An education in remorse
by John Young
Some time ago, former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff had a Nobel moment.
Alfred Nobel made a fortune in explosives and arms. Then remorse about the devastation and disabilities wrought by his products led him to create the Nobel Peace Prize.
TAKS ΓΆ€” the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills ΓΆ€” isn't a device that would take off a hand. But Bill Ratliff is having Nobel-like remorse for the effect it has had.
As a state senator, Ratliff wrote the law in 1993 that was a quantum leap in state testing. Now he is crisscrossing Texas to say the result isn't good. Retired from lawmaking, he's the foremost voice in Raise Your Hand, a campaign that supports pubic schools. Among its initiatives is a call for universally accessible (voluntary) full-day pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, and opposition to routing public dollars to private schools through vouchers.
But everyone involved with public schools will acknowledge that state testing is the issue.
The Mount Pleasant Republican in '93 headed the Senate Education Committee. "I got the job because I knew school finance," he said. He ended up writing a bill that ramped up the then-limited state testing system to apply to all grades from third grade.
Now he says the system is "too cumbersome and confusing," too punitive toward teachers and administrators, and not diagnostic enough in helping children learn.
In the words of "school accountability" guru Uri Triesman, state testing "is a blunt object wielded at a distance." Add the even farther-removed federal system, and you've got a mess.
Ratliff unfolds a Texas Education Agency pamphlet called "An Administrator's Guide to Accountability" ΓΆ€” the 2006 version. It keeps unfolding and unfolding. Is this an accountablity system or a map of Long Island? Part of the problem is that administrators not only have the state grid of complex assessments and measurements but also the overlapping, and sometimes contradictory, federal requirements.
Under this mishmash of ratings, a school can be exemplary under state law and out of compliance under federal law.
At minimum, said Ratliff, the state system should directly tie in with the federal system: no confusion, no contradiction. But he wants more.
He might get it. House and Senate sunset bills would wipe the slate clean on state assessments and start fresh.
As an indicator of general angst, much momentum surrounds measures to abolish the state exit-level TAKS and replace it with end-of-course exams. The battle appears to be over how many tests, which tests would count and when to implement them. This is folly, however, without a complete examination of the whole state system.
End-of-course-test bills do carry one encouraging notion: online testing, as well as averaging scores so that a child is not denied graduation based on one sore subject.
Ratliff urges a change in the equation to use more than one criterion to judge a child's fitness. What about the lively arts beyond reading and writing? Shouldn't a child be judged by more? Isn't education more?
As for online testing, its best application would be to gauge basic skills at the elementary level so that children who are at grade level and above can be judged by delineators that don't drag them down into the gullies of standardization and test prep.
In other words, allow children to test out.
The other potential of online testing is to give quick, even instant, feedback to student and teacher.
But of course, if we don't have an all-stop-to-test drumroll moment, we can't get that "snapshot" by which we pronounce some schools "winners" and some schools the dregs.
"We want a system that helps children learn," says Ratliff, "not a tool for punishing schools and punishing teachers."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES