Perhaps it's the arrival of spring, but I'm catching a whiff of optimism in the air: there appears to be the makings of a revolt against our national obsession with high-stakes testing. And it's originating in Texas of all places!
Even more encouraging, it's not just educators who are standing up (which begs the question: why weren't teachers consulted in the first place?); it's also parents who are beginning to say, "enough is enough!" Some parents have gone so far as to not allow their children to take these high-stakes tests. Just saying.
Truthfully, parents were never really on board in the first place. When you ask parents what they want from their schools, they've never supported the inevitable shrinking of the curriculum that occurs when you test only a narrow band of the curriculum, place enormously high stakes on those tests, and then cut resources.
From the parents' perspective, it's not just about being prepared to get a job, either. Parents have always believed that schools should also prepare students to be citizens - the original justification for public schools, by the way (ask Ben Franklin); to discover what interests them, and to be exposed to the arts.
In fact, with the exception of those relatively few places where the schools really are terrible, parents overwhelmingly rate their local school - the ones their kids go to; the ones where they know the teachers - "A" or "B".
It's those "other" schools that are failing. And why the public perception that our education system is failing? Well, because everybody seems to be saying it (e.g., "Waiting for Superman"), so it must be true. Except that it's not.
When you compare the typical, reasonably financed suburban school in the United States with similar schools in "high-performing" countries elsewhere, our schools hold their own quite well, thank you. What brings our average down, so to speak, are the schools at the lower end of the equity spectrum.
Did you know that among the industrialized countries against which the U.S. compares itself on these international benchmarks, the U.S. has the highest percentage of students in poverty?
Which brings me to this question: if we're going to hold teachers accountable for student progress, shouldn't we hold politicians accountable for the environment in which that progress does, or doesn't, occur? That's what 'high-performing' Finland did.*
Instead, we hear politicians say: "We're not responsible! - it's the teachers fault!" (Well, they're right about the first part.) And while we're on the subject of politicians and accountability, shouldn't legislators be required to take these tests, themselves? And publish the scores? And then explain to us why these tests are so important?
For all the time, effort and money that are put into Pennsylvania's version of high-stakes testing (the PSSAs) the data we get from them is almost worthless. Why? Because we don't even receive that data until six months after the student has left the class! And as limited in value as that data would be, we could get it sooner, but the Commonwealth is too cheap to pay for a quicker turnaround. I kid you not.
Almost completely off the radar is the proposal - for which the current administration appears only too happy to allocate resources - to begin implementing the newest version of high-stakes testing, the Keystone exams, for the class of students entering 9th grade a year from now. Of the three exams that students must take, one will be Biology.
Now, I have nothing against biology, per se, but by what logic is 'proficiency' in biology elevated in importance above all the other things students could, or should be learning? How much do you remember from high school biology? How important was it, really? In order to keep your high school diploma, should you be required to periodically take the new Keystone exam? Just asking.
This lack of coherence is an indication of what high-stakes testing really is: a political fig leaf; the sole purpose of which is to allow politicians to claim that they're 'doing something' about education.
What frustrates me is that a considerable amount of energy must be spent countering these really silly ideas, which only diverts us from the conversations we should be having, like: How do we improve the quality of teaching in the classroom and make it more consistent? What would a meaningful and useful system of assessment look like (including a serious discussion on what it is we ought to be assessing in the first place!). Or, more fundamentally - in what important ways does education need to change in order to meet the needs of the current generation of students?
In my imagination, teachers and parents would have a big part in that conversation. Well, it's spring; hope is in the air.
*American students in schools where less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, writes Linda Darling-on in The Washington Post. Our lower international standing is because high-achieving countries like Finland and Singapore have social safety nets that ensure virtually all schools have fewer than 10 percent of students living in poverty.