Saturday, April 2, 2011

Is Our Children Learning? by G.D.

On Monday, USA Today released its latest report in a series  on standardized testing in American schools. The story focused on Noyes Education Campus, a PK-8 school in D.C., which had been singled out for praise by the city’s former schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, because of a big jump in its test scores. USA Today found that there were widespread irregularities with the tests at Noyes — namely that a high number of the students’ answer sheets for the city’s standardized tests had erasures that looked as if the initial, incorrect answer bubble filled out by students  had been changed to the correct ones.

There was a time when  standardized testing was widely seen as a necessary evil in education if not anathema to actual learning. But in the years since the passage of No Child Left Behind, testing has come to dominate discussions of education reform and classroom priorities. (Some districts devote several dozen school days to high-stakes testing each year.)    Charter schools tout their test scores in their fundraising efforts. Public schools with consistently low scores run the risk of being shut down. Several states are making “value-added” scores — an ostensible measure of how much an individual teacher improves student learning based on hitting test score targets — a central peg in determining how much a teacher should be paid, if she should be granted tenure, or whether she should be dismissed outright.

Dana Goldstein writes that given the stakes, it shouldn’t be too surprising that it appears some folks have been cheating to hit their numbers:
In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.
In the era of No Child Left Behind, Campbell’s Law has proved true again and again. When the federal government began threatening to restructure or shut-down schools that did not achieve across-the-board student “proficiency” on state reading and math exams, states responded by creating standardized tests that were easier and easier to pass. Alabama, for example, reported that 85 percent of its fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2005, even though only 22 percent of the state’s students demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard, no-stakes exam administered by the federal government.
 Read the whole article here.

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