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Opinion: Signs of an old education system

Mark Sass has been a public high school teacher since 1994. He currently teaches at Legacy High School in the Adams Five Star School District.

Kudos to Ed News for its clear and concise coverage of the Lobato Case as it makes its way through the legal system. I hope that educators are watching this case and reading some of the testimony.

I was especially interested in the testimony given by John Hefty, a former superintendent and former executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. He was testifying for the plaintiffs and was asked if the state provides the necessary resources for standards-based education. Ed News reported Hefty’s testimony like this:

The old system of education was “designed for the purpose of sorting and selecting” while a standards-based system requires “that we need to move away from that selecting and sorting system to one where everyone is proficient.” Plaintiffs’ lawyer Alexander Halpern asked if the school finance system has been changed to accommodate new demands. “To the best of my knowledge, it has not,” Hefty said. “We do not have the money to deliver on it.”

Hefty said what many in education, including myself, have been saying for years but which seems to either be ignored or misunderstood. We have moved from ranking and sorting students to a system in which we expect and demand all students meet standards.

In the old industrial model of education, which used a ranking and sorting system, schools sorted students into the 30-40 percent who went to college, the 40-50 percent who went into the workforce after high school, and the other 10-20 percent who either dropped out and entered the workforce, or who were encouraged to join the military.

The greatest impact that ranking and sorting had on education was, and perhaps still is, the bell curve. The bell curve guarantees the same results regardless of how students perform. The bell curve places a fixed percentage of students as “A” students (let’s say 5-7 percent), certain students as failing (again 5-7 percent). “B” and “D” students take up another 40 percent, while the remaining 30-35 percent students are placed in the “C” category.

Because the system was based on ranking and sorting, comparing students to students versus comparing students to standards, results were guaranteed. Regardless the amount of funding put towards a ranking and sorting system, you are always guaranteed the same results. That’s why Hefty’s testimony was so relevant to the criticism that we underfund education.

Signs of ranking and sorting

Here are some reasons why I think Hefty is right, that we still operate under the old paradigm of ranking and sorting:


You know that education is still operating under the old rank and sort system when you see funding based on per-pupil versus need. Why do we still allocate funds this way? Don’t some students need more resources than others? Not if you don’t hold all students to the same standards.

Letter grades & tests

You know that we are still ranking and sorting when you see the continued use of letter grades. Letter grades don’t inform as to if a student meets, or even exceeds, the standards. If we were operating under the new paradigm, we’d use an evaluation system that was directly related to the standards: advanced, proficient and not proficient.

CSAP, and its new iteration, TCAP, are based on the new paradigm. ACT, AP, and SAT are not; all three of these exams norm-reference their exams. In other words, they are placed on a bell curve. Every year, 60 percent of all students who write an AP exam pass. A fixed number of students, based on a percentage of the total amount of students who write an ACT exam, receive a 30 or higher on the exam. Remember that the purpose of the ACT and SAT is to produce comparative score interpretations, not determine instructional success. Why do we use the ACT to identify students who need remediation in college? It’s not based on the student’s performance as compared to a standard; it’s based on the student’s performance as compared to other students. Standardized achievement tests help colleges determine if a student is more “ready” for college as compared to other students.

Seat time

You know that we are still ranking when we use “seat time” to decide if a student is ready to move on to the next class or level. If we used standards-based approach, students would be in the class that was appropriate to their level of proficiency. Imagine how much less bored gifted and talented students would be if they were placed in the appropriate class.


You know that we are still ranking when teachers look at the class average versus the class median. An average does not inform the teacher how many students have not met the standard. Averages are deceiving. The only evaluative measure that should be used in a classroom is where a student stands relative to the standards.

The use of zeros for missing student work in a teacher’s grade book is an indication that we still rank and sort students. The use of a zero does not indicate what a student knows and is able to do as it relates to standards, unless the student actually received a zero on a summative exam.


You know we are still sorting if you look at many schools’ discipline rubrics. Instead of applying resources to students whose behavior is troublesome, we suspend or expel them. These students are culled from the masses in an attempt to separate them from students who “try” or “care” about their education. I cannot tell you how many times in my career I’ve heard educators say, after a student has been suspended or expelled, that the discipline process works because it separated the wheat from the chaff. If we rejected the old ranking system, we would have discipline policies in place that would keep students in school, identify their social or academic needs and rush resources to them. I hope the state committee that is reviewing discipline policies keeps this in mind.

“Market-based” reform

Finally, we are still operating under the old system when a “market-based” approach to education is pushed as a reform measure. The market relies on a ranking and sorting system for the consumer. The business that gets the most customers doesn’t do it because they met some high standard. They got the most customers because of choice. The business that ranks higher in choice wins. Does it necessarily have to do with high standards? Nope. I am in no way saying that some businesses do not operate at high standards. Some do. But the goal of the business is to get the most customers. The successful business ranks higher when compared to other businesses, not standards.

Until we recognize all this and begin to operate a genuine standards-based system, we will struggle to bring about the necessary changes to our system of education.

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