I had lots of opinions about teaching when I was 24 and just stepping into the classroom. Here was one:
testing was undoubtedly, terribly bad. Bad for kids, bad for teachers, bad for schools.
It was the early days of the
No Child Left Behind back then – like the Wild West, but in my case, Brooklyn.
Then a funny thing happened: I prepared my children to take their
Global History High Stakes Regents Exam (read: BAD BAD BAD), and then to take the US History exam. And by and large they passed--and they passed because they had learned some history. They took that learning very seriously, because passing
those exams meant they could earn a high school diploma.
Then I moved to Massachusetts where there is no testing at all in history, and I miss it.
Oh, I know, lots of people think that testing means the end of all good things. The joy of learning will be crushed! It’s just not nice to hold young people accountable! Or teachers! Or schools!
I struggle to understand this perspective.
Because here’s the thing that I think often goes unacknowledged: these tests aren’t very hard. Great test scores might not mean a great school. But bad test scores are definitely a red flag, because these exams are just basic tests of academic
competency. If a school isn’t preparing the vast majority of its students to do well on them, that’s a problem.
Here’s another thing: three days a week, my two kids are cared for by an extremely competent woman named Linda, the mother herself of two well-raised teenage daughters.
Linda’s oldest daughter, a rising senior at a charter school here in Boston, recently announced that she was going to transfer to another nearby school for her senior year.
“What do you think?” asked Linda.
In response, I grabbed my laptop, went to the Massachusetts Department of Education’s website, and opened the school profiles for both Linda’s daughter’s current school and the one she was talking about transferring to. Linda and I looked at their
Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores together.
The prior year, 61 percent of the students in Linda’s daughter’s class had scored at the Advanced level on their 10th grade math exam. At the school she wanted to transfer to, only 16 percent had scored Advanced, and a full 23 percent of them
had failed the math completely. No one had failed the math at her daughter’s current school – not a single student.
By the time we looked at the 10th grade failure rates for the new school, Linda was definitely listening. “Oh,” was all she said. And then: “She can’t go there.” And that was the end of it.
This is exactly the kind of parent decision-making that state testing is supposed to enable, but even for a very competent parent who cares deeply about her children’s education and pays close attention to it, it took someone with eight years in the classroom,
a master’s degree in education, and a laptop to find the data and help her interpret it by going through each point.
I love the Massachusetts Department of Education’s “school and district profiles.” They are incredibly informative,
if you know where to look and more importantly, how to interpret what you see. But how many parents, in any school district in this country, really understand what “AYP” means?
I know I don’t need to convince anyone reading this particular blog that accountability is important.
But while education experts are having conversations about how, exactly, testing should be used in evaluating teachers, or which specific tests are good indicators of student achievement, parents – of all races, classes, and education backgrounds – are floundering.
Some don’t understand the fundamental purpose of testing, and what it reveals about the strengths and weaknesses of the schools in their communities. Others lack information about how to access the data to make these kinds of informed decisions about their
Passing state tests should be only a bare minimum of achievement, not the end goal, as
I’ve written previously. But as we move forward, we need to communicate more directly and more frequently with parents about the purpose of these exams, and we also need to figure out how to democratize access to the data
the exams create. If families don’t understand what we’re doing, or why, then we have a problem on
our hands, and we need to fix it.