"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On the Passing (and Failing) of Another Testing Season

Aptos High School teacher, Claudia Ayers, has this excellent piece published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on May 20, 2007:

Anyone who has been moved by the fictional Sylvia Barrett in Bel Kaufman's "Up the Down Staircase," or Sidney Portier's vision of E.R. Braithwaith's teaching experience in "To Sir, With Love," or Frank McCourt's brilliant recent contribution "Teacher Man," will appreciate that teaching is as much art as science.

Anyone paying the least attention to the Bush approach to manipulating public spending to benefit corporations and cronies at the expense of the public should know by now that No Child Left Behind [NCLB] was written by people who have never taught in public schools. School administrators who yearn to "take back their schools" from its mandates or who complain about it being underfunded need to step up and do more to protect their charges by joining forces to expose it for what it is - another law with an Orwellian name that, instead of providing for children, will deliberately leave millions of children and young adults behind while cranking tens of billions of dollars into the coffers of test-writing and for-profit education corporations.

School board members and school administrators know there is a problem, yet they spend entirely too much time working within the confines of the problem instead of doing something that will fix it. Congress must amend this straitjacket of a law by actually supporting school children, authentic learning and teachers.

Today we have accountability mania. Ten or 20 years ago, headlines were made on a slow news day when it was discovered a handful of kids graduated from high school who could not read. Clearly, schools were failing abominably and needed to be held accountable. You know the rest of the story; now we test kids every other day in school, we don't promote them [even though we know this is tantamount to condemning them to becoming dropouts], and we don't let them graduate without passing the High School Exit Exam. We start school in early August to better attempt to finish detailed curricular standards before the tests are given in the early spring [well before the school year is actually over]. All too often we take away art, music and recess because this cuts into test prep time, but we can't afford these programs anyway because paying for all the standardized tests and the test-prep software has used up what few dollars come our way.

None of this has actually improved schools overall, and schools were never as bad as one might think based on the fear-mongering generated by some uninformed politicians. It is now far, far more important that education become more rigorous than it is to make it enjoyable or meaningful.

Kids have their scores right in their faces. These are typically "normed" scores; a 36th percentile score means 35 out of 100 kids scored lower than you did, and 64 out of 100 scored higher. Our kids know that they get "As" when they score 90 percent or higher in their classes, "Bs" for 80 to 89 percent and so on. Of course, a perfectly "normal" child will score at the 50th percentile on a standardized test, and this child will immediately think "I am so-o-o stupid, I failed this test," instead of "Fine, I'm a typical kid, I think I'll go outside and play." I have seen children who burst into tears when they get standardized scores in the 80s because they thought they were "A" students and this proved they were not. These tests, in fact, prove nothing.

One standard deviation from normal is the group in a population that is the "most typical." This accounts for very nearly 70 percent of our children. In other words, the "normal" kids have scores on standardized tests that range from about 15-85 percent. These, if you will, are all typical students. Those above and below this range are two or three standard deviations from normal. They may be English-language learners, students with a learning disability, or, on the other side of the distribution, students with a special talent for successfully whizzing through tests.

What do test scores and grades, for that matter, really tell you? Not much.

Parents, you sabotage authentic learning when you ask how well your child is doing, rather than asking about what your child is learning. Grades, actually, are not motivational, and plenty of studies back this up.

Standardized test scores will not give you a lick of information about your child's ability to stick with a problem, to be creative, to be a good problem-solver, to be a good citizen or a good listener, to speak bilingually, to have and support friendships, to be of high moral fiber, to participate well in democracy, to have artistic or athletic talents, to develop and rely on inner strengths, to care about the world and all living things as an interconnected web, to enjoy reading books, to thoroughly research a topic, to have a good sense of humor, to be self-reliant, or to be a valued participant in your family. These scores will only tell you how well your child takes standardized tests.

If the testocrats are not stopped, millions of kids who have done everything else right will not graduate from the schools where they have spent four years passing classes, because they are not good standardized test-takers. Whether a student is a dropout or is pushed out of high school, the results are the same: They will comprise half of the heads of households on welfare and an even higher percentage of the prison population. It costs society five to 10 times as much to imprison a person for one year as to educate a school-age child.

Let's hold the Bush administration accountable for something and take back the education of our children. Let's work to make school a place where children love to go by completely reforming NCLB. Support authentic learning; take the money back from testing companies, private tutors and publicly supported private schools.

Authentic learners enjoy the freedom to pursuit their passions; children constantly exposed to consequences, rigor, standards and high-stakes tests know only fear. Public policy is correct when it points toward freedom and devastating when it points toward fear. I was once told in a job interview that standardized testing was a necessary evil. I amazed myself by calmly responding that I didn't think evil was ever necessary. I didn't get that job, but I hope I have gotten your attention.

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