By Ben Velderman
OLYMPIA, Wash. – About 16,000 high school seniors in Washington state schools are at risk of not graduating this spring because they lack basic math, reading and writing skills, as determined by a state-mandated standardized test.
Of the 16,000 at-risk seniors, 8,000 of them “have not yet fulfilled the math testing requirement and another 4,300 have not met any of the state testing requirements for reading, writing or math,” reports the Associated Press. “About 3,800 still need to pass one or two tests.”
“The class of 2013 is the first expected to pass either an algebra or geometry test to graduate, although high school students have been taking statewide math exams for years,” the AP notes.
The alarming number of unprepared students can’t be explained away by the fact some students simply don’t perform well on standardized tests.
Students in Seattle Public Schools, for example, are provided with an “assessment intervention specialist” who (presumably) helps students develop test-taking skills and strategies.
In addition, students can re-take the state tests at least twice, the AP reports.
As for the truly awful test takers – perhaps those without an “assessment intervention specialist” – the state of Washington even provides those students with a testing alternative, called the Collection of Evidence. The Collection of Evidence is a “portfolio-based review of student work in reading, writing or math,” the AP reports.
The fact that thousands of students can’t demonstrate mastery of skills in either forum suggests they simply don’t have the skills. And that strongly suggests that these students weren’t being properly taught or evaluated for much of their academic career.
The alarming number of at-risk students should spur Washington state’s education leaders into addressing the problem of social promotion, a practice in which teachers pass a student on to the next grade, regardless of whether he or she has earned it.
The K-12 leaders should also investigate the effect excessive teacher absenteeism is having on student learning. Recent research suggests student learning takes a serious hit when students spend 10 or more school days studying under a substitute teacher.
But to solve either problem would require a contentious showdown with the unions that exist to protect the jobs of even the least effective teachers.
The K-12 establishment doesn’t want to address those underlying problems. Instead, they (predictably) blame the large number of unprepared high school seniors on a lack of money.
“Our biggest problem in improving the graduation rate or closing the achievement gap is we don’t have the resources we need to be able to do that,” Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist complained to the AP. “Underfunding classrooms is the biggest barrier.”
The education system in Washington state is mostly controlled by the teacher unions and their political surrogates in the state legislature and on local school boards. That strongly suggests the WEA’s complaint about a lack of money (and an overemphasis on standardized testing) will be the basis for the upcoming statewide conversation about how to solve this troubling problem of unprepared high school seniors.
That means everyone is probably going to miss the point. It’s not a money problem. It’s an instructional problem, because these kids have clearly not been learning.