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Let’s Reconstitute Our Arguments!
Fighting the Federal education plan on the correct battlefield

Published in the September 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

I would like to blame the education bill moving through the House and Senate on President Bush, but the education “reform” bill (probably passed by the time you read this) is the result of bipartisan lunacy. This is not your garden-variety annual education appropriations bill. It is a “reform” bill. In 2001 “reform” apparently means threats and punishment. If schools don’t clean-up their act(s) then funds will be withheld (or added – it’s impossible to keep track), educators fired and schools “reconstituted.” It appears as if strategies applied toward rogue nations like Iraq are now being applied to America’s school children. This is easily one of the most mean-spirited periods in America’s educational history.

Such educational policy decisions will be based on a standardized test. Yes, that’s right – one test! Disadvantaged schools will get poorer and affluent schools will be forced to abandon sound educational practices in order to drill for yet another annual test.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Time (July 24, 2001), “Belatedly, a Front is Forming to Fight Education Legislation,” caught my eye. I was optimistic that a powerful coalition against nationally mandated annual testing was forming. My hopes were dashed when I read the comments of organizations including the National Education Association and the Council of Great City Schools. While any educator worth their chalk can list countless reasons why a greater reliance on standardized testing will have a negative affect, lobbyists for powerful education organizations, always referred to derisively in the press as special interests, quibble over the plan’s details and sound defensive.

The Council of Great City Schools voiced no opposition to greater testing, but was concerned that it would be difficult to reconstitute (re: takeover) more than 10% of America’s public schools. The NEA, always at the ready to announce that their jobs are too hard and its members poorly suited for the profession, argues that failing schools should be selected by more than a new annual test. They suggest that class size and the qualifications of the classroom teachers should be used when deciding to reconstitute a school. This whining and splitting of hairs plays right into the hands of politicians like Senator Evan Bayh who can then complain that “Everyone is for accountability until it actually gets put into place and applies to them.” Surely one of his Indiana constituents can explain that the hog doesn’t get any fatter while it’s standing on the scale.

It serves neither the interests of teachers or students when leading educators provide ammunition for their critics who wish to portray them as lazy, defensive and resistant to change.

Let me state for the record that I am all for literacy and numeracy. Frankly, I think you should be able to teach a gerbil to read and write in twelve years of school. The rich experiences in art, science, social studies and music, often sacrificed to the god of accountability, play a huge role in the learning process. Adding more fear, threats and drill to the learning environment is unlikely to achieve the desired results.

Rather than fight the good fight, groups of educators are lining up to choose whether their Kool-Aid will have the taste of wild cherries or the cool sensation of refreshing mint. Quibbling over the details is a capitulation to forces with worrisome agendas. Adding yet another standardized test to the school year and labeling schools as failures based on that one test is a terrible idea. All concerned citizens should fight it on the following grounds.1

Education is a not a federal concern - What sort of conservatives choose reading textbooks and believe that schools should be run from Washington D.C?

Standardized tests measure the wrong things - Life is not a multiple choice test nor can the complex reasoning skills required by participants in a knowledge society be measured by norm-referenced tests designed by clandestine corporate committees.

The testing process costs a fortune – Neither the human or fiscal cost of these tests ever seems to be addressed. It has been reported that California spent $1.9 BILLION this past year on the administration of the (flawed by their own admission) SAT-9 test. Add the costs associated with test-prep curricula for six year olds, P.D. for teachers and district-level testing coordinators and you could buy yourself quite a few band directors, field trips and library books.

Standardized testing wastes time – Children lose days and sometimes weeks taking these tests not to mention the instructional time sacrificed for teaching-to-the-test.

Good teachers are turned into zombies - The current remedy for school reform seems to be fashion a strategy to drive the good teachers out of the profession while doing nothing to improve the quality of the weakest teachers. Making gifted educators follow a script leading to test readiness does little to inspire young people to learn.

The test producers are unaccountable – Ironic, eh? Many test publishers refuse to answer questions from parents and teachers. From California to New York, catastrophic decisions have been made based on test scores incorrectly generated by the testing monopolies.

The tests frequently include inaccurate, irrelevant, confusing and biased questions

There seems to be an epidemic of the Lake Wobegon Effect - It is immoral to tell a poor kid in a school they know is deficient that she needs to score above average on a test 50% of all children MUST fail. If all of the students in a school score between 96-98% correctly on a norm-referenced test, half of those children must fail the test. The following year the politicians will undoubtedly want to know why the students didn’t improve their scores.

These tests do nothing to inform practice - In many states it is a crime for teachers to even LOOK at the test. The feedback received after the tests may only be a numerical score. How does that help someone improve her teaching practice?

The tests are anti-democratic – Local governments, school boards, parents and educators closest to the needs of the children have virtually no voice in this process and change in Federal policy.

The tests are punitive – The educational system gets meaner and more cautious every year, as we add zero tolerance and threats to a human enterprise.

There is little evidence that reconstituted schools work – The results of state school takeovers is mixed at best.

You can't eat just one! - States and local districts already use all sorts of these tests. Weeks of important time for learning are sacrificed by existing tests. My bet is that the new testing requirement will add to this burden, not reduce it. Schools already give practice tests for practice tests for standardized tests years in the future.
Doing more of the same louder won't change the result.

The stigmatizing of communities by the publication of test scores is unfair - Saul Rockman has said that it you want to measure teacher quality based on standardized tests then you should just get richer students since parental socioeconomic status is the greatest predictor of test scores. Others have remarked that you may predict a kids' SAT scores by taking the family income and dividing by 100. (The Volvo Effect = SAT scores directly related to the percentage of Volvos in the parking lot at back-to-school night)

Good is never good enough! What will our kids have to endure during the next election cycle?

For much more thorough arguments consult Alfie Kohn’s book, The Case Against Standardized Testing.

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