Thursday, October 11, 2007


(News-Herald, October 11)No Child Left Behind has been lurching toward reauthorization. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has been parading it like a stuffed dog yanked along on a tight leash. Periodically the poor dead thing tips over, and Spellings praises it for rolling over.

Spellings has been touting test results as proof that NCLB works. Not everyone is convinced. The internet is loaded with scholarly statistic wonk articles accusing Spellings of cooking the books and cherry-picking data. The good numbers reportedly depend on techniques like counting figures from before the actual implementation of NCLB.

But I’m not even going to argue that point. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that test scores really have improved.

The rhetoric that has surrounded NCLB since its spawning has been masterful. Every child should be educated in a culture or excellence and high expectations. Every child should receive the best education possible. America’s workforce should be well-educated. Who can disagree with any of these?

And I’ll go one further—who can disagree with the idea of accountability for school systems. In the ed biz, we feed at the public trough, and we owe the taxpayers a good accounting of what we’re doing with the system they pay for and entrust us with. The days are gone when schools can get away with saying, “Look, we’re your schools. Just trust us and don’t ask questions.”

Those days should be gone. Today there’s no reason for a school not to operate with a high level of transparency. Folks should be able to get some idea of how well we’re doing our job.

Every one of those goals listed above—every single one—is reasonable and appropriate and worth achieving. But the mystery remains—why would anyone seriously think that the way to pursue and measure any of those goals is by giving a single multiple choice test?

Certainly not actual teachers. Since the seventies, research into best practices has steered teachers away from multiple choice tests because they are such a lousy measure of pretty much anything. What’s required for a multiple choice test is a combination of regurgitation untainted by any actual thinking, plus a small amount of dumb luck.

Even the couple of essay-ish questions inserted as a sop to old-fashioned curmudgeons like me are multiple-choice dumb—if it asks for two reasons, the test scorer is only to count the number of reasons offered, and not to evaluate their quality.

The tests are not completely worthless. They’re like a canary in a coal mine—if nobody in your school is passing, something is terribly wrong. But if the canary is alive and well, that doesn’t mean you’re mining lots of coal. And if half of your crew is busy with the care, feeding and maintenance of the canary, then they’re not busy mining coal, and you’re falling behind.

NCLB could be merely obnoxious, or perhaps a curious hybrid (where else do we find the conservative desire to spank unions so perfectly wedded to the liberal desire to have the federal government take over everything). But the omnipresent testing makes NCLB a giant bloodsucking leech on the body of education. Testing and practice testing and bizarrely obsolete tests that we give just because we always have (yes, MAT, I’m talking to you) have steadily shortened the school year.

So we put the squeeze on history and art and music and just plain using your brain for something other than a sponge. Not to mention NCLB’s disrespect for blue collar jobs—the PSSA does not include questions about welding or carburetors, but it does hit calculus.

And now some batch of geniuses in Harrisburg think that a good next move would be—more tests!! I would love to meet these guys face to face, but I don’t think I can get transportation to whatever planet they live on. I can only assume they’re related to the same folks who think if you keep looking in your wallet, eventually you’ll find more money there. Fine if you’re rich, but if you’re checking your wallet instead of doing your job, it will only get emptier.

Try a simple exercise. Imagine that you are going to select an employee, a nurse for your aging parent, even a spouse. Could you design a multiple choice test that would tell you everything you wanted to know about them? Despite all the political verbiage about raising expectations, NCLB has lowered the bar while making it twice as hard to strive for anything better.

Several business coalitions have announced their support for NCLB, saying they have a real need for the educated workers it will produce. I can only assume that they expect a big wave of openings for multiple choice test takers.

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