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School Testers Earn an F

Instead of terrorizing schools with punitive, time-devouring tests, we should be trying to help them.

by
Robert Zubrin

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January 31, 2014 - 10:23 am
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Recently an organization called Colorado School Grades (CSG) set up a website, coloradoschoolgrades.com, inviting parents and others to compare “school performance” based on intensive standardized testing of students mandated under the Bush-Obama “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” programs. The CSG claims that “information and awareness of school performance leads to better schools for our kids.” Indeed, according to the designers of the massive testing program, its results should be used to reward, punish, or terminate schools based on their performance as measured by the tests.

zubrin_spreadsheet_1-28-14-1

High schools rankings in Jefferson County, Colorado.

So what do these results say? The CSG does not make it easy to find out, as they do not present the results, as they really should, in a comprehensive table which can be surveyed as a whole by those interested. Instead, they only reveal data in groups of at most four schools at a time in response to specific inquiries, which makes investigation of the results an exercise somewhat akin to trying to guess the location of enemy ships in the game of “Battleship.” However, based on repeated soundings, there does appear to be a pattern in the data, as may be seen above in representative results of high schools in Jefferson County, a place often viewed as a political and social microcosm of the state.

So, does this testing data, acquired at great expense in money and class time, tell us which schools are doing their job and which are performing poorly? Not at all. Rather, what really jumps out of the data is the extremely strong relationship between school rank and student family income. This correlation is so strong, that as shown in the “predicted rank” column of the table (my own invention, not to be found in the CSG data) it is possible to predict the rank of the school in advance with fair accuracy just by using a simple formula that multiples its percent of low income students by four and subtracts 20.

In short, what we have managed to learn is that the children of doctors and lawyers do better on standardized tests than the children of day laborers and welfare recipients. This raises an interesting question:

Why are we funding this program?

At a time when school funds are scarce, why are we wasting tens of millions of dollars per year in Colorado, and billions nationwide, not to mention close to twenty percent of classroom time, on such testing programs, only to find out nothing that we didn’t know before? Does anyone actually believe that affluent suburban Evergreen H.S. students do better than slum neighborhood Jefferson H.S. students because of the superior quality of the school staff? If we switched school staffs, but kept the students in place, would the high scores move with the staffs or stay with the students? The teachers at the lower ranked schools are the front line troops of the melting pot. So, do we punish them because they are willing to take on that tough battle?

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Top Rated Comments   
I spent the first three years of my school career in a rural school in central Oregon. There was one room, one teacher, 35 kids, and six grades. Each row of desks represented one grade.

When I was in the third grade, my family moved to a suburb of Los Angeles that had five elementary schools. The school administrators took one look at my records, and said they would move me back to the first grade. My mother said no, and they compromised by having me take a full set of scholastic achievement tests. The results showed that I read and comprehended at a 9th. grade level, performed math problems at an 8th. grade level, and wrote at a 10th. grade level.

I was advanced to the 5th. grade, and placed in a gifted student program. I wasn't really gifted. I had just had a good teacher who didn't have to worry about Federal government guidelines, or union rules.

38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (25)
All Comments   (25)
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I'm always skeptical when a "teacher" says they are pro-testing, and pro RTTT. There really aren't any of those unless they are TFA alums looking to get into the testing industry. Zurbin is probably surprised to experience so may trolls who are likely Michelle Rhee's internet hacks. He dared - and Pajamas Media dared to question republican dogma on education policy.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Part of the problem is that we almost HAVE to have high stakes testing when so many other measures of evaluating teacher effectiveness have been negotiated away by unions.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
I just finished reading Amanda Ripley's book,"The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way." She attributes Finnish students success in international testing on improving the quality of teachers. Colleges of education are difficult to get into, and even top students have to apply several times. The college course content is rigorous, however new teachers are paid more than in most US districts.

