Friday, December 09, 2011

Current tests, ludicrous, dysfunctional

Parents. Would you force your kids to take these tests?
Washington Post "The Answer Sheet" Blog -- December 5, 2011
By Marion Brady

A longtime friend on the school board of one of the largest school
systems in America did something that few public servants are willing to
do. He took versions of his state’s high-stakes standardized math and
reading tests for 10th graders, and said he’d make his scores public.

By any reasonable measure, my friend is a success. His now-grown kids
are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for
condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer
miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school
board responsibilities. The margins of his electoral wins and his good
relationships with administrators and teachers testify to his openness
to dialogue and willingness to listen.

He called me the morning he took the test to say he was sure he hadn’t
done well, but had to wait for the results. A couple of days ago,
realizing that local school board members don’t seem to be playing much
of a role in the current “reform” brouhaha, I asked him what he now
thought about the tests he’d taken.

“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote. “The math section had 60
questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten
out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system,
that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block
of reading instruction.

He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a
bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours
toward a doctorate.

“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion
operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data
related to those responsibilities.

“I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking
the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them,
particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving
students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single
one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their

“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d
actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material
would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can
determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some
practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could
possibly be true of the test I took.”

Here’s the clincher in his post:

“If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader,
my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been
told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and
looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said
I had.

“It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a
student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult,
real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their
level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to
defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified
were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s
children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail
“cut score”? How?”

“I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in
particular and standardized tests in general are being made by
individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

There you have it. In 13 words, a concise summary of what’s wrong with
present corporately driven education change: Decisions are being made by
individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.

Those decisions are shaped not by knowledge or understanding of
educating, but by ideology, politics, hubris, greed, ignorance, the
conventional wisdom, and various combinations thereof. And then they’re
sold to the public by the rich and powerful.

All that without so much as a pilot program to see if their simplistic,
worn-out ideas work, and without a single procedure in place that
imposes on them what they demand of teachers: accountability.

But maybe there’s hope. As I write, a New York Times story by Michael
Winerip makes my day. The stupidity of the current test-based thrust of
reform has triggered the first revolt of school principals.

Winerip writes: “As of last night, 658 principals around the state (New
York) had signed a letter — 488 of them from Long Island, where the
insurrection began — protesting the use of students’ test scores to
evaluate teachers’ and principals’ performance.”

One of those school principals, Winerip says, is Bernard Kaplan. Kaplan
runs one of the highest-achieving schools in the state, but is required
to attend 10 training sessions.

“It’s education by humiliation,” Kaplan said. “I’ve never seen teachers
and principals so degraded.”

Carol Burris, named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School
Administrators Association of New York State, has to attend those 10
training sessions.

Katie Zahedi, another principal, said the session she attended was “two
days of total nonsense. I have a Ph.D., I’m in a school every day, and
some consultant is supposed to be teaching me to do evaluations.”

A fourth principal, Mario Fernandez, called the evaluation process a
product of “ludicrous, shallow thinking. They’re expecting a tornado to
go through a junkyard and have a brand new Mercedes pop up.”

My school board member-friend concluded his email with this: “I can’t
escape the conclusion that those of us who are expected to follow
through on decisions that have been made for us are doing something
ethically questionable.”

He’s wrong. What they’re being made to do isn’t ethically questionable.
It’s ethically unacceptable. Ethically reprehensible. Ethically

How many of the approximately 100,000 school principals in the U.S.
would join the revolt if their ethical principles trumped their fears of
retribution? Why haven’t they been asked?

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