Better scores and dumber for it

Over the past few months I have read a few books by educational and social activist, Jonathan Kozol. My wife and I also went to listen to him speak at UMKC about a month ago. Recently I have been reading several blog posts by Larry Cuban. He writes a lot about school reform and looks at change from multiple angles. Combine these two sources with my limited experience of teaching for 2 1/2 years, 1 1/2 years in the inner city, and that is how I have developed this post.

After reading and listening to Kozol I found myself disagreeing with him on one major point. He often contrasts suburban and urban schools. He paints grim pictures of the urban schools. Describing them as military-like institutions that punish creativity and extinguish the joy of learning. I am not denying that picture at all, unfortunately it is far too common. But he often paints a picture of suburban schools as places where learning is joyful and creativity abounds. If we take his description at face value, than these suburban districts would never allow the strict regiment often found in the urban schools. This may be true if we contrast high-end private schools or upper class public schools to the urban schools. But, in my limited experience - combined with what I read from people like Larry Cuban - many suburban schools have also traded engaging learning that extends students or a diluted, low-level, rote-drill-and-kill, test practice.

Kozol paints a picture of administration and parents in suburban districts never settling for boring curriculum and boring lessons. My experience says that they'll not only settle for it, they'll choose it so long as test scores go higher. Who cares about the long-term effect? They scored well on that 3rd grade test!

In the inner city, where I have worked for a year and half, it just gets worse. I'm told that a student who is "meets standard" on the state test is "on level". That means a student who gets a D is on level! But if we ignore the truth and tell ourselves that meets standard is on level, then we can convince ourselves that 50% of our population is on grade level. That's what the newspapers and state legislature will say anyway. First of all, 50% on level is unacceptable. But when you realize that "on level" doesn't really mean "on level" it only gets worse.

But of course, it's easier to play with statistics to make them say what you want than it is to actually change something.

In the suburbs, where I only taught for a year, there are multiple people paid full-time salaries with our tax dollars just to trick the statistics every year. They are called instructional coaches or reading specialists or whatever, but their known job is to take those "bubble kids", the ones that are close to moving up a level on that state test, and drilling them with test-like questions so that they'll get one or two more questions right come March.

No one actually believes they'll remember the information that was drilled into them. Most people don't care. They got "meets standard"!! Success.

We sacrifice what we know as good instruction and instead resort to drilling test-style questions with obnoxious vocabulary (not test-like vocabulary that will serve them in any other testing situation apart from the state test).

For my two and half years, I have tried to avoid resorting to this mode of instruction. Sometimes I have to. The students need to see test-like questions so that they don't miss questions they should get right. But I work hard to create an environment where the test is not the focus. One of my major objectives is to have a classroom that works hard at everything we do, test or art or writing.

My students and I have several discussions about the importance of the test, but we spend minimal time covering test-prep. In some ways, we don't have time. The majority of my class comes to me one, two, or three grade levels below the 5th grade level they should be at. I have to meet them where they are and work to expedite their learning. But I would like to believe that even if my entire class were on level we would work just as hard to go beyond, maybe two or three grade levels above.

I'll stop.

But my point is the title of the post - we have found many ways to get our test scores up, but I think we're dumber because of it. There has to be a better way to assess student growth and teacher effectiveness. I for one think something similar to the NWEA MAP test would be the best. It would be a test that takes about 45 min to an hour every time and it taken three times a year. This would eliminate bad or good test days and would help educators identify holes better. Also, students would be matched up against national averages. That's my soap-box.

Merry Christmas!

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