Playing by the Rules

By Dr. Eugene Maier

The Oregon Department of Education released its annual school report card last week. The report, as mandated by the state legislature in the massive Oregon Education Act for the 21st Century, is to contain information on "student performance, student behavior, and school characteristics." In addition the report must include data on some 16 areas that are specifically named, including, among others, attendance rates, school safety, dropout rates, facilities for distance learning, and local bond levy election results.

The Act further requires the Board of Education to "adopt, by rule, criteria for grading schools," which grades shall "include classifications for exceptional performance, strong performance, satisfactory performance, low performance and unacceptable performance." Each school's grade must be included in the report.

In 2002, 50 schools were graded exceptional, 563 strong, and 485 satisfactory, while only 14 schools were low, and none were unacceptable. With some 56% of the schools being rated strong or exceptional and none flunking, the Board was criticized for having too soft rules, so this year things were toughened up. While the number of exceptional schools almost doubled to 91—mostly elementary schools whose assessment scores went up when some exams were cut—the number of strong schools dropped by 164 to 399, the number of satisfactory schools increased to 557, the number of low schools reached an all-time high of 28, and 7 schools were actually designated unacceptable—a first in the brief history of the report cards.

One principal, bemoaning his school's drop from "strong" to "satisfactory" lamented, "Here we are working hard to improve, and then the rules change." But he was ready to staunchly move forward: "…the rules changed for everyone, and it's still a level playing field… . We are going to refocus and continue with targeted improvement." Ah, yes, that's the spirit! You can win this game!

And that's what education has become: a game. Lots of high-achieving students have long recognized its game like tendencies, figuring out, teacher by teacher, what the rules were for getting an A. But now the playing field is broader and the stakes are higher. It's a school against school statewide competition, and with the Bush administration's recently released new game with the alluring title No Child Left Behind, everything's in place for the national championship!

It may take a while for administrators to figure out how to successfully play this new game, but they will. They're a resourceful bunch. Here at home, in only a few years—notwithstanding some fiddling with the rules which have caused some minor setbacks—administrators have figured out how to win at the Oregon game. Here's how the principal and vice-principals of a middle school that got an "exceptional" rating have done it: They visit three to five classrooms a day. They give teachers "pointers" and pore over test results. They send home frequent progress reports and enlist parents' help when their child's performance slips. Students who aren't "on target" to pass state reading tests have to give up their electives and are sentenced—that's my word, not theirs—to a specialized lab to "study reading" which, I suppose, is their way of saying "prep for the test."

There's no avoiding playing the national game. The consequences of losing at it can be troublesome: being publicly labeled a "low-performing school" and—taking language from the U.S. Department of Education's websites—facing "real consequences" that ultimately entail "corrective action and restructuring measures" designed to get your school "back on course," not to mention losing students to a better school, "along with the portion of their annual budget typically associated with those students."

Administrators will figure out how to avoid this opprobrium. They will make sure their teachers get plenty of pointers on what must be done to ensure their students are playing this new game properly. Meanwhile, the teachers will wonder how their profession metamorphosed into game monitoring. And the students? Like pawns on a chess board, they will press onward dealing with every test the game makers have placed in their way until either they are overwhelmed by opposing forces, which isn't supposed to happen if the game is played correctly, or they attain the goal: a finely embossed certificate which announces to all that they have completed the game successfully. That, again, is my description of the certificate. The game makers hail it as the mark of a quality education.