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Published: Saturday, 4/20/2013

The real school scandal is our testing addiction

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
BLADE COLUMNIST
In an effort to improve standardized test scores in Toledo Public Schools, some teachers were assigned to focus on specific subjects, such as, in this case, mathematics. In an effort to improve standardized test scores in Toledo Public Schools, some teachers were assigned to focus on specific subjects, such as, in this case, mathematics.
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In the Atlanta public schools testing scandal, some 35 educators have been indicted on charges of artificially inflating students’ test results. Some people say that abuse like this is the ultimate result of the nation’s testing addiction and the pressure administrators are under to hike the scores of their schools.

That won’t wash. Cheating is cheating. The federal charge here is racketeering. The superintendent of schools in Atlanta earned $500,000 in performance bonus pay for her alleged fraud.

That said, parents and taxpayers should still question an education system that has come to revolve around testing. Not teaching. Not learning. Standardized testing.

Talk to virtually any public school teacher or (off the record) administrator. He or she will tell you that ceaseless testing has long been out of hand.

At times, it is irrational and absurd. In New York state children in the third to eighth grades are currently taking a new “tougher” exam based on the national Common Core standards. Some of the material the kids are being tested on has not yet been added to the curriculum. We are testing on what has never been taught.

It is reasonable to want to evaluate, to measure. And standardized tests are one method of measuring educational progress and results. But they are only one method. There are also increasingly sophisticated peer reviews, student surveys, and yearly evaluation methods that, while subjective, are more sensitive to the complex process of educating children.

Gathering data is a good thing to do and, to a point, the more data the better. But data must have a context, serve a larger end, and lead to rational action. Part of Ohio’s standardized test in physical education measures whether students’ movements while skipping are adequately smooth.

Consider that Microsoft founder Bill Gates, once a leading advocate of standardized tests as a method for evaluating schools and teachers, has essentially done a 180. Mr. Gates now says that just as a team evaluates a quarterback on many levels, and just as his statistics may be the least telling measure of his skill, teachers must be evaluated from multiple perspectives. The school’s numbers may tell you far less than a student or a parent can.

Even Texas, which at the urging of Ross Perot started this craze three decades ago, is backing off. Officials there say incessant tests wear out and demoralize kids, and the dropout rate rises.

They demoralize teachers too — the best teachers. Jonathan Kozol, our greatest writer about education and the conscience of America’s schools, says this:

“The poisonous essence of No Child Left Behind lies in the mania of obsessive testing it has forced upon our nation’s schools and, in the case of inner-city schools, the miserable drill-and-kill curriculum of robotic ‘teaching to the test’ it has imposed on teachers, the best of whom are fleeing because they know that this debased curriculum would never have been tolerated in the good suburban schools that they, themselves, attended.”

Perhaps the greatest injustice that comes from the testing mania is the school that is left behind. The kids in it are left behind too, when the school is pronounced a “failure” and loses state and federal funding.

It is one thing to compare the math scores of kids in Ottawa Hills and Sylvania. But many kids in Toledo, Columbus, and Cleveland inner-city schools come from homes that don’t have dictionaries, let alone calculators and computers. These children often lack health care, proper nutrition, and stability. It is no surprise that their reading scores are low.

How is it fair to compare them to students in Ottawa Hills? How does it help them to force their teachers to spend 30 or 40 percent of their time teaching to tests the students can never pass?

How is it useful when the school and the kids are pronounced failures? These schools needs massive infusions of resources and fewer distractions, including the distraction of constant testing.

And yes, a few of those schools should be replaced altogether. Where is the magnet school for the child who is caught in a cycle of poverty and violence?

I spoke with my daughter, who teaches elementary-age special-needs kids at a school in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her “best mom,” as she calls her, has eight children and works two jobs. She doesn’t have time to read to her kids. There are no books in her home in any case. In fact, the son my daughter teaches asked whether he could take home one of my daughter’s books — just to hold and ponder it.

“He can’t really read yet,” my daughter said. “But we’re working on it.”

How does a standardized test, which assumes that this boy reads at a fourth-grade level, fairly measure his progress? And how many times should we assess what he lacks?

Writing in Time magazine, Erika Christakis, a Harvard-based education and public health advocate put it beautifully and precisely: “Somehow, along the path of good intentions, testing stopped being seen as a diagnostic tool to guide good instruction and became, instead, the instruction itself.

It’s as if a patient were given a biopsy, learned she had cancer, and was then told that no further medical treatment was necessary. If that didn’t sound quite right, we could just fire the doctor who ordered the test or scratch out the patient’s results and mark “cured” in the file.”

Cheaters are cheaters. The educators in Atlanta have no excuse for what they did. But beyond diagnosis, there must be medicine. The deeper scandal is that thousands of kids are crying out for our help and all we do is give them more tests.

Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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