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

Friday, December 14, 2007

That's Tasting, Not Testing

From yesterday's Santa Barbara Independent by David Hodges:

The Failure of Testing to Address Actual Proficiency

My wife had a group of elementary school kids do a scavenger hunt at the Farmers Market to gather fruits and vegetables for a “tasting day” at school. On the morning of the tasting, big banners hung from the cafeteria ceiling for all to see — Tasting Day. A child walked into the cafeteria and visibly slumped, his smile vanished, and his eyes clouded. When my wife approached him, he said, “I thought we were done with testing.”

Welcome to the post-accountability No Child Left Behind (NCLB) world, where no child is left untested. Are today’s students better readers and mathematicians than 10 or 20 years ago? Has all this emphasis on content standards, annual testing, and exit exams worked? No. It is time to recognize that the standards-based, test-driven, school-accountability movement has failed. After 10 years, these measures have not improved education.

NCLB is based on the idea that after 12 years of testing and punishment for under-achieving students and schools, 100 percent of the nation’s students will be English and math proficient. For the last six years of NCLB, national reading proficiency has remained nearly flat. Math proficiency has improved, but at the same pace as before NCLB. Now we face a balloon payment of proficiency. For the next six years, students climb the Everest of proficiency, during which all students — regardless of language, ethnicity, economic status, or disability — must rise to 100 percent proficiency.

Given that only 24-34 percent of the nation’s students have been proficient readers for the last 20 to 30 years, it would take a miracle to achieve a national policy of Only Half Our Children Left Behind. On this preposterous road to universal proficiency, we abandoned the idea that education is about more than annual test performance. Millions of tax dollars were given to private test companies like ETS and McGraw-Hill. Art, music, and shop classes vanished. Average class size grew. More kids dropped out.

In 2005, Harvard’s Civil Rights Project conducted a study that tracked California 9th graders during four years to gauge how many received their diploma by the end of 12th grade. Only 71 percent of these 9th graders graduated with their peers. Twenty-nine percent — nearly a third — had disappeared from public school four years later. Minorities fared worst: 42 percent of African Americans, 40 percent of Latinos, and 48 percent of Native Americans did not graduate high school.

No one noticed that the blind academics-only routine was driving fragile, disadvantaged teens out onto the streets. Consider the schedule of a below-proficient high school student: two English classes, two math classes, a science, a history, maybe physical education, and no electives, sports, art, shop, or music. Or consider the teacher — required to teach only specific standards at a mechanical pace. The pace dictated by the “if it’s October, this must be Standard 5” calendar. No adaptation was made for the learning needs of individuals. Teachers were told to teach the test, not students.

Decoupling what is taught from what students know is the single greatest flaw in the accountability movement. Having a common set of standards for every subject makes some sense. It is easy, however, to list everything we’d like kids to know. The hard part is getting them to care about learning it.

High schools cannot give a standardized test lower than Algebra 1 or they get a penalty.

The classic standards catch-22 is Algebra 1. If a student is not ready for Algebra 1, they still have to take it because it is a state requirement. No Algebra 1 means no graduation. Teachers have to teach Algebra 1 to students regardless of math ability — even if a student can’t multiply. If a student is in special education, he/she must take Algebra 1. High schools cannot give a standardized test lower than Algebra 1 or they get a penalty. The result? Of the 140,090 California 9th graders taking the Algebra 1 test in 2007, only eight percent were proficient. Sophomores did worse, with 5 percent proficiency.

With all this emphasis on academics, more students should be going on to college than ever before. After all, being competitive in a technological world economy was the principal justification for school accountability in the first place. According to John Aubrey Douglass’s new book, The Conditions for Admission: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public University, a greater percentage of students went directly to college after high school in 1970 than today. In 1970, 55 percent of high school graduates went to college. By 2000, it had fallen to 48 percent, and the numbers are still declining. There are more part-time students, and the skyrocketing costs of a university education have made access prohibitive to all but the rich. In 30 years, the United States has fallen from first to 14th among developed nations in college participation. We have an entire country of students left behind.

It is time to hold accountability accountable. Where is the improvement, where is the proficiency, where is the equity, where is the opportunity in this misguided emphasis?

In sum, the program of school accountability has failed in three significant areas:

• Unachievable academic expectations that undermine the dignity and worth of schools, teachers, and students.

• Disenfranchisement and alienation of the most vulnerable poor and minority students.

• Diminishment of the American dream of equal educational opportunity, by making access to post-high school education more expensive and exclusive.

But in the ashes of this failed policy lay the seeds of the solution:

• Reasonable and relevant academic goals generated of, by, and for the individual needs and aspirations of communities, schools, and students.

• Development and acknowledgement of the assets that every student brings; when we lift the struggling student, we lift ourselves.

• Renewal of the American dream of equal educational opportunity, by increasing access to college and post-high school career opportunities.

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