GUEST OPINION: Assessment results are a good sign, but only a start

Students, parents, educators and everyone who plays a role in the education of our children are to be commended on the recently released results of the New Hampshire Educational Improvement and Assessment Program.

Scores in the 3rd, 6th and 10th grade all showed significant improvements. In addition to moving more students up from the lowest category of performance, we saw thousands of students moving from Proficient to Advanced, which is the highest category.

Although we deserve to celebrate, we also have cause for concern. While test scores are improving, too many of our students drop out of school and too few go onto college. Not enough of our high school graduates know and can do what is necessary to succeed in the worlds of higher education and the workplace. We still have work to do.

But it is a complicated and sometimes confusing task. Test scores are up. At the same time, too many of our students drop out of school. Results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that we tied for first with a handful of states in 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores. Yet this year 74 more schools in our state were labeled as “in need of improvement” on measures related to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, with possibly hundreds more on the way in the next year or two.

How can we know where to exert effort effectively with these seemingly contradictory messages and the confusion they sow?

First, let us reclaim the right to define what matters.

NCLB, even with all its serious shortcomings, has accelerated a conversation in our state about “accountability.” The measures in NCLB, however, are insufficient to serve as the only measures that matter and were never intended to be as such. We have the opportunity to broaden our definition of what “good enough” is and we should take it. A New Hampshire-grown system of school recognition is being built to include information about individual student progress each year, evidence of student learning through complex demonstrations of competency and customer satisfaction.

In order to complement these statewide measures, local communities must and will contribute their own indicators to complete the picture of what our schools should be and do.

Second, we need to support the systems necessary to measure the things we want to track. Recently, we have shown that it is possible to be creative and efficient at the same time through our historic assessment collaboration with Vermont and Rhode Island, which has enabled us to cut by almost half the cost of testing our students without sacrificing the rigor of our expectations or the quality of the instruments used. We need to find other inventive, cost-effective ways of monitoring our success.

Third, once we have established a firm and strong accountability process, we must embrace the opportunity and responsibility to assist each other in improvement rather than give into the urge to point blame.

There are many other areas that will lead us to improved school performance: lifelong learning; early learning; accessible, high-quality opportunities for adult higher education; ensuring there are enough qualified teachers; rethinking our high schools; and continuing to expand Real World Learning are among the initiatives already underway. We must continue on these paths.

However, the basis for any progress we make will be our resolve to expect the most from our schools, define that in ways that capture the breadth of quality that common sense demands without obscuring our shortcomings and to hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards. This will allow us to resist the easy answers, to discern the important from the trivial and to stay focused on what really matters — student learning and success. If we do this, we will have more to celebrate and less to explain.

Nicholas C. Donohue is commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education.

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