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Attendance the Key Factor In Passing Proficiency Tests

To the Editor:

In a recent letter, Monty Neill, associate director of FairTest, reported inaccurate data for the Cleveland public schools in support of his conclusion "that the rising pass rate [for Ohio's exit test] may stem from a striking increase in the number of African-Americans who drop out of high school--or are pushed out by the test" (related story ).

The class of 1994 was the first required to pass the Ohio 9th-grade proficiency tests to graduate. Clearly, in Cleveland, this requirement did not create a marked difference in the percentage of 8th graders graduating four years later. In fact, no data reported to the state suggest either that the number of dropouts in Cleveland increased significantly because of the tests or that African-American students were disproportionately represented in Cleveland's 1994 graduating class.

When comparing 9th-grade fall enrollments to the number of graduates four years later, the percentage of students graduating in Cleveland was 33 percent in 1992, 35 percent in 1993, and 33 percent (yet to be confirmed) in 1994.

For some reason, Mr. Neill used 8th-grade enrollments instead. Still, using the state's data and Mr. Neill's method, the results for Cleveland show the following percentages when comparing 8th-grade enrollment to the graduating class four years later: 44 percent in 1992, 46 percent in 1993, and between 40 percent and 41 percent in 1994 (final data yet to be confirmed). These figures, as verified by Cleveland, are markedly different from those presented by Mr. Neill: 52 percent in 1992, 53 percent in 1993, with a drop to 36 percent in 1994.

This clarification does not defend the percentage of Cleveland's students who graduate after four years of high school. In fact, that percentage must be improved dramatically.

During recent legal challenges to the proficiency tests, we have shown that the state's 9th-grade tests are fair, bias free, and a more-than-reasonable expectation to hold of Ohio's graduates. The state has successfully defended its case to the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights and to a federal district court.

The proficiency tests are a valid measure of what is taught in Ohio classrooms. Research showed us that the most significant factor in success or failure on the proficiency tests is not race, as some have claimed, or per-pupil spending, or average family income; it's attendance. More specifically, the research revealed that the typical student who had passed all required proficiency tests by the end of grade 11 had attended school that year more than 20 days more than the student who hadn't passed the tests.

Bottom line: If you're not in class, you're not learning what it takes to pass the proficiency tests.

This conclusion means that, while every school must strive to provide equal opportunities for students to learn, each school must also work with all members of the community--especially parents--to fulfill a decades-long obligation to keep students in school and learning.

Ted Sanders
State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Columbus, Ohio

New Teaching Methods Require 'Serious Testing'

To the Editor:

As an elementary school teacher for over 30 years, I was struck by Kenneth G. Wilson's observation in "Growing Pains" (related story ) that schools, unlike industry, have no process of strategic change. I agree. During my years of teaching reading I have seen "the sight method," "phonics," "language experience," "open classroom," "Distar," and "whole language" succeed each other in popularity with administrators. Each method came into the classroom highly touted--and then proved no more effective than the one it replaced.

This is hardly surprising since the one thing absent from each new method is serious, controlled, objective testing under a variety of normal classroom conditions. Instead, these new programs arrive in schools straight from the research "drawing board." Publishers appear to accept new ideas with no more proof of their value than the say-so of the latest expert--who has become an expert by publishing a book, not by trying out his method as a teacher in an average school.

Teachers know that there is no method of teaching reading which has actually been proved to work better than the one they are already using--in spite of all the hype by experts, theorists, authors, and publishers which accompanies each new exhorttion to "reform." Until they see actual classroom documentation of the sort Kenneth Wilson is talking about, why should teachers disrupt their classrooms every few years, when past experience tells them it will not improve their students' reading ability? Let's develop a rational system of testing new programs before we ship them out to schools. This will save money for the taxpayer and perhaps succeed in finding a method of teaching reading which works better than the ones we already have.

Helen Bardeen Andrejevic
New York, N.Y.

Prestige Based on Research, Not University Connection

To the Editor:

Harry Judge concluded that "Teacher education in the States may be uncomfortable in universities, but it is very much there" (related story). He also muses that this university connection may confer the same prestige on education that it conferred on medicine. To date, this prestige has been denied, and rightly so.

The reason is that a physician bases his practice on knowledge which is continually advanced by controlled research. Even believers in alternative treatment will choose an allopathic physician in a crisis or emergency because they realize that certain medical procedures base their efficacy on solid scientific knowledge and can be counted on to work.

By contrast, for the teaching of reading, the majority of teachers ignore years of solid research about the most effective way to teach this crucial skill. Both the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association have endorsed the whole-language approach, despite research showing the shortcomings of their own procedures and the efficacy of teaching phonics to beginning readers. Its main proponents state that researchers operate in an artificial environment and that teachers know what's really going on when a student reads. Unfortunately, the proponents of whole language have been unable to demonstrate the veracity of any of their theories.

As the scientific evidence mounts in favor of phonics, the proponents of whole language, still eschewing the value of doing any controlled research on the effectiveness of various reading approaches, have become more strident in the counterattack. What could be the reason for such desperate argument?

Many schools of education have trained their students in the whole-language methods, ignoring the skills to teach decoding directly. Graduates from these universities lack the background to teach phonics. The trend away from phonics and accompanying skills was easy because many professors in schools of education are likewise unskilled in these disciplines. Acquiring knowledge about how print corresponds to speech requires rigorous study, and does not automatically follow just because a person is literate in a language. We now have a large group of teachers and university professors faced with the option of defending whole language or undergoing rigorous training to learn another approach. To date, defense has been the tactic of choice.

Teachers who wish to obtain courses in the knowledge of language must often take these courses in addition to their other certification requirements. Those who have made the effort unanimously agree that direct teaching of the code is more effective.

I refer interested educators to "The Missing Foundation in Teacher Education: Knowledge of the Structure of Spoken and Written English," Louisa Cook Moats, Ed.D., Annals of Dyslexia, Vol. 44, 1994, for a full examination of this issue. No wonder education is uncomfortable in the universities.

Thomas D. Scheidler
The Greenwood School
Putney, Vt

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