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Honesty is the Best Policy

• Christy Hovanetz, Ph.D.

A candidate for Congress was holding a press conference shortly after calling his chief opponent in the primary (the incumbent) to concede the race. It had been a tight race and multiple individuals were on the ballot, all hoping to take advantage of the incumbent’s weak numbers. Many pundits had theorized that the weakened incumbent would prevail due to the divided opposition.

This candidate did not attempt to give the media a lesson in political science. He looked straight at the cameras and said he knew exactly why he had lost: “the [incumbent] Congressman got more votes.”

As the K-12 education policy landscape has evolved over the past several months, policymakers need to resist the temptation to overthink. The transition to new standards and assessments goes to the heart of what schools are about: teaching and learning. Students need clear, high expectations of proficiency to be winners. The metrics matter—a lot.

To be sure, there are worthwhile conversations taking place about an approach that combines rigorous expectations with less prescriptive interventions. While decades of local district inertia have created much of the skepticism that fueled reforms to interventions in the first place (teacher evaluations, school turnaround requirements, etc.), there are honest questions about whether education policy has morphed into an obtrusively large how-to manual for school administrators.

Getting the expectations right should remain job one, though. States are now taking huge steps to improve student achievement by implementing new demanding state standards for English/language arts and mathematics, using varied and innovative approaches to teach, and adopting aligned statewide standardized assessments to measure success. The next big step is for states to set rigorous cut scores for student proficiency.

Setting cut scores is not a racy issue. For some elected officials, it may be the type of process that makes “wonk” a four-letter word. But we must set proficiency cut scores that provide a credible indication of career and (remediation-free) college readiness.

For too long we have set cut scores on state assessments to measure a minimum level of grade level mastery. No Child Left Behind, though the process of calculating school accountability as Adequate Yearly Progress, requiring 100% of students attain grade level proficiency by 2014, incentivized states to set (and in some cases, reset) low cut scores for determining proficiency. Instead of universal proficiency, this resulted in an Otter-in-Animal-House “Hey, it’s gotta work better than the truth” approach to measurement.

After a decade of mediocre expectations, it is time to be honest with students about how they are performing. Not every student need attend Harvard. But the pace of change in the modern economy requires more rigorous academic foundations for all students.

School accountability is a secondary priority during this transition. If states must revisit their school accountability formulas and provide teachers and principals a bit of breathing room so all schools are not labeled as failures in the first year of new cut scores, so be it. The flexibility to do so is there under the ESEA waiver process.

No matter how we get there, nothing is more important than being honest with kids about whether or not they are ready for life after high school. We need to start letting them know early so we have time to make adjustments and ensure they catch up as to not fall further behind. Graduating and being on your own is scary enough. Let’s be sure they are ready for the adventure.

About the author

Christy Hovanetz, Ph.D.

Christy Hovanetz is a Senior Policy Fellow for ExcelinEd focusing on school accountability policies. Dr. Hovanetz served as the Assistant Commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Education and Assistant Deputy Commissioner at the Florida Department of Education. She has worked in education policy for the state of Florida since 1999 serving as the Director of Evaluation and Reporting, Director of Reading First and a Policy Analyst for Governor Jeb Bush. She graduated summa cum laude from St. Cloud State University with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education with a minor in mathematics and is a certified teacher in the state of Minnesota. She earned her Masters of Public Administration at the University of Minnesota and a Doctor of Philosophy in Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University.