Monday, December 30, 2013

Test Scores and Standards: An Inhuman Marriage

In 2000, when President George W. Bush wondered, “Is our children learning?” no one anticipated his nonsensical question would spark a nonsensical education reform movement based on nonsensical tests. Many Americans took Bush and his question seriously, however, electing him as our president for two terms while hanging our children’s futures on curriculum and tests designed by faceless corporations. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law ushered in the error of test-based accountability, when answers to written questions suddenly meant the difference between achievement and failure, prosperity and closure.  The corporate bottom-line seduced a desperate populace, and students, teachers, and principals began rising and falling to the tune of test scores.  If it couldn’t be measured, it couldn’t be counted.

With the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the testing mountain rose even higher, and the first students to reach the top became more important than those left behind.  The Obama administration closed more schools and fired more teachers while championing (some say illegally) the Common Core standards, measurable only through nebulous, age-inappropriate tests. Kindergartners needed “college and career” readiness as much as high school seniors, with Bill Gates’s “powerful market of people” sucking districts dry. Companies like Pearson swooped in to sell curriculum materials for their own flawed tests.    

Though high standards are elemental, we cheapen these standards and the accompanying curriculum when pairing them with high-stakes tests. Politicians and profiteers have wed the Common Core standards to test scores, expecting expedient, objective measurements of learning while undermining schools and communities in the process. Fearful teachers have no choice but to teach to the test, often relying on unwieldy or flawed curriculum copyrighted by corporations. In New York, for example, up to 40% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on Common Core tests, and the state recently paid private companies $50 million to create curriculum modules (units) related to these tests. Though much of these units are poorly designed by non-educators, many teachers in New York and elsewhere have no choice but to use them because their districts require it and/or they cannot anticipate what types of questions will appear on the tests.  This is like forcing a doctor to prescribe the wrong medication even though he knows it’s killing the patient. 

The human mind is complex, and measuring the mind is even more complex. While a test might tell us if a student can apply a formula or decipher a vocabulary word, it is limited to a narrow set of questions administered on a specific day. Is what’s not on the test of equal or more value? If so, how do we measure this? Unfortunately, the answer is not as easy as feeding blackened bubbles through a machine. The answer involves talking to and interacting with our kids, something a bureaucrat cannot do from behind his desk in the capital.

Through daily interaction, parents, teachers, and administrators are best able to determine if our children are learning. After all, they know the faces behind the test scores, and any educator will tell you that there is no sight greater than a child’s face lighting up with knowledge. This light is unlikely to shine during a standardized test, however, but through other, more human assessments.  It shines in the creation of paintings, poems and plays. It shines in scientific experiments and historical reenactments. It shines in philosophical discussions and musical compositions. It shines from our kids daily in how they treat themselves and others as they join the ranks of an enlightened citizenry.

Measuring learning is not supposed to be easy. Like gold beneath a river, everyone wants to find it, yet few want to dig for it. It requires persistence and commitment from those in the water. Parents—who fortunate kids typically spend the most time with—must look for evidence of learning daily, be it subtle or overt. Teachers must personalize learning, making knowledge more applicable to authentic situations rather than generic multiple-choice tests. The third and most consistently ignored point is the role of school administrators, who must recognize effective teaching when evident. Administrators across America must be able to pinpoint the presence of the standards in the faces of students rather than in spreadsheets. This means fighting for great teachers in the classroom while escorting ineffective ones out, sidestepping the mythical obstruction of tenure. When local principals and superintendents surrender control to bureaucrats and shadowy state boards,  however, the faces of our kids and teachers become obscured by data points and dollar signs.   
"Is our children are learning?" Politicians and corporations should be prepared for an even more complicated answer than Bush's original question.  The answer is complicated simply because human relationships are complicated, and knowledge cannot and should not be deduced to a number.  School leaders must wrestle with this question daily, however, throughout their schools in their communities. Let's hold these leaders accountable through direct engagement of what works and what doesn't, scouring for evidence of results among truly human pursuits rather than a marriage of consequential tests to consequential standards.

Are our children learning? Look into their faces and you will find out.  

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