Commentary | Education

Lessons—A School District Refuses to Worship Scores Alone

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


A School District Refuses to Worship Scores Alone

By Richard Rothstein

PARK RIDGE, Ill. — In 1997, four school board members in this upper-middle-class Chicago suburb ran for re-election against challengers who said that test scores were high, but not high enough.

“We always answered that test scores don’t tell the whole story,” recalled Dean Krone, a lawyer who retained his seat in that election. “But we began to wonder, `What is the rest of the story?’ “

The question led the board to define a fuller range of school goals and ask how progress toward them might be measured. The district now hopes to create an index of outcomes in which test scores are one, but not the only one.

This may be at odds with a national test-score emphasis (although it is easier for Park Ridge to explore radical approaches, because its affluent students get good scores with relatively little effort). Still, the American public as a whole, in polls and focus groups, says schools should place higher priorities on goals like good citizenship than on test scores. And another Park Ridge board member, John Pierce, an actuary, complains that national and state leaders want to hold schools accountable only for results that are easy to measure.

“Scores are important,” said a third member of the board, Jane Meagher, a management consultant, “but in our middle schools, bullying is a bigger problem. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to measure a decrease in bullying?”

The district is now trying to do just that. Three years ago, Superintendent Fred Schroeder asked each school to define an academic area on which to focus. At Lincoln Middle School, faculty and parents proposed “emotional intelligence.”

Dr. Schroeder and his board were skeptical. “We really didn’t think this was an academic goal,” he remembered. But the Lincoln team gave each board member a copy of Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence” (Bantam Books, 1995), and the board’s view of educational ends evolved.

Now, trust, stress management and other emotional skills are explicitly taught at the district’s middle schools. Last month, for example, sixth graders had lessons in anger management. The pupils wrote about quarrels they had experienced, and then teachers led discussions on how to handle the anger: by talking with adults, trying to imagine how the other person feels, counting to 10.

Ann Deacon, a math teacher, says this focus has also helped her weave emotional skills explicitly into academic lessons. Sixth graders, she says, typically want answers right away and resent having to take time to figure them out. So when Ms. Deacon recently asked her pupils for the sum of angles in a polygon, she gave out pattern-blocks of isosceles and right triangles. As the pupils struggled for the right combinations, she discussed with them the value of perseverance and patience. In the end, they learned geometry not only more thoroughly but also with more satisfaction, which, she hopes, will inspire patience in other situations.

Such teaching is not so unusual. More remarkable is the district’s determination to measure results and, by adopting the planned index of outcomes, to weigh their importance against that of test scores. To measure emotional growth, attitudinal testing was considered but rejected. Instead, schools plan to track the number of student fights and detentions.

The true gauge, of course, is lifelong behavior, not school disciplinary cases. This is no different from assessing performance in traditional academic areas, for which the district also seeks better measures. Whether students, in later life, join Oprah’s Book Club is a better indicator of middle school reading instruction than how they interpreted test passages at age 11. And voting participation, along with history tests, might be an indicator of social studies teaching.

Dr. Schroeder, the superintendent, also hopes to judge elementary instruction by how students later do on college entrance exams. This requires a data system that, unusual in American education, codes high school records by the primary schools students attended.

The Park Ridge endeavor is fraught with difficulties. How should objectives rank in importance? Taking instructional time to teach emotional intelligence means less time for something else. Is a 10 percent decline in bullying worth a 5 percentile increase in science scores, or more?

Board members will have to be cautious that goals they adopt truly reflect community values. It may seem obvious that schools should teach children to respect others, but some parents may feel that explicit curriculum for such behavior infringes on family responsibility. As a result, while all schools teach values, fewer acknowledge doing so.

Still, there is a growing national backlash over what many parents and teachers consider excessive focus on standardized tests. Park Ridge is a rare place where educators not only complain about test-driven accountability, but are seeking an alternative.

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