Sunday, July 3, 2011


Obviously the central feature of education debate in America over the last decade has been student test scores.  The best thing that has come out of this is that the public realizes how broken many of our nation's schools are.  Although, one could say, the worst thing to come out of this is the public perceptions that many of our nation's schools are broken.

The problem is that a distinction is rarely made between broken communities and broken schools.  When a community is disadvantaged, so to will be their children, their students.  These students are harder to teach, and despite the best intentions of an otherwise well-trained, well-qualified staff - who would likely see great success is an advantaged community, the poorer performance of the student body will cause the school to be labeled as "broken".  This inadequacy of language leads to a dismal public perceptions of teaching in general.  Why are so many teachers and schools failing us?

Test scores in general are an adequate picture of the achievement gap in America.  But they are also incredibly flawed.  And when districts begin using them punitively, to punish teachers whose students get lower scores under the assumption that poor scores are the result of bad teaching, these flaws translate into poor evaluation systems, and ultimately unfair labor practices.

Of the many issues with state testing, I'll share my experience with just one.

I teach at a continuation school, so tests are essentially worthless. Kids come from deplorable circumstances, often show up high, many only because their probation officers mandates it. Most do practically zero work in class. So the idea of "trying" on a state test is absurd. Guess what - we're a "program improvement" school.

Anyway, there is a certainly a spectrum of interest in "trying" on a test. You can imagine that the more invested a child is in his education, the more likely he will be to do his best on a test.

A testing coordinator at our school was asked recently what to do about motivation. She replied that there are various techniques for "building enthusiasm" around the state tests. She's correct. The problem is, now we're testing a school's ability to rally student interest in taking a test. Maybe schools of education need to offer classes in cheerleading?

As a blunt tool, state testing is valuable in getting a general picture of differences in school achievement levels.  But there is simply so much nuance, for a variety of reasons and under many different circumstances, that they will only ever be of limited use. 

Instead, we need to be thinking of realistic policy solutions that target real student problems, such as wide disparities in levels of human and social capital.  Not only will this make the profession of teaching more humane and solution oriented, but it will translate into a real, lasting, scalable reduction in the achievement gap.

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