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Webster Post
  • Benjamin Wachs: Untie school funding, jobs, from test scores

  • High-stakes standardized testing isn’t the cure, it’s the disease. It drives everything that can’t be graded by machine out of the classroom.

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  • The testing scandal in Atlanta’s schools has so captured our attention that we’ve almost entirely forgotten about the testing scandal at the Washington, D.C., schools.
    That scandal was so terrible that it put the cheating in Los Angeles charter schools clean out of our minds.
    Which made us forget about all the cheating on tests in Baltimore …
    … which caused us to conveniently forget the testing scandals in Virginia …
    … which put the testing scandals in Detroit on the back burner …
    … which shoved the wide-spread cheating on school tests in Chicago over to the side.
    And after all that, who remembers how educators at nearly 400 schools in Texas were found to have inflated their students’ scores?
    And THAT doesn’t even mention New York, which hasn’t had a single massive testing scandal but has had so many medium-sized scandals that it’s actually worse. State officials in New York have been “fixing” errors, ambiguities and capricious scoring for more than a decade now.
    That’s a lot of testing scandals. And these are the success stories. These are the cases — Atlanta, D.C., Texas — where scores went up after instituting massive testing regimes. These were the districts held up to the rest of the nation as models to follow. Teachers everywhere were told, “do that, and your students will do better.”
    Standardized testing has no other big success stories. Meta-analyses have shown that while high-stakes testing will warp the curriculum and drive creativity and experiential learning out of the classroom, it won’t actually improve performance. Sometimes it even hurts it.
    Except in cases where there’s widespread cheating. That’s when the system really does get results.
    The lesson about education is obvious: High-stakes standardized testing isn’t the cure, it’s the disease. It drives everything that can’t be graded by machine out of the classroom; it pushes creative teaching to the sidelines; it can even kill critical thinking abilities in students. Numerous college admissions officers have told me they can see a difference in thinking skills of students who have been taught how to problem-solve and students who have learned how to fill in ovals on multiple choice tests.
    Worst of all, it corrupts the education process by giving teachers an incentive, sometimes even an imperative, to cheat. It’s a bad system. What’s so frustrating is that the fix is incredibly easy. Don’t do away with testing, but make it no stakes.
    The reason teachers are pushed to cheat is that they know they’ll lose their jobs if scores don’t go up, even if it isn’t their fault. (It’s one thing to hold teachers accountable for being good, it’s another thing to say it’s their fault if the class of 2011 has kids who aren’t as prepared as the class of 2010.)
    Page 2 of 2 - The reason tests warp the curriculum is that principals and superintendents hold teachers accountable for nothing but test prep because school district funding depends on test scores. A teacher who inspires kids to love learning is out of luck; that can’t be measured in multiple choice form. A teacher who inspires students to be better people will be out of a job.
    Make the test no stakes. Nobody gets fired, no funding gets changed and no kids get held back as a result. Problem solved.
    I know some of you are asking, well then, what good are they? The answer is easy: We’ll still have the data.
    We’ll know what teachers seem to have a significant impact on their students, and be able to figure out what they’re doing. We’ll know what teachers aren’t increasing scores, and be able to ask, “what’s going on in this classroom?” Maybe they have an influx of non-English speaking kids. Maybe there’s an upswing in gang activity in a neighborhood. Or maybe this is a problem teacher.
    Having no-stakes tests means we can’t just apply an arbitrary formula to the schools and teachers, we’ll need to ask what the data mean before we do anything about it.
    That’s the way this should work anyway.
    Benjamin Wachs writes for Messenger Post Media, and is the editor of Fiction365.com. Email him at Benjamin@Fiction365.com.

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