Beyond Still More Testing
Enough with the standardized testing, already.
The 2001 No Child Left Behind Law mandated standardized testing in grades three through eight and one more in high school. Already, that was three times the scale of most states' testing programs. Perhaps it was necessary. I appreciate increased school accountability, especially being able to compare schools and districts with the same testing instruments.
But President Bush's second-term call for yet more testing in high school is not going to tell us anything we don't know. Literally not one thing.
Compulsively weighing the pig will not add to its girth.
Already the Government Accounting Office pegs the states' costs for implementing NCLB-mandated tests at between $2 billion and $5 billion between 2002 and 2008. This does not include the new high school tests. So if we're not going to learn anything, don't blow precious resources.
What worries me the most is that giving yet more focus to test scores will further diminish our attention to the plentiful non-test data that we already have for high school students. Much more than kids at earlier grades, high school students make a lot of decisions that are easy to track -- getting pregnant, dropping out and choosing to take Mickey Mouse "consumer math" classes come to mind. The tests are mainly meaningful in context. Test scores will not improve much until communities -- and their states and the feds -- face, head-on, the full context in which the kids are taking these tests -- the community's expectations, resources, the schools themselves, the teachers contracts, support from higher education, indeed all the elements that bolster or impede learning.
Focusing on tests conveniently throws the responsibility entirely onto the schools, as if, for example, schools are singly responsible for drop-out rates due to drug abuse, urgent needs to help support a family or stupid desires to support a car and lifestyle. Schools can partner with communities on such issues, but can't do much about them on their own.
So if I were advising the president on how to rachet up high school performance, I'd create high school community report cards that put test scores in a larger context of social indicators. Put key pieces of information in one place and then pursue community-wide solutions instead of school punishments, known as "sanctions" under NCLB.
The point would be to drag more players into taking responsibility for the quality of the kids' futures by holding them accountable for the performance of publicly supported schools. For me, the politicians would be key. Often they make devils' bargains with voting blocks -- including unions -- in order to win office, but sell out the kids in the process. With both the test results and the social indicators in hand, let politicians host conversations with the community and families about how all of them could support a stronger context for the kids. Parents in particular feel strongly that they are rarely consulted on issues regarding their kids.
By all means, put test scores at the center of this report card. Remember: we have plenty of test data already. Across the nation, most high schools offer SATs, ACTs, Advanced Placement tests, the International Baccalaureate or some combination. Merely the extent to which students participate in any of the above tells you a great deal about the expectations of the school -- and community -- for their kids.
If you consider those tests too high-end to evaluate all kids, many states have been creating systems to help their public higher-education institutions report just how many entering freshmen had to take remedial courses and in what subjects, by high school.
Go to your state's higher-ed Web site to see for yourself what an appalling number of students are attending college not having been prepared for the task. And of course, all states administer at least one math and one English exam at grades 10 or 11, if not a battery of high-stakes tests. We have gobs of test data.
But on that same public report card put such items as crime statistics for kids attending the school, the results of drug, alcohol and tobacco surveys if you have them -- which Rhode Island does -- the rate of students who applied for subsidized lunch (a poverty moniker), or those working more than 10 hours after school.
Own up to the age and condition of the school facility, the mobility of their students and teachers, the number of emergency-certified or non-certified teachers.
The U.S. education crisis is only partly about schools. Yes, too many schools have become fortresses, legally sealed off from their immediate communities with contracts, laws and policies. But somewhere along the line non-educators, parents, politicians and community leaders allowed or even helped this to happen.
At the end of the day, we all want our investment in public education to produce those reassuring test results. When schools with large populations of challenged kids get terrific test results, they do so by working closely with the families and community.
The problem is not that we still have too little information to evaluate the quality of our high schools. The problem is that too few are willing to make sense of the information we have. The data say the kids are in trouble, but we don't want to hear it.
Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she now consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprices. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at juliasteiny [at] cox.net or c/o The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.
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