Recently my child and I attended an open house at our local state university, to which only top high school students were invited. The students were released to tour the campus with those of the same intended major. When the college of education was called, less than ten of the hundreds of students in the auditorium got up to go on the tour. This did not give me much hope for the future of education in my state.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
I agree that educating the educators is a large part of the problem, but that's probably just a symptom of deeper differences in the Finnish society and ours. I bookmarked this comment a few months ago by Frank Cohen discussing differences between our two systems:
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=620610631307733&set=a.196549437047190.41358.160389977329803&type=1&comment_id=1771676&offset=0&total_comments=2210
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
"At a time when school funds are scarce, why are we wasting tens of millions of dollars per year in Colorado, and billions nationwide, not to mention close to twenty percent of classroom time, on such testing programs, only to find out nothing that we didn’t know before?"

Why you ask, because someones brother-in-law is making a lot of money pushing these ridiculous programs and testing materials.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
"In short, what we have managed to learn is that the children of doctors and lawyers do better on standardized tests than the children of day laborers and welfare recipients. This raises an interesting question:

Why are we funding this program?"

We are funding it because the children of day laborers and welfare recipients should be able to do just as well as anyone. The school 'system' has abjectly failed them. There are numerous examples of children with modest backgrounds doing excellent work, just typically not in the public school system. So we need to defund the current schools and start over, for the sake of the children you purport to care about. Kind of like they did in New Orleans?
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Defunding the current schools" will destroy the primary engine of the American melting pot.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
The American melting pot has already been destroyed by technology and the government It is entirely possible to come to America and not have to learn the language, keeping to yourself in ethnic ghettos and demanding that you be accommodated in your native tongue.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes, some children from modest backgrounds do well if they are achievement oriented and possible helped, but have you never heard of genetics? Isn't it more logical that those that have achieved being doctors and lawyers (some might disagree here) have a higher intelligence level and pass those genes down to their offspring?
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
So much effort expended to avoid accountability. So your plan is no more testing. No standards and no more testing of knowledge. Just science fairs, Shakespeare fairs, history reenactments, and debates on great issues.

Mr.Zubrin you should embarrassed by that...

37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am not saying there should be NO testing. I am saying that the current amount of testing is way too much. The amount of testing we had 40 years ago, which was about 10% as much as today, was quite adequate. Now we have 20% of class time wasted on these federally mandated programs, which shovel huge amounts of money to crony capitalist consultants at the expense of the school system.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
What you seem to ignore is why more testing has been considered necessary. Teaching as a profession has failed completely and utterly to do it's mandate. Straight A high school students have to attend remedial freshman college courses because their teachers failed them. Teachers fight standardized testing. They fight teacher competency testing. They do this because they are well aware of their failure to do their jobs. And people found them out. Found out that most of them were mediocre union hacks. That The Children were the last things on their minds.

So parents wanted accountability. They wanted to know if their children were being taught properly. That their children teachers were competent to even teach. So now we get sob stories about how they have to cheat. How they can't be expected to teach In This Environment. And 40 years ago? That might as well be a 1000 years ago. It was another time and another place and to pretend it's somehow relevant to now is at best naive and at worse dishonest.

So yes, lets go back to science fairs, Shakespeare fairs, history reenactments, and debates on great issues...because that stuff can be faked for decades...until something else gives the game away.

Hell, they have to keep changing the SAT's to cover for how bad they've been doing their jobs.

There was a study called Project Follow Through that found out what technique gave the best results for teaching children...and it was ignored because the Education Mafia didn't like the results. They like This Years Fad much better. So, for example, generations of LA school children were forced to use Whole Word and failed to learn to read properly. Because Whole Word was the New Fad.

So when Teaching as a profession decides to act like professionals, instead of union hacks we can have the conversation you want to have...but not before then.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
The first step would be requiring that teachers actually have a degree in the subject they are supposed to be teaching and not just a teaching degree, and that my friend isn't going to happen in the public school system.

So what is the answer? Funding needs to follow the student. Only when the power is removed from the educational establishment will the situation improve.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
I spent the first three years of my school career in a rural school in central Oregon. There was one room, one teacher, 35 kids, and six grades. Each row of desks represented one grade.

When I was in the third grade, my family moved to a suburb of Los Angeles that had five elementary schools. The school administrators took one look at my records, and said they would move me back to the first grade. My mother said no, and they compromised by having me take a full set of scholastic achievement tests. The results showed that I read and comprehended at a 9th. grade level, performed math problems at an 8th. grade level, and wrote at a 10th. grade level.

