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As this story hits the streets, tensions are very high with teachers and educators across the state. Nebraska’s annual “State of the Schools” report is about to be released.

Headlines will scream ‘What’s Wrong With Education’ and ‘Failing Schools,’ causing politicians to debate the fix for the American public education system and school administrators to carefully word their explanations. Few will examine the underlying premise behind what has become an annual rite of horrific passage in education – the release of standardized test scores required by the federal education law No Child Left Behind (NCLB – “nickel-bee”).

At stake are millions of dollars in federal funding, professional reputations and the future of education. Many argue the system is stacked to fail and find victims, but offers few clear paths to giving our children their best chances at success, even as Nebraska’s testing standards catch up with the rest of the country. One thing rings true from all sides – testing is just one part of the solution, and by itself, can be part of the problem.

Students like seventeen-year-old Emily, who asked that we not use her last name, is trying to get the most out of her education so she’s prepared for college. The junior in the Omaha Public Schools system knows she faces a lot of standardized tests this year.  Besides the ACTs or SATs for admission to a university, she’ll also take the Nebraska State Accountability tests (NeSA) in the spring. In OPS, practice for those started in September.

“So far this year I’ve done a district writing assessment, some NeSA english test and a NeSA math test,” the junior lists. “Those standardized tests aren’t a huge deal in the eyes of all the students.”

But they are a big deal for the schools and districts across the country and here at home.  As part of NCLB, the federal mandate that ties funding to school achievement, not passing the tests could leave districts in jeopardy of losing dollars. In the case of Omaha Public Schools, the amount at stake could be $25 million, according to Dr. ReNae Kehrberg, assistant superintendent of curriculum and learning. At Ralston Public Schools, where one of its elementary schools has been labeled persistently low-achieving, the dollars in danger for that building are about $100,000.

“So if we don’t hit the target we have sanctions put upon us and if we’re not willing to submit to those sanctions, they will remove those federal dollars,” Kehrberg explains.

The target is based on goals set for the state of the percentage of students considered proficient in reading and math; basically the number of kids that can pass the tests. For this school year, more than 80 percent will need to make the grade on both subjects at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. By 2013-2014, all students in public schools are expected to pass their state assessment tests. Educators think that target is unfair  because it includes special education students, some who have severe cognitive disabilities and those in english-as-a-second-language programs, who may not be up to speed with their reading and writing skills. 

“Every school in the nation will be marked insufficient,” believes Susan Johnston, the director of assessment and school improvement for Westside School District. 

Adds Kehrberg, “It would be like saying to all our federal senators: ‘each of you is going to run a 50-yard dash in the same amount of time regardless of your arthritis, age, your ability.’”

As it is, 48 percent of schools nationwide did not make the grade when it comes to meeting proficiency levels, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Failure to measure up, though, also means a black eye for the school, which can be labeled low-achieving if any category of its student population — a designated group of students that has at least 30 students in it, i.e. identified as free or reduced lunch or hispanic or pacific islander — fails to pass the assessment tests.

In the case of Karen Western Elementary School in Ralston, the first year on the list meant that there had to be a plan developed to improve student learning. The next year saw the district forced to offer parents the option of transferring their children to other schools that did not have the ‘needs improvement’ designation, according to assistant superintendent Kristi Gibbs. Two students did end up leaving. This year, Karen Western won’t have to face any sanctions because of its results, but missing the mark multiple years can lead to forced changes in staff, including the removal of the principal and teachers. Elliott Elementary in Lincoln ousted its principal in 2010 after it was deemed a failing school, one of the worst in the nation.

Johnston also worries that the scoring of small subgroups, makes it very easy to identify teachers whose students didn’t achieve the desired results.  “For it to be public and a shaming process, I don’t think it’s productive.”

With so much riding on the test results, schools like Omaha are taking aggressive steps to make sure their students are prepared to perform when the tests are administered. Last year the district started what it calls the acuity program, where buildings administer practice tests in September and February to gauge how the kids will do. In between, there are quizzes to reinforce the information and tutorials for those who need additional help with concepts.

Kehrberg believes it helps. “We have increased in math and in reading in every grade level last year in our Nebraska state test. We couldn’t be prouder.”

Progress comes at a cost. The price tag of the acuity program last year was $735,288, which didn’t include prep work or the auditing of results. This year, because of a move by the state of Nebraska to administer the assessment tests digitally, the district spent an additional $5.7 million to buy computers and to upgrade electrical infrastructure and networking systems. Administrators say they needed to invest in technology, but hadn’t budgeted to do it all in one fell swoop. 

