Monday, February 17, 2014

Time to cast off the testing demons and do what's right

One thing most citizens agree on is that no cost, high quality K - 12 education should be available for all children.  The benefits seem quite clear for both the individuals, and our society as a whole.  The trick is - how to you determine that a child is receiving a quality education?

Many of us would echo the famous Justice Stewart observation regarding obscenity:  “I know it when I see it”; but we live in the era of Big Data, so test scores have become a surrogate.  The belief accepted: high test scores indicate a high quality education.   

At first glance, one can see some merit to the concept.  After all, in High School and College students take a final exam at the end of a semester for each class taken.  Excluding those folks who have general test-taking issues, the results of these tests tend to give us a pretty good idea of how well a student has mastered the material.  If we believe this type of test has validity, it is because they are written and scored by the people who presented the material in the first place.

Even these tests have a drawback.  Many people think tests do their best work by informing teachers about the areas in which their student needs extra assistance.  But at this point the class is over.  There is no opportunity for feedback, no option for remediation by the teacher.

Indiana administers the ISTEP test from Third Grade onward – as mandated by federal education policy.  The design and administration is outsourced.  The tests are scored by temporary workers.  There is no connection to the classroom experience for the students.  But the results have become life and death matters for both schools and teacher’s jobs.  Due to these kind of stakes, we’ve seen cheating scandals in Washington DC, Atlanta, and elsewhere.

In the early years, only math and language skills are tested, later science is added to the mix.  It’s no surprise then, that curricula are often narrowed to focus on these areas – especially in schools with a high proportion of students from challenged backgrounds.

This has a perverse effect.  Research is clear that course enrichment: music, drama, visual art, physical education, and the like, help keep children engaged and motivated in school.  And these are the kind of students most in need of any support we can manage.  But the powers that be seem to think that narrowing the curriculum is the way to achieve optimal test scores.

So we have devised our strategies around the surrogate goal, rather than the original one.  That creates a dilemma:  There’s no guarantee that what works for one will work for the other.

In South Bend, Indiana, where we live, there are neighborhood schools and so-called magnet schools.  The “magnets” draw from the entire district by offering specialized foci.

About a year ago we sampled the menu, as our daughter was ready to move on to intermediate school.  We then saw pretty clearly the results of under funding and test mania in our public school system.

The two finalists were LaSalle Intermediate Academy and our local school, Jackson.  To enter LIA, one must pass an entrance test and succeed in a lottery.  LIA offers a much wider course selection than the alternatives (though somewhat short of my own public middle school experience).  Still, we wanted to take a careful look at Jackson, as well.

We were highly impressed by Principal Schaller, and school building itself is a duplicate of LaSalle - they were built contemporaneously.  But they are very different in terms of what it is offered inside.

Thanks to the gradual de-funding of public education, our neighborhood school no longer offers any industrial arts, home economics, or drama.  The visual arts and science facilities are dubious in quality - and foreign language (Spanish only) is a three semester proposition (grades 7 - 8).  Phys Ed is only sporadically offered.  And the only after school things available are athletic programs.

If that weren't discouraging enough, we were told all children are tested in math and English every three weeks.  The time allocated is forty-five minutes (one would assume per subject) with the class results posted on the cafeteria wall.  So, there is little in the way of enrichment, and lots of lost instructional time – all in service to the budget cutters and the testing fiends.

It is true that test scores have nudged up a bit at the school.  But that’s true almost everywhere.  And surprising as it may seem, we don’t send our daughter to school to secure a high score on once per year tests which are meaningless to her and us.  No, we send her to secure a high quality education – which she will get due to the enrichment programs and increased instructional time at LIA.  And no doubt, better test scores.

So in the end we had no choice because we had a choice.  Unfortunately for most families, they have no choice because they have no choice.

An organization’s budget is clear statement of values.  The State of Indiana needs to quit looking for scapegoats and sending public instruction funds to commercial vendors.  It should instead, reinvest in its children at levels to get the job done properly.  In other words, it should align its strategies towards the original goal, rather than the surrogate.

What do you think it symbolizes?