Dirty Boots: “And we ain’t got but fifty states.”

Back in 2016, when then-governor Robert Bentley quipped to a small crowd that Alabama’s education system “sucks,” he explained that our schools were ranked 51st, adding, “And we ain’t got but fifty states.” His remarks drew a few chuckles from that audience, but the larger response was swift, definite, and negative. Considering the lack of funding and widespread job cuts, there were defensive retorts and calls for an apology. But I doubt if anyone considered that things could get worse.

Apparently, they have. Earlier this month, al.com’s Trisha Powell Crain reported that, after a brief period of improvement, Alabama is now “dead-last.”

Alabama’s math scores were rock-bottom for 2019, 52nd in the country behind all states, Washington D.C. and the Department of Defense schools. Alabama’s reading scores slid to 49th in both grades.

The results of the National Assessment for Educational Progress, abbreviated NAEP, were released on October 30 in what they call “The Nation’s Report Card.” Alabama’s results show losses in both reading and math scores, and the page devoted to State Comparisons shows that forty-eight states “performed significantly higher,” three states were “not significantly different,” and zero states “performed significantly lower.” (Schools in New Mexico, Louisiana, and West Virginia only beat us by a point or two.) In fourth-grade math, reading, and science, only 28% of students in Alabama were “at or above proficient,” yet the percentages dropped by eighth grade to 21%, 24%, and 21%, respectively. These benchmarks signal a crucial need for improvement, not because of these scores, but because those three subjects teach students to use reason and logic (math), to take in and understand information (reading), and to base decisions on empirical knowledge (science). Somebody in education dubbed them “core” subjects because they impart skills that form the core of a reasonable person’s life.

However, it would too easy – and downright foolish – to use one document, with its particular set of numbers and subsequent rankings, to make a singular assessment of Alabama’s schools. Moreover, the most valuable perspective to have in looking at these kinds of reports would be one steeped in both honesty and hope. It may be an old cliché but it seems fair to say that there truly is nowhere to go but up. However, if we’re to remedy or solve the problems we see evidenced in low scores and a low ranking, we’ve got to take a more nuanced view than: our schools “suck.”

For example, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) has its own graphs and charts about Alabama schools. One bar graph shows that Alabama’s ACT scores have remained fairly constant, hovering around a 19 from 2015 through 2018, and another shows that workforce readiness, as measured by the WorkKeys test, has risen from 59% to 64% during those same years. So, if our fourth- and eighth-graders’ NAEP scores dropped, but our twelfth-graders’ workforce readiness scores improved, we should ask: what are we doing wrong, and what are we doing right?

Personally, I don’t like standardized testing – I think that it shifts the focus of education away from learning and onto scores and rankings – but my attitude is: if it’s going to be done anyway, let’s make good use of what we gain from it. I saw we make some multi-million-dollar lemonade. We spend a lot of money on these tests, and that money won’t be wasted if we use what we find out from them. That’s what tests are for. A plumber tests a water or gas line for leaks— why? To find and fix the problem. A mechanic hooks a car up to a diagnostic machine— why? To find and fix the problem. If we look at these results and use them as another opportunity to lament, to complain, to blame, or to disparage, then we will continue down the road we’re on. But if we choose honesty and hope, we stand a much better chance in the future.

Further reading: “Our Last-ness” from July 9, 2019

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