A Final Thought

Better Prepared Students

The announcement that there was a decline in math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) came on the very day that I started writing this column. As expected, immediately thereafter there was a spate of “explanations” mostly by people who had an axe to grind or a cause to defend.

Obviously, the cause was the Common Core State Standards; that was the first explanation, not surprisingly from people who for various reasons oppose the Common Core.

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, said, “The headlines today write themselves and cover all the usual angles: Our schools are failing. Our students are failing. We need more tests. We need fewer tests. We need better tests. Common Core is working. Common Core is failing. We need more school choice…we must consider the extent to which this set of NAEP data was impacted by the significant cuts to education investment at the local, state and federal level stemming from the great recession and held in place by continued poor policy.

“…Though we’re past the end of the great recession, education investment has yet to reach pre-recession levels. That means that our nation’s K-7th graders have spent the entirety of their K-12 educational experience to date under a post-recession funding climate, and that our 12th-graders have spent half of their educational experience in that underfunded environment.”

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) in Boulder Colo., a think tank with the purpose to “produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research…” issued its own explanation: “These lower grades… are not good news for anyone, but they are particularly bad news for those who have been vigorously advocating for ‘no excuses’ approaches — standards-based testing and accountability policies like No Child Left Behind. Such policies follow a predictable logic: (a) schools are failing; and (b) schools will quickly and somewhat miraculously improve if we implement a high-stakes regime that makes educators responsible for increasing students’ test scores.”

So the problem is Common Core or not enough money or too much testing, etc. etc. etc.

I can’t properly weigh in on these explanations, but I have been working with several school districts that serve a wide variety of students, including many who live below the poverty level, so I have been thinking about how to ensure that NAEP test scores, for whatever they are worth, start trending up.

I cannot guarantee it, but here are some steps that any school district with elementary schools can take. They have absolutely nothing to do with more or less or better testing (I’ll leave that argument to others), but they will result in children being better prepared for whatever tests may come their way.

Implement full-day pre-Kindergarten. There is ample evidence that children are well served by pre-K programs that introduce them to the process of learning. This does not mean bringing arithmetic and spelling to younger and younger children. It means introducing four-year olds to concepts and ideas such as counting, being read to, hearing language spoken clearly and correctly, playing together (remember, play is the work of children) and preparing for “real school” that starts the following year.

Serve breakfast in school. Insure that every child starts the day with a good healthy breakfast.

Encourage physical activity. Elementary school children need at least one break during the day when they can run around, breathe fresh air and recharge their batteries. When weather does not permit children to play outdoors, take a break within the classroom, get everybody to stretch or walk or stamp their feet.

Run an after-school program. Many children, especially with working parents, return to an empty home. They’ll be better off, and their parents will be happier, if they are in a supervised afterschool program that offers opportunities for recreation, studying, doing their homework and getting tutoring if needed.

Notice that I haven’t mentioned tests or scores or anything of the sort in any of these ideas and yet, I will bet that if you implement these programs, scores on any tests that children must take — NAEP, standardized, Common Core or teacher-designed — will rise.

How about costs? In the long run (and short) these programs will pay for themselves. Pre-kindergarten, as an example, has been shown to cut down on the number of children who need special education services, saving significant dollars. After-school programs keep youngsters off the streets. But there are always going to be some taxpayers who object since none of these, even pre-kindergarten, are mandated by law.

If cost is a problem, I suggest asking local businesses and organizations to sponsor these activities in their own self-interest. They often sponsor athletic teams and events; why not ask them to sponsor educational excellence (and give them credit for doing so)?

Let’s not just argue about the value of tests and testing; let’s make sure all students are prepared for whatever may come their way.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at intelled@aol.com.

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