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S.O.L.--It's not what you think

The Washington Post KidsPost section has an article on the standardized tests being given to middle school students now in order to comply with the No Child Left Behind legislation. Actually, it is not an article about the test. It is an article about the hoopla that surrounds the test. Lee Middle school held an elaborate pep rally complete with the school counselors dressed as superheroes. The idea was to pump the kids up to bring their A-game to the test.

Excuse me. Does time spent clapping and rapping really raise test scores? I naively thought that a teacher would teach a subject to the best of his or her ability. The students would be assessed for a minimum level of competency. If a significant number of students did not reach this minimum level, it would signal the teacher or the curriculum needed to adjust. However, this approach throws the entire education establishment into a frenzy. Because the students’ performance is actually a test result for the teachers and school system, the focus shifts from teaching the material to teaching the test. Like kudzu vines along Southern roadsides, these tests have swallowed the curriculum.

In Texas they are known as TCAT’s. In Florida they are FCAT’s. In Maryland they are MSA’s. Here in Virginia the assessment tool is the SOL. (Standard of Learning) Do you think there is a subliminal message in this name choice? One must pass a minimum number of SOL’s for high school graduation. My oldest son transferred into a Virginia high school from Florida during his junior year. There is no reciprocity between states. The FCAT’s he passed with flying colors in Florida were not sufficient to satisfy the Virginia SOL requirements. For one week he was pulled from his junior level classes to take SOL’s on courses he took his freshman and sophomore years. Of course that meant he had to learn the junior level material on his own since checking off the SOL box for his past school work was more important than receiving instruction in his current classes.

For an interesting contrast, please read this article from the Atlantic online.

Tooley is a professor of education policy at England’s University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Several years ago he was working as a consultant in Hyderabad, India, for the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank. One afternoon, while wandering around the alleys beside the Charminar (a sixteenth- century monument and Hyderabad’s best-known tourist attraction), he came across a school for the children of slum dwellers. To his surprise, he found that this was not a state school but a private one—providing education to the extremely poor and collecting fees (of a few rupees a day, or less than a dime) for its services. Intrigued, he kept looking, and found other, similar schools. They were typically small and shabby operations, sometimes occupying a single classroom, staffed in some cases by just the teacher-proprietor and an assistant. Yet they were busy—crowded with eager pupils—and the teacher was actually teaching.

The point of this is that when teachers are there to teach and students are there to learn, learning occurs. The challenge is to ensure accountability without the assessment tool becoming a distraction and hindrance to actual learning. Is this really that hard?


mallys said…
Teachers' organizations and unions have made it a distraction on purpose because they do not like it. If the test is a measurement of the minimum accomplishment of the skills that are needed to pass to the next level, then the teaching of those skills to that level of accomplishment is teaching to the test. On the other hand, it is also testing the teaching of that agreed upon minimum curriculum.

The testing boggle that you describe is an attempt to get parents on the "No Child Left Behind is BAD" bandwagon. In the real world, getting a company transfer from Podunk to Backwater would not involve redoing all the employee evaluations to make sure s/he is at the proper corporate level before starting work. That's why it is counterintuitive to parents. They are being prodded to complain as loudly and long as the teachers' unions are already doing.

Accountability for measurable skills like reading comprehension and math computation makes schools have to spend more time on those subjects, taking valuable time away from value-neutral sex education, building gay-friendly communities, and targeting religious traditions as "abusers of the planet" for overpopulating it.

BTW, I have been a classroom teacher, a remedial teacher and a catechist for more than thirty years. I do not buy into the NEA agenda, and have watched the decline of education in this country (with my finger in the dike) with great sadness. Students want to learn, but they are being discouraged by the fact that many teachers do not want to actually teach (show and tell how it is done) them how to do anything, but give them "fun" activities to "discover learning" by themselves.

How many times do you go into a classroom and find the students have been given an assignment, with minimal instructions and the rest of the period to finish it by themselves?
Catholic Mom said…
Mallys, you are preaching to the choir here. I am with you 100%. I would love to get rid of all the social engineering agendas and work on what the teachers should be teaching--core subjects like math,English,science, history(real history--not revisionist history), computer skills,etc. I can teach the sex ed to the kids. I want teachers teaching the calculus and physics.
frival said…
I have this discussion on a semi-regular basis with my mother who has been working with migrant children (the ones whose parents pick up and move with the growing seasons) for over 20 years now. Her perspective is a little different from mine because she always asks, "how can I grade a child who goes home to a house without parents or one crack-addicted parent who couldn't care less about their education the same as a kid with both parents who place a high value on it?"

The response, for me, is that teaching and grading is the responsibility of the teacher. The root causes of the failures of their students is a problem for, at worst, social workers. Ideally, it is a problem for those of us who are called to see Christ in those children to find ways to help out. Be it Big Brothers/Big Sisters or some sort of ad hoc free tutoring or even opening our homes to these kids, but we're all called to step into that gap in some way.

The problem, FWIHS, is that we frequently have teachers who want to "make a difference" and try to be heroes and instead either make things worse or burn themselves out. Some, indeed, are called to heroic virtue; some, instead, look for heroic accolade. Each teacher should, I would say, take it personally when a student of theirs fails. But they must then utilize the resources available to them to get that child into the best possible situation to succeed and that does not necessarily mean that they do it all by themselves.

I've often wondered if it would not make sense for the Catholic Church to create a kind of "Sylvan Center" for poor kids that is at minimal to no cost. It would be the least we could do to help those kids in at least some way break out of that cycle.
frival said…
I should add, now that I think about it, that I don't want anyone to think I'm against accountability. I'm strongly for it, even though I recognize that NCBL has its flaws. While I agree with the NEA on that point, I disagree vehemently that we ought to scrap it until we can come up with this ephemeral "perfect system". Better to have a marginal system that's being improved than nothing at all. I'd expect if the Democrats hold both houses of Congress and a D wins the presidency, however, NCBL will disappear in short order - the NEA will demand it.
mallys said…
frival, one of the places that I have taught is Sylvan. (Still do) I also did essentially the same type of systems approach teaching in a Chapter I program on a reservation. It is very effective. It is also exceedingly unfashionable in education circles. It uses direct instruction (I teach you how to do something) and is very interactive. It is also very teacher intensive a one-three ratio. The teacher has to teach and not be responsible for the social background of the student. I agree that if we are to do anything about the problems (many and sometimes horrific) that some children bring into school, we have to have a support system that can deal with them, leaving school to be a safe haven where kids can learn. Teachers need to be aware of problems, since they can give us a way to help children understand what we are teaching them, but we can't solve home problems and they can't be allowed to swamp the learning of whole classes.
Christina said…
Catholic Mom, you've hit it right on the head. How teachers are supposed to solve all of the ills of the world in six hours a day with 30 kids (or 1 hour per day with 150 in middle and high school) I'll never know. Wasting instructional time on pep rallies for tests that should be treated matter-of-factly doesn't help with any of it.

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