Anybody who goes in to see the doctor knows that the first thing you do is jump on the scale so that your weight can be determined. Wouldn't life be easy if the testing ended at stepping on the scale? Weight, after all, can be a pretty good indicator of general health. But a physician would be a quack if the physical exam did not include blood pressure checks, urine analysis, some prodding here, some thumping there, and at least one nasty bit involving a rubber glove and lube.
One's physical health certainly can't be determined by a single measurement. Attempting to do so would constitute malpractice.
Why then do schools let politicians require that they rely on a single measurement - test scores - to determine their health and effectiveness?
No one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain to me how a "5th grade reading level" is established. It seems if a reading level is either median or mean of all 10-year-olds' reading levels, by logic alone, one could conclude a sizable chunk of those tested would be lower than the norm. If not, the norm itself would be too low.
A school being labeled failing because all of its students don't read at grade level is like labeling a school failing because not all its students are at or above normal weight for their age group.
The testing game is rigged by NCLB. It is a plan designed not to improve public schools, but to discredit them, giving ammunition to those who want vouchers, charter schools and other financially motivated "improvement" plans that will keep poor schools poor thus keeping the poor people, poor.
Knowing that the deck is stacked, were I a school board member, superintendent or principal, I would be offering my community other means of evaluating the quality of the education my school(s) offers. And fast.
Five years ago I railed against our state's "report card," suggesting more informative ways parents can judge the value of their children's schools. Stars I suggested then, and still believe in, are:
Star One: School climate. Funny how a person can sense the safety, friendliness, and sense of caring within minutes of walking into a school. Little things like cleanliness, displays of student work, open doors to classrooms, laughter, respectful talk, presence of volunteers, and genuine smiles from both adults and kids are the barometers of school climate. If a school doesn’t earn this star, a parent doesn’t need to bother looking at the other criteria. Get your kids out quickly.
Star Two: Individual teacher quality. This is why total school rating systems aren’t very helpful. Five-star teachers are found in one-star schools and one-star teachers are found in five-star schools. Listen to what other parents have said about the teachers your children will have. Insist that your kids get the teachers that get good reviews.
Star Three: Libraries and technology. The quality of the library is the clearest sign of how much a school values reading, teaching for independent thinking, and life-long learning. A trained librarian and a welcoming, well-used collection of current books, magazines and computers with Internet access tells a parent that the teachers and principal value more than the memorization of facts from a text book, that a diversity of ideas and opinions is important, and that reading is not just necessary, but pleasurable and important.
Star Four: Elective and extracurricular offerings. What happens in class is important. But so is what happens during the other 18 hours of the day. I want elementary schools for my kids that offer after-school clubs and activities that develop social skills and interests. I want secondary schools that are rich with art, sports, tech ed., music and community service choices that develop individual talents, leadership, and pride in accomplishment.
Star Five: Commitment to staff development. The amount of exciting scientifically-based research on effective teaching practices and schools is overwhelming. Brain-based research, reflective practice, systematic examination of student work, strategies for working with disadvantaged students are some of the latest findings that can have a positive impact on how to best teach children. But none of it does a lick of good if it stays in the universities or journals. Good schools give financial priority to teaching teachers how to improve their practice. Would you send your child to a doctor who doesn’t know the latest practice in his field?
With only a small amount of imagination and work, most of these qualities can be reported out empirically - through surveys, through comparisons with other districts, and simply through effective communication to the community of the achievement of students both in and out of school.
If test scores are to be used, schools should be reporting the percentage of students who make a year's progress as determined by a value-added test like the NWEA MAPS test. While it is unreasonable to expect every 5th grader to weigh 100 pounds, it is not unreasonable to expect that every child to put on a few pounds.
I hate seeing good public schools (and the good people in them) damned by a single measure. But it will happen where the leaders are timid and short-sighted.