Columns » Ernest Dumas

The failure of testing


When the Supreme Court's deadline for Arkansas to fix its schools arrived last week, the legislature and the governor had agreed to give teachers a lot more red tape and enough new money that if it were all handed to Houston Nutt would keep him coaching the Razorbacks to 8-3 seasons for three more years. Before it winds up, the legislature may raise more than the $5 million that it appropriated for the schools last week to head off immediate court sanctions, but it won't be enough to offset the harm to another generation of children from saddling the schools with another layer of standardized tests and penalties for poor schools and their children. Legislators thought they had no choice but to embrace the nutty proposals of tax-dodging millionaires and the state Chamber of Commerce. The businessmen said a tough accountability law was about all the schools really needed, but if it were passed they would not stand in the way if the legislature wanted to raise taxes on working people. The legislature has no history of standing up to the Chamber of Commerce or the billionaires. Accountability has been the catchword of politicians and opponents of public education for a quarter-century. It began as a sincere desire to measure what kids were learning from one school or from one state to the next. Later the tests themselves became the fix. If children were forced to take enough standardized tests, the embarrassing publicity along with monetary sanctions for low-performing schools would force teachers to do whatever it was that they were not doing to get boys and girls to learn. Arkansas began requiring every school district to administer and report the results of nationally normed tests in 1983, part of Gov. Bill Clinton's sweeping reform package. Over the years, the state and then the national government has added new layers of tests, ending with the No Child Left Behind act backed by President Bush and a bipartisan Congress. Schools from sea to shining sea are staggering under the weight of the red tape, mushrooming costs and confusion laid on by the law. Since all of that has got to be good, a bunch of industrialists, who mostly oppose any financial aid to the schools, thought Arkansas should double or triple the red tape and raise the bureaucratic costs even more. The new law will double the number of required tests devised by Arkansas (those are the ones showing schools making fantastic leaps forward) and increase by 250 percent the number of national tests administered each year (those are the ones showing Arkansas kids doing badly). Teachers who complain about paper work haven't seen anything yet. The state Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries declared it an essential reform. Here's the record of accountability so far. Since 1983, when Arkansas first uniformly administered standardized tests, the scores on the national tests on average have not improved and in some cases have gone down. The only comprehensive national study of the accountability movement covering about the same period concluded last year that the high-stakes tests, which punish schools and teachers for low performance and reward good ones, had produced no progress and had actually made matters worse. While schools tended to show incredible progress on tests designed by the states themselves, the same schools showed little or no progress and often declined on the national tests. With high stakes for themselves and for their schools, teachers build their lesson plans around the big test and often teach little else. Talk to some Arkansas teachers. Schools shrink the curriculum and drive out underachievers, who drag down school scores. "The most perverse problem with high-stakes tests," said the director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at U.C.L.A., "is that they have become a substitute for the curriculum instead of simply a measure of it." It turns out that the Houston, Texas, schools, which were the fountain of the No Child Left Behind law, have been abysmal failures instead of wild successes. Houston's high-stakes tests were supposed to have sent achievement soaring, closed the racial gap, sent far more kids to college and reduced crime. The state of Texas followed suit in 1993 and Bush made it the template for the federal law. He made the Houston superintendent the director of the federal Education Department. The New York Times got all the Houston records under a freedom-of-information request last year and shared them with school experts. They compared Houston's amazing scores on the highly touted Texas test with the scores of the same children on the national Stanford Achievement Test. Most Houston schools did not advance in relation to children in the rest of the country. More than half either remained in the same place or lost ground in reading and math. The racial gap in percentile rankings remained huge, 34 points in 2002. The Texas Education Agency found rampant undercounting of dropouts, overcalculation of kids who went to college and failure to report school crimes. And that is the new face of school reform in Arkansas. The legislature can't raise enough taxes to make a teacher's job appealing.

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