Friday, February 26, 2016

How Do We Know The New State Report Card is More Accurate?

Much was made yesterday of the Fordham Institute's statement from Aaron Churchill, whom I respect and admire, that said the statewide drop in grades on the state's new report card was how students "actually performed" last year.

Beyond the obvious logical issue (weren't previous years' tests also measuring how kids "actually performed" on those tests?), Aaron Churchill's point was that the state's been glossing over the struggles kids have been having for far too long. And now that we have a rigorous test, we will be seeing how kids "really" perform.

I'm sorry, but I just don't see it. And the simple reason is this: Just because kids do worse on this set of tests doesn't mean the old ones were soft or something. How do we know this new round is more accurate? Because test scores dropped?

Could it be that the new tests were bad? If I develop a test designed to get only 1/3 of my students to pass, guess what? It's a bad test and I would be forced to re-write it. I'm not saying the PARCC tests fit that description, but you can't just say the tests are more accurate because kids do worse on them. Unless you're predisposed to think that public schools are failing.

That predisposition reveals the education reform movement's central fallacy: Public Schools aren't doing the job. So advocates become blind to success, or they insist that success means assessments are too easy or something.

Why can't success be, well, success?

I just grow weary of accountability advocates telling us to adopt a rigorous regime, then when kids start doing well at that regime, they tell us that old regime is feeble so we need to adopt an even more rigorous one, which (guess what?) kids will master in a few years too. But for a time, at least, they look like they're not doing as well.

Seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me.

I am not against assessments. I think we need to find out how our kids are doing. In fact, educators have been testing and grading kids since, well, forever. The difference today is that these assessments are now being used to do far more than they were ever intended. They drive funding. They drive school closure. They drive levy success. They drive everything.

I'm not even opposed to the Common Core, per se. I like the concepts my kids are learning in math and wish I had learned math that way. I also think it's a good idea to ensure that if a kid moves to Ohio from Tennessee, teachers won't have to catch up the kid for 6 months. My problem is putting so much emphasis on these test results that whole communities suffer and neighborhoods lose their core.

After all, it was none other than Thomas Jefferson who set aside the heart of every American community for "public schools" in the Land Ordinance of 1785.

Assessments need to look at more than analytical ability. That's important, but it's not everything. Creativity, practicality, intuition, critical thinking, love of learning, curiosity, etc. are all as important, if not more so. Yet we do not assess those attributes at all.

This new report card data won't probably end up meaning much because the tests coming in this year are different and there are so many opt-outs, appeals and incomplete data. So I don't know how valuable this set will be beyond this year. I think it's problematic that more than 20% of school district grades are Fs when districts never earned more than single digits in previous years.

Were the single digit years more accurate, or the 20%?

I have no idea. And you know what?

No one else knows either.

Unless you're predisposed to think public schools can't be doing as well as their past test scores suggest, or that public schools are flawless or something. And if that's the case, then you've got a bias that could be blinding you to what could be some great news: that our public schools are doing a great job for the most part, or some bad news: that they need help. Yes, there remain struggles serving at-risk kids. Yes poor kids have less chance of doing well on these tests than wealthy ones. But how do you separate these issues from the tests being inherently tied to demographics?

Overall, I'm damn proud to live in a country whose founders believed the beat to every community's heart started in the classroom. And for those who think our public schools suck compared to anywhere else in the world, look at our economic strength, our creativity, our innovation and compare it with any high-scoring country on international tests (many of the highest-scoring countries 20-30 years ago are in economic chaos today).

And ask a very simple question: Where else would you like to live?

I think America has always has been great. And it is our commitment to Jefferson's heart -- our public schools -- that has played among the most important roles creating that greatness.

Don't let anyone tell you different.


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