Wednesday, July 11, 2012

'Raising the bar' sounds smart, but . . .

   Alyssa Sturgeon had me at "metaphors."

   I teach college students to appreciate analogy. Sometimes it's like yanking out a molar with rubber hose.

   Alyssa gets analogy. She's in fourth grade.

   She wrote a letter to thet editor of the Vero Beach Press Journal to wonder how the state could have flunked so many on the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — FCAT.

   It turns out Florida couldn't explain it, either, except for it had bought into the folly of "raising the bar" on standardized tests.

   Alyssa's letter:

   "We prepared by writing essays almost every day this year. We made sure to learn all the ways to write similes and metaphors. We studied so hard and still got poor scores."

    Statewide, 73 percent of Florida fourth-graders got failing marks on the writing portion of a new, "improved" version of FCAT. Wow. What a classroom disaster.

    But, wait. One of those failing grades went to this impressive fourth-grader. I demand a recount on Alyssa's behalf. 

    "I know that they made FCAT hard," she wrote the newspaper. "But this hard . . . ? There must be something wrong."

     Indeed, she was right. The Florida Board of Education was forced to modify the grading standards to avert a crisis.

     Sorry that we had to do this to you, Alyssa, but three cheers for anything that sheds a light on the nonsensical underpinnings of the cult of standardization that drags down your education.

     Your school may be great, but what the state does to it is not, and certainly not when it "raises the bar," as so many states have done. What they do is further immerse children and teachers in the scalding oil of "accountability."

     Almost nothing is good when policies are driven by the belief that standardization is education and competence is excellence.

     The cult of standardization serves almost no one, except for companies like Pearson that make the tests.     

      Overemphasis on testing narrows the curriculum. Students above grade level are dragged into the monotony of test-prep drills they don't need. Students below grade level find themselves imprisoned by a drumbeat on sore core subjects, at the expense of all else most of us consider to be education. Those in the middle are simply bored.

     The overriding problem with the system as executed in most states is that "accountability" isn't about helping the students but about hammering the schools and teachers. It is wholly punitive, a continuous firing squad. And, "They're using kids as the ammunition."

     Those are the words of Alyssa's father, Jaime Sturgeon, who also happens to be a history teacher, and who spoke to me by phone.

      What's sick about what happened in Florida is what the daughter told her parents when her writing test score came out: "I thought I might write someday, but I'm just not cut out for it." Multiply that stress and frustration by thousands.

     Faulty pedagogy underlies what is happening in state after state.

     As pioneered by Texas, what states have been doing under No Child Left Behind is called criterion-based testing, meaning testing on criteria for which demonstration of competence is required of all. But by the very nature of the human mind, not all learners are created equal.

      Fixated on test scores, policy makers have a faux dilemma — how "basic" or "advanced" to make the tests, and how high to set thresholds for passing? And does a "higher bar" benefit all? Answer: no.

    The kind of high bar for students like Alyssa is the stuff of honors, Advanced Placement classes or SAT and ACT.

    The fact is that students like Alyssa don't need the state's intervention at all. They never did. All they needed was caring and competent teachers. The barkers of testing think standardization can serve all students. No, it can't.

    The deceit behind "raising the bar" is the attempt to make criterion-based testing what it is not, something that can serve everyone's needs. Norm-referenced tests like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or SAT — challenging to everyone — can do that, because they truly stretch students in showing their respective aptitudes.

    But, then, a state can't build a test-based, fear-based curriculum around something that reaches out into the realm of academic possibility.      

     What states need to do, rather than "raising the bar," is acknowledge the limits of testing. Instead of making the tests tougher, they should set reasonable basic thresholds, put the assessments online (in diagnostic formats that help with learning), let students test multiple times to show competency if necessary, and back off.

    It couldn't be more wrong that some faceless individual would set a bar so high as to convince Alyssa Sturgeon she can't write. I'm betting it won't be long, and maybe the day is already here, when she can write that faceless individual under the table.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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