Friday, January 9, 2009

What about the 40% who didn't pass?

In a January 2007 interview, I offered a statistic to (then) Spokane Superintendent Dr. Brian Benzel:

“Forty percent of the students didn’t pass the math requirement,” I noted.
“But sixty percent did,” he said encouragingly.
“I know,” I persisted, “but if you’re a parent of one of the 60%, then woo-hoo for you, but if you’re a parent of the one of the 40%…”

Dr. Benzel assured me that overall, grades are up. “As recently as 5 years ago, 60% didn’t (pass), and 40% did,” he said. “We’re being very clear in what these learning targets are, and it’s contrary to the way most of us adults went to school. We were all compared to our peers. We weren’t compared to standards. We were scored on norm-referenced tests, where we were measured against a mythical group of students from 20 years ago or 10 years ago.”

And then … he proceeded to blame it on the students: “If there’s a problem after 4th grade, this thing called free will comes into play. The choices that students make take on grave power in a person’s willingness to learn. Up through 4th grade and 10 years old, kids tend to do pretty much what we tell them to do.”

It sounded as though Dr. Benzel was explaining the 40% failure rate in part by saying students were deciding to not learn. Are you shocked? Dr. Benzel isn’t alone. A high-school teacher in Spokane echoed this theory in a May 2008 Letter to the Editor, writing: “The real breakdown in our current model of education is, in part, the growing number of students who simply don’t want to learn… These are likeable, worthwhile kids, but they have been influenced by our culture, their sense of entitlement or a teenage lack of foresight, and concluded that the classroom isn’t worth their time.”

In the fall of 2007, I asked a district administrator about the scores on the 2007 Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). I showed her the district Report Card, pointing out how the math scores dropped grade after grade until Grade 10, when just 48.1% of students passed the math WASL. “What about 6th grade,” I asked her, “where just 57.9% of the students passed the math portion of the WASL?” Her response: “How do we know that 60% isn’t good?” She said it might be good, depending on where that group began.

These exchanges show you the vast difference in thinking. I don’t look to the students to find out why 40 to 60% of them don’t pass the WASL. I don’t believe that 40 to 60% of them don’t want to learn or come to school not ready to learn. If the situation weren’t affecting children, these statements from educators might even be funny.

Try this statement on for size: “The real breakdown in our current model of health care is, in part, the growing number of patients who simply don’t want to get well.”

Or how about this: “The real breakdown in our current model of national defense is, in part, the growing number of citizens who simply don’t want to be protected.”

It isn’t all that often that 60% is “good.” If you expect a score to be zero, and instead it’s 60%, perhaps 60% is a huge relief. But it isn’t good.

  • It isn’t good on a battlefield. (“Sir, 60% of the men have guns and ammunition.”)
  • It isn’t good in a hospital. (“Ma’am, 60% of our patients lived through the night.”)
  • It isn’t good at the dinner table. (“You get to eat 60% of your meals.”)
  • It isn’t good in college. (“Sixty percent of you will get textbooks this year.”)
  • It isn’t good as a score in the classroom, and it isn’t good as a pass rate on the WASL.

I don’t see a 60% pass rate as “great gains.” I understand that the figures matter with respect to NCLB requirements, but what about the 4 out of 10 children who didn’t pass? I don’t celebrate because this year (for example), 61.8 percent of students made it as opposed to only 59.3 percent last year. To me, both figures are pitiful. I’m not looking to slowly eke our way up over three decades of struggle. There’s no good reason why it shouldn’t happen right now, this year, on their watch. We’ve been teaching math and science in this country for hundreds of years. How did it suddenly get to be so hard?

It’s a travesty that only 60% pass the math portion and even fewer pass the science portion. It’s a complete district failure. Imagine how the students see themselves. It’s shameful, when, with a more effective learning environment, most could have learned what they needed to know. How can we even communicate when I see 60% as a failure, and they see it as potentially good? I was shocked that district administrators would go on the record saying 60% might be good – and then defend that statement against my shock. They can continue to write their own reality, but you and I know the truth. A 60% pass rate isn’t good. It might be an improvement. It might be the best you can do. It’s certainly better than zero. But it isn’t good.

Queried about the 40% of students who didn’t pass, Dr. Benzel wanted to focus on the 60% who did. You’ve sure got to hope your child’s one of the 60%.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (January, 2009). "What about the 40% who didn't pass?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

The aritlce was posted January 12, 2009 at at

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