I was advanced to the 5th. grade, and placed in a gifted student program. I wasn't really gifted. I had just had a good teacher who didn't have to worry about Federal government guidelines, or union rules.

38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
The current massive barrage of federally mandated tests are not being used to evaluate individual student performance and make intelligent adjustments and placements, as you describe. There are, and have always been, other tests for that purpose. These tests are being used to allegedly assess school COLLECTIVE PERFORMANCE, and to impose COLLECTIVE PUNISHMENTS on schools, in the form of funding cuts, on those schools that "DON'T PERFORM"
This is pure nonsense.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Dr. Zubrin, I was not suggesting that the tests I was given were for any purpose other than to placate my mother.

My point is that a good teacher, under the most adverse circumstances (i.e. a rural school, students from lower income levels, many students in different grades, etc.), will still be able to produce superior results, if allowed to TEACH.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Getting rid of testing, as the author proposes, would be a very bad idea. It would bring us back to the days when we simply couldn't compare students to one another at all.

When I went to elementary and high school, you could not even make meaningful comparisons between students in adjacent schools in the same area, let alone between students in different cities or states. It simply wasn't possible. Each school set its own exams so you couldn't compare anyone except students within the same school taking the same subject the same year. Any other comparison was strictly apples and oranges.

I remember how English was marked very hard in our school and all but one or two students would get low 60s (out of 100) on those exams. The smartest guy in the school got 78 and some other superstar got a low 70s grade; all the other top students got those low 60s or lower. (60 was the passing grade).

The next school over typically awarded its students high 70s and 80s. I believe they gave 90s in some cases. Their exams were 25% composed of true/false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank questions; ours were 100% essay. Were we better in English than our peers at the next school? Who could tell? They had an easier time getting into university because they had higher English marks to pull up their averages; our teachers told us that we were getting better teaching. But no one could PROVE that we had any better teaching.

That's what happens when there is no standardized testing. Each school pats itself on the back and says it's number one and no one can actually disprove it. The only possible measuring stick you have is whether the colleges and universities prefer students from one high school over another. But how do they decide which schools produce better students?

The same system where grades can't be compared exists in the colleges and universities today. As far as I know, there is no standardized testing at the college/university level. A degree in medicine or engineering or even Grievance Studies from Podunk U. can't really be PROVEN to be any better or worse than one from Harvard. Obviously, employers prefer the Harvard grad because that's the more prestigious school. But does the Harvard grad really know more than his Podunk U. rival? Who can tell?
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
We have had standardized tests in the USA for more than half a century. But the amount of time that we spent half a century ago, which was quite adequate, was only about 10% of what it is today. I am not advocating abolishing standardized testing. I am advocating reducing it to more sensible levels, such as those that prevailed before the Bush-Obama federally mandated testing hysteria was put into force.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sparky,

The obvious problem you're ignoring is "Who sets the standard?"

If you're suggesting each state should have its own local standards, then I agree. If you're suggesting a national standard, then I vehemently disagree.

The federal government can only create one-size-fits-all solutions that aren't solutions and fit very few people well. It's better that we should have 50 independent versions of a system, so each state can experiment to see what works and what doesn't work.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm not sure which assumptions Mr. Zubrin is making, but it's clear he's assuming a lot.

Mr. Zubrin, is it your assumption that children with wealthy parents will score better regardless of their environment?

Is it your assumption that children of wealthy parents will score better regardless of their teachers?

You should read Bonnie Ramthun's "Enemy in the Classroom", because she nails a critical point: :The LA Times did groundbreaking study of inner city elementary schools where students of the same background, poverty level, and parenting situation were compared at the end of the education year. Good teachers brought their students up by more than a grade level. Bad teachers left their students behind and failing. It wasn’t the parents, or poverty, or classroom size. It was the teacher."

There are indeed a lot of problems with the education system, but the biggest ones are the centralization of authority and power by the federal government in the last 30 years, and the NEA (unions). You roll both of those back and you'll see a dramatic change.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
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