We have been told over and over that unless we pick up the pace and score higher on international and state tests we will no longer be a great nation. So loud is the call that some elementary schools no longer have art, poor performing schools see teachers fired and schools closed, and new charter schools are all the rage. Education is being revamped to be sure, but relying on testing and high stakes accountability to determine which schools close, who gets accolades, and who gets the boot has increased our fears, decreased our potential, and put our priorities in the wrong places.
Before 2010, in NYC all I heard about was how NYC was making strong gains in reading and math. The Mayor’s office and others pointed to the increases seen in Math and English state test scores. Parents were told their kids were progressing or not progressing because of these results. Teachers and school administrations saw their livelihood taken from them because of these results. Then came the truth. The state tests had been dumbed down over several years. So much so that a fourth grader only had to get 37 out of 70 points on the math state test to get a level 3 (proficient in subject area). The state promised to do better. In 2010, to achieve the same level of proficiency a student had to earn 50 out of 70 points. What this meant was that a school in the Bronx, which received 81 percent passing when the tests were dumbed down, had only 19 percent passing after the change in scoring.
How could those in charge not know what was happening? They were making serious decisions based on this data. I knew something was going on the minute I started helping my daughter study for the math state test. I downloaded tests from several different years to have a better understanding of the material covered and saw how subjects like volume and probability, which were present one year, were noticeably absent the next. Although the state has made the criteria for obtaining proficiency on the state tests higher I still haven’t seen the high quality of questions that I used to see. It just goes to demonstrate some of the unintended consequences of using state testing data to make decisions. We can also see unintended consequences at the high school level. According to the State Education Department, NYC’s high school graduation rate is up to 61 percent but their college preparedness numbers hover around 23 percent. Meaning, just because one has a high school diploma doesn’t mean he or she is now ready to enter college, at least not without some remedial course work.
New York is not the only state with funny numbers. You can’t turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about cheating on standardized tests. Many business and education leaders held Beverly Hall, superintendent of schools in Atlanta, in high esteem. She used words like data-driven decisions, return on investment, targets, and metrics. The same kind of words I heard in NYC. Then came a state investigators report that listed 44 schools and 178 teachers in her district in a standardized testing cheating scandal. How could we be surprised? Many of these reforms were based on corporate decision-maker ideology and methodology. Look at AIG, Enron, and many other corporations fined or sanctioned for data manipulation and poor interpretation. Cheating has become a part of our corporate culture.
Nowadays it’s not just the state test data we have to worry about. Often we hear that we are lagging behind China in international testing and the United States and all it stands for is at risk. The truth is that we never scored high on the international math and science tests. The first year they were implemented we came in twelfth place and there were only twelve nations tested. However, somehow we were still seen by many as the best country in which to live and work. Proving that scoring number one on these assessment tests did not necessarily equate with a country’s economic growth, viability, or quality of life. And of course the international tests only test three cities in China. In the United States, everyone, whether they have a disability or not, are given a chance to get educated for free and therefore subject to the international test.
We are chasing the ever-elusive number one status in the international testing arena to the detriment of what has made us unique. We have always been a creative nation yet we are having our students mimic the behavior of countries that score high in testing. I hear longer school days and shorter summers are in order to get our kids up to par. Less art and music to make way for more math and English; yet there are physicists, biologists, and mathematicians graduating from some of our best universities who are not able to find jobs. We tell our kids study and work hard but we know that is no guarantee of getting a good job upon graduation. I look at China and how many of their factory workers live in dormitories and come from rural areas to make money to send home to their families. Their living quarters are small and their quality of life is not very good: working long hours, often leaving their children with their family members while going off to make money. Is this what we are chasing after? Is this what Americans have to look forward to when they test better?