EdReform’s March to the Sea

It’s what we do to students and teachers with standardized testing in the name of improving education that’s scandalous, and it is not surprising that this misuse of testing has led to scenarios such as those in Atlanta and other places.

This week, Fawn Johnson at National Journal.com, Education Insiders asks:

What is unusual about the Atlanta case? Are teachers and principals motivated by a culture of fear? Does that happen elsewhere? What happens to educators who face seemingly impossible benchmarks? How do they cope? Can testing systems build in protections against abuses? How should professionals who are tasked with raising achievement for low-performing kids be measured, if at all?

First, let’s remind ourselves that these educators are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Next, let’s be clear: Violating test security is a serious breach of professional ethics and everybody who works in a public school knows that, especially the licensed educators. With that groundwork, let’s step back and put this case in perspective.

Although there’s much about the Atlanta situation that remains unknown, what we do know is sad on many levels, including the disgusting fact that the entire testing enterprise is of little real value to the students who must endure it. Standardized testing as practiced in schools across the U.S. is at best oxymoronic. In some states, for example, no information that could help students on the tests can be visible on bulletin boards or walls during testing. In other states, that information can be plastered around the room in clear view of test takers as long as it has been up since the beginning of school. We scrutinize so-called failing schools, mostly populated by poor children of color, when their scores rise, but rarely investigate so-called better schools whose scores never drop. And could we please stop pretending that we needed test data to prove we have never provided quality education to all our children.

Much of what is asked on these state tests is relatively trivial, sometimes obscure, yet the scores have inordinately high stakes attached to them. There is no testing system devised by human beings that other humans cannot find a way to subvert, but even if the test results were gathered with impeccable integrity, that data tells us very little of real value about what students have learned or about the quality of their instruction. These tests are not designed for such uses; it’s the pedagogical equivalent of trying to take an infant’s temperature with a truck scale. It’s what we do to students and teachers with standardized testing in the name of improving education that’s scandalous, and it is not surprising that this misuse of testing has led to scenarios such as those in Atlanta and other places. As I mentioned in an earlier blog:

Many commentators are stunned by the uncovering of widespread cheating on standardized testing in D.C. and Atlanta, and rightfully so. But how many more children have we cheated out of their American birthright to a quality education by wasting the most valuable learning resource of all: great veteran teachers.

Across the country, we have tens of thousands of good, dedicated teachers whose talents and energies are being underused and wasted on anemic curriculum and forced test preparation. Countless others have been pushed out or have left the profession in frustration. But some are continuing to fight the good fight; some risk being fired for insubordination because they refuse to go along with test prep mandate madness, and actually dare to teach students what they deserve and need to learn.

What if the educators and parents in Atlanta had done like increasing numbers of people of conscience across the nation and simply refused to participate? There are more effective, rigorous, and humane methods of assessing student learning and teacher performance than relying exclusively or heavily on standardized test results. It’s time to stop the scorched earth approach to education reform.

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