By Teachers, For Teachers
If you're a teacher and you want to elicit a groan at one of those back-to-school parent information nights, just bring up the subject of standardized testing.
Parents, as a rule, hate them. They take away from instructional time, they put stress on kids as young as 6, and parents fear that they can cause schools to spend more time teaching to the tests than teaching for their kids' success.
Even the common name assigned to them -- "bubble tests," as in "fill in the bubble" -- is derisive. The name connotes something temporal, full of air and devoid of substance.
Yet, if you listen to all the rhetoric surrounding the Chicago teachers' strike and other high-profile clashes around the country between dogged school reformers and teachers' unions, you'd think that all that needs to be done to fix the American educational system is to start putting more emphasis on standardized testing.
The battle has been joined by big-city mayors including Chicago's Rahm Emanuel and Los Angeles' Antonio Villaraigosa. They support using student test scores as one component in evaluating teachers.
The evidence as to the validity of that is, at best, mixed, but there does seem to be an emerging consensus behind the idea.
Factoring in student test scores is increasingly viewed as a means to help districts better identify high- and low-performing teachers.
But what role should test scores play in evaluating schools?
Right now, the system that rates schools in California, the Academic Performance Index, is based entirely on student test scores.
If we're looking for ways to improve education by finding better metrics by which to evaluate performance, maybe the school-rating system is ripe for reform.
That's the idea behind a bill by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, SB 1458, that now awaits a decision by Gov. Jerry Brown. It would require that by 2016, no more than 60 percent of a high school's API could be based on test scores. The other elements would be determined by the state superintendent and the State Board of Education, but would surely include such things as dropout rates and the percentage of graduates who go on to college or technical schools.
Steinberg, who says he's fine with the idea of using test scores as one component of teacher evaluations, believes it's time to broaden the discussion about school reform.
"I believe we are missing the forest for the trees," he said. "This battle over power between reformers and teachers' unions is not addressing the more fundamental questions: What are we teaching, how are we teaching it, and are we connecting our high school education to our economy?"
His hope is that broadening the measurements by which high schools are evaluated will motivate school districts to develop curricula that are both rigorous and relevant to students and the world they are about to encounter.
Gary Hoachlander, president of a ConnectEd, a group that promotes programs that link instruction with career-based training, agrees.
"You get what you measure, and right now what we are measuring in California is limited to student scores on standardized tests," Hoachlander told me. "We are ignoring lots of other things we want students to know and be able to do."
Evidence that students are yearning for more relevant high schools can be found across the state in districts that have established niche academies such as technology schools.
"Where it exists, it's making kids more engaged, the dropout rates are falling and there are waiting lists to get in," Steinberg said.
Steinberg tried a more prescriptive version of this bill last year, one that spelled out the other factors that would be used to determine the API. Brown rejected it, with a meandering veto message in which he mused about the value of any quantitative yardsticks.
"Adding more speedometers to a broken car won't turn it into a high-performance machine," Brown wrote last year. "The current fashion is to collect endless quantitative data to populate ever-changing indicators of performance."
He suggested the educators and reformers should recognize that "perhaps we have reached testing nirvana."
As the strike in Chicago has shown, there is at large a powerful sentiment to place more emphasis, not less, on quantitative measurements in American schools.
Brown may yearn for a system that recognizes, as he wrote in his veto message, "that quality is fundamentally different from quantity."
But he also knows that accountability demands measurement, and measurement there will be.
The question he must decide now is exactly what will be measured. Will it be anything more than what's inside the bubbles? ___
(c)2012 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
See what some parents are doing to eliminate standardized testing.