Assessment is not a four-letter word

Power of Ten Update
Assessment is not a four-letter word:

Little children need lots of positive feedback. “You’re a good helper” goes a long way to improve socialization and build self-esteem, even when the “help” is more figurative than functional. Pre-adolescents tire quickly of “phony” praise. They are big enough to care that they are truly useful and feel proud when they’ve mastered a skill. Teenagers and young adults go a step further, they start assessing their assessors. They notice that letter and number grades don’t accurately reflect the full scope of knowledge and achievements they and their peers are making. They often reject hierarchical and competitive grading systems and respond better to a more holistic assessment strategy.

The New York State Education Department is currently undertaking an assessment of the systems used by schools for graduation requirements. They are seeking input from the public.

Information on how to participate is available here:

Letter and number grades and test scores are not only used for assessing individual students but also the schools that they attend. Just as an individual student’s grades reflect on the relationship between the school and the student, the average of all the students’ grades and the rate at which they graduate reflects on the relationship between the school and the community it serves.

The New York State Education Department has recently released graduation rates for East Ramapo which can be seen here:

I encourage you to take a few minutes to rummage around the education department’s web site. You will find not only this year’s data, but also previous years. You will find not only our district, and a comparison to the state as a whole, but also data for other Rockland County districts and the county as a whole. The TLDR is that there have been small improvements this year for our district and for the state as a whole, and very little change for most other Rockland districts which were already graduating over 90% of their students. If you have any reflections on the data that you would like to share with the school board, you can send them a message at You may want to also copy the Commissioner of Education at

It’s important to note, that just as a number or a letter does not represent a student’s entire achievement or potential, it also cannot completely describe the achievements or health of the school or a school system. It does not accurately encapsulate the many joys and accomplishments of our young people and the dedicated staff that serve them.

That being said, producing graduates has traditionally been viewed as one of the basic functions of the school system. Hundreds of millions of dollars are appropriated towards this goal. A graduation rate of below 90% is cause for concern. The school system must provide the community a study of the causes of the low graduation rate, and especially the very low rates of some subgroups. The school system must be transparent about the actual experiences of students and how this relates to the high dropout rate. The school system must have a plan and communicate that plan effectively to all stakeholders so that adequate community resources can be directed to support young people.

All the powers and duties of the school system are delegated by the state. It is the state which has the constitutional responsibility to the educational civil rights of all children. Year after year, the state education department has reported that graduation rates are unacceptably low, that students are dropping out, that funds are misspent, and that school governance is dysfunctional. Yet the state government has failed to intervene in any meaningful way, resulting in thousands of children not getting the education which is their civil right. Our assessment of the performance of New York State government is that it has failed in its most basic duty.

What difference could state intervention make? In East Ramapo, a tiny slice of the budget, three million dollars per year, is specifically earmarked to fund all-day kindergarten and music and art programming. Just look at what a fantastic success this has been! It begs the question “what would happen if New York State made sure that all funding in East Ramapo was dedicated to specific educational programming?”

We, as a community must also do the difficult job of self-assessment. Many of us deserve credit for being involved. Some attend board meetings, others attend school events or participate in community organizations that support education, such as the Martin Luther King Center in Spring Valley. Staff in the schools often go above and beyond their job description because they love their students. Administration has brought in some new curriculum which students respond well to. There are many more people and organizations doing good work than there is space to list here.

However, there has been a lack of critical analysis and feedback from the community. Parents of students who are failing or dropping out are not bringing their complaints to board meetings. Teachers whose classrooms lack support services, especially for students with emotional difficulties, family issues, and language barriers are not addressing the board with their problems and concerns. Administrators who are facing issues of truancy, overcrowding and under-staffing are not coming forward. The level of cynicism and apathy is not unexpected, because so often our complaints fall on deaf ears. We can fight this by staying focused on the things that we can do, and remembering the difficulties faced by civil rights activists in the past.

Right now, what we can do is help find qualified people to volunteer to serve on the school board. It might be you, or someone you know. Please check out the questionnaire and attend one or both of our upcoming forums.

Thanks for staying with me on this long essay, and for being a Power of Ten reader.