“Are you going to adjust class size or put off a roof repair?” Kehrberg continues, “But you have to make some choices then to meet the requirements of testing and that’s a difficult thing.”

Paying the price to meet the state testing requirements and maintain funding has critics questioning if this kind of expenditure makes a statement about what we’re teaching our children. “I think we’ve seen education move from teaching for the sake of learning to teaching for the sake of testing, which is kind of sad,” says Chris Proulx, president of the Omaha Education Association, the OPS teachers union. His criticism echoes what has been expressed in the documentary, Race to Nowhere, and suggested by some educators that there’s an over-reliance on testing in our education system. 

“It seems to make a lot of sense to some, I guess intuitively, if our job is to teach the kids and get them to learn material, then you should be able to take a test to tell if they learned it and then to gauge whether you’re doing your job well.” But as Proulx and many others concerned about education point out, the standardized tests don’t measure innovation or creativity and they don’t help students learn critical thinking skills that allow them to look at a problem from all different angles. “We’re no longer encouraging kids to think along those lines, because we need them to get that answer as quickly as possible so we can go to the next skill and get that one done as quickly as possible so that they can get to be able to pass that test come April.”

Johnston agrees, “Multiple choice questions tend to measure standards that have knowledge-based information where there is a right or wrong answer.” 

That is precisely what international educator and innovation expert Sir Ken Robinson believes is hurting the education system, contributing to an epidemic in attention deficit disorder diagnoses and the overmedication of youth. He says the obsession with the standardized tests in the United States stifles students, teachers and the country’s ability to solve some of its biggest problems. He blasts the lack of emphasis in arts, humanities, physical education—areas that have seen funding cuts, and even elimination, because they allow children to explore, experiment, and uncover. He says those are the skills needed in this global economy. Many education and political leaders agree, but changing large, traditional organizations designed during the industrial revolution to meet the demands of the digital revolution is a daunting task.

Enter the push for new requirements in education that emphasize higher levels of thinking. Its taken shape in the form of Common Core State Standards—a set of expectations of what kids should be learning to be ready for careers and college when they graduate from high school. The initiative was developed by the National Governors Association in 2010 in conjunction with the Council of Chief State School Officers. The whole idea is to have a consistent curriculum shared by every school in America. That way if a child transfers from Council Bluffs to St. Louis, Missouri, he or she would be able to pick up learning where the other school left off, seamlessly.

With support from the Department of Education, the National Parent Teacher Association and education advocates like Bill Gates, most states adopted the benchmarks and are in the midst of implementing them in their schools. Nebraska is one of a handful of states and territories that hasn’t moved toward the common core concept.

Nebraska was one of the last states to move to a statewide assessment test. State lawmakers passed a law requiring the change three years ago. Prior to that, each school district designed its own tests. According to Nebraska Department of Education spokeswoman, Betty VanDeventer, the state had just aligned curriculum, as required by the state law, when Common Core was released and was in the midst of writing and reviewing standards. In fact, a statewide review of social studies is underway right now.   The law requires a review of the subjects in a five-year cycle and she anticipates the state board will take another look at Common Core in the future. “We’re always talking about what’s going on at the federal level. We want to make sure Nebraska schools are on a competitive footing.”

Not everyone is sold that adopting Common Core will make learning in Nebraska schools better. “I don’t think there’s any way to say for certain that there’s going to be any benefit for kids as a result of doing this. It’s not going to create better math instruction,” Proulx suggests. 

“I think they could take us in a good direction,” throws out Johnston. She likes the idea that two tests being developed nationally are being modeled after the ACTs and advanced placement exams, where thought processes are part of the score.

Whether or not it will improve the educational process, Kehrberg’s concern is if the rest of the states adopt it, then Nebraska needs to as well because so much material will be geared toward the Common Core curriculum and it could potentially put students in our state at a disadvantage. “It puts us in a position where we’re not realigning our curriculum, our materials, our textbook purchases as quickly as other states.”

Governor Dave Heineman supports Common Core, but it isn’t up to him to adopt it.  State law gives that power to the State Board of Education. Nebraska State Senator Jeremy Nordquist, who represents Omaha and works for Building Bright Futures, says lawmakers are looking to see what the board members do. He speculates if they don’t adopt Common Core, lawmakers may step in and take action because of concern that the state’s schools are not considered competitive for federal grants in education.

Another benefit in adopting Common Core, at least 44 states have obtained waivers that exempt them from some of the conditions of No Child Left Behind, including Iowa.

To get a sense of what Common Core looks like, you only have to look across the Missouri River. Full implementation of the standards went into effect this past summer for all the high schools. Kindergarten through eighth grades will be fully transitioned during the 2014-2015 school year. The state is also piloting one of the national assessment tests being developed, starting this year. 

