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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

High stakes testing, more harm than good

From Education Week

By Anthony Cody

There are a great many fallacies swirling around our schools, and perhaps the biggest among them is that more testing, and ever higher stakes attached to tests, is inevitable, and thus resistance by teachers, students and parents is futile. Nothing could be further from the truth. The proponents of educational reform have committed the greatest error of the powerful. They have promised far more than they can deliver, and their enterprise is already failing by the markers they laid down.

The original vision of No Child Left Behind was the rather absurd plan that every single child in the nation would be proficient by 2014. Every day we move closer to that date, and more and more schools are labeled failures as a result of its relentless and irrational timetable. These failures belong not to the schools and teachers who work there - they are taking on the challenges in their community and usually working hard to meet them. These failures belong to those who, from the comfort of their offices, made the supposedly "courageous" decisions to hold someone else accountable for fixing problems society does not care to address in meaningful ways.

According to reformers like Michelle Rhee, we have the opportunity to "fix our broken education system." She cites our recent performance on the PISA to prove her point. But as many have pointed out, this data proves just the opposite.

As high school principal Mel Riddile points out here,

Schools in the United States with less than a 10% poverty rate had a PISA score of 551. When compared to the ten countries with similar poverty numbers, that score ranked first.

The problem is not as much with our educational system as it is with our high poverty rates. The real crisis is the level of poverty in too many of our schools and the relationship between poverty and student achievement. Our lowest achieving schools are the most under-resourced schools with the highest number of disadvantaged students. We cannot treat these schools in the same way that we would schools in more advantaged neighborhoods or we will continue to get the same results.

Serious scholars and educators have known this for years. And Rhee had very little results to show for her years as the tough-minded Chancellor of Washington, DC, schools, similar to her counterpart in New York City, Joel Klein. These are stubborn facts, and they will not go away with another round of new and better tests, nor when we have fired the teachers supposedly responsible for the low scores. Until we are prepared to invest in our schools and communities, and until our students have very real opportunities as a result of the education they are receiving, our schools in impoverished communities will not magically improve.

It is, in fact, inevitable that this test-driven reform will fail. It will fail because it cannot deliver on its lofty promises. The only reason the project totters forward is because of the steadfast sponsorship by an alliance of billionaires and the politicians and policymakers they employ, directly and indirectly.

The challenge for those of us who see that these emperors and empresses of reform are naked is to stay clear on our own vision of what school should be, and continue to call it out. Continue to speak the truth, and shame those who claim to have all the answers. And we must work with parents and students and our fellow teachers, so they understand that our schools will not improve when we have fired ten percent of the teachers, base evaluations on test scores, eliminate tenure and seniority, and expand privately run charter schools.

Instead, they will improve when we seek stability and growth in our struggling schools, and support the teachers there so they are retained, and have time to collaborate and learn together. We will improve these schools when we have small class sizes that allow teachers to give individual attention to students, and differentiate for diverse learners. They will improve when we give teachers professional autonomy and challenge them to authentically assess their students on meaningful work, not do endless test preparation. They will improve when they have strong connections to the parents and communities in which they sit, and serve their aspirations. These are the things that must be priorities for our schools -- not more and more money for more and more sophisticated tests and data tracking systems.

It is perhaps inevitable that when we have a society in which one percent of the population has more than a third of the wealth, these billionaires will believe that they have that power due to their wisdom and intelligence - and thus are entitled to tell the rest of us what to do. But it is also inevitable that some of us will continue to think for ourselves, and continue to fight for schools that serve our communities.

What do you think? Is more high-stakes testing inevitable? Or should we continue to resist?

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