Op-Ed

A ‘proficient’ failure. How the focus on test scores in schools is failing our kids.

Please, please find me some multi-millionaires who can solve a set of simultaneous equations.

Or that can compute the standard deviation of a sample, a tangent or a logarithm. If you ask one of them, they would probably tell you that it has not been important to their success. Then why is it that we focus almost exclusively in our schools on once-a-year test scores primarily in reading and math?

We not only focus on them, but we obsess about them.

Our primary goal for our schools is to require every student to score “proficient,” on these tests. And the public looks at these scores and thinks that students who do not score proficient are not learning and thus the schools are not doing an adequate job.

But let’s stop and ask ourselves, what is proficient? Proficient means that the grade is like an A-minus or B. But what is wrong with kids making a C in some subjects or even a D occasionally? The answer is nothing. Probably most multi-millionaires got a lot of C’s and significant numbers rarely scored proficient.

While math education is a wonderful tool for stretching one’s mind and helping to contribute to critical thinking which all children need, it is also overrated in the priority of subjects that are significantly important in a child’s development.

The most important attributes for success are not scoring proficient on these annual tests. Rather they are things like grit, drive, self-confidence, willpower, patience, integrity and responsibility. While middle class children often receive many of these values in the home, many do not. And even fewer kids from poverty are so fortunate. Perhaps the most caring, influential gift we can provide to those who miss out are these values.

But poverty can be debilitating. Most people probably cannot comprehend what it is like to come from poverty. These kids often have no fathers to help them through difficult times, have mothers working two or more jobs to put food on the table, no books or newspapers in the home, a daily dose of a vocabulary that is a fraction of middle-class kids. Most middle-class kids come to school knowing their letters and numbers, even being able to read a bit or perform some arithmetic. Kids from poverty too often don’t have that advantage. In a nutshell, kids from poverty start so far behind that most can never catch up, regardless of how great the teachers.

You cannot open up a kid’s brain with a can opener, pour in a pitcher of knowledge and zip it back up. It doesn’t work that way. So, when people expect schools to close the academic achievement gap, they are fooling themselves.

For almost two decades now, 14,000 school districts in the U.S. have been beating their heads against the school-room door, attempting, but without success. Just look at how ridiculous is this expectation. The very best state in the nation in academic achievement is Massachusetts, where only half of youngsters test proficient in reading and math. Let’s repeat that. In Massachusetts, after two decades of trying, only half of their students achieve proficient.

Then why in the world do so many people expect such impossible results? It is just as nonsensical as requiring schools to teach every child to dunk a basketball. Instead of chasing our tail regarding our schools, let’s refocus. Let’s focus on trying to help all children achieve their greatest potential. If less than proficient is the best, then so be it. Let’s try to make each kid feel special.

Let’s try to make sure that children believe that they are capable of succeeding at whatever they aspire to with enough will, dedication and hard work. While most kids might not become multi-millionaires, we can give them some of the attributes that allow success in whatever the endeavor.

Marty Solomon is a retired University of Kentucky Professor and can be reached at mbsolomon@aol.com

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