How Many Kids are Failing and What Does It Tell Us?

Here are some numbers to gnaw on from a well-respected, diverse midwestern public school district reporting on students who did not pass both the Math and ELA components of the state’s competency exams. Please note that the public school teachers and administrators to which we refer are all well-qualified, are dedicated professionals, and work hard to help their students. Although there are low-performers in every profession, the majority of our nation’s teachers are unsung American heroes.

Elementary school

Black students not passing both exams = 1,343 (76.6%)
Hispanic Students not passing both exams = 825 (64.4%)
Children of color not passing both exams = 2,816 (68.2%)
White Students not passing both exams = 1,498 (46.0%)

Total Elementary students not passing = 4,314 (58.4%)

Middle School
Black students not passing both exams = 1,030 (81.7%)
Hispanic students not passing both exams = 558 (66.7%)
Students of Color not passing both exams = 2,078 (72.5%)
White Students not passing both exams = 1,190 (52.5%)

Total Middle School students not passing = 3,268 (63.6%)

Total students unable to pass both exams = 7,582 (60.6%)

Many states commence the process of testing students for levels of competency in the third grade and continue testing through the eighth grade. Thereafter, competency testing shifts toward assessing eligibility for graduation. When results are reported, we will see that a certain percentage of students were unable to pass the Math and English Language Arts components of the assessment tool, as in the case of the above public school district. In another jurisdiction, the results may be reported as students being at, above, below, or approaching “proficient.” The term “proficient” typically implies a high level of mastery in subject matter and also and ability to utilize that knowledge in the real world. In others, the broad descriptors may be relative to where a student is relative to “grade level.” Always, the results offer some manner of comparison to state academic standards.

Although results vary depending on the level of diversity or segregation of school districts with respect to race. ethnicity, and relative affluence the above data are representative.

This is just one of more than a thousand school districts reporting comparable performance, and of course there are many smaller school districts with students who struggle, and even our nation’s highest performing districts have some students who perform poorly. Think about the numbers for a moment. We are talking about many more than ten million American children who are performing poorly in school, and these data reflect performance only in public schools. Private, parochial, and charter schools also report students who are not performing well in school.

There are a few patterns that emerge from the results of competency examinations that deserve discussion.

The most common is that, typically, black students perform well below their white classmates and moderately below children from other minority groups. Hence, the “performance” or “achievement” gap, and public education in general, are often referred to the Civil rights issues of our time. That so many children of color perform poorly in our public schools has tragic consequences for our nation and its future.

With respect to relative affluence, students from low-income families generally perform below their more affluent classmates. Another pattern with respect to children who perform poorly on competency assessments, is that their performance often drops by the time they reach middle school. Each of these patterns have been widely discussed and researched for decades. This is not “News!” fake or otherwise.

What concerns me are the students who consistently perform poorly on competency assessments, from one year to the next. My assumption, which you are invited to challenge, is that the “population of children” who perform poorly, beginning in third grade all the way through eighth grade is comprised of the same boys and girls as they move from grade to grade.

What does it say about the education process if the same children who fall short of expectations beginning in the first round of competency assessments, administered when they are eight and nine years old, are the exact same children who perform poorly every year thereafter? What does it say when there is a decline in the performance of this population of students after they reach middle school?

If, indeed, we have these huge populations of children who perform poorly all the way through elementary and middle school, what does it say about our focus on the purpose of public education? What does it say about our strategy. Does it work?

My answer to these questions is that it is time to re-evaluate our assumptions, our purpose, our strategy, and our practices.

It is my assertion that this phenomenon exists because the education process—what educators are asked to do and how—is not consistent with our purpose or mission. Rather than focus on making sure each child is ready for middle school by the time they reach the age of 11 or 12; for high school by the time they reach the ages of 14 and 15, and ready for the responsibilities of citizenship by the time they reach the age of 18, teachers are expected to move students from point to point on the outline delineating the academic standards adopted by a given State as a group, whether they are ready or not.

