I picked up my oldest granddaughter from school yesterday and when she got into the car, Rileigh emoted, “I feel so sorry for my teachers. They are just a nervous wreck. They are giving us pep talks; telling us we won’t have homework; and, seeing if a dance during school will make us work harder.” What is going on with her teachers? Why, it’s time for state assessment testing. And teachers and principals know that their professional lives are on the line depending on how kids jump through the charade we call “high stakes accountability.” Kentucky’s absolute obsession with test scores has driven me crazy as an educator and a grandpa for several years, but in this state, to question the assessment business almost seems sacrilegious.
Therefore, I was emboldened to recently hear noted education reformer Diane Ravitch opine about the issue. Dr. Ravitch was in Kentucky to receive the University of Louisville’s Grawemeyer Award, and I had the chance to hear her at a small, informal gathering. Now let’s be clear about two things with Dr. Ravitch. First, I like her because she has the courage to change her mind. In fact, where she is now on vitually every issue versus where she was as a key player in both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton Adminstrations is almost antithetical. I applaud and admire someone with the intellect and the guts to change their opinions as they grow and learn. Secondly, I don’t agree with her on all issues to be sure. As an example, Dr. Ravitch used to support charter schools and now opposes them. Ironically, I have traveled the opposite path going from a charter school cynic to someone who thinks some kids might just benefit from charters. (Tune in next week for a blog on charters!)
The other major education reform issue on which Dr. Ravitch has gone from one end of the spectrum to the other is high stakes accountability. On that score, Dr. Ravitch and I are joined at the hip. First, she notes that the testing game is a lose-lose proposition. As an example, any thoughtful analysis of the current federal mandates from the Obama Administration, in fact, will confirm that it’s likely that every school will eventually fail to meet its goals and then be declared to be in trouble. In reality, Kentucky’s schools are working hard to win a game where the end result is already determined. More immediate and frightening is what the current pressurized environment does to kids. Any teacher or parent knows that schools enter their “test prep” stage in late winter. Suddenly, new material is barely introduced; the bulk of classroom time is spent practicing to take the test; and, the “nervous wreck” syndrome that Rileigh referenced invades the rhythms of every schoolhouse.
Dr. Ravitch frequently references Richard Rothstein, a key architect of national accountability models. Rothstein writes:
“When law and policy hold schools accountable primarily for their students’ math and reading test scores, educators inevitably, and rationally, devote less instructional resources to history, the sciences, the arts and music, citizenship, physical and emotional health, social skills, a work ethic and other curricular areas.
Over the last decade, racial minority and socio-economically disadvantaged students have suffered the most from this curricular narrowing. As those with the lowest math and reading scores, theirs are the teachers and schools who are under the most pressure to devote greater time to test prep, and less to the other subjects of a balanced instructional program.”
Even in this system that does not seem to be working quite right, I know there are many dedicated teachers and administrators trying to provide kids with a well-rounded education despite the testing. In fact, I am extremely impressed with Rileigh’s middle school. Its faculty pays attention to developmentally appropriate practices. There is a real focus on school climate and personalization. But I, like Rileigh, do not think it is right for these dedicated teachers to be “a nervous wreck” because of the testing game. And I’m concerned that many Kentucky kids don’t get a balanced school experience because the last four presidential administrations have been complicit in moving us towards assessment focused learning.
I wonder – when will Kentucky stand up and join other states in standing up to this federal boondoggle?