If high-stakes tests are to be meaningful, someone needs to pay attention to how we are doing it.

Image Credit: Dreamstime.
Image Credit: Dreamstime.

Metropolitan newspapers this week began their annual reporting of educational accountability testing results.  We can expect weeks of articles slicing and dicing the data to be followed by earnest editorials urging improvement.  Educational muckety-mucks (official term there) will spend the summer plotting strategy.  In the late August heat, school children will begin another year of skill drills designed to vanquish the Chinese and those pesky Liechtensteinians, the mathematical champions of the European division. Maybe this year is the year; 100% passing and no child left behind! Ah, perchance to dream.

Despite pockets of resistance, high-stakes testing has become an established fact of educational life.  Teachers like my wife (96% passing and 76% commended on 4th grade reading, thank you very much) will be judged on how many of the correct bubbles their charges can fill.  Or more precisely, teachers will be judged on how many more correct bubbles their students can find as compared to last year.  As long as China and Liechtenstein lurk, improvement is our mandate.

All of this looks necessary from the desks of national or state educational policy setters.  From the desks of your average (or even your extraordinary) 4th grade teachers, the view becomes a bit hazy.  Based on my completely unscientific approach of actually listening to what teachers have to say, I have distilled their thoughts to three fundamental problems with our testing regimes.

First, the subject matter is not  appropriate for the population they teach.  It may be that Chinese kindergartners can do long division.  American students come to school with Velcro tennis shoes for a reason.  As the years roll by, children in other countries spend  after school hours with tutors and in “cram schools“; our kids hone x-box  skills to a fine edge.  School in other countries ruthlessly focuses on core subjects; we depend on our schools to stamp out bullying, teach drug and alcohol awareness and insure either sexual abstinence or great facility with condoms, depending on the predilections of your particular school board. Not to mention making sure we identify the child with the most ability to pilot a spread offense.

If schools must instruct students in life,  then the three R’s are going to suffer.  Goals are useful only if they are realistic. Yet it seems we set national goals based, not on what one would reasonably expect our students to achieve in our education system, but on what Chinese students can achieve in the Chinese educational system.

Second, when we began the educational accountability odyssey, the dreamers behind it pushed this idea to the teachers. “Yes, we know we are introducing more corporate type pressure into your jobs. The payoff, however, will be increased compensation for those who can excel–just like in the business world.”  Well, the corporate-type pressure has arrived with a vengeance. The increased compensation for those who excel?  Not so much.

The skills, ingenuity and effort it takes to make poor students perform is just as scarce as the ability to bump up sales past that quarterly quota.  There are precious few jobs in the world whose success is so bluntly defined and openly publicized as a public school teacher’s task. The recession is over. Teachers face high pressure environments “just like the real world.” It is time to pay teachers like workers “in the real world.”

Third, and likely most frustrating to teachers is this:  Not only are we setting unrealistic standards and failing to pay teachers who achieve those standards, we keep moving the target.  In Texas, this year’s results measured a mastery of phase 1 of the STAAR tests.  In a year or two we will see how the kids do against phase 2 of the STAAR tests.  How those scores compare to the results achieved on the TAKS tests or the TEKS objectives that preceded  STAAR  is anybody’s guess. Acronym equivalency is hard.

We are talking about no more than high school students here.  I might have missed it, but in the 20 years we have gone through four versions of tests, I am pretty sure there has not been a substantial change in the basic concepts of biology, English, U.S. history or  algebra (the subjects of the required end of course exams).  If the idea behind  testing is to measure basic competency in core subject matters, I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of why the tests need to change so dramatically from year to year.

It is no wonder our teachers feel like rats in a maze. It is well past time to design a system that will last for decades rather than years; measure against goals achievable by our students in our system and pay teachers for hitting the mark. Or maybe we just outsource the whole thing to Liechtenstein.

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