Learning problems must be found early

My turn

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2001

I have been following with interest the discussions concerning testing students before they can graduate from high school in Alaska. As parents, my wife and I worked hard with our children and it was with great relief when our youngest graduated with the class of 2000. Three children, each four years apart, went through the entire system. I thought I had a pretty good idea where the problems lay with the school system by the time we were through. Then, after retiring, I decided to substitute teach and I got a whole new view. More parents should try it. For those who have not, I will tell you that it's a real eye-opener. Recently, I had the opportunity to help grade the seventh- and ninth-grade math assessment tests for the Juneau School District. On the whole, I was not impressed with the mathematical abilities of the students in either group. So I find myself with three separate views of the school system and the students that I am trying to merge into some sort of realistic picture.

I find myself against the idea of testing our kids before graduation. If the system has failed the kids or the kids have failed the system, no matter how many times a student is allowed to take the test, it is just too late for this exercise and will not resolve the problem. The student's inabilities should have been found and resolved long before this. The solution to this problem begins at kindergarten and works its way through the entire educational system, K through 12. As I understand it, every child in the system and every teacher in the system are coded into the district's computer system. The tests the children take, the grades they receive, and the teachers involved are all kept in this massive date bank. A good statistician should be able to spot student-learning problems in advance and should also be able to point out teaching problems in advance. You might ask, "in advance of what?" In advance of a student's final year of school, which I maintain is far too late. If a student cannot read and comprehend, write intelligently, and do a reasonable level of math for the level of education he/she has taken, that student needs to be held back.

There is no excuse for passing a student on up the line without the required abilities. We need to also hold our teachers to the same high level of expectations. If we only had one year of computer data it would be impossible to check, but I don't think that is the case. I suspect that the school district's computerized data file is extensive and with a little data mining by a professional statistician, could point out teachers and/or teaching problems with possible resolutions.

In conclusion, I feel the solution cannot be found by parents and professional educators alone. That a third professional group working with the finest tool ever invented, the computer, in conjunction with the other two groups can resolve this issue and save the district and the state from another failed effort, a loss of time/funds, and considerable embarrassment when a large population of students fail the final test.

John A. Marshall lives in Juneau.

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