The commissioner of education has an op-ed in the Providence Journal this morning. Entitled “Our Schools and the Truth about Testing” it painted a rosy picture of what high performance in schools means:
“Every high-performing school I have ever visited has been a vibrant, rich educational environment where learning is fun and well-rounded, and where students and teachers are joyful and engaged in meaningful, relevant activities.”
That sounds great, doesn’t it? But:
- What about the schools that are not yet high-performing? Exactly how does the simple imposition of a stern graduation requirement move a low-performing high school towards an environment “where learning is fun and well-rounded”? The evidence on the ground is quite thin, and all the schools I know about are addressing the problem through testing drills and prep sessions, hardly a route to joyful engagement.
- And what about the high-performing schools who have watered down their curricula because, though they do fine on the tests, they don’t show “Adequate Yearly Progress” as Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) policy demands. My daughter attends one of these, and her educational options have been diluted and curtailed in order to improve what are already fairly respectable scores on the NECAP test. Her “educational environment” is less “vibrant” and “rich” as a direct result of RIDE policy.
After describing the sweetness and light of her vision for education, the commissioner goes on:
“In Rhode Island, we use our statewide standardized assessment, the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), for a variety of purposes, yet there isn’t a single decision about students or teachers that we base solely on the state assessments.”
And then contradicts herself in the very next sentence:
“For example, as part of our Diploma System, we expect students to attain at least a minimum level of achievement on the NECAP or to show progress in order to earn a high-school diploma.”
If you expect students to pass the NECAP test in order to graduate, or at least to improve, then graduation is a decision based solely on the state assessment, despite words to the contrary. There may be other factors, but unless those other factors can override a poor performance on the test, graduation is determined solely by performance on the test and the rest is just decoration.
In public statements like these, the commissioner takes pains to point out that other tests can substitute for the NECAP test. The word I’ve heard is that few students are informed of these options, and that it takes activist parents to use them.
In a similar vein, the commissioner writes:
“Unfortunately, some schools do have too many tests, and these tests can disrupt classroom instruction. It is our responsibility to work with our local educators to ensure a proper balance of high-quality and useful assessments”
And here, perhaps, is the nub of the problem. When the majority of schools are implementing RIDE policy in a way that hurts education, is it the fault of the schools, or the fault of the policy? Are we to excuse the people who created the policy because they claim that everyone is implementing it badly?
- The NECAP test was designed to assess students and schools: to tell which are ahead and which behind their peers. This is a good thing. I wish the tests were less intrusive, but valid assessments are a useful tool, and NECAP seems to be a decent assessment test.
- The NECAP test was not designed to assess mastery of a body of knowledge, though grade-level standards were used to develop appropriate test questions.
- The high stakes applied to the test — graduation requirement for students, job evaluations for teachers and principals — have distorted the test results and forced many schools to devote increasing numbers of classroom hours to test prep, or disguised test prep, such as a new science “survey” class whose purpose is to introduce topics that might be covered on the NECAP.
The result is that most schools find themselves far from the rosy picture of high performing schools painted in the commissioner’s op-ed, and those high-performing schools are themselves under pressure in ways that darken the picture.
The second point in the list is important, and it has been the source of a great deal of confusion. Imagine yourself designing an end-of-term test for a class you taught. Maybe you’d have 20 questions on the test, and maybe 15 of them would be questions anyone could answer who had been paying attention. The other 5 would be questions that might distinguish the A students from the C students, and maybe you’re throw in another question for extra credit. The NECAP designers, for perfectly valid statistical reasons, feel those first 15 questions are a waste of time and they leave them out. Consequently, students who might have gotten 16 questions correct on a properly designed end-of-term test get only one, and probably flunk.
To this day, I’ve heard no valid rebuttals of this criticism. I have heard the critique misconstrued so it can be brushed aside. I’ve seen test technical materials changed to reflect RIDE policy rather than have RIDE policy reflect the limitations of the tests, which would be more appropriate. And now I’ve seen a vision of glorious education, full of that ol’ sweetness and light, but completely lacking in the details of how we get there.
I share the commissioner’s vision for what a high-performing school should look like. I share her commitment to a rigorous education, too. But the evidence that we’re on track to get to that Nirvana is extremely hard to find. Simply repeating an outline of that vision does very little to get us there.
There are very specific RIDE policies that I argue are actually working against that vision, and those ought to be the subject of any discussion, not further description of the fantasy. Where is the defense of requiring financially strapped districts to provide more test prep? Where is the defense of demanding “Adequate Yearly Progress” of schools that are already doing very well? Are they not allowed to add enriching activites instead of just pushing harder on the test prep? Where is the defense of demanding better results without providing a plan (or resources) to get us there? As the commissioner writes, we absolutely do:
“…need a system that brings excellent educators into our schools and classrooms and that provides teachers with the resources and support they need to do their job well.”
Unfortunately we do not have this at the present, and I see no plan that will actually create that so long as RIDE policy is based on little more than simply demanding that the world conform to their fantasy.