An exceptional D.C. student educates me

Jay Mathews
Columnist January 7, 2013

Even troubled school systems have great students doing remarkable work. I learned this once again from a long e-mail I received from a D.C. student during the holidays. Her name is Noa Rosinplotz. She argued for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing. She supplied a detailed analysis, with examples, of problems with the Paced Interim Assessment, used in the District to determine how students are progressing.

“Education officials don’t focus on the people affected by their frequent tests and attempts to gauge student and school achievement,” she wrote. “There are 49.8 million students and 3.3 million teachers working in U.S. public schools, and those tests take away valuable learning time just to judge what has been learned. . . .

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

“The only good tests are ones created by teachers who know their students and know what they’re teaching,” she wrote. “We could be assessed in ways testing our creativity and knowledge, not only our capacity for making small-minded inferences by looking at short, meaningless topics. If the school system spent more time planning the tests, using information from schools and the people in them . . . then maybe, just maybe, we could get some valid information from those very answer sheets.”

Few of the bona-fide educational experts who write me are as erudite and clear as Rosinplotz — if that was really her name. I supposed it was possible that a senior at a D.C. magnet high school such as Banneker or School Without Walls could have written such an e-mail. But this child claimed she was a 12-year-old sixth-grader at the Oyster-Adams Bilingual School.

Sure. Which of my friends cooked this up? I asked her to prove her identity. She did. I learned long ago that smart students’ complaints about the way they are taught merit close attention, so I had to take her moratorium thoughts seriously.

I had read my colleague Lynh Bui’s story last month on a similar moratorium proposal by Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent Joshua P. Starr. He said at a Washington Post Live education forum that we should “stop the insanity” of assessing teachers based on their students’ test results and try a three-year ban on standardized testing.

He had a point. Almost all states are switching to the new Common Core curriculum, but their annual tests will not reflect that change any time soon. It makes no sense to judge teachers on Common Core teaching with a test unrelated to that approach. I predicted in a column last year that states would realize that and stop using scores to assess teachers, at least temporarily.

But a three-year testing moratorium still seemed wrong to me for other reasons. It would be impossible to achieve a national consensus for such a radical move. A moratorium also would create the false impression that some of our schools aren’t succeeding because they use standardized tests. I was a student and a parent before state achievement tests were in vogue. There is no evidence schools were better then. I remember them being worse.

But young Rosinplotz, smarter than either Starr or me, proposed a good use for a moratorium: “We would be able to see, at the end of those three years, whether as a country we’ve made any academic progress without having to worry about constant evaluation.” I asked what test critics would be willing to employ to make that judgment. She suggested the National Assessment of Educational Progress. She was right. That national sampling would work. I was convinced.

So congratulations to the D.C. schools for having a student like that. I suspect we will discover after three years without testing that testing isn’t the problem. But I am through doubting Noa Rosinplotz. If she thinks it’s a good idea, I say let’s try it.

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