By Jeffrey C. Turbitt
At the beginning of the school year, results are released detailing the performance of schools, principals, teachers and students via the SAT 10 scores. The infamous No Child Left Behind Act, and school rivalries, puts everyone under a lot of pressure to achieve higher scores. Apparently deficiencies in scores on this test are a result of "bad proctoring" by the teachers if comments from the associate commissioner and a tirade from my own vice principal at a recent, testy staff meeting are to be believed.
I've proctored these tests for four years, and there are many problems with education in these islands and these tests in particular. Proctoring is the least of the problems. First, the test is exceedingly long. It's a three day plus affair. It doesn't affect the students' grade or their ability to graduate. They know that.
Regular student attendance is always an issue in the best of times. I found it astonishing to see this quote in the paper from the associate commissioner. “Across all schools, we have a good attendance rate. Among the high schools, two recorded a 98 and 95 percent rate." There is that old saying about lies, damned lies and statistics. Here is the reality I've seen for five years now: Students disappear for weeks at a time in the high school for vague and I'm sure usually not very good reasons. To achieve that rate, these habitually absent students must be removed from the rosters to achieve that inflated attendance number. The students tend to come back later as if nothing happened with little or no explanation. One of the better reasons for absence, a death in the family, can mean twenty days of student absences. That's not something that can be easily overcome, and with large island families, there can be quite a few deaths in the family. The never ending war on betel nut on campuses leads to suspensions, as do other violations of school rules.
The SAT 10 tests are on grade level and the material more rigorous than students are used to, so they can be overwhelmed. Very few students take the even more difficult, and even more important SAT college admissions test, either. PSS classes, especially in the high school for the non-honors students, are not taught on grade level because so few students are actually on grade level. In four years I saw a staggering number of seniors, the near finished product, write essays lacking capital letters, punctuation, subject/verb agreement or using multiple paragraphs. That isn't something that can be glossed over, so I had to incorporate this largely grade two or three materials into grade twelve, which is not the type of thing that helps to prepare for SAT 10, but it does help in being educated on a basic level.
The SAT 10 test is also late in the school year when motivation decreases anyway. Beyond that, the SAT 10 test and the Standards Based Testing come within weeks of each other, and it leads to test fatigue. I’ve made this point to PSS leadership before. Some students simply just fill in answers at random or draw a picture of Bob Marley. I personally give stern admonitions on this issue. I've seen the scores for students who I knew were near grade level, yet their tests indicate they were six or seven grades behind, which makes for an inaccurate assessment. When I confronted the students, they admitted not taking it seriously, so I would agree student motivation on the test is an issue, but I don’t think teachers downplayed the test, as the scores reflect on the teachers. I once saw a student close the book within minutes. I reiterated to him the seriousness of the test. He went at it a few more minutes and quickly gave up and told me he just had no idea. I later had this student in class, got to know him, and understood why the test so overwhelmed him. He was about six grade levels behind.
There are two main victims to the fact that these islands have given short shrift to education since time immemorial. The student well behind grade level who can't get the academic intensive care he or she needs in classes of thirty plus, and the non-honors student at or slightly above grade level who gets a curriculum that isn't challenging enough and becomes bored. There are real consequences to the fact that each year more and more students enter public schools that are less and less funded. Platitudes like "bear with us" or "be creative" are what get uttered to say something in this situation. I prefer those to verbal abuse -- especially since education is a partnership between teachers, parents, students and community leaders, but all the blame gets dumped on teachers. As a parent of two and soon to be three, I hold myself as the one primarily responsible for the education and development of my boys, not their teachers.
This news report also noted that elementary schools have better participation in the tests. This is hardly surprising. Parental involvement is much higher at the elementary school level. Kids tend to succumb to more negative influences as they get older. It doesn't help that the middle schools are wildly overcrowded, and Hopwood in particular is in a shocking state of disrepair. There is a large administrative and teacher turnover all around related to all kinds of reasons as the islands' economy continues to implode. My personal opinion is that many of our elementary schools are on par with decent schools in the states. Things fall apart at the middle school level, and the first two years of high school are more like middle school. Educational research shows this isn’t just a CNMI problem, either. Research shows there are problems at the middle schools as a whole, as this is the place where learning slows down. Staffing research also shows that teachers tend to prefer to work in elementary schools or high schools, and not middle schools. The New York Times had a large feature on this issue recently.
I have a child in San Vicente Elementary School, and I've always been happy with that school, and I've heard good things about other elementary schools. However, my sons would never go to public middle school on this island, and that isn't a knock on the good people who work at those schools, but a comment on the area that I believe is most harmed by the CNMI's longstanding unwillingness to fund its schools. The impact of poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms and demoralized staff doing their best with students at a precocious and vulnerable age is most evident in our middle schools, and the situation there and system wide needs attention, not excuses.