So far, the Iowa Department of Education likes what it sees. Rita Martens, the lead consultant for Iowa Core, remarks that the teachers are finding themselves challenged in terms of adapting to the new blueprint. It’s also prompted some changes at the district level. “It’s requiring districts to re-think the course offerings they offer.” She gives as an example that the new math benchmarks are really accelerating learning in the lower grades, so schools are adding algebra to the eighth grade curriculum.

The cost of adoption isn’t fully known, but Iowa’s lawmakers did appropriate $1 million a year through 2015 for implementation and another $8 million a year for professional development at the local school level.

As for those tests, Martens and Student Assessment Consultant Colleen Anderson describe them as rigorous, requiring a more advanced depth of knowledge. The two to three hour exam can be spread out over time, allowing for flexibility, and how a student answers a question will determine what the next question will be in terms of difficulty.

Martens and Anderson also answer concerns that the model doesn’t allow for local control. They say Iowa has added content to the basics in Common Core, like making fluency in reading comprehension a requirement into high school, instead of stopping it at fifth grade. They also point to rural communities that are incorporating agriculture education into the guidelines.

Common Core or not, at the end of the day every educator agrees that teachers still remain the most important factor for success in schools. “To really improve outcomes for students, we have to focus on how we teach them, not what we teach them,” Proulx asserts. He questions the focus on using tests as the measuring stick for the state of education. “It has no purpose, no function. It has no role in education’s larger scheme. It serves one purpose and that is to measure the school and the school district and by some accounts the teacher, but it has nothing to do with students.”

“It [the NeSA test] is probably one of the least utilitized tools,” Gibbs chimes in. She feels one of the shortcomings is that the test results come out almost half a year later when the students have moved on to the next grade level. “There’s nothing a teacher can do to impact instruction for the previous year.”

Emily’s sentiments also reveal a factor that educators say can play out in these types of tests. “They’re just tests that you have to take sometimes, that don’t have an effect on your grade, so ultimately there’s minimal pressure.”

Whatever tests or benchmarks are used, Johnston emphasizes they won’t make unrealistic results, like 100 percent proficiency, any easier to reach because there are so many underlying factors to achievement. “We may know that kids in poverty don’t do as well in tests, we’ve known that forever. But knowing that and being able to know what to do is two completely different things.” She pushes a philosophy of using the assessment tests as tools to help make sure schools are on the right track, and to detect trends. However, she considers the most important evaluations are done in the classroom with teachers initiating rich discussion and giving feedback. “Teach the kids to be confident in math and reading and writing and be able to do those things well, and the tests will take care of themselves.” She admits it may sound naïve, but it’s the foundation that teachers strive for in their classrooms.

Gibbs thinks “allowing educators and education time to prepare,” can also help improve student learning and, possibly, their performances on these tests. Using Karen Western as a case study, she talks about how the district and the staff in the building used the scores to really focus on goal setting. “We have identified the target and put our efforts toward those targets.” Teachers and administrators sat down and looked at each child’s scores to see where the gaps in understanding appeared, i.e. reading at a good level, but not really understanding the material. They then worked together to strengthen lesson plans, and improved their communication about struggling students. The result was great gains in reading and math. On some levels, the scores have tripled. 

At its most fundamental level, some educators say we have to examine what the intent of public education should be. When the system was born, the original purpose was to prepare children for citizenship.  In that framework, Proulx recounts that 20 percent of graduates went onto college, half went into the workforce, and another 30 percent  wouldn’t finish school. But times have changed and now society wants and expects public schools to prepare students for college and to compete in a global economy. “We need a different outcome but we haven’t changed the system. We just decided the system is a failure when the system is accomplishing its goals very very well.” 

Kehrberg agrees in order to be more progressive and to serve our young people well, we have to take a look at how our schools are structured. She advocates changing the school calendar so kids are in classrooms year-round and she wants to see after school tutoring available at every school, so that students can get individualized, specific help. Most of all, she is convinced that the way schools are funded needs to shift. Right now, the majority of local and state dollars for districts come through income taxes, not property taxes, “which isn’t how we fund roads or the military or other priorities in the United States. We’d have to rethink that.”

While the debate swirls over what the future of public education should look like and how to level the playing field for all students, students like Emily want to give some reassurance that they believe they are being set up for success. “I’d say that a large amount of what I learn I will never be tested over in a standardized test, things like history, science and advanced math.” Her aim is to reach her full potential and she wants her school to help her get there.

Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

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