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Are test-based education reforms on their way out? Ask any parent what they want for their child’s education and what you won’t hear is, “I want my son/daughter to excel at the state-mandated standardized tests.” Ask any teacher what excites and motivates them about their profession and you won’t hear, “I love preparing my students for the state tests.” Ask any student what they enjoy about school and you won’t hear, “standardized tests.” Known as STAR in California, these predominantly bubble tests are given to students from second to 11th grades over the course of one to two weeks. In high school this is in addition to the high school exit exam, PSAT, SAT, ACT, AP tests and regular course exams and finals. That’s a lot of missed learning opportunities.
This data-driven environment took hold with a vengeance under the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind federal mandates that threatened to withhold funds and close down schools that failed to meet improvement targets on test scores year over year. This led to the lowering of standards and school district cheating scandals, most notably in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta.
The “Billionaire Boys Club” of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates and their cronies has been pushing for and implementing reforms linking teacher evaluations and pay to student test scores. The irony is that most of these proponents of test-driven reforms went to and sent their children to elite private schools where bubble tests are nonexistent and class sizes rarely get out of the teens.
This so-called “value-added method” where teachers are ranked according to student test scores has been discredited for its unreliability. A significant percentage of teachers in the top quartile in one year will drop to the bottom quartile the next year. In Los Angeles, after the data and rankings were published in the L.A. Times a beloved teacher committed suicide. Many other teachers with low rankings were harassed and demonized. Even the Obama administration’s attempt to correct the failings of No Child Left Behind, now called Race to the Top, has made tying student test scores to teacher evaluations not only a pre-condition of federal education grant application, but of state waivers to No Child Left Behind.
Against this backdrop, something strange has been happening recently. Important people are talking about education quality as a means to engender a passion for life-long learning, creativity and ingenuity. Late last year Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have expanded the state’s accountability system to include measures other than standardized tests because Senate Bill 547 didn’t go far enough in replacing quantity with quality, with measures such as “good character or love of learning,” along with “excitement and creativity.” And, last month, in his State of the State address, Brown stated, “I believe it is time to reduce the number of tests taken…” and emphasized the need for “a qualitative system of assessments.”
Currently Senate Bill 789 is making its way through the state Legislature. This bill would establish a “Creative and Innovative Education Index” to measure the opportunities schools provide to nurture creativity and innovation in students. For the first time, it would give schools a real incentive to build creativity into all areas of the curriculum.
Last month, in his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama stated that we should “grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; (and) to stop teaching to the test….” The possibility that all of this portends an educational system that is more engaging and exciting is welcome news to parents who dread to hear “I hate school. It’s boring!”
Kimberley Beatty lives in Sabre Springs. She is vice president of legislation for the Palomar Council PTSA in the Poway Unified School District.
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