from The School Administrator, January, 2005, Page 42, American Association of School Administrators

Testing to Improve or to Punish?

BY WILLIAM L. BAINBRIDGE & STEVEN M. SUNDRE

GUEST COLUMN

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Corporate leaders have offered their reform "assistance" to virtually every school system in the country. These offers are coming at the same time schools are trying to supplement budgetary shortfalls on curricular and extracurricular activities.

In many cases, the businesses are willing to develop "partnerships" that, according to Professor Henry Giroux of Penn State University, "provide free curriculum packages that shamelessly instruct students to recognize brand names or learn the appropriate attitudes for future work in low-skilled, low-paying jobs rather than learning how to define the meaning of work and struggle over what it means to subordinate matters of work to the imperatives of a strong democracy."

Giroux, a professor of secondary education who wrote, "The Business of Public Education," for the Creative Resistance Forum ( www.creativeresistance.ca) , points to McDonalds, the corporation famous for billions of burgers, for providing a curriculum package for an elementary school in Broward County, Fla. The students, Giroux reports, "learned how to design a McDonald’s restaurant, how a McDonald’s works and how to apply and interview for a job at McDonald’s." When one 10-year old student was asked if the curriculum was worthwhile, she responded, "If you want to work in a McDonald’s when you grow up, you already know what to do." Last time we checked, this school partner was best known for providing below poverty rate employment for people who prepare and serve less than nutritious meals. There is a profound message here.

Showing Teeth

For more than 10 years, the focus on standards-based school accountability by state and federal policy-makers has brought about stricter standards in K-12 education. Now that the high-stakes tests appear to be showing their teeth in the form of consequences for students and schools, the debate about the value of such tests is being taken to a higher level. Significant encounters are surfacing between and among school policy makers, government officials and the business leaders focused on rolling back on the reforms.

The major questions being raised include these: What role should testing play in assessing our students, teachers, administrators and schools? How much time should be focused on testing throughout a 180-day school year? How should individual achievement be weighed against issues of equity and the social good? How should good and master teaching be defined, and how does high-stakes testing relate to teaching and learning?

Public school educators feel pressure from all sides. The states and federal government provide more regulation than resources. Creative and gifted teachers who actively engage students in a learning process that may interfere with high-stakes test preparation are frustrated, and many are penalized for their efforts. The No Child Left Behind Act drives teaching toward standardization rather than inspiration.

Against this backdrop and in contrast to most suburban school systems, rural poor and urban school systems are experiencing both a greater resource gap and a continuation of limited resources as a result of short-sighted state funding mechanisms, overcrowded classes and emerging instructional uncertainty caused by declines in funding.

Misdirected Focus

The public’s perception of the reforms of the last decade, in the name of improved student learning, appears increasingly blurred with skepticism. While accountability is important, an overemphasis on testing can result in a serious lack of sensitivity, a waste of funds and misdirected focus.

Many college officials have thrown fuel on the fire by complaining about students who are unprepared for higher levels of academic work. Universities have for years used college entrance examinations, class rank and after school activities to judge students for admission. Many have chosen to lower ACT and SAT standards, ignore class rank and admit students who have not even completed a college preparatory program. Then those same college officials complain about the public schools not preparing their students for higher education.

The reality is those same traditional indicators of collegiate success are becoming less and less of the K-12 value structure as school systems succumb to performance-based initiatives rather than creativity-enhancing objectives. In other words, there is more focus on content for state tests and less on general knowledge needed for college entrance examinations. Rewards for independent thinking are being replaced by rewards for passing. No wonder our collegiate officials are complaining.

The logic of the reformers who promote graduation exams is that disadvantaged, urban, rural poor, African American and Hispanic American students do not do as well as advantaged suburban, European American and Asian American students on criterion-referenced tests because their schools are not as good. The reformers seem to believe that in order to force schools to improve we should be certain their students do not receive diplomas and blame the school for not preparing them to pass the test.

Instead of suggesting we improve schools, they suggest we must fail students to improve schools. In other words, punish the students if they can’t pass the test. Shouldn’t the point of a national testing movement be to close the testing gap, not to punish the students?

Albert Einstein, who may or may not have done well on state-mandated tests, once said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." Policy leaders and citizens need to be highly skeptical of the logic involved in recent efforts to use testing rather than teaching to improve our public schools.

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William Bainbridge is President and CEO of SchoolMatch®, 5027 Pine Creek Drive, Westerville, OH 43081.
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Steven Sundre is Executive Vice President at SchoolMatch. Both are Distinguished Research Professors at the University of Dayton’s SchoolMatch Institute.

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