Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Last night, I attended the first meeting for the 2007-2008 school year of the Northfield Public Schools District Educational Program Advisory Council (DEPAC), a state-mandated body which sets broad annual goals for the school district in three areas: curriculum, assessment, and student services. Since the fall of 2004 (with a sabbatical last school year), I've been serving on the assessment sub-committee of DEPAC, chaired by Roger Jenni. In this era of NCLB, I thought it was important at least to understand how the local school district approaches testing and assessment, and to add my anti-testing voice to the conversation whenever possible.

It's difficult to find people who actually work with real students in real schools who are pleased with NCLB and its current emphasis on high-stakes testing. My subcommittee includes the new middle school principal, two teachers, and a school board member, as well as two parents, and we all agree that children are tested too much these days, and often for the wrong reasons.

Let's say that a fourth grade teacher starts the year with a class of students who are reading at a first grade level. She's been given these students because she's a fantastic teacher who can motivate these students and inspire them with a love of reading. Let's say that by the end of the year those students are reading at a third grade level—they haven't quite caught up, but they've improved by two grade levels in a single year, and, more importantly, they've caught the spark of learning. Under NCLB, that teacher is still considered underperforming because her class is not reading at grade level. It could be that, kindled by their fourth grade teacher's spark, those same students improve to the seventh grade reading level in fifth grade. NCLB doesn't recognize or incentivize* that either. Performance at grade level is the only thing that NCLB recognizes.

Northfield, like many school districts, would like to move to assessments that measure the growth of individual students. For several years, Northfield has been using the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests, which do just that—these computer-based tests adapt their questions to the individual student, measuring his progress in meeting various curriculum standards. Since the tests are administered annually, they also track the student's growth from year to year. Teachers can use the data to determine what "skill sets" an individual student needs to work on: what are his areas of weakness and strength? The data is quite detailed. Ideally, then, the assessment data can be used to differentiate instruction for individual students.

As tests go, the MAP isn't entirely evil. The company that produces the tests, NWEA, is lobbying to change NCLB to allow more flexibility to states to use these adaptive tests that measure student growth. But one major downside is that the test is computer-based, which means that computer labs are booked from March to May so that the tests can be administered. During that time, computers aren't readily available for instructional use. And in the end, quality instruction by committed teachers is more important than even the best-intentioned tests, isn't it? I would rather have another human being assessing my son's ability, enthusiasm, creativity, and character—assessing him as a whole person—than have a computer spitting out his percentile.

No one who actually spends time in a classroom likes the trend toward increased testing, or the higher stakes involved. Polls show that education is an important campaign issue, but the candidates seem unwilling to take on NCLB, perhaps because that would be seen as opposing "accountability" and "standards." The problem, as with most campaign issues, is that the public at large doesn't understand the real, complex issues, and responds instinctively to buzzwords like "accountability." Accountability? I don't want my child's education in the hands of an accountant. I want my child to be part of a community that learns and explores and creates and grows together. It's harder to build that kind of a community than it is to sit children down in front of a computer and convert them into graphs.

Addendum: A new National Endowment for the Arts study, To Read or Not to Read, indicates that reading skills in the U.S. have sharply deteriorated in the decade between 1992 and 2003. In 2003, only 31% of adults were considered proficient in reading prose (down from 40% in 1992); the U.S. ranks 15th among industrialized nations in adult reading proficiency (Finland and Canada are the top two).

At last night's meeting, we all had a good laugh over a quotation from a University of Iowa seminar on assessment last summer: "Weighing a pig doesn't make it any heavier." It's true: testing students on reading doesn't make them better readers. All of this government-mandated testing is not getting students to read. Students read, I think, when they're part of a culture of reading—when they're surrounded by adults who read and who show them the pleasure of books. (A cold climate, as in Canada and Finland, may also help; perhaps global warming is responsible for the decline in reading, too!)

I think older adolescent boys have always read less, so that part of the study's findings doesn't disturb me too much. I certainly didn't read much at that age, but now I read voraciously. But it is troubling that, overall, reading is on the decline, and that girls and women read much more than boys and men.

*see Comments section.

Update. Sen. Barack Obama has proposed an $18 million increase in education spending. He praises the goals of NCLB (ostensibly, to raise educational standards and improve student achievement), but criticizes the implementation of the law as an unfunded mandate. If Obama plans to use the $18 million to train and employ more teachers and reduce class sizes, and not to implement more testing and test preparation, then I'm all for it. Link to the LA Times story.


Jim H. said...


Two demerits for using the word 'incentivise.'

Otherwise, an excellent look at the punitive use of testing. And more power to you and Roger Jenni and others who are trying to make the monster of NCLB work (or at least do less harm).

Rob Hardy said...

Yes, I'm hanging my head in shame. I just wasn't myself when I wrote that word. I was possessed by some wonk. Feel free to substitute the good old-fashioned word "reward."

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .