Should we just say no?

It is report card season for Ohio’s public schools—not its children, but its schools. If Ohio Department of Education personnel can clear up faulty attendance reports from some school districts, public school parents will soon receive the official state report card for their school.

Last month, I reported on the preliminary report card for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools. As I wrote the sidebar explaining the four measurements that are combined to create a school district’s rating—a shorthand way to judge their effectiveness—I was struck by how convoluted the system really is. It looks thoughtful; but it is mathematical magic.

Sadly, the system is designed to boil down the complexity of education into a one- or two- word rating. What good is that anyway? Furthermore, to do so districts earn points toward their rating from four different measurement systems: State Indicators, Performance Index, Value Added and Annual Yearly Progress.

The odd thing is that all four measurements largely use the same evidence: student performance on the tests administered that year. Each statistic manipulates results in different ways to try to capture various aspects of student performance and what the school had to do with it.
This system looks scientific, complex, official. Yet testing experts say the tests are not appropriate for making high-stakes decisions. Recycling the same flawed test data in several different ways doesn’t make the system more valid. In addition, we make huge decisions and formulate faulty perceptions based on the data.

Accountability in Ohio is based on the false assumption that standardized tests give accurate information about the quality of schools and the competence of the teachers in their classrooms. I agree that focusing on results is valuable. But learning is hard to measure. Furthermore, standardized tests can’t tell us what part of students’ performance (even if it accurately measured what they know) is a result of their school experience. This has relevance because the ranking systems are there to judge school and educator quality.

As my friend Jan Resseger, a public school advocate who works throughout the nation for the United Church of Christ, reminds me, “Decades of research demonstrates that the one variable most closely associated with a child’s test score is the family’s income. Standardized test scores are, more than anything, a wealth indicator. This does not mean that poor children are unable to learn or that poverty is some kind of learning disability. It simply means that outside-of-school things, like hunger and economic stress and untreated dental pain, affect children’s learning at school just as private lessons and home computers and travel affect children’s learning at school.”

I want our elected officials to use their power to make educational success attainable for all of our children. I want them to focus less on measuring and blaming schools, and more on guaranteeing that every student attends a school that has the conditions for success. This means adequate resources for manageable class size; a broad and rich curriculum; up-to-date facilities and educational resources; outreach and inclusion of families; student supports; and time for teachers to engage in professional development, collaboration and planning. But it can't stop there. They have to address the economic disparity that is resulting in an ever-growing number of children in poverty.

Parents in some communities are resorting to civil disobedience—keeping their kids home on testing days—to stop the damage to their children, schools, communities and confidence in public education itself caused by a flawed accountability system.

Is it time to join them and just say no to the test?

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 5, Issue 12, Posted 3:35 PM, 11.30.2012