August 27, 2004
For more than 10 years, the focus on standards-based school accountability by state and federal policymakers has brought about stricter standards in education. Now that the high-stakes tests appear to be showing their teeth in consequences for students, the debate about the value of such tests is being taken to a higher level. Significant encounters are surfacing between and among school policymakers, government officials and business leaders focused upon pushing back on "reforms."
Public-school educators feel pressure from all sides. The states and federal government provide more regulation than resources. Creative and gifted teachers who engage students in a learning process that may interfere with high-stakes test preparation are frustrated, and many are penalized for their efforts. The federal No Child Left Behind law drives teaching toward standardization rather than inspiration. Against this backdrop and in contrast to most suburban schools, poor rural and urban schools are experiencing a greater resource gap because of shortsighted state funding mechanisms, overcrowded classes and emerging instructional uncertainty caused by declines in funding.
While accountability is important, an overemphasis on testing can result in a serious lack of sensitivity, waste of funds and misdirected focus. Recently released "report cards" from the Ohio Department of Education show a nearly straight-line correlation between adult-education level in a community and student performance on state-mandated tests. In terms of so-called performance-index scores, Bexley, Granville and Upper Arlington continue to lead the pack in central Ohio, with scores exceeding 100. Thatís hardly surprising.
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 school-related activities to judge students for admission. Many have chosen to lower college-entrance-test standards, ignore class rank and admit students who have not even completed a college- preparatory program. Then those same officials complain that pubic schools arenít preparing students for higher education.
The reality is that those same traditional indicators of student 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-level tests and less on general knowledge needed for college entrance examinations.
Rewards for independent thinking and the resulting striving for excellence are being replaced with rewards for passing and "get-by" performance. No wonder college officials are complaining.
Some of the harshest critics of the schools are self-appointed "business leaders" crying that they "want K-12 education to be more businesslike." They provide seminars, policy papers, op-ed commentaries, television interviews and a variety of "educational" resource centers, and blame public schools for the nationís economic problems.
Management guru Tom Peters in his best seller, Re-Imagine!, characterizes successful organizations with concepts such as creativity, risk, vision, purpose and leadership ó qualities that high-stakes testing seem to sacrifice in the rush to document "effective, continuous improvement."
The logic of people who promote graduation exams is that disadvantaged, urban, rural poor, black and Hispanic students do not do as well as advantaged, suburban, white and Asian students on criterion-referenced tests because their schools are not as good.
Instead of suggesting we improve schools, they suggest we must fail students to improve schools. In other words, punish the students if they canít pass the test. Shouldnít the point of national testing be to close the testing gap, not to punish the students?
Albert Einstein, who might not have done well on state-mandated tests had he had to take them, 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 public schools.
is Distinguished Research Professor at the
University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer
of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data