In Case You’ve Missed Me!

Haven’t heard a Tweet from me in a while?

At the conclusion of a wonderful holiday visit, my four grandchildren went home after generously sharing a variety of germs and viruses. Bless their little hearts. I would make the same trade again, gladly, because they are such a joy for their Grandmother and me. The exchange does not come without consequences, however, and even had I not had other commitments, it would have taken time to get my mind and body back into the rhythm of writing.

Those other commitments have to do with administering the ASVAB (Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery); a subject about which I have written on many occasions.

Let me tell you what is happening in Indiana.

For the 2018/2019 school year, the State of Indiana authorized the use of the ASVAB to high school students as an alternate pathway to graduation. Students who are unable to pass their ISTEP+ exams in English language arts and math, which are required for graduation, can now take the ASVAB. Whether they believe the ASVAB might be easier for students to pass than ISTEPS—which would amount to lowering standards and expectations—or is just more student-friendly, I do not know.

If students earn a score of 31or higher on the AFQT component of the ASVAB they qualify for graduation. Coincidentally, a score of 31 is the minimum requirement for enlistment in the military. The AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test) is comprised of four of the eight ASVAB subtests currently offered to students: Arithmetic Reasoning, Word Knowledge, Paragraph Comprehension, and Mathematics Knowledge.

Although I have not seen data to verify that many of the students who could not pass ISTEPs are having success with the ASVAB, I do believe the AFQT score is a meaningful threshold. AFQT scores are percentile scores, which means that 30 percent of all the individuals who take the ASVAB are unable to qualify for enlistment. As I begin my fifteenth year as an ASVAB test administrator, I have come to view the AFQT score as a “world ready” benchmark. I believe it demonstrates that an individual has a basic, if minimal, academic foundation that will allow them to have choices; to find a place for themselves in society.

Students who score less than an AFQT score of “30,on the other hand, will have very few choices. Young adults who score 20 or below, and remember this is a percentile score so there are many young men and women with such scores, are functionally illiterate and innumerate.

What does it say about public education when so many schools have so many students unable to pass state competency exams that they must be provided with alternate pathways?

Yes, I agree that these large, standardized exams are a burden on students, teachers, and schools and should not be utilized to evaluate their performance. That we are using these tests inappropriately, however, does not mean these tests measure nothing of consequence. We need to learn from the results of this misguided practice.

What these tests tell us is that a significant population of students cannot demonstrate proficiency on subject matter that we have identified as essential to their future well-being. That point is corroborated by NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) assessments; the experience of employers who are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified young people; and, from my own anecdotal observations of the performance of recent high-schools graduates on the enlistment version of the ASVAB.

High-stakes testing has pushed public schools to change the way they teach but rather than change the way we teach to meet the needs of students with disparate levels of academic preparation, we have changed the way we teach in ways that divert us from our mission. What is that mission? To prepare young people to make a place for themselves in society where they will have meaningful choices.

As education leaders and policy makers, we have learned the wrong lessons and we are asking our teachers to teach kids things that will not help them make a life for themselves. Teachers are being pushed to teach kids to pass a test rather than to learn and retain the knowledge and skills they will need in life.

Teachers know that what they are being asked to do does not work for some children, but many of their leaders are not listening. Some of the leaders who do listen cling to the belief that if we ask teachers to work a little bit harder and if we tried a few new techniques, things would begin to change. Such tactics will not alter anything unless we redesign the process.

When are superintendents and their school boards going to step back far enough to see that what we are doing is not working for vast numbers of the children they exist to serve? When will these leaders recognize that the biggest impact of the modifications they have implemented is that they have made teaching more challenging than it already is? Their choices are putting undue pressure on dedicated teachers in our classrooms and are driving thousands of these men and women from the profession they entered because they hoped to make a difference.

In the private sector, if providers of goods and services were to produce unacceptable outcomes, year after year, their customers would demand that they redesign the entire production or service delivery process to produce the outcomes those customers want. The truth to which all public school educators must open their hearts, minds, eyes, and ears to is that this is exactly what the “school choice” movement is striving to do: replace public schools. These reformers will not cease and desist until public schools begin to produce better outcomes. And, no, advocates of “school choice” are not ready to acknowledge that charter schools are not meeting expectations.

With respect policy makers, superintendents, and their school boards, their intransigence is placing public education at risk by refusing to challenge their assumptions about what they ask of their teachers and why. Because our society relies on public education to prepare young men and women for the responsibilities of productive citizenship, that intransigence is placing our democracy at risk.

It is the easy way out to conclude that our teachers cannot teach and that some students, disadvantaged kids in particular, are unable to learn but these conclusions are absurd.

Teachers can teach and they are committed to their students and to their profession, but they can only do what the education process allows them to do and for which it provides the structure and support. If we can craft the process around teachers everything will change.

Our students can learn if we take the time to understand and respond to their needs. Once they begin to gain confidence in their ability to learn, their motivation to learn and their pace of learning will accelerate.

