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Education factors lost in mandate


Much angst has been expressed over a four-letter word in education - a word parents of school-age children have heard often this past week: MEAP.

The Michigan Educational Assessment Program test has since 1969 been used by state educators as a means to determine whether students are learning what they should in public school classrooms. With the adoption a few years ago of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the MEAP also became a de facto barometer of whether a school is good or bad.

Steady improvement on MEAP indicates a good school. Any lesser performance means federal sanctions - expensive sanctions. So expensive that Michigan, when scolded earlier this year for failing to comply, said the requirements are so vast as to be impossible to put in place at once.

Now the state is considering putting the MEAP aside - at least for high school students - to use a different test, the ACT, traditionally taken by those who are college-bound. On the positive side, using the ACT saves the $70 or $80 fee required of students taking it. On the negative, it won't quite meet the federal requirements on measuring achievement. The answer might be a second test, and the state is taking a couple of years to work that through.

It's unclear whether the desire to switch stems from the criticism MEAP has received over the years. But that answer to that is inconsequential. It's a case of failing to see the forest for the trees. Every year, we hear MEAP, MEAP, MEAP. Did the scores reach adequate yearly progress? Did enough students participate? Did the teachers "teach to the test?''

Will there be sanctions?

Yet all of those questions fail to encompass the keystone of a good educational system: Did the students learn, but more importantly, did they also learn to think?

With both, they have the power to live free and protect freedom.

Thomas Jefferson, who is credited with outlining the basic structure of our public educational system, was a firm believer in the connection of education to the protection of democracy. He also recognized the costs of failing to provide that public education.

"If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education,'' Jefferson wrote in a letter to a colleague in 1818.

There is virtue in both arguments, which is why I struggle with the MEAP.

Mike Radke, manager of the MEAP for the state Department of Education, has said the test is about helping teachers teach and students learn. "The assessment is kind of like taking the pulse once a year to see how well we're doing.''

That assessment is measured against standards set for all public schools - another virtue in the system. Under state standards, a student in the Upper Peninsula is guaranteed the same education as one in Rochester Hills, Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti.

But as any teacher knows, not all of us learn the same way.

Not all of us think the same way.

Not all of us test the same way.

So how can we believe that the MEAP is the sole, sufficient measure of whether our schools and teachers are performing well?

The state report card does take into account other factors, such as family involvement, facilities and even teacher training. But all of that seems lost in the shadow of No Child Left Behind.

Education policy makers need to turn on the light, and remember an old lesson: Don't put all your eggs in one basket.

Ypsilanti City Editor Christine Uthoff can be reached at cuthoff@annarbornews.com

— Christine Uthoff
Ann Arbor News


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