Posted by: bkivey | 20 August 2012

The Saddest Headline This Month

From the local paper of record, we get this headline, a headline that is embarrassing for any nation aspiring to legitimacy, much less the preeminent nation on Earth.

Portland-area high school seniors overwhelmingly proved their reading ability, a new requirement to earn a diploma

Really? The fact that 17 and 18 year-olds can read is news? News that we’re supposed to be happy about? Yes, I’m aware that there are students who come from foreign nations and whose native tongue isn’t English who may well arrive in the American school system late in the game. But in the data set, those students are outliers. The article focuses on native born English speakers.

High school competency tests aren’t new: Florida passed a law requiring such tests in 1976, and North Carolina, the state in which I graduated high school, passed a similar law in 1977. This was the first year graduating seniors were required to pass a competency test in Oregon, making the state rather late to the party as it joins 26 others in the standard.

The story notes that 99% of Portland area seniors passed the reading test, thus the headline. This would be great news if it wasn’t news. The test reading level isn’t easy to find, but most states write their high school tests at the 8th grade level, leaving one to wonder just what students are doing in four years of high school English. Most people would reasonably expect a person with a high school diploma to read at least at the 8th grade level. You can have a look at a sample reading test here.

Oregon’s highs school graduation rate hovers around 70%, and the new reading test requirement worried some educators, who ” . . . feared thousands would be denied diplomas.”. If you can’t read at the 8th grade level after 12 years of school, you aren’t being ‘denied’ anything: you haven’t earned a diploma.

I can understand why professional educators might fear lower graduation rates resulting from failed competency testing: it’s an indictment against them. Big Education is the primary reason competency testing has been implemented in the state at such a glacial pace. If a large percentage of students are failing standardized tests written to minimal standards, it’s a quantification of failure of the establishment.

On the other hand, the establishment doesn’t do itself any favors in the student motivation department. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to teach, but more importantly, it’s the responsibility of the student to learn. Professional educators go out of their way to shield students from the consequences of disinterest. If a student isn’t learning, then it’s income disparity, or teaching methods, or lack of instructional motivation, or any damn thing but lack of student commitment. Recalling the Third Rule of Management, it’s easy to see how a student might think that no effort is required on their part. Why put yourself out when everyone around you is willing to put the onus on themselves for your lack of effort? And if you don’t do well in school, you just have to vote for the right people, and get on the dole.

It was only a few decades ago that American society expected anyone not mentally deficient to read and write English at some minimally competent level. Now we’re happy if high school students can take time out from texting their friends while stopping by the nurse’s office for free condoms to pass a basic reading test. It took years of shifting responsibility from the individual to get to the point where the fact that high school seniors can read is news. It will take years to make the ability to read and write English a non-event, but we can start by raising expectations for our students.

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