Saturday, September 15, 2012

High-stakes testing denialism

I’ve been surprised by some of the responses I’ve gotten from legislative candidates (some for attribution, some not) on the question of local control. “‘Lack of local control’ is exaggerated,” one candidate said. “Local school boards have tons of latitude - yet few exercise any.” Another suggested that I speak to my local school officials about my concerns about short lunch periods and cuts in recess time. When I pointed out that my superintendent has repeatedly attributed those policies to pressure from the state to raise standardized test scores and maximize instructional time, this legislator responded, “Other than the Iowa Core which has been in the works for over 5 years we have not made any changes at the state level regarding reading or math minutes during the school day. The feds have not made any changes in their requirements either. . . . I don’t appreciate the local officials blaming the state for their schedule and I don’t think this kind of behavior is helpful.”

I agree that our district should do what’s right and not whatever the state pressures it to do. But for a legislator to deny that the state is pressuring districts to raise test scores at all costs is willful blindness. Memo to legislators: you didn’t just require that schools use testing to “measure student progress,” you enacted high-stakes testing. You enacted a law that imposed overwhelming incentives on local districts to sacrifice all other educational values to the pursuit of higher standardized test scores.

Under our state laws, if a school doesn’t raise its test scores, its administrators and teachers can be fired, and the school can be closed. But if it cuts recess to the bare minimum and gives the kids a measly ten minutes for lunch, or makes learning such a boring, joyless enterprise that the kids can’t wait to stop doing it forever, or teaches the kids that unquestioning obedience to authority is the highest value, or works to inculcate values (the reason to be well-behaved is to get a reward!) that are morally bankrupt, or turns out kids who are better prepared to be subjects of a totalitarian state than citizens of a participatory democracy – nothing bad will happen to it.

That’s the system our state legislators enacted. There’s lots of blame to go around, but no one is more responsible for it than they are. When defenders of that regime talk about how we need standardized testing to “measure progress,” it’s like an arsonist explaining that, well gosh, all buildings need heat and light. And when they act like high-stakes testing has nothing to do with local decisions about how to allocate time in the school day, they’re insulting our intelligence.

So much endless talk about accountability; so much lecturing the kids about responsibility; yet so much buck-passing by the people who actually make the decisions.

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