Assessment Opinion

Floor Standards vs. Ceilings

By Justin Baeder — July 06, 2011 4 min read
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When critics think about the merit of public schools, they’re often thinking simultaneously about performance at both ends of the spectrum. On the bottom end, we want to make sure that Johnny can read. We have a variety of assessments that give us data about our progress toward this mission.

On the top end, we want to make sure that our schools are allowing students to become all that they can be. In most cases, schools aren’t adequately fulfilling this mission—though we don’t have very good data, because we fail to ask the right questions. This failure is increasingly attracting the attention of vocal critics from outside the world of education.

There’s no denying that public schools are poorly structured for cultivating genius. While this was the case before the modern accountability era, NCLB has made the problem worse by narrowing our focus to that band of students who are on the cusp of passing the state test. We want to make sure that all the kids who have a realistic shot at passing actually do pass; I know teachers from Texas who have been coached by consultants to focus exclusively on the “bubble kids.” As a result, the kids who will definitely pass—not to mention those who have very little chance of passing—tend to get less attention.

More importantly, though, schooling itself is structured in such a way as to serve the needs of students in the middle. Many of the structures that are in place such as grade levels, courses, grading periods, homework, and the like are not really necessary for some students, which is why “un-schooling” has so much appeal to some people.

Of course, you can’t build a society on un-schooling; if you buy into the myth that schools are more hindrance than help, check out Somalia and report back to us on how that’s working. Civil society requires citizens who can conform, to a reasonable extent.

One of the problems with NCLB-style accountability is that it’s not clear on what purpose it’s intended to serve. Are we trying to help all students reach minimal competency standards, or help all students reach their maximum potential? I’d say the answer is neither.

NCLB created an accountability system to ensure that all students are being educated to at least some standard. This sounds like a “floor” standard, a minimum standard we want all students to meet. (There’s a “but” coming.)

I fully believe that we should have some “floor” standards, based on tests that tell us which schools are accomplishing at least the minimum, such as the now-obsolete Wisconsin Reading ComprehensionTest (WRCT), which virtually all students passed (and were expected to). When we say all students can learn, and schools should be held accountable for making that learning happen, this is what we’re talking about.

We know how to teach kids to read. There is no dark territory on that map; we’ve known for decades how to ensure that all students emerge from elementary, middle, and high school with basic literacy skills. We also know how to teach math. While we may not do so perfectly, the state of the art is fairly advanced. When and where we’re determined to teach at least basic reading and math skills, we can. There is simply no excuse for doing anything less for our students.

Floor standards ensure that we’re giving all students at least basic skills, and they ensure that we focus enough of our resources on these goals before moving on to other goals. These are the skills that are essential for sustaining civil society and democracy.

But NCLB is not “floor” accountability, because of the dramatic variation in proficiency targets. No one wants to be accused of having low standards, so some states have set higher standards, yet regardless of this variation, no state is even close to 100% proficiency.

In some states, we’re dealing with floor targets, and in others, we’re dealing with much more aspirational targets. As a result, we really have very little school-by-school information on how many students are proficient in basic skills. NAEP, which is not given in all schools, probably provides the best data for comparing proficiency across states, but as Diane Ravitch points out, NAEP proficiency targets are actually quite high, representing rigorous rather than basic skills.

Aspirational targets like NCLB’s take our eyes off of the critical goal of ensuring that all students master basic knowledge and skills. At the same time, though, these aspirational targets are never high enough for some kids, and if schooling is structured around hitting those targets, the structures that we put in place are going to serve as a ceiling for some students, keeping them from reaching higher.

This “ceiling” function of public education is what most bothers people in Silicon Valley and the business world in general, in which reside public education’s most vocal critics. You might recall that Bill Gates dropped out of college to found Microsoft, and the rest is history. We want this success story to be replicated, so we tell ourselves the story that it was college that was holding Bill Gates back. A Silicon Valley billionaire named Peter Thiel recently gave $100,000 to 20 teenagers who agreed to drop out of college to start companies.

I commonly hear the refrain that it’s not just college that is holding kids back, but K-12 education, too. What if we didn’t make kids wait until college to pursue their passion? What if we tore off the roof, tore down the walls, and let kids reach their true potential?

I think there’s something to that, but I’m not sure quite what it would look like. How can we have meaningful floors and no ceilings in K-12 public education? Should we make our basic skills standards truly basic, ensure that all students meet them, and come up with another plan for tearing out the ceilings in our schools?

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