President's Corner

Diagnosing Success
By Christopher O. Gaines/School Administrator, May 2019

IN DECEMBER, I was a patient in the hospital emergency room triage, where medical personnel performed a few quick tests to determine my status, placed me in an exam room, did additional diagnostic tests and threw a barrage of questions at me to determine my condition.

Based on the test results and my answers to the redundant questions, medical personnel admitted me to the hospital, treated me with medication throughout the night and performed a procedure the next day to address my problem.

The entire process was about determining what was wrong with me and then correcting it. However, when these trained professionals were unable to find the underlying cause of the problem, they treated the outward symptoms.

State assessments all too often do the same thing. They measure what students do and do not know on a particular day and use those “moment in time” snapshots to evaluate students and systems. They don’t dig deeply into the underlying causes of the students’ scores nor do they tell us where we may be falling short — or excelling — as educators. Think about it: What “score” should the hospital receive based on their treatment of me on that one day in December?

Educators recognize this flaw in standardized assessments. Only 9 percent of superintendents who participated in the 2018 Gallup Survey of K-12 School District Superintendents said standardized tests are very important for measuring the success of schools. Another 52 percent considered them somewhat important.

The Gallup survey revealed district leaders believe that student engagement, student hope for the future and high school graduation rates are important measures of the effectiveness of our schools.

I have been able to visit many districts and schools this year and have spoken with countless educators about the work they are doing. Our conversations rarely included a discussion of district test scores. Rather, we talked about ways their schools can better meet the needs of their students. A priority is funding and safety. It’s also working with the community and school board. It’s equity. It’s challenging the status quo.

However, their strategies do not look alike. Education across the country is anything but standardized. Districts are making education work within their local context. They are investing in early education, incorporating STEAM, moving to more digital environments and personalizing learning.

Policymakers want schools to be better, but are they prepared for us to be different to get better? Too many policymakers envision classrooms as desks and chairs lined up in rows with teachers standing in front of the class lecturing because that was their experience. We are to blame if they think that way.

We must invite legislators and other policymakers into our schools where we can engage them, show them what classrooms and education look like today. They must recognize that our children are more than test scores and that state assessment scores should not determine a student’s future.

Education leaders are at the heart of that work — district leaders, building leaders, teacher leaders. Your willingness to say yes to allow people to take risks matters. You are transforming what teaching and learning look like. You are changing what school looks like, and it’s for the better.

Your leadership matters. It matters in your district. It matters in your community. It matters in your state legislatures. It matters on Capitol Hill.

It’s up to us to celebrate our work and help policymakers understand we are not necessarily the schools they perceive us to be. Changing perceptions is hard work, but I believe we can do it. I believe it because every day, I hear and see the passion you have for the work you do.

CHRIS GAINES is AASA president for 2018–19. Twitter: @paddlingsupt