Bear Bryant fielded splendid football teams, year after year. He knew how to coach and he knew how to recruit, and this combination earned him the title of the "winningest coach in history." But let's do a little mental experiment. Suppose that someone abruptly said to Bryant, "Bear, we're pulling one on you ole boy. We're sending your players to the University of North Alabama and enrolling them there this fall. You can expect the boys from Florence to arrive in Tuscaloosa in a few days. They are to be your players this season."
What outcome, apart from the astonishment of Mr. Bryant, would you expect from this experiment? Could we not agree that, while North Alabama might have an unusually good year, that Bryant's Alabama team would likely fall short of the National Championship? And could we not further agree that no irate alumni groups would demand the coach's head, since it would be trivially obvious what the problem was, and they understood the reason for his diminished results? I believe that we could.
But now let us change the subject from football to academics. This is, after all, not football season. That comes in late summer. Here in early summer we are ablaze with the SAT season, the season of test scores. Unfortunately the season is not going well. A fresh batch of test scores has just been reported and a lot of people are upset, State Superintendent of Education Dr. Ed Richardson, the press, parents' groups-- everybody. They see test scores in many schools considerably below championship levels and they are up in arms, madder than alumni after a losing season.
I assert that these people, including Dr. Richardson, are thoughtless and mistaken. Before stating my case I must devote just a couple of sentences to a sketch of the background.
Two test scores are reported for each school, the OLSAT, which is a test of learning ability, and the SAT, which measures what students have actually learned. As correctly explained recently in The Huntsville Times, "The goal of educators is to have a school's SAT score match or exceed its OLSAT score." The Times further says that, "SAT scores exceeding OLSATs are thought to show achievement beyond expectations."
As a convenience in this discussion allow me to coin and define a new term. I define "Teaching Effectiveness" (TE) as the SAT score divided by the OLSAT score. Using The Times criterion, then, a TE of 1.0 meets expectations, and meets the goal of educators, and in that case it may be said that teaching is being done, so to speak, "at par." A TE less than 1.0 means that teaching is below par, and anything over 1.0 means that it is above par. This is a rational and wholly fair way to evaluate teachers and schools. It is hard to see how anything other than this, or some other measure which takes into account the ability of the students, can be used as a fair measure of a school's performance.
Yet such is emphatically not the case. Dr. Richardson, and seemingly everyone else, is focusing purely on SAT scores, that is, on achievement, and ignoring entirely the question of ability as given by the OLSAT scores. Litchfield High School in Gadsden is a case in point. There Tony Reddick, the principal, sits in his office in his empty school anxiously awaiting the sound of tramping feet echoing down the hall as Dr. Richardson marches in to commandeer his school. Mr. Reddick's school has failed to meet the criterion for achievement set by the Superintendent, so Dr. Richardson is threatening to take over.
Yet Mr. Reddick is teaching above par! With a Teaching Effectiveness of 1.08 he is "meeting the goal of educators" and he is showing "achievement beyond expectations." Why, then, is he in trouble? Especially since the other two high schools in Gadsden, Sanson and Gadsden High, are both below par, with TEs of .91 and .88, respectively.
Johnson High School in Huntsville is also illustrative. Johnson has just barely escaped, at least for now, a threat by Richardson to take it over because of its relatively modest achievement scores. Johnson, true enough, is teaching below par, but so is each of the other four high schools in Huntsville, and with a TE of .90 it beats Huntsville High, which comes in at .88 and is in the clear so far as the Superintendent is concerned. Johnson, moreover, is just slightly below Huntsville's much-vaunted Grissom which has a TE of .92.
Mr. Reddick is not Bear Bryant. His achievement scores are low but he is doing the best he can do with the students he has. Unlike the Bear he can't go out and recruit his students based on their ability. On the contrary every student is a walk-on who must be accepted, and we cannot expect a championship team to result except in rare cases. Meanwhile we would do well to understand this, and to cease pummeling people such as Mr. Reddick who, rare among high school principals, is teaching above par, and is both meeting "the goal of educators" and showing "achievement beyond expectations."
Hugh McInnish is a retired aerospace engineer and a Republican activist.