Education is more than school buildings

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The one bright spot in the Minneapolis school district’s plan to close six area schools is the district officials’ determination to take resources that have gone to building maintenance and concentrate them on student learning.

We hope the change will lead officials to rethink how teaching and learning are practiced and evaluated. The current system is troubling for several reasons:

Recent government initiatives emphasized standardized tests and led to school-wide, district-wide or state-wide statistics that could be difficult to interpret and were poor predictors of how a given individual student is likely to fare in a given school.

School districts, states and the federal government have chosen testing systems and benchmarks that determine, in many ways, students’ and schools’ futures. We are told that a given school or student did well or poorly on a given test, and this is why they are basking in glory or preparing for extra tutoring; or perhaps, in the case of a school, a restart.

Standardized tests can be useful tools in helping to assess progress and set future direction. However, just as a house is not built using tools alone (it helps to have some wood and wire and pipes and siding), standardized tests alone should not determine a school’s or a student’s future. Too often, they do.

It’s not that any particular test is necessarily bad. It’s that people are using tests to do things that no test can do.

For example, students are expected to pass benchmark tests in reading and math at certain grade levels. This should create questions in the public’s mind, such as: Who decided where exactly the benchmarks should be? Are they reliable? Have they been consistent? How do we know that their tests accurately measure a student’s ability level as it compares to the benchmark? Has the test been tested for gender, racial, economic and cultural bias? Does the testing company have competitors? Do those competitors test in precisely the same way as the vendor who was chosen? If not, why not? How are we certain that the chosen tester has the “correct” standards and methods? If a test is measuring progress, who decided what represents acceptable progress? Who determined what a “fifth grade level” would be (for example) and how are they held accountable?

Some testing systems are better than others, and we have no doubt that our legislators and educators are doing their best to ensure that public school students have the best tests tax money can buy. It’s important to realize, however, that none of these questions has absolute, provably-correct answers.

We don’t believe standardized tests are bad. Too often, however, we are expected to believe that a student’s or school’s success or failure can be capsulized into a sound bite that references test standards and procedures that are accepted without question as appropriate and reliable. We don’t believe that, either.

The state and federal governments make it difficult for school districts to substantially question the testing process. The tests have to be given, and the results determine far more of students’ and schools’ futures than their absolute reliability merits.

We hope, however, that the Minneapolis district is able to convince the government people that standardized-tests-as-gospel and other mandates have robbed teachers and students of critical teaching and learning opportunities, and that changes need to be made. The much-maligned Profile of Learning system, whose major flaw seemed to have been an intellectual-sounding name that was easy to attack, required each student and his/her teachers to develop a portfolio that demonstrated the student’s ability to use the skills that the standardized tests essentially try to shame them into acquiring. Shaming doesn’t seem to be working so well. It might make sense to give skill building and demonstrating another try.

We urge the Minneapolis district, and other districts, to find whatever “wiggle room” they can to allow teachers and students to work together and do what they do best, rather than forcing teachers to “teach to a test” that cannot (because no test can) measure and reliably evaluate the level of detail that officials expect people to believe they measure and evaluate. Again, they’re tools. Use them, and put them back in the tool box.