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Posted at 02:04 AM ET, 06/09/2011

What we lose when standardized testing becomes supreme

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This was written by Anne Geiger, who served on the Orange County School Board in Orlando, Fl., from 2004-2008. A native of Virginia, she lives in Arlington and blogs at www.publicpolicyblogger.com, where this appeared. This post examines the meaning of a story by John Merrow on the PBS Newshour, on which I wrote about yesterday.

By Anne Geiger

This week there was a thought-provoking story by education reporter, John Merrow, on the PBS Newshour. Here are some highlights from the transcript.

Starting off...

JOHN MERROW: Reading is the foundation of all learning. But according to the nation’s report card, only 33 percent of fourth-graders are competent readers.

At this elementary school in New York City, 33 percent would be good news. Last year on the state reading test, only 18 percent of fourth-graders were on grade level, strong evidence of a failing school. ...

Based on its reading scores, the school is failing. But, in person, it seems to be thriving. Is it a good school or a bad school? There may be a lot of schools like PS-1. How should they be judged? Do you believe what you read or what you see? Could educational quality be like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, or does the test score say it all? We went back to PS-1 to find out more.

(He then brings viewers into PS-1 to listen, watch, ponder. Dedicated teachers using all kinds of strategies to teach. Children engaged, successfully learning. He interviews teachers, talks to students. After visiting first-grade classrooms, he moves onto fourth grade.)

By the end of the day, it was clear to me that most of PS-1’s first-graders were on their way to becoming competent readers. So, what happens between first and fourth grade? Remember, according to last year’s state test, only 18 percent of fourth-graders at PS-1 were reading on grade level.

We went upstairs to Michelle Alpert’s fourth-grade class to find out.

MICHELLE ALPERT, Teacher: In first grade, it’s all about reading the words. And everything is so literal. But by the time you get to fourth grade, it’s -- there’s a much bigger thinking component.

BRENDA CARTAGENA, Teacher: The fourth grade is a lot harder, a lot harder.

JOHN MERROW: Brenda Cartagena has been teaching for 12 years.

BRENDA CARTAGENA: If you look at the test, the third-grade test, and compare it to the fourth-grade test, it’s night and day.

JOHN MERROW: The state’s fourth-grade reading test expects students to draw inferences and conclusions from what they read, a complicated skill.

But why aren’t children able to meet the demands of fourth grade? Alpert believes that, by the time students enter her class, their often difficult home lives have started to take a toll.

MICHELLE ALPERT: They’re not as innocent anymore. They’re realizing the things that are affecting their schoolwork. You know, I mean, I have homeless students in my room. I have students with fathers in jail. There’s drugs. So, that obviously comes into play at a certain point as well.

JOHN MERROW: Both teachers believe that the social and academic challenges their students face in the early grades catch up to them by fourth grade.

BRENDA CARTAGENA: So, I have readers even as low as first grade through sixth grade.

JOHN MERROW: In your fourth-grade class.

BRENDA CARTAGENA: Right.

JOHN MERROW: So, your job is to do what?

BRENDA CARTAGENA: Make miracles.

(He then sits down with two students whose test scores indicate that they are below grade level. They read passages from last year’s standardized test. They answer the questions correctly. )

JOHN MERROW: Because you learned that. OK. So, you can really take this apart.

These supposedly below-grade-level readers were able to read and understand passages from previous state tests. So, why were fourth-grade test scores so low?

Tell me about the kids. Are they nervous before the tests?

BRENDA CARTAGENA: Some of them, they do get a lot of anxiety, some of them. And some of them will shut down because they get so nervous.

JOHN MERROW: In many public schools, before students take state tests, they spend up to several weeks preparing and practicing.

Do you spend a lot of time teaching kids how to take a test?

BRENDA CARTAGENA: To some degree, yes, because I do think that there is an art to test-taking. So, I want to give them whatever strategies I can to make them more successful, you know, especially my -- my lower-functioning ones.

JOHN MERROW: For school leaders and policy-makers across the country, test scores are typically the only evidence used to determine whether a school is doing a good job. The stakes are high.

BRENDA CARTAGENA: The system takes the fun out of reading. I want them to read for enjoyment. I want them to grab that book because it’s fun. I tell them, reading, you travel, you meet new friends, you learn how to do new things. But it’s very difficult, you know? They take the joy out. And it’s hard to infuse it back.

MICHELLE ALPERT: I don’t know what the better solution is. But I do think obviously that this puts way too much value on test scores. There has to be some sort of -- you know, something else taken into account if you really want to measure a school’s success, a teacher’s success, a student’s success.

JOHN MERROW: So, what you think? Is PS-1 a good school or a bad school? You may have already made up your mind, but the people who make decisions about budgets, about who gets hired, who gets fired, they rely on test scores. PS-1’s fourth-graders took the state test in early May. Those results aren’t expected until July.

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In real life with real teachers, real children, real families, real communities, our gut tells us that a thriving school is defined in many ways, both tangible and intangible. Parents know that. Teachers know that. It’s no different than walking into someone’s home. There’s physical evidence of stability and strength, but there are other elements that aren’t physical, aren’t measurable. Behaviors and environments that make children feel safe, nurtured, supported, inspired, engaged. Where there’s order, but spontaneity. Rules, but flexibility. Expectations, but compassion. Discipline, but laughter. In other words, humanity at its best.

A school is really an extension of home for our children. And for many children whose families are not stable and strong, their school is their home. Not just because they spend a good part of their young lives there, but because teaching and learning, just like parenting and maturing, are such human endeavors. Many, many things define good parenting. Many, many things define good teaching. Many, many things define a good home. Many, many things define a good school.

If we accept this as true, then why are we listening to those who insist we define schools and classrooms through the narrow lens of standardized test scores? Would we use such a simplistic measure in our homes? Our families? No, we wouldn’t because it wouldn’t be fair, accurate or complete. Over time, such a narrow lens would weaken the rich, complex human fabric that comprises our homes and our families. We would begin to think those wonderful, dynamic intangibles are unimportant. And since schools and classrooms are, through their warm humanity, homes and families to our children, it is not fair, accurate or complete to measure educational success primarily through cold data.

Reformers who have made standards and testing the end-all and be-all would shrug off such criticism. They insist they are right, and have invested enormous capital in their assumption that data is everything. It’s entwined now in our politics, our public policies and the way our tax dollars are spent on behalf our our children.

But, schools and classrooms cannot become factories. Or assembly lines. Our children cannot be standardized. They are human beings. Complicated, unpredictable, malleable. Hungry to learn, participate, contribute. Solve problems together. Mature together. Move through the inevitable, sometimes-crazy up’s and down’s of growing up. Discuss, debate, disagree, agree. Provide mutual support and respect while they challenge and hold high expectations for one another. Discover their inner creativity, voice, strengths and interests. Guide each other through personal struggles and applaud each other in triumph. Just like families in strong, stable homes.

Discomfort and concern are growing over our nation’s high-stakes, disproportionate focus on standardized testing. It may be because down deep we sense the loss of something precious and fundamental. Our humanity.

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