Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks is the former commanding general of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center.
It might be strange to hear a retired Army guy commend the new system of standardized tests given to students from elementary to high school, but if there’s one thing military personnel know well, it’s how to measure achievement and progress.
Everything that an individual does, a unit does, even the Defense Department does is measured against a known and accepted standard. That is how we determine readiness and operational success. If our standards are off, the consequences of mission failure can be very serious.
So we take great care in developing our standards, take the time to ensure that everyone who will be assessed understands the benchmarks, and then devote effort to after-action reports to learn more about our strengths and our weaknesses.
Reflecting on that, it actually makes a lot of sense for a retired Army guy whose three daughters each attended three different high schools and a number of other elementary and middle schools to see the value in these new assessments.
Each time my family moved because of my career, my wife and I wondered how our girls would compare academically with their new classmates, essentially asking if they would be ahead or behind academically because there were no common education standards from state to state. In fact, standards could vary within states, making any kind of school transfer a dicey proposition for students.
The Common Core State Standards resolved that for so many military families, offering them assurances for the first time that their children would be on par academically with new classmates, eliminating one of the most stressful aspects of military moves.
Once these new standards were adopted, schools needed a better way to measure student progress. Across the country, the patchwork of standardized assessments required by the federal government, state governments and local jurisdictions have failed to give parents, students and educators an accurate picture of how students were doing, and that led to a very serious honesty gap in which there was a wide discrepancy between national benchmarks for student achievement and what states were reporting.
But the new assessments, which students in grades three through eight took this spring, are more thoughtful and more focused on what matters most in education: the development of critical- and analytical-thinking skills, problem solving and writing.
The adoption of higher academic standards gave educators the chance to develop more meaningful assessments that would test students on how well they were learning materials versus how well they could memorize facts. The new assessments get away from the archaic bubble tests in which a good guess counted as much as a right answer and require that students demonstrate they understand how to apply what they have learned in the classroom to the real world.
After all, that’s the goal of the more rigorous standards — to better prepare students for success after they graduate from high school. Employers and college professors have high expectations, and so does the military, which is why we need a better way to measure students’ academic progress so they are prepared for the challenges.
The standards and the assessments have met with strident opposition, but a noteworthy and disturbing statistic is that 30 percent of high school graduates cannot pass the basic military entrance exam. The U.S. military is one of the most technically advanced employers in the world, and our leaders expect that subordinates will be able to carry out mission orders with guidance, not step-by-step directions. Contrary to the insulting caricature of mindless soldiers blindly following orders, commanders provide a framework of what success looks like and understand that there is flexibility to execute without risking minimal standards for success. Similar to civilian life, there are many paths to achieve success.
Just as the military empowers its commanders to make the best decisions for their units, the new tests empower teachers to help their students reach their full potential. The valuable feedback from assessments that measure what children have learned instead of what they don’t know gives early indicators as to where students need extra support so that teachers can intercede sooner before it’s too late.
The scores from this year’s assessments will create a baseline against which future years will be compared. This will give parents and educators a comprehensive picture of how each student is progressing academically. This knowledge will help students achieve their full potential, and, as we all learned years ago, knowing is half the battle.