Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Myth of Failing Schools: Part 2

September 14, 2014

We all know that tests and testing are an integral part of our educational system.  In fact we’ve all taken our share of tests, no matter how far we’ve gone in the system.   Certainly there is a place and a rationale for educational testing.  Tests measure student growth from one point in time to another, e.g. from the beginning of the year (or class) until the end or at points in between.  Testing can also be diagnostic; to identify gaps in student learning or to determine areas of need for a specific student or group of students.  Teachers can use the information from this form of testing to target instruction or develop individualized strategies to accommodate a student’s differential learning needs.  Testing, however, is also used to assess overall student achievement in individual schools or in an entire school district.  And recently, we also see the use of testing as a tool to evaluate teacher effectiveness and competency.

When the conversation is about “failing schools”, however, the tests most often cited are the standardized ELA (English Language Arts) and Math tests that students in grades 3-8 take annually.  Students across the state take the same tests so that the State can compare the students in Buffalo to the students in Williamsville to the students in Rochester or Syracuse for example.  And according to the State’s newly adopted Common Core Learning Standards, these tests “more accurately reflect students’ progress toward college and career readiness.” Students are ranked, as a result of their scores, in levels 1-4.  Level 1 = well below proficient in the standards for this grade level, Level 2 = below proficient, Level 3 = proficient and Level 4 = excels.  Children with special needs and children with limited English proficiency also take these tests with little to no compensation for their needs.

In 2012-2013 the State Education Department changed these tests to align with the new Common Core Learning Standards.  The result was that student scores plummeted across the state.  Even children in Districts that had consistently scored high level 3s and 4s experienced a major drop in their rankings.  Only 31.3% of students scored proficient or excels on the ELA, while 31.2% obtained those ranks in Math.  In Buffalo, our students scored 12.1% in ELA and 11.4% in Math.  We scored higher than students in Rochester (5.6% and 4.8%) and Syracuse (8.5% and 7.2%).  Scores did not improve appreciably in 2013-2014 when state-wide scores for ELA were 31.4% and 35.8% for Math.  Buffalo’s scores also showed modest gains, ELA score rose to 12.2% matching the one tenth of a percent gain statewide and the Math score went to 13.1%.  Again compared to our sister Western New York cities, Rochester students scored 5.7% in ELA and 6.8% in Math; while Syracuse posted the same score in ELA, 8.5% and Math at 7.6%.

So why does all of this matter?  Let’s set the record straight.  Too often, people including some Board of Education members recklessly label our schools as failing as a result of the scores on these standardized tests.   Remember that these are standardized tests that ALL students take, with almost no exception.  There was a time when African American and other minority group members questioned the validity of standardized testing with our children.

Issues of cultural bias and relevance of these tests were questioned.  Today the questions are broad-based and go to the issues of instructional time spent on test preparation instead of teaching; on tests that tell us little about the individual child as they are not diagnostic; of subjecting children to long hours of testing that  frustrate and demoralize them; the use of testing based on new standards (the Common Core Learning Standards) that have not yet been validated; the promotion of these tests almost exclusively benefiting one testing company; the use of these tests as measures of teacher effectiveness and competence (again a new idea, as yet unsubstantiated as credible). 

By raising these questions I am not ignoring or minimizing the problems we have in student achievement gaps in our schools.  We do have a lot of work to do to improve student learning.  But it’s time that local educators, parents and interested community members have an open dialogue about the Common Core Learning Standards, the use of the accompanying standardized tests and how they affect our children ; how they’re used, what they tell us, and how they inform the education of our children.  Let’s clear up the myths, half-truths and labeling of our schools and the children in them.

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