Test scores may not tell whole story for SH

Teaching is a complex art, a fact perhaps highlighted by the news that Sweet Home students appear to be lagging behind their counterparts around the state in the disciplines of language arts and math.

Anyone who has stood in front of 30 sets of eyes, registering varying degrees of anticipation, in a classroom knows the challenges of education.

You have to be able to sell the product.

You have be able to set expectations and motivate students to meet them.

You have to have relational skills to deal with a wide range of interests and influences – parents, administrators and, of course students.

You often have to be a parent of sorts for youngsters who lack family support.

You have to know your stuff – the subject you’re teaching.

Now add requirements set down by legislators and bureaucrats somewhere up the ladder, people who have never met your students and who may have spent more time in board rooms than in classrooms. Meet those goals and you’re a success. Fall short and you’re a failure.

The challenge is pretty obvious.

Before we go further, we’ll just note that that “education” itself is also very subjective. Each of us has our own set of pet preferences for what every kid needs to know – and for some in our community, to put it bluntly, that may not be much more than the way to the local convenience store.

So now we have the results of the latest test that all these well-meaning folks have mandated for our students and … Sweet Home has fallen short of state averages up and down the line.

The latest state tests, which have replaced the OAKS test, as we report beginning on page 1, are harder than their predecessors. They are requiring new things from students – and teachers: more complex analysis and more advanced grasp of reading, writing and math skills.

That is great. In one sense, having higher aspirations will likely lead to higher achievement. But reaching those goals requires preparation that our district’s scores clearly indicate we aren’t achieving.

It’s not like the district isn’t trying.

Although we haven’t reported them as fully as we’d like to, Sweet Home School District has made some significant efforts over recent years to give its teaching staffs encouragement and support in an effort to raise student performances.

Many teachers have participated in Professional Learning Communities on Fridays, when our students aren’t in school. They’re there to brainstorm on ways to better serve students, to help each other get better as educators.

The challenges can be significant. Many of our students have little preparation for even basic concepts as they enter kindergarten and they start playing catch-up right away. Transitory family situations and unmotivated parents or guardians don’t help.

Classroom staffing, school day scheduling, curriculum, technology – all of these can affect student performances significantly, depending on whether sufficient resources are available to help those who need it.

We know some of our school administrators and teachers are constantly on the lookout for better ways to do things.

Given these efforts, it’s easy to see why Supt. Keith Winslow is frustrated by the test results we’re reporting. There’s a lot of effort and intelligence being applied to this problem in our school district.

We aren’t trying to make standardized testing the ogre here. The tests do have benefits: They are practical to administer, they produce quantifiable results, they’re pretty objective and they provide a baseline for student progress, among other things. They do measure progress – of some sort.

They also have drawbacks. The almost inevitable result of basing education on standardized tests is that teachers find themselves forced to “teach to the test.”

They complain, often justifiably, that focusing classroom instruction on simply developing skills and passing tests discourages creativity and innovative teaching that produces students who can think critically and actually solve real-world problems, and encourages a one-size-fits-all institutional approach to education that can easily suffocate students’ individual abilities and interests.

Often, they say, the tests really don’t measure what students know very well.

One local problem identified by the report card is chronic absenteeism in our schools – 10 percent over the state average.

This highlights some of the challenges of education in Sweet Home, where transiency, homelessness, unstable domestic situations, poverty and lack of enthusiasm for education in general combine to create a toxic environment for learning.

We want our local schools to be strong. We want them to be healthy, safe, nurturing places where children, who in too many cases don’t have healthy environments at home, can learn and be motivated to try new things and, ultimately, grow up to become productive citizens who contribute to their community in positive ways.

Clearly, having teachers who are equipped to address students’ needs is paramount, not only to score well on tests but to produce responsible, productive citizens.

Those things we mentioned earlier – proper staffing, proper scheduling, proper curriculum, proper technology, are important, but what’s more critical, we think, is collaboration with the resources we have.

If everybody in the boat is facing the same direction and paddling in unison, the boat will move faster. If teachers and administrators continue to figure out innovative ways to help students learn, the payoff will come.

Scores will rise and hopefully, we will all benefit.