Durham News: Opinion

Steven Unruhe: An F for letter grades

Durham Riverside High School math teacher Steve Unruhe
Durham Riverside High School math teacher Steve Unruhe hlynch@newsobserver.com

I am impressed. Our state has managed to compress our understanding of the work of any given school down to a single letter grade. Given our limited span of attention, this is a tremendous breakthrough.

Parents no longer need to report to Open House, or sit through a parent-teacher conference, or join the PTA. They can pull out a phone, Google “school report card,” pull up the grade. Boom. Thirty seconds, done.

I teach an immigrant student still learning English, another who works full time and is barely on track to graduate, and a third who is headed to MIT. Yet, through the wonder of mathematics their varied educational achievements, and those of 1800 others, meld into one score. It is a beautiful thing, really.

North Carolina has pulled off this advance through judicious use of technology. Rather than use slow, subjective and expensive human assessment, our state has automated the process by relying solely on machine-scanned multiple choice tests, even for 8-year-olds.

There are, however, a few limitations that I fully expect our legislature to address. For one, the school grade is based solely on academic performance. Parents who want an evaluation of a high school’s athletic program are still forced to sit through endless afternoons of field hockey or lacrosse.

I don’t see any reason why we could not bring state report card efficiency to sports. Players can take an exam on rules and game situations, given at their respective schools, supervised by trained referees. By tweaking Fantasy Football software, computers can determine a winning team. Throw the results together over the course of a year, run them through an obscure equation, and out will come a Sports Score for every school. No more long bus rides for teams, no more parents shivering in the stands.

Arts programs are another financial sink hole crying out for reform. Taxpayers are funding Shakespeare and modern dance, and parents have to sit through performances. Elementary school children are still finger-painting, taking time away from test preparation and forcing parents to mount their work on the front of refrigerators throughout the state.

We can do better. A quick Scantron® test on dinosaur sculpture techniques, or Elizabethan grammar, and we will be able to sort the Picassos from paint by the numbers. We will save money on crayons, we can convert theaters into test-taking centers, and we will have an easy-to-understand Art Score for every school.

The next step is obvious: vouchers for children at failing athletics or arts schools. Students trapped on a losing tennis team could join a country club. Singers who find a stale chorus at their school could sign up for individual voice instruction using tax dollars.

I am hopeful that North Carolina will adapt our school evaluation system for wider use. I know, for instance, when I catch the flu, I am confused by all of my health care options. Is my doctor better than Urgent Care? It would not seem that hard to design a health test for patients at these locations, run it through a scanner once a year, and generate a single grade that I can pull up on Google while sipping my chicken broth at home.

Sure, doctors will complain that such a test could not measure all the factors that go into good patient care: empathy, compassion, insight, follow-up. Still, if a child’s first years of schooling can be summarized in one letter, surely health care is not so difficult. We just need a grade.

Now, it is true that 15 years of high-stakes testing has not led to any improvement in the actual education of children. Clearly, we don’t yet give enough tests. A recent proposal that I believe shows great promise would place assessment professionals in every classroom, every day, to test and observe students.

The program, called Training for Enhanced Assessment of CHildren through Educational Reporting, promises to produce a unique “report card” for each student, giving parents a precise window into what their own child is learning. There are studies that indicate such daily assessment gives more reliable data than the current battery of state tests.

Moreover, it appears that these professionals may be able to carry out other duties in between tests, such as instruction in reading and math. And, from what I understand, they often work cheap.

This could put North Carolina on the national map for education reform.

Steven Unruhe, a long-time teacher in Durham, has been using the recent snow days as a practice run for retirement. He can be reached at hookunruhe@gmail.com.