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Grant Bosse

Grant Bosse: Finding common ground on education

It’s time to sharpen those No. 2 pencils. Students across New Hampshire sit down for the annual standardized tests starting Tuesday, and the results are meant to show parents and teachers alike how well we’re educating our children. We’re not going to like the results.

The New England Common Assessment Program tests third- through eighth- and 11th-graders each October in reading and mathematics; fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders every fall in writing; and fourth-, eighth- and 11th-graders each May in science. The results are used to determine which schools and school districts have met the increasingly tough standards of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has the impossible goal of 100 percent proficiency in all grades and subjects by 2014. We’re not going to make it.

In 2012, 71 percent of schools and 66 percent of school districts failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress toward the goals. The state Department of Education didn’t publish how many failed to meet those benchmarks this year, but the results of each school’s tests are available on the department’s website. According to the state database, 324 schools are now designated “Schools in Need of Improvement,” having failed to make AYP in the same category two years in a row. This year, five schools tested themselves off the list, having made the grade for two years in a row.

But these results don’t tell us very much about how well our schools are doing. They supposedly measure the percentage of students proficient in each subject and grade, but that all depends on what knowledge and skills you test.

We can draw some broad comparisons between schools. My alma mater, Hillsboro-Deering High School, does well in reading, with 82 percent of last year’s 11th-graders scoring proficient or higher, compared with 81 percent at Concord High, and 77 percent statewide. But the math numbers are atrocious. Just 23 percent of Hillcats were proficient in math, compared with 43 percent in Concord and 37 percent statewide. The high school math numbers would be depressing, but apparently few of us would know enough to understand them.

Whether these scores are good or bad is of little consequence, since teachers, administrators and school board members are not held accountable for them. State and local officials complain that the AYP goals are unrealistic, and perhaps they are. And parents can’t be blamed for not understanding why their child now attends a School in Need of Improvement for failing to make AYP on the NECAP.

Every school has room for improvement, and it’s counterproductive to label anything short of 100 percent proficiency a failure. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon any hope of holding our schools to high standards.

This week, 250 parents and educators got together in Manchester for a forum on Common Core Standards organized by Cornerstone Policy Research. Opponents of Common Core see it as an attempt to circumvent federal laws that prohibit the U.S. Department of Education from controlling elementary and secondary school curriculum. Technically, it’s not a curriculum but rather a set of recommended academic standards, grade by grade, subject by subject.

In practice, it’s a national curriculum. It spells out what skills should be taught each year and which books should be read. The Obama administration has used carrots and sticks to pressure states into adopting Common Core, and 45 states, including New Hampshire, have done so. The bar against which students will be tested is set by Common Core, whether or not a local school district adopts its recommendations. The Manchester School Board is debating whether to sign up.

It would be irresponsible for any school board to cut and paste its curriculum from a federal template. Opponents have objected to some sexually explicit books on the recommended reading list. Others dislike the exclusion of classic works like Dickens and Twain in favor of more modern authors.

The Pioneer Institute, which spearheaded education reforms in Massachusetts over the past two decades, thinks Common Core is watering down the high standards it helped raise in the Bay State. Local school boards could very well adopt Common Core’s focus on a nonfiction reading, critical analysis, and in-depth math instruction while cutting out other parts of the program, or adding to the local reading list.

One objection I’ve already rejected is teaching to the test. My mother served on the Hillsboro-Deering School Board for six years, and she always said teaching to the test was exactly what teachers should be doing, as long as we’re testing for the right things. And that’s the most important function of local school boards.

Our schools aren’t good enough. A high school diploma carries less weight than ever in the job market, because it no longer signals the basic writing and math skills that employers need. We should demand higher standards.

The federal push for Common Core is improper. Race To The Top education grants and NCLB waivers should not be tied to local and state adoption of the program. But if school boards decide absent coercion to adopt and adapt those standards to their local schools, parents will at least know what their kids are supposed to learn.

For decades, we debated education funding as if it were the same thing as educational quality. We have made small steps through charters and tax credit scholarships to introduce competition. We also need to start demanding accountability. We can’t have accountability without standards. Those opposing Common Core should seize the opportunity to promote higher ones.

(Grant Bosse is editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy, and a senior fellow at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.

Bill Duncan has a fine My Turn article in today's Monitor in which he clearly articulates the Common Core program and standards. Common Core sets the expectation but leaves implementation up to the district. It is a vast improvement on No Child Left Behind.

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