More Test Results and (Un)Common Sense Solutions
by UCLA IDEA
Week of Dec. 10-14, 2012
New test results: American students performed slightly better than average in reading and math, compared to other countries. But those numbers are still likely to feed America’s obsession with test scores that lag behind top-performing countries like Korea, Singapore, or Finland (Huffington Post , Christian Science Monitor).
Released earlier this week, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement’s PIRLS and TIMSS exams measured reading and math for select 4th- and 8th-graders in 2011. U.S. scores improved slightly relative to other countries, but smaller gaps in the early elementary grades widened as students moved into middle school. The U.S. ranked sixth in 4th grade reading, ninth in 4th grade math, and 12th in 8th grade math.
“These new international comparisons underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in secondary school and the need to close large persistent achievement gaps,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (Huffington Post). Although America’s test scores can provide useful information, many educators believe that undue focus on test scores constrains meaningful school reforms, and in particular, fails to address the learning that underlies test performance.
Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (Md.), Joshua Starr, is refreshing for his clarity and broad view of the student learning that is a prior condition for high performance on tests. (Diane Ravitch’s blog). Recently, Starr said that the current trend of reform is to do too many things at once, some of which do not have a strong track record for improving student learning, including NCLB waivers, expanded charter schools, the competitive Race to the Top, and more.
Judging whether these initiatives are faithfully implemented and successful takes many years; meanwhile, other more direct reforms can achieve learning impacts in a fraction of the time. Unfortunately, policy makers are stuck on using standardized tests to reveal quick and often tiny gains, and these scores are used, in turn, to evaluate educators. In other words, the programs—the policies and the leaders who formulate them—are not held directly accountable for student learning. Instead, teachers (and perhaps principals) are responsible for making often-unrealistic policies succeed.
In a small but meaningful departure from this trend, Montgomery County created it’s evaluation system in collaboration with teachers. The system does not hinge on student test results because, in Superintendent Starr’s experience, valued-added “formulas used to assess a teacher’s value with the use of test scores had huge margins of error.” Starr even calls for a three-year moratorium on standardized tests—presumably to refocus educators, students, and the public on a broader view of learning (Washington Post).
In keeping with Starr’s attention to schooling improvements that don’t necessarily have to be proven with test-score increases, he wants a new work group to look at the current 7:25 a.m. start time for high school classes (Washington Examiner , Patch). The move responds to a petition by parents and students citing research linking sleep and academic achievement. Students have spoken of anxiety, stress, depression, and, of course, exhaustion—none of which is conducive to attentiveness in classrooms. “We don’t expect children to learn without food and we shouldn’t expect them to learn without sleep,” said Mandi Mader, a social worker and petition contact (Patch).
Starr is considering research and programs that attend to a student’s entire wellbeing. “Health care reform is the best education reform we’ve had in this country,” he said (Washington Post). Starr’s broad understanding of education reform is informed by a good deal of evidence that policies which support healthy, rested, safe, and interested students have a positive impact on students’ lives. This approach not only is grounded in research, it reflects a common sense that too often has been neglected in the rush to push forward test-driven reforms.