Friday, February 15, 2008

PA Graduation Exam Dopiness

(News-Herald, February 14) The state board of education has decided that Pennsylvania school students need more tests, and so we now face the prospect of graduation exams for commonwealth students—ten (yes, ten) of them. If dumb ideas were top forty hits, Harrisburg would be Elvis.

Let me stress—it is in no way dumb to expect quality from schools. Schools should be accountable to the taxpayers who foot the bill just as any branch of government should be answerable to the electorate. People should be able to get some idea of whether or not schools are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Folks should be able to find some sort of answer to the question, “Are my schools any good?”

Standardized tests are an exceptionally poor way to get an answer to that question.

In the ed biz, this is not news. Prior to the eruption of No Child Left Standing, the hot trend in education was Authentic Assessment. Ed biz experts announced that the best way to know if a student could do something was to have the student do it. In other words, if you want to know if Johnny has learned how to make foul shots, you don’t give him a multiple choice test—you hand him a basketball and tell him to shoot. Teachers across the nation greeted this revelation with a resounding, “Well, duh!” We put away our standardized tests, but then NCLB arrived.

Standardized tests are the lazy way to evaluate students, but they aren’t totally useless. If a school is achieving a ten percent proficiency rating on the PSSA, that’s probably a safe indicator that something is wrong. But it does not follow that a high rating means that something is right.

Say you wanted a quick, easy way to evaluate a basketball team’s performance. So you checked after each game to see how many points they scored. If they were scoring fewer than ten points per game, you’d know something bad was happening. But if you knew they were scoring over seventy points per game, what would you really know?

You wouldn’t have enough information to know how they were doing. What did the other team score? And was the other team a really good team, or did the team get their score up by scheduling games against a kindergarten wheelchair team?

Think about everything you’ve ever considered valuable about your own education, everything about school that influenced and helped you in life. How much of that could best be measured by multiple choice questions?

There are two false premises at the heart of the More Standardized Tests proposal. First, that standardized tests are a good measure of anything other than students’ ability to take the standardized test. If the tests were merely a bad measure, that would be bad enough. But by making a standardized test the measure of educational success, the bureaucrats send a clear message—any kind of higher order thinking, expression, understanding and exploration is an unnecessary and unwelcome frill. The tests don’t measure what they claim to measure, and they demand a steady diet of mediocre pablum from schools.

The second unproven premise is that our schools are in some state of disaster. Pittsburgh Superintendent Mark Roosevelt wrote for the hearings in Harrisburg, “For far too long, local education agencies or school districts have been permitted to issue diplomas to students that are not worthy of the paper on which they are printed.”

Really? Really?!?! The industries of the commonwealth are packed with hires from other states because Pennsylvania grads are unemployable? Pennsylvania grads can’t get into college, and when they do, they all flunk out?

I don’t imagine that our schools are pillars of perfection, but the fact is, nobody has any useful data about how successful we are, because politicians are too busy trying to generate short, simple numbers that will fit conveniently in sound bites and press releases.

If we want to know how well we’re doing (and we should), here’s a thought. Elementary schools are supposed to prepare students for middle school. Middle school students are supposed to be ready for high school. Graduates are supposed to be ready to be successful students, citizens and workers.

If that’s what we’re supposed to be accomplishing, let’s go check it out. We can certainly follow the students through school, but let’s not stop there. Let’s survey students five, ten, fifteen, even twenty years after graduation and see how they’re doing. Ask them. Did we prepare them for a job? Did we get them ready for college? Did we get them ready for life? And if any of them say, “I just wish you had taught me more about passing a multiple choice test,” I will eat my hat.

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