I don't like undermining the authority of school officials, but you have my permission to disregard the shushing finger of D.C. School Superintendent Floretta McKenzie.
The city's chief schoolmarm, in announcing that our public school third-graders have finally reached national norms on standardized tests in reading, math and science, tells us that there is "no cause to celebrate."
Ignore her. That news is worth celebrating-- worth at least something more than a muffled cheer. Her caution against premature exuberance is based on the fact that the same tests reveal that the majority of the city's public schoolchildren continue to score below national norms. But even so, the recent scores show improvement at every grade level, with the average in some grades only a few months behind national standards.
McKenzie, who acknowledges that is very good news, is like the coach of a trailing football team that has scored five unanswered touchdowns. She's afraid that to set off the fireworks while the team is still behind might kill the momentum.
Maybe she's right. But as a parent in the stands, I can't bring myself to sit on my hands. I smell victory, and I feel like celebrating.
The nicest thing about the scoring spurt is that it is not the result of luck or a weakening opponent but of a solid game plan, smartly executed. One key element of the game plan is described, jargonistically, as a Competency Based Curriculum. What it involves is a commitment to do what good teachers always have done: teach subject skills in a logical sequence, with frequent tests to make sure the skills are learned.
Another key element is almost revolutionary in its simplicity: children (beginning with the first three grades) are not to be promoted to the next grade until they have mastered the one they're in.
If Washingtonians want further proof that the approach works, let them look at New York City's public schools. Test scores there have surpassed national norms for the first time in a decade. (Last year, 50.8 percent of New York's 2nd- through-9th graders scored above the national averge in reading, but only 49.6 percent in math. This year, the numbers are 51 percent in reading and 56.5 in math. The national norm is the level at which 50 percent of the students score.)
Starting a year ago, New York initiated a plan under which students in 4th and 7th grade (the "gateway" points) who failed to meet minimum skills tests in reading would have to be retained in grade. Next fall, the mandatory retention rule will also embrace math.
"The math standards haven't even gone into effect yet," a New York school official said in a telephone interview, "and already everybody is performing better." It is as though just knowing the standards will be tougher makes both teachers and students more serious about their work, said Carol Brownell, executive director of public affairs.
It seems such an obvious thing, and yet many school systems, out of misguided sympathy for below-average students, have instituted "social promotions:" students are promoted after they reach a certain age, whether they achieve anything else or not. The D.C. schools have abandoned social promotions, while generally tightening standards. That in itself is cause for celebration.
Tougher standards alone and the willingness to flunk youngsters who fail to meet them are not enough, however. Thus, underachieving students, both here and in New York, will have the option of attending summer school in an effort to bring their grades up to par.
In short, the D.C. school system is finally serious about educating our children, instead of merely making excuses for them, and the encouraging evidence is that it's working.
Sorry, Flo McKenzie. That's worth celebrating.