What the results of competency examinations tell me is not only is our focus misdirected, it is also uncompromising. The education process demands that teachers permit students to fail because giving them the time they need to learn each lesson is not even a consideration, let alone an expectation. Certainly, many teachers strive to give extra help but, depending on the number of struggling students in a teacher’s classroom, rarely is there sufficient time.

We instruct our teachers to record, in their grade books, the results of each lesson in each subject area before moving on to a new lesson. The natural consequences of this practice are students who are increasing less prepared to be successful as they move from lesson to lesson and grade to grade.

Now, step back a moment, and let’s think about what we know about the children who arrive for their first day of school, at age 5 or 6:

• We know that the disparity in their level of academic preparedness runs the full range of the continuum;

• We know that the pace at which they learn is equally disparate;

• We know many are away from their mothers and other family members for the first time; and, therefore, need to connect quickly with a caring adult;

• We know that there are some children who have few adults who care about them, if any at all; and,

• We know that many are unprepared for most of the new experiences they will face.

Now, think about our purpose but do not rush to answer.

What is our objective with these children? Think hard about what it is that their community will, someday, need from our children?

As simply as we can state them, their community needs each child to grow into:

• A well-educated young man or woman who is prepared to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy;

• Who has sufficient knowledge, skills, and understanding of the world to give them choices about what to do with their lives to find joy and meaning; and,

• Who can provide for themselves and their families.

What is the best way to accomplish these objectives?

Is it to push them along so they move from lesson to lesson, grade to grade, with their classmates, ready or not?

Or,

Is it to help them progress; from where they are intellectually and emotionally on that first day of school to become the best version of themselves that they can be and to learn how to create success for themselves?

If it is the latter, what we do today is not what children need and, clearly, it does not work. The data is indisputable.

Someday, we might be able to eliminate high-stakes testing, but that is not within our power, today. The best we can do is figure how to utilize the process to our best advantage and for the best advantage of our students. The same is true for the grading process in use in our classrooms. The purpose both types of assessments must not be to pass judgment on our students and teachers rather to gage our progress so that we can determine next steps, as we strive to fulfill our purpose.

Our primary goal is to prepare children for life after completion of their formal primary and secondary education. Our intermediate goals are to help them get there, one step at a time. We want to start at the exact point where we find them on their unique developmental path and begin to lay a foundation for intellectual and emotional growth and development. Once we have laid that foundation, our purpose is to help them master, one successful step at a time, the knowledge, skills, self-discipline, and understanding they will need in life. We are concerned about the whole child:

• We want them to have the healthy self-esteem they will need to control most of the outcomes in their lives;

• We want them to be able to develop healthy relationships with the people in their lives;

• We want them to be able to express themselves through all forms of human communication and interaction;

• We want them to understand and appreciate the diverse cultures of humanity as expressed through the arts and social sciences;

• We want them to understand history so that they can apply what we as a people have learned from our mistakes throughout the millennia;

• We want them to have sufficient understanding, through science, of the complexity of the world in which they live, so they can make thoughtful decisions about issues facing society;

• We want them to be able to create value for themselves, their families, communities, and society; and, finally,

• We want them to have a sufficient understanding of the role and principles of government so that they can participate in their own governance.

We cannot help children develop these crucial things by lumping them with a group of other children; by assigning them to teachers in such a way that forming close personal relationships is problematic; by imposing arbitrary time frames, or by allowing them to fail. Kids learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are not failures, they are opportunities to learn. Failure is when we say to them, “I’m sorry but we cannot justify spending any more time with you on this subject matter; we have more important things to do.”

We can reinvent the education process to give our nation’s children the quality education they deserve if we are willing to challenge our fundamental assumptions about the way we teach our children and then open our hearts and minds to a new way of doing what we do. My education model, which is designed to do just that, is available for your examination at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I encourage you to read it not in search of reasons why it will not or cannot work rather in hopes that it might.

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