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NJEA President Barbara Keshishian in the Asbury Park Press bemoans the “test score culture” that has invaded our public schools like a stealthy virus, begotten through No Child Left Behind’s “triumph of sound-bite politics over sound educational policy.”

Because of the rise of the test score culture in schools, when a teacher has to decide whether to spend 45 minutes on a really creative social studies lesson or on 45 more minutes of test preparation, an administrator’s voice is whispering in the back of her head, “Test scores must increase.” When schools make decisions about how much time to devote to art, music, physical education or creative writing, that voice is always whispering, “Test scores must increase.”

So high-stakes testing is bad for students because it narrows the curriculum to what is tested (students are “denied the broad, comprehensive education that would serve them best in life”) and bad for teachers because “what really matters in education cannot be measured by filling in a bubble on an answer sheet.” NCLB, therefore, the fount of all testing, is bad for kids and teachers.

It’s enlightening to compare Ms. Keshishian’s opinion piece with yesterday’s New York Times profile of Shael Polakow-Suransky, NYC’s sort of Assistant Chancellor (appointed to be Cathy Black’s sidekick after her appointment as Chancellor ignited blow-back given her lack of educational experience). Polakow-Suransky has served for years as chief accountability officer of the New York City Department of Education; before that he was a teacher and then principal of both a progressive public school in Harlem and a school in the Bronx for new immigrants. His view of high-stakes testing is, uh, a bit more measured than Ms. Keshishian’s. They’re not even a necessary evil; they are a potential means of instruction.

Here’s the goal, says Polakow-Suransky: “to actually create something that you would want kids to prepare for; that is rich, engaging, interesting, rigorous curriculum, so when they prepare for it, they’re learning.” And here’s a sample question he offered:

He described one prototype question. Students would be asked to calculate the diameter that a straw needs to fit through a juice box’s hole, then write to a juice box manufacturer whose straws keep getting stuck in the hole to explain why its diameter should be changed. “It’s a ninth-grade problem that involves geometry and algebra in an unfamiliar context,” and tests several skills at once, he said.

In other words, tests aren’t evil, nor is NCLB. Our current tests may stink, but the problem is the quality of the tests, not the nature of testing itself. Polakow-Suransky: “To put it very simply,” he said, “how do you know that the kids are learning?”

One other quibble with the APP piece. Ms. Keshishian compares NCLB to the

meltdown of the financial sector, where misplaced incentives led to unwanted results. When executives and traders were rewarded on the basis of short-term outcomes — higher quarterly profits or ever-increasing stock prices — they found ways to reach those goals, for a while. They made ever riskier bets in the hope of immediate gains. They pursued strategies to maximize profits today, at the expense of the long-term health of their companies and well-being of their shareholders.

It’s a handy anaology; that Wall Street reek encapsulates all things anathema to the anti-testing/NCLB cadre. Keshishian effectively conjures up that stink of edu-entrepeneurs, for-profit charter schools, Mark Zuckerberg’s check to Newark, assaults on tenure, and all that ed reform rot.

But is her comparison accurate? Didn’t the meltdown happen in part because of lack of regulation and the belief that markets can self-correct without federal oversight? It’s not clear that her animosity towards accountability is best expressed through our distressed financial markets.

Anyway, her anti-testing fervor might be better served by focusing on NJ’s simplistic tests rather than the nature of testing itself. Accountability is here to stay, for students and teachers. We just need to do it better.

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