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Mathis: Chicken Little and the annual test score release


Ohanian Comment: It's almost impossible to get a piece like this into the mainstream media these days. The best you might do is a sound-bite letter.

But the airways are filled with headlines about Vermont schools failing. . . no explanations offered. Longtime political observer Sam Smith (Undernews) pointed out that "A national media thoroughly embedded in corporate and conservative economic values" is causing big problems. As he says, "And the sad thing is that the reporters don’t even know where their words came from."

Bill Mathis makes an important point: We get this Chicken Little scenario because we accepted an NCLB handout--which amounted to less than 5% of our education budget.

Get the Feds out!!!
Actually I wear a T-shirt with that sentiment.


by William Mathis

Every year, Chicken Little gets hit on the head with an acorn and screams, "The sky is falling!" In this annual ritual of contrived hysteria, test "deteriorated American competitiveness in an international economic marketplace." Such lamentations have been around for exactly as long as there have been standardized tests. In the 1950s, for example, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover predicted that we faced a Communist takeover. But the most virulent strain of the Chicken Little syndrome metastasized following the 1983 Nation at Risk report.

After 60 years of these same fatalistic prognostications, a reasonable person might ask why the United States still remains the world’s leading economic and military power. Clearly, an economic collapse has befallen us but impartial observers suggest that might have more to do with the housing bubble, business catastrophes such as Enron and Lehman Brothers, the off-shoring of American jobs, great economic disparities, and the failure of businesses to provide middle class jobs. With three times as many qualified high skill job applicants as available positions and 16 percent underemployment, the problem is not due to a lack of talent.

Yet the Chicken Little syndrome thrives. It is a manufactured disease perpetuated by the misuse of standardized test scores. A bit of perspective shows us that Vermont is a very high performing state, has a high graduation rate, low crime rates, low unemployment and healthy children. In fact, it scores in the top five in almost any relevant comparison.

Yet, this year’s state Department of Education score releases resulted in media reports saying things like 73 percent of the state’s schools are "failing to make the grade." How did we get into this strange wonderland? By accepting less than 5 percent of our educational funds from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the state agreed to an annual testing regime and promised that all students would reach “rigorous” standards by 2014. Since a standard is rigorous only if a lot of people fail, this is a system designed to provoke Chicken Little’s squawking. It takes no particular expertise to tell us what will happen: Every school in this very high performing state will be labeled a failure after the 2014 tests.

Unfortunately, we are labeling schools and imposing actions that have real consequences for schools, teachers, children and communities using a system that has no stability or scientific foundation. The only thing certain is that, eventually, all Vermont’s schools will be declared failures – regardless of the quality of their performance.

The question becomes how our federal and state governments justify the continuation of such a guaranteed failure policy. When examining schools or districts claimed to have been “turned-around” by such test-based labeling and sanctions, there is no evidence that it works. Without a supporting science, showmanship is substituted. The most prominent circus was the celebration of the Miami Central High School turnaround in March 2011. Apparently, Jeb Bush and Barack Obama didn’t check the facts as the proficiency level of the school they were praising was less than 20 percent — and declining.

Alas, Vermont has its own circus. Last year, the state department extolled the achievements of “14 effective schools closing the poverty gap” (sic). Not readily apparent was that these “effective” schools had less poverty than the state average, a more stable student population, and they spent more money per pupil. Looking at this year’s scores for these same 14 schools, more than 70 percent of their reading and math scores dropped from last year to this. This does not fault the fine efforts in these schools. Doubtlessly the teachers and administrators worked just as hard this year. It’s just that the state’s analysis didn’t consider they were looking at a spike, not a trend.

Likewise, according to the media, Cavendish “dug themselves out of a hole.” The problem is that they are still 13 percent to 14 percent deeper in that hole than they were in 2005 and 2006. Scores fluctuate from year to year and Vermont’s small schools scores fluctuate even more. Unfortunately, we are labeling schools and imposing actions that have real consequences for schools, teachers, children and communities using a system that has no stability or scientific foundation. The only thing certain is that, eventually, all Vermont’s schools will be declared failures – regardless of the quality of their performance.

The irony is that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recognizes these flaws. Regrettably, his “waiver” solution, which Vermont wisely declined, attached even more irrational punishments to test scores.

Next year, Chicken Little will doubtlessly cluck again. Reporters can dust off this year’s story, change the date, and increase the percentage of schools not “making progress.” It is a system that cannot work. It is not only technically wrong, it is wrong for education and for our society. Perhaps we ought to start thinking about making chicken stew.

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by William J. Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a former Vermont superintendent. The views expressed are his own.

— William Mathis
Vermont Digger

2012-08-20

http://vtdigger.org/2012/08/20/mathis-chicken-little-and-the-annual-test-score-release/

VT


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