Please consider an alternative approach to education. Please consider an education model engineered to meet the needs of students and their teachers by creating a process that exists to serve the important work they do rather than one that forces compliance and conformity. Check my model out at: http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

The impact all of this testing has had on me, personally, and has contributed to a reduction in Tweets and blog posts, is that the number of schools offering the ASVAB has more than trebled. In the past, I might have administered four to five schools a month, I am now testing three to five times a week and each test, depending on the number of students who will be taking it, requires significant pre- and post-test preparation time. This quickly erodes the amount of time I normally allocate for writing and drains my energy, particularly when my nose is dripping and I am coughing. Not counting the three enlistment test sessions I have administered in the first 10 school days of the new year, I have tested over five hundred students in six schools.

Over the balance of the month of January, which is nine school days, I am scheduled to test up to 500 more students in six schools, in addition to two more of my weekly enlistment tests. During the first few months since the start of the school year, and up until the holidays, I tested over 3000 students in twenty-four high schools in Northeast Indiana. Please note that I am only one of several test administrators who are testing in high schools both in NE Indiana and throughout the state.

Thanks for your inquiries, and I hope to be writing more, soon!

Response to [at] stampingout re: Competency Based Education (CBE)

Thank you for taking the time to comment and I appreciate the referral to Jean Robbins’ paper in The Federalist. It has taught me a lesson in semantics because what she is writing about when she refers to competency-based education (CBE) and what I am talking about are two entirely different things. I hope you will take the time to understand the difference because I believe we share the same passion for doing what is best for our nation’s children.

In the interim, I will come up with a new label for the “success-based approach to education” that I envision in the education model I have developed and which is what I have referred to as competency-based education (CBE). I hope you will take the time to review my education model. I believe it will speak to your heart.

The essence of my model is that the teacher and student relationship is an essential variable in the education equation. One of the many flaws in the current education process is that children, beginning at the tender ages of five and six, are not given enough time to form, let alone sustain, a nurturing relationship with a teacher who is going to care about them, deeply, while helping them learn. The acquisition of the knowledge, understanding, and skills they will need to have meaningful choices in life is a daunting process with which they will need patient support.

One of the other essential variables is that kids need time to learn. What we must strive to do is help them experience success in learning because it always leaves us yearning for more. Success is a process, not a destination or even an “A” in a teacher’s grade book. An “A” is nothing more than the equivalent of a “digital badge” to which Robbins refers in her paper. What students must acquire are building blocks of the knowledge, understanding, and skills they will need to build an academic foundation from which they can create a life for themselves.

So much of the focus in the current education process is on failure. We need to distinguish between mistakes and failure. Mistakes are nothing more than disappointing outcomes that can be improved if we are given enough time to learn from them. When a child does poorly on a chapter test, for example, it does not become a failure until we deprive them of the time they need to go back and learn from their mistakes. This is a fatal flaw where the current education process breaks down in the face of the relentless pressure to keep a class on schedule. Teachers do their best to help struggling students keep pace, but the larger the number the more problematic that becomes.

We know learning from mistakes takes longer for some children than it does for others. Yet, when teachers must move kids along to a next lesson, ready or not, it is likely they will never experience the “aha” moment that most of us have had when a lesson clicks in our minds and we understand. Such moments are “successes” that prepare the student for future lessons in a subject area. It is only a matter of time before students who never experience success give up on learning and stop trying.

Not all kids are not headed to the same destinations and they did not start at the same point of embarkation. Students will go to college or to some type of vocational school; others will go directly into the workforce or to the military according to their own interest, demonstrated capabilities, and achievement. Unfortunately, a great many children, particularly the disadvantaged and minorities, fall out along the way and they leave school in possession of few, if any, choices about what to do with their lives.

Yes, many school districts boast a ninety percent graduation rate, but the rates reflect the creativity in finding alternate criteria for graduation qualification on the part of administrators rather than the capabilities of the students. Sadly, few educators, witness the challenges these young men and women face when confronted with real life; when they are bereft of meaningful choices. Graduation rates are not an effective measure of success.

What employers see when these young people enter the job market and what military recruiters see when their candidates fail the ASVAB, echoes what the results of state academic competency exams and NAEP assessments are telling us. Far too many students are not learning the subject matter presented to them well enough that they can utilize it in real life situations. Because we are so quick to point the finger of blame for the results of such testing rather than take the time to understand what they are telling us, we wrongly hold schools and teachers responsible for the performance of their students. Such tests
DO NOT measure the effectiveness of schools and teachers, but THEY DO MEASURE THE SUCCESS OF THE EDUCATION PROCESS with which teachers and schools are expected to work. Yes, this sounds counter-intuitive, but if a process produces bad outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, the process is the problem. People can only do what the process allows them to do.

The reality is that the education process does not work for millions of students and this is the real crisis in American education. I wish educators could see how poorly prepared their students are when they are unable to pass a basic assessment of their math and reading skills needed to qualify for a job or pass the ASVAB for enlistment in the Armed Forces. Thirty to thirty-five percent of recent high school graduates and high school seniors are unable to get the minimum score for enlistment eligibility, often after taking the ASVAB up to four times. The percentage of blacks and other minority candidates passing is lower, still. I cannot begin to describe the anguish on the faces of these young men and women when they walk out of a testing room with a piece of paper that says this door is closed to them.