Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Our insatiable, abominable testing culture

   Damn the evidence. Full speed ahead.

   Damn the costs. Full speed ahead.

   Nothing — not legitimate questions about efficacy, not staggering costs amid general budget bloodletting — will stay the maddening march toward more standardized testing for America's school children.

   In Texas, school districts brace for $9.8 billion in budget cuts which could result in 100,000 teachers losing their jobs. And so?

   Oblivious to the budget pressures it now exerts, and to the costly mandates it otherwise layers on its schools with such vigor, the state is moving ahead with the next generation of stifling standardization, the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness.

     STAAR is to replace the current state test as Texas again "raises the bar," acting out the misbegotten gospel that standardization is education and competence is excellence.

    Texas' next system will cost untold billions, to what ends? Even with the "higher bar," students who are above grade level will squirm at the restraints that slow them down. Students who are below grade level will be forced into classroom concentration camps where increasingly scripted instruction will direct their attention to the testing objectives where "new emphasis" is needed. Those in the middle will be misled into thinking that passing means excelling.

   The bottom line of this sordid quest: We have deluded ourselves into believing that somehow if we assign the same academic pursuit to all students we'll get a uniformly educated student population. But of course, that is a joke. People learn at different speeds, have different aptitudes and interests, different influences at home.

    One of the most brilliant minds I ever knew, a liberal arts legend at the university level who has passed from the scene, bemoaned states' gesticulation before the god of standardization, particularly the pagan deity of algebra.

     He could do all the math he needed math. He couldn't do advanced algebra, or at least knew it to be irrelevant to his professional life, as it is to many or most of us. He found it criminal that a once-vibrant public school system was being twisted and contorted, straining under the chains of arbitrary "standards" decided by — whom?

    This all goes back to Texas in the 1980s asking Ross Perot what his idea of education was. The rest of us followed it right into a cramped pink cubicle of homogeny.

    So, how are we doing, excellence-wise? Not well, though billions and billions of dollars are spent on tests and pedagogical regimentation. Standardized tests as enforced by the states do not in any way prepare the college-bound for college. Meanwhile, the cyclops of test prep for those at the low end mean they endure less true education as teachers narrow the curriculum to focus only on what's tested.

    Knowing adherents of this charade now tell us that testing will focus on "growth models" to show student improvement. And through these growth models we supposedly will be able to determine if teachers are worthy of keeping their jobs or getting raises.

     Last year the Los Angeles Times used an analysis based on California's "valued added measurement" system to rate elementary teachers. The system was seen as bolstering the merits of "merit-base" policies. Recently two University of Colorado researchers challenged the ratings for failing to take into consideration variables including student demographics and outside influences. Any teacher could tell you that these factors must be considered. But, hey, that's just not neat and tidy.

      Gary Ravani, president of the California Federation of Teachers' Early Childhood/K-12 Council, says that although he is quite concerned about how a questionable method would be used to rate teachers, the overriding concern is what these systems do to teaching itself.

      "Experts agree that tying more teacher accountability to these tests drives more teaching to the tests. This has led to a dangerous narrowing of curriculum. Particularly in distressed communities the teaching of science, history, music and art has been eliminated."

      Unfortunately, if the testing culture doesn't gut the essence of what education is, state-by-state budget bludgeoning will. People who care about real education should not suffer this silently.

       Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


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