Education’s Dirty Little Secret

The week began with the president saying that there was too much emphasis on testing in schools. 
In the middle of the week, the New York Times published a story about Success Academy Charter Schools that, among other things, noted the following:

The network serves mostly black and Hispanic students and is known for exacting behavior rules. Even the youngest pupils are expected to sit with their backs straight, their hands clasped and their eyes on the teacher, a posture that the network believes helps children pay attention. Ms. Moskowitz has said she believes children learn better with structure and consistency in the classroom. Good behavior and effort are rewarded with candy and prizes, while infractions and shoddy work are penalized with reprimands, loss of recess time, extra assignments and, in some cases, suspensions as early as kindergarten.

Backs straight? Hands clasped? Candy as a reward for good behavior? More homework as a punishment for bad behavior? Any public school teacher who attempted any of these would be severely reprimanded. In addition, this is not the way we’re supposed to be teaching in the 21st century. What happened to cooperative activities? Differentiation? Healthy snacks? Imagination?

By the time the week was over, the entire know-nothing education reform movement was in question.  Not that teachers and others who actually work in education didn’t already know this. Because they lived with the terrible reforms every day and had little influence on whether those reforms should have been imposed in the first place. After all, the political process is slow and those right-wing money machines that were attempting not just to change the schools but also to destroy the teacher’s unions had a vested interest in drawing out the process so that the public could catch a ride on the train as it crashed in Conjunction Junction.

Not so bad, right? At least we only messed up one generation of children.

Yes, friends, education came roaring back as a national priority with the release of both the PARCC and the NAEP exams this week. In a nutshell, students did not perform very well on the tests. The reasons? Well, there’s the rub. According to those who comment on such things, they range from the fact that more students are living in poverty to the truth that the Common Core Standards, which are the basis for the PARCC exams, have not been around long enough for students to have internalized them. As for the NAEP, the answer is even muddier, but the consensus seems to be that last year’s exam asked questions about curriculum that students have not been taught.

Really? If I gave tests on information I hadn’t taught my students, I could be fired. That hasn’t stopped the know-nothings from using tests to evaluate teacher performance and use the information to retain or let teachers go. This year we’re using flawed tests created by people who are not in classrooms based on standards that have not been sufficiently implemented.

But there’s a bigger problem. The NAEP has generally shown that students do not perform well in math and reading. If you want evidence, take a look at this report by the NAEP on the 2009 test administration. Scroll down to page 9, then look at pages 10 through 14. I’ll wait.

Interesting, yes? It shows that students in almost every state, save Massachusetts, do not perform proficiently on the test. Remember; the NAEP is called “The Nation’s Report Card” because it is given in every state, so it gives us an unsparing look at the differences in each state’s curriculum strength and delivery.

Want more stark proof? I knew that you did. Take a look at the 2013 NAEP Report that graphically shows the remarkable differences between student performance on the NAEP with their performance on their state’s end-of-year evaluation. Scroll yourself down to pages 3 and 4. Those graphs tell you the difference between NAEP scores and state tests scores. In every state but two–NY and MA–there was a gap between how students performed on state tests versus the NAEP.  Isn’t it scary enough to be posted on Halloween? Many states were clearly giving easy tests and skewing the results.

And, no, these numbers are not confined to 2009 and 2013. They are similar in every year the NAEP has been given.You could look it up. And you should, because this has been education’s dirty little secret for too long.

The lesson here? There are many. One is that both the NAEP and the PARCC are difficult tests that hold students accountable to standards that require much more reinforcement over time. The PARCC has not been in existence long enough for us to adequately measure its accuracy. The NAEP has been showing us for years that students across the country are not getting a rigorous enough training in content and skills that a truly educated person should have.

More important is that for years, at least since the No Child Left Behind Act began mandating tests in the early 2000s, most states have been giving easy tests based on easy curricula and calling themselves satisfied with their education systems. This is the main reason why we need the Common Core Standards. They will ensure that students throughout the country be held to the same standards no matter where they live. The political opposition to the Core Curriculum has been centered on federal government involvement in what should be a state concern. The state test scores invalidate that argument. Many of the states have been committing educational fraud. National standards will go a long way towards fixing that.

The president was correct in saying that we are focusing too much on testing, but testing is not going away and it shouldn’t. What we need are tests that measure what students know based on verifiable standards and that ask students to perform evaluative tasks that stretch their brains and their imaginations. We haven’t achieved either of those yet. That will require that classroom educators be intimately involved in the evaluative process. It will happen, but we need the know-nothings to step aside and let the teachers take over this process.

Let’s not waste another generation.

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