Why, indeed? I thought we might take a minute, just in passing, to reflect on why school children are tested, other than the obvious thing — torture. And, while we’re at it, I will ask you to pay attention to another part of the new testing regime announced last week by the Dallas school district; less testing for teachers, as well.
First of all, let’s talk about how we’re doing. The number of 11th and 12th graders in Dallas deemed college-ready by the state is just over 10 percent, according to the Texas Education Agency. Another way of looking at that – which I admit is a much sadder way – is that almost 90 percent of 11th- and 12th-graders are not ready for college. At least half of college-ready students in the district are products of the district’s esteemed magnet schools, making the percentages for the vast majority of seniors in regular high schools all the more dismal.
Last week the district announced with a certain amount of fanfare that it is slashing the number of tests for the kids in early grades. Previously a third-grader had to take 12 assessment tests a year. Now it’s only four.
I have been calling around to people I know who were in place in the Dallas school district under former Superintendent of School Mike Miles when the existing testing regime was put in place. None of them wanted to be named in a story by me about what’s going on in Dallas now. But they were willing to talk on not-for-attribution basis.
My question was whether this reduction in tests signals an abandonment of school reform. The people I talked to said "no." Not yet. Some said the district is right. Too much testing was put in place, with the knowledge that some of it would have to go overboard as the new system got a fuller trial.
But why was it put in place in the first place? The conspiracy theories floated at the time by the teachers’ unions and by some parents were that the whole thing was a plot by test companies to sell more products and/or a plot by mean people to be more mean to children.
I got quite a different story this week from the school reformers. For that, we have to dial back the time machine to the very basis for school reform, taking us back to the period 1995-2000 when George W. Bush was governor.
Based on deep data and research, the Bush education people, including former Dallas school board president Sandy Kress (with whom I did not speak for this article), decided it was possible to teach poor kids, even kids from chaotic backgrounds. They could be taught to read, write and do arithmetic at levels equivalent with the skills of middle class kids. But it was hard. Teaching them took all kinds of special effort, concentration and commitment.
So far, nobody in this tale is out to torture the children.
The other testing canard is that too much time spent on testing takes away time needed for teaching. Well, sure, if your kids are mainly acing the tests.
But why, if poor kids could be taught, were they not taught? Why was the school district churning out senior classes in which 90 percent of graduates failed to meet statewide college-readiness criteria? Was it that the teachers and school principals wanted the kids to be dumb, wanted them to fail in life?
Of course not. Real life is never that dramatic, is it? Just as no one really wants to torture kids with tests just for the torture of it, no one really wants kids to leave school without basic reading and mathematical skills.
But people do have a tendency to take it easy on themselves, and that’s what all that testing was about. The tests that kids have been taking in the first three years probably are more important as measurements of their teachers and school principals than of themselves.
Before these new testing regimes were put in place, principals had a tendency to ask their teachers how their kids were doing. Teachers had a tendency to say their kids were fine. Principals had a tendency to tell headquarters that everything was terrific. Kids had a tendency not to learn how to read.
Again, teaching poor kids from crazy backgrounds to read, write and do numbers requires every adult in the picture to get way out of his or her comfort zone. It’s a heavy lift. And the fact of life is that some adults, especially large numbers of adults in sprawling institutions, sometimes would rather not do the lifting.
The tests these kids have been taking are all designed to be cross-checks, more on the principals than on anyone else. If a principal keeps telling headquarters that everything at his or her school is terrific, and the kids keep getting crappy scores on the assessment tests, then headquarters is supposed to figure out that it needs a better principal.
Obviously, the tests are cross-checks on the teachers as well. And the dishonest objection to these tests when they were first implemented was that it was unfair to hold a teacher accountable for some kid who just could not be taught.
But the Teacher Excellence Initiative put in place by Miles when he was here never sought to hold a single teacher accountable for a single kid’s test scores. The cross-check was always based on broad comparisons: a teacher with kids of a given demographic profile consistently fails to bring his kids up to the achievement level attained by most kids from the same demographic district-wide.
Otherwise, yes, the whole testing thing would have been astonishingly stupid. They were never telling Teacher A: “You’ve got a kid who can’t be taught at all by anybody ever, but you have to teach him anyway, or we’ll fire you.” Again, life is never quite that dramatic, even that dramatically bad.
The other testing canard is that too much time spent on testing takes away time needed for teaching. Well, sure, if your kids are mainly acing the tests. Then Teacher A can say, “These kids are too smart for all these tests, so I need to spend the time instead on deeper teaching.”
But if the kids are getting crappier scores than they should on the tests, then more time with Teacher A isn’t going to do them any good. I don’t have scientific evidence to back this up, just my own memory of school, but I don’t believe that a really boring inept teacher gets better with increased exposure. I seem to remember that was about when I started shooting rubber bands at people.
Another aspect of the changes made by the district is that teachers seeking to be promoted to the higher echelons in the pay-scale will no longer have to submit to a comprehensive exam that included an oral examination. The district explained this change by saying that some teachers were able to qualify for the promotion on all the grounds but this one.
As I say, the people I spoke with were either supportive or at least not critical of the changes the district has put in place, but they urged a watchful eye. The changes are being marketed by the district as a way to free children from test torture, and maybe there is some merit in that idea.
But another very clear impact of the changes is to free teachers and principals from a certain degree of cross-check and scrutiny. And here is where my own personal misgiving comes in.
Free them why? Because the district is so amazingly successful? Because those teachers and principals are knocking out all the national standards and covering themselves with laurels?
It’s human, of course, to wish all of this could be easier. But in the absence of any evidence that it can be easier, going softer on standards seems like a bad way to get there. Ten miles out from shore in a lifeboat, why would we start giving in to the anti-rowing advocates?