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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/15/13

Learning the Hard Way: The False Promises of Standardized Tests

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Inaccurate testing methods burn through billions
Inaccurate testing methods burn through billions
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My daughter sees a math tutor, a bright young med school student from Pakistan. She told me last weekend my daughter still struggles, but she was shocked to hear that "every single kid" in her class has a math tutor. I was shocked to learn this too, but for another reason.

Over a decade ago, the federal government sought to "fix" low-performance in schools, but not by increasing learning, rather by increasing standardized testing and leveling threats against those whose scores don't magically rise. In NY and NJ, newly implemented evaluations say teachers who show progress on student's standardized test scores are more likely to retain their jobs, and in some cases might "win" cash bonuses.

My daughter attends a high-performing suburban school where well-educated parents have kids laser-focused on academic performance. In these districts, the question is not how many kids get into college, it's how many get into the Ivy League. So all that private tutoring, usually ranging in price from $50-$150 per hour, is going to be skewing the bejesus out of state-mandated teacher evaluations.

In classes where many of the students get private, one-on-one instruction time, the teacher evaluation numbers can be thrown way off, creating supposed "superteachers" -- but only on paper. And if judging teachers via their students' test results gives inexact data out in the burbs, what's it doing in NY's urban settings?

I teach in a crime-addled community in the inner city, where working class, immigrant and impoverished families produce a mix of kids who face poverty, drugs or gangs, and that's just for starters.

Seeing the new evaluations coming, two of the best math teachers in my school left last summer. Both relatively early in their careers, they transferred to schools in neighborhoods where students will score higher on tests. They knew from experience that students three years behind grade level when they enter a school are highly unlikely to make up significant ground.

Another matter is the "mainstreaming" of special needs students, placed in crowded classes because of funding shortfalls or long backlogs in evaluating and classifying kids with ADD/ADHD, emotional disabilities or other issues. From day one, we see so many of these kids cannot focus long for "desk work", demanding inordinate teacher time. But because they are as-yet unevaluated, they are considered "general ed" and will again skew teacher evaluations.

Because of other home factors such as neglect, abuse or trauma, success in school is increasingly supported by "wraparound" services like health checks, or counseling which look at multi-problem kids more holistically. These services are close to non-existent in my school, while suburban schools in the region can offer weekly one-on-one counselor meetings for every student.

The new teacher evaluations, which led to a week-long strike in Chicago last September, are ensuring the NY kids who need great teachers the most are now more likely to see them flee, or switch to a non-tested subject area. Low performing schools will continue to repel talent, but in high performing schools, teachers will be artificially and arbitrarily rewarded thanks to in part to the small fortune spent on private tutoring.

The English teacher in my daughter's school who was celebrated for showing the most progress in her grade last year confided in me that she has no magic formula, she has been teaching the same exact way for over ten years, but that each crop of students simply varies in performance.

What Happens When the Motivation is Money
In recent years, principals in low-performing schools were directing math and ELA teachers, under threat of placement onto school closure lists, to make up 1.5 years progress in a single year, a tall order for kids so behind in basic skills already. But the pressures put on teachers exploded this year when Governor Cuomo won Obama's "Race to the Top" bonus bucks, a competition to reward states who tie testing to teacher evaluations.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the failure of standardized testing like the Atlanta cheating scandal that made one of Obama's most highly touted educators into an accused felon. A DC City Council hearing announced Friday is probing whether heavy-handed school "reformer" Michelle Rhee knew, or should have known that some of her "most improved" were cheating, the predictable consequence when teachers' motivated to help kids are instead prompted by fear and greed.

Now, as looming federal cuts suggest impending educator layoffs, the testing will continue, spending tax dollars to compile data found to be unreliable for personnel decision-making. In NY state politics, current budget proposals also fail to address spending inequity, class size, or teacher retention, inching us towards austerity for those in school while profits unconscionably increase for corporate vendors.

Commodifying Education
The cost of testing has doubled in recent years, as industry lobbying increases to serve school "reform" groups that embrace testing. Wall Street investors have long drooled at opportunities to increase education vendor profits. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp secured a lucrative contract to build a database with every NYC school family's private information, just after hiring former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. This seems pretty creepy after over a hundred News Corp employees were arrested in a bribery scandal that illegally phone-hacked thousands, including British royalty.

One of the principal architects of the federally mandated (yet underfunded) No Child Left Behind program, Diane Ravitch, declared NCLB a failure and is today one of it's most vocal critics. So is Stanford Professor Linda Darling Hammond, the top education advisor to Obama during his 2008 campaign who the President abandoned after inauguration. More lately, Hammond is publishing studies showing how NCLB testing is producing evaluation error rates of over 1 in 4.

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(OpEdNews Contributing Editor since October 2006) Inner city schoolteacher from New York, mostly covering media manipulation. I put election/finance reform ahead of all issues but also advocate for fiscal conservatism, ethics in journalism and (more...)

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