groups, rather than their individual performances.
Let me emphasize I have no knowledge of instructional practices at Woodford County High, so I can't say whether this has happened there. But I know firsthand, as a teacher and administrator, that schools face a huge temptation, in their effort to prioritize resources, to devote extra attention, not to all struggling students or even all African- American students, but to African-American students whose past performance suggests the possibility of easily scoring proficient on state exams, thus giving the school an extra accountability boost.
In educational parlance, these students are known as "bubble kids" — they are on the bubble between apprentice and proficient — or, more cynically, as "low-hanging fruit." They are even more valuable to the school if they occupy multiple categories, such as African-American and receiving free or reduced-priced meals.
Educators begin to see students more as potential test scores than as individual learners with complex needs. It also means that some students whose performances appear intractably poor may get a minimal amount of attention and support. I'm describing a system that, because of the school accountability structure, is obsessed with testing and test scores.
It's important to note that Kentucky schools have made great progress in moving toward a more individualized approach to teaching and learning in recent years. Practically every school has initiated a system of tiered interventions to provide extra attention to every student who is struggling to reach proficiency, regardless of ethnicity, disability or socio-economic status.
But the ultimate focus in many schools remains the same: higher student performance as measured by state exams. Again, I can't say whether any of this was at work in Woodford County, but the overemphasis on test scores is typical of most Kentucky schools.
I'm not suggesting, as some educators have, that we get rid of the tests or school accountability. Taxpayers deserve clear indicators of what students are learning. But as someone who trains aspiring school leaders, I believe we should shift our emphasis toward the inputs in the learning process, especially classroom-level instruction, rather than the outputs of test scores.
This means schools should continue to work toward having a focused, high-quality curriculum guaranteed to all students. Teachers should deliver well-structured lessons that include frequent, ungraded assessments of student progress and adjust their teaching based on this progress.
Many schools have been diligently working toward doing just what I'm describing, probably in Woodford County as well. I also know from experience that most Kentucky schools have a long way to go in this regard. Far too many still put all their improvement energies into various intervention and support programs without making significant changes in everyday teaching practices.
If we devote more energy to improving teaching and learning in every classroom and responding to individual learning needs, schools could not only avoid the kinds of embarrassments recently experienced in Woodford County, but test scores for all students might ultimately improve as well.
Gary Houchens is an associate professor in Western Kentucky University's College of Education and Behavioral Sciences.