Deeply imbedded in the American psyche lingers the belief that punishment of undesired behavior is the ultimate goal of any test. As a people we have been slow to relinquish this notion.
Our Puritan heritage provides the absurdity of the “swim-test” of witch hunt lore in which those suspected of sorcery were bound in a sack and thrown in a river. Occasionally, alleged witches overcame their natural buoyancy and sank to the river bottom. The price for vindication on the charge of witchcraft was often death by drowning.
More often, however, the accused simply floated. In such instances it was deemed that the water had “rejected” the evil in the perpetrator’s body. Those who floated were snatched from the water and promptly put to death. Call it the puritan version of a Catch 22 later made famous by Joseph Heller.
Our culture is no stranger to irrational high-stakes testing or poor test design.
Fortunately, our society is somewhat wiser today. We no longer execute those who survive our standardized tests; we merely seek to deprive them of educational resources as a punishment.
It remains to be seen what fate ultimately awaits those who perform poorly on our state-mandated, standardized assessments. It would appear, though, that sticks will be many and carrots few. Therein resides the conundrum.
Standardized assessments will never, in and of themselves, improve the academic performance of our students. Does a blood-pressure cup cure high blood pressure? Or, does it merely indicate who might profit from increased medical surveillance? Would it make any sense to withhold medication that treats high blood pressure from a medical facility where high blood pressure was prevalent?
How then can we threaten to withhold resources from schools where the demonstrated need is greatest? The very question boggles the mind…
Ignorance and disease share a common trait. By the time we determine that a test is order, it may be too late to change the behaviors that led to the disorder. Many diseases can be conquered only by lifestyle changes years, even decades, prior to the onset of symptoms. Ignorance holds those characteristics in common.
So, how will we improve the academic achievement of our young people?
One key for improving student performance is standardized working conditions for educators. How can we expect similar results from vastly dissimilar learning environments?
Teachers in one jurisdiction might have thirty-six students in their classrooms. Their counterparts across some line on a map might have only twenty-two. Which group of teachers is most likely to reach a higher percentage of their students?
Teachers in one school count themselves lucky to have one class-set of textbooks to share among several classes. Teachers in another school send a book home with every child. Which teachers are more likely to have students prepared for class tomorrow?
Teachers in one elementary school confront 300-plus minutes-a-day of non-stop custodial care for dozens of children. Teachers in another elementary school have fewer students and are relieved by itinerant “specialty” teachers for enrichment activities like music and foreign language. Which teachers have more opportunity to plan for dynamic instruction? Which teachers are better able to hold students accountable?
Do you really believe that children sitting in air-conditioning and children sitting in hazy, hot and humid classrooms are going to perform similarly on any standardized assessment? Wouldn’t it be interesting to see that statistical correlation?
The clamor increases for “accountability” in our schools, and teachers are increasingly expected to play the role of Professor Harry Higgins for every little Eliza Doolittle in the world. Still, we are ignoring one key element of that famous musical. Professor Higgins wagered on his ability to change the life of just one student.
Unfortunately, the reality for teachers more nearly approximates the circumstances of the old woman who lived in a shoe. Teachers have so many students, they just don’t know what to do. Today, however, broth without bread and a whipping before bed are not considered viable educational models, nor are they conducive to increased achievement on a weeks-long marathon of standardized testing.
Most teachers dream of holding students strictly accountable for the acquisition of skills and knowledge in their classrooms. Most teachers learn early in their careers, however, that the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against fulfilling such ambitious dreams. The obvious remedies are perversely flip-flopped and become road-blocks.
Teachers call for a reasonable number of clients to be served. Staffing ratios are reduced; programs and positions are eliminated; class sizes are increased.
Teachers call for more instructional time. Instead, they lose weeks to new computerized assessments.
Teachers call for fewer disruptions to the school day. Instead, they watch a different 20 percent of their class leave every day for a weeks at a time rendering it nearly impossible to escort a class through a sequential curriculum.
No standardized test will ever, by itself, improve the intellectual prowess of a student. For that, three facets are required: involved parents, a manageable number of clients in each classroom, and qualified teachers equipped with appropriate and adequate resources. Academic achievement is adversely impacted when any one of these essential elements is missing. Incomprehensibly, too many students and educators spend entire academic careers lacking all three.
With the force of a moral imperative, it is incumbent on our society to provide adequate and equitable resources to every public school.
Centuries from now, will historians look back on this period of economic elitism and wonder why so many children were willfully left behind? Centuries from now, will social scientists look back on our testing mania with the same derision that we reserve for the witch hunts? Centuries from now, will educators ridicule this era for assisting only the survivors of our psychometric “swim-tests”?
If we continue to distribute grossly inadequate resources inequitably, if we continue to emphasize back-end assessments instead of front-end instruction, if we continue to formulate policies that abandon those most in need, then folly shall be our legacy.
[This updated Commentary originally appeared as a slightly shorter version in the now defunct Prince George’s County Journal on February 22, 2002. While ESSA has replaced NCLB on the federal level, it may be years before states walk back from the policies put in place to obtain federal funding. ]