Education Reform: Four Critical Issues that Shape the Conversation

classThe schools in East St. Louis face formidable challenges, but they are not alone in their efforts to determine how best to provide a quality education to their students. As Virginia ponders and charts its course on education, myriad issues arise that demand the attention of parents, teachers, administrators and legislators as difficult decisions are made about the future of our schools. Here are several issues that should be included in any discussion.

Improving critical thinking

If the purpose of K-12 education is to prepare children to succeed in the workplace and life and to be productive citizens, instruction must go beyond content to address critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills.

In the 21st century, it’s more important than ever that students develop skills to access, evaluate and use information. Developing these skills requires inquiry—over and over, across grades and content area. Moving from rote memorization to an inquiry-based teaching model—that is, student work that leads to meaningful learning—gives students the skills to be truly informed and actively contribute to our information-rich society.

If we are to prepare our students to succeed in college and ultimately in an increasingly complex workforce, we must help them become literate in multiple ways: informational, digitally literate, media literate and visually literate. It is through learning experiences that address these areas that students are able to develop the skills and dispositions that will prepare them for the future.

Real-time Testing

Year-end evaluations, such as SOL tests, play a valuable role in evaluating student performance. In the hands of a reflective educator, they can be tools to assess content mastery. However, there is a type of testing that provides much more comprehensive and timely data to determine day-to-day effectiveness—formative assessment.

Formative assessments work similarly to certain medical tests. For example, when an erratic heart rate is discovered, doctors require continuous updates as they work to correct the problem. Similarly, constant updates on student progress in the classroom aid in identifying students who need immediate help. Incorporating real-time assessments into our classrooms increases the likelihood that our students are being taught at their instructional level.

Relying solely on year-end assessments like SOL tests—even if they are peppered with benchmark testing—results in too much time elapsing between a student’s initial failure to grasp a concept and additional instruction.

The beauty of formative assessment is that it generally doesn’t require excessive testing time. Teachers can collect rich data as part of their daily lessons in fewer than five minutes each day. There are many programs that already include ongoing progress monitoring components. Incorporating them into student evaluations will only help in giving teachers more tools to teach students more effectively.

Influencing factors that matter

Strategies designed to improve student performance rest heavily on the ability of school policymakers to successfully target students who are at risk. Given perennially tight school budgets, it is imperative that resources are funneled to efforts that generate the greatest impact.

Emerging research based on big data analytics provides strong evidence of the importance of socioeconomic factors in identifying which schools are likely to have low SOL pass rates. Income and race characteristics of a school are, by far, the most important predictors of elementary school success on reading and math SOL tests.

In contrast, traditional policy levers such as class size, teacher qualifications and salaries provide very little predictive power once socioeconomic factors are taken into account. More significant improvements in school outcomes, therefore, will likely stem from foundational
issues surrounding poverty and family social characteristics.

Putting information in teachers’ hands

It is difficult for teachers to improve instruction appropriately if they are not aware of what the assessment results reveal about their students.

While some information is available to teachers about the performance of their students on SOL assessments, it is often not specific enough for the teachers to appropriately change instruction the following year.

Research focused on explaining why students select incorrect answers reveals eye-opening statistics on our students’ mathematics abilities: problem-solving errors accounted for incorrect responses more than 40 percent of the time for sixth-graders, 25 percent for seventh-graders and 32 percent for eighth-graders.

The most common of these errors— incorrectly analyzing problem conditions and failing to reflect on their solutions—require skills that can and should be taught more in the classroom. Teachers who have more details regarding how the problem-solving abilities of their students are impacting SOL performance can address the problem, leading to improved scores.

Dr. Audrey Church, Dr. Chris Jones, Dr. David Lehr and Dr. Virginia Lewis are members of the Longwood faculty.