Why we’re last

We just don’t seem to get it. We’ve known for years that the good old U.S. of A. is — at best — mid-pack in international studies of k-12 academic performance. And Georgia is pretty close to the bottom of that barrel, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development finds that it’s not just the kids; American adults can’t read, can’t add, and can’t think our way out of a paper bag compared to the citizens of other developed countries.

Pundit Mary Sanchez recently suggested that maybe we're just lazy. I'll offer another possibility. Almost half-century ago — long, long before No Child Left Ahead — we started testing students with what are properly known as minimum competency exams. These tests, often hyped as having "high standards," were yet another of the endless stream of silver bullets promised to fix our schools.

How wrong we were — and still are. Minimum competency tests, like Georgia's CRCTs and EOCTs, set one level of performance for everyone, whether he or she has an IQ of 60 or 160. (Yes, they set another one — "exceeds" — which seems to serve no formal purpose).

The state reported that almost 97 percent of our eighth graders passed the reading CRCT. Since when does a 3-percent failure rate suggest a high standard? The “bar” is impossibly beyond reach for the least able students, and laughably simple for the UGA or Tech-bound.

Go look. The only thing published for these tests is a pass rate. That's because — even though the state and the media always talk about "scores" — there aren't any real scores.

The tests aren’t good enough to give us scores like the SAT or achievement tests like the ITBS. They’re cheap. That $25 million a year (what the state spent on testing one year not long ago) is chicken feed compared to what it would cost to build real tests for state or national use. You get a “1” or a “0.” Pass or fail. Doesn’t matter whether they call it 800 or 8 or 8,000,000, it’s still just pass or fail.

So 97 percent of the kids in eighth grade are on track to be good enough readers for high school graduation? Not according to NAEP.

So what's the real problem? Minimum competency tests, and perhaps the "standards" from which they're developed, require little more than rote memorization. Stuff a factoid into your head, regurgitate it on command, and — as many students will tell you — forget it as soon as possible to start memorizing something else. Whatever you do, don't think.

Many teachers have been forced to become nothing more than drill-till-you-drop memorization taskmasters. Witness the APS tragedy which, by the way, apparently continues unabated across the rest of the country. How could anyone expect kids to be “college-ready” given our clearly minimal expectations? How could anyone keep a straight face and call this accountability?

Politicians in many states have been telling students to do nothing more than memorize factoids for almost half a century. The first minimum-competency graduation test takers are now around retirement age. The result is that far too many of us can’t read well, can’t do basic math well, and most certainly can’t think our way out of the proverbial paper bag.

The solution? Sorry, no silver bullets like “higher standards.” Standards are great when you’re fitting car doors to fenders on an assembly line. One size does fit all in a factory. Not in schools. We understand very well that kids come with radically different levels and kinds of ability, yet we tell schools that one single low target is all we need.

No quick fixes. We’ve been forcing teachers to be little more than rote-recall drill instructors for decades. Even if we manage to start asking for critical thinking and reasoning through, for example, the Common Core — and we don’t ruin the effort with misguided testing — it’ll take some years to help the drill instructors return to real teaching.

I'm not against testing. I'm against bad testing. We can start now fixing the hole we've dug for ourselves the last half-century. Or we can keep taking the easy road, keep kids memorizing factoids to throw up on low-bid minimum competency tests, and just keep falling further and further behind. Your call, voters.

Gerald Eads is an assistant professor of education at Georgia Gwinnett College. Previously, he served as coordinator for research and evaluation for the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, assistant director for research and policy in the Georgia Office of Student Achievement and chief of testing, assessment and evaluation for the Virginia Department of Education.