I had hoped to do some work this weekend on my newest quilting project, my quilt for the guild's challenge on "The Sound of Quilting." However, before I could work on that with a clear conscience, I tackled a project I'd volunteered to complete for a school board committee I'm on in my community.
I volunteered to write up a "Frequently Asked Questions" document -- with answers, of course -- about the government-mandated testing in our public school district. Once a year, our kids take state and federally mandated tests, and we parents receive notice of their individual scores. And twice each year, the State of California releases school scores and rankings, which are published in our local newspaper.
Whenever any of these events happens, all sorts of questions and comments fly around the school, because no one knows what to make of them. The numbers are confusing, and it's not clear what they mean for any child, for any one school, or for the school district. So, we folks on the communications committee figured that we'd try to clarify matters.
So, I've spent hours -- literally, hours -- reading information from the California Department of Education, statistics, and various entities' analysis of how the test results are tabulated and what the results mean.
Here are a few of the points I've learned through this process:
1. Pretty much every public school kid has to take the tests, even if they don't read very well or speak English very well. This makes a heck of a lot of sense, since they have to read the test to take it and it's only offered in English. Guess how much those scores are going to reflect what those kids really know?
2. It's really hard to figure out what a less-than-proficient score for your individual child means. Has the teacher actually taught the grade-level content by the point in the school year when your child takes the test? Does your child not take multiple choice tests well? Were the questions worded in a confusing way? Did your child just get tired, taking multiple-choice tests all day for a bunch of days in a row? Or does your child really need work on specific areas?
2. California's tests are designed to match the state's academic content standards for each grade. This means that if your kid is just a bit behind in mastering first-grade level reading and math, by second grade most likely he'll be further behind when measured against 2nd grade content standards....even if he's making excellent progress for his learning speed and ability. This also means that the gap will probably widen every year, without huge intervention. And, of course, there's virtually no government money available for intervention. Heck, our school barely has enough money these days for xerox paper.
3. The school scores listed in the newspaper, and from which parents try to compare their school with other area schools, aren't really comparable because they're based on a complicated calculation that includes weighting for a number of variables. Each school has a different number of "English language learners," socio-economically deprived kids, for example, so the weighting for the scores has different impacts. This means if you try to base a comparison on the few statistics reported for each school, you're basically comparing apples and oranges. The only way to get even close to a valid comparison is to compare the full set of numbers... and how many folks will do that, or will understand the numbers if they get them?
4. To calculate the school's score, the kids' test results are calculated school-wide, AND by various subgroups (race, English learner, socio-economic status, disability, etc.) For a school to be deemed to meet its official "growth target", EVERY different group has to show comparable improvement. This means that even if the overall school score has gone up a lot, if every subgroup hasn't also risen by a comparable amount, the school score is treated as NOT meeting its growth target.... with various penalties imposed as a result.
5. These government testing mandates only apply to public schools. So, there's no way to see how private schools are performing or how your school compares to other area private schools.
6. Under the federal "No Child Left Behind" law, 95% of of all students -- and 95% of each subgroup -- must participate in the testing. This means that no matter how well the students who were actually tested did, if that statistic isn't met across the board because students were sick or parents opted to keep their kids home, the school will be deemed not to have met its annual yearly progress.
7. Under "No Child Left Behind," a school that hasn't met its "annual yearly progress" for two years in a row is designated a "non-performing school" and sanctions that worsen every year are imposed. There is very little funding -- if any -- to help a "non-performing school" improve. This means that once a school is "non-performing," parents think it's a "bad" school and move kids to other schools...with the result that the school receives even less money through the attendance-related money that comes in from the government...Which means that the schools that need the most help end up with decreasing funding.
8. In some states, including California, the state and federal reporting requirements don't match, and the progress demanded by the state is different from the progress demanded by the federal government. This means that a school can focus on one area and show great improvement under one scheme, while failing to meet the growth target under the other scheme.
Frankly, in an effort to answer questions and reassure parents of the signicance of the testing process, I'm discouraged and dismayed and even less confident that these improve public school education.
That said, I'm wholly committed to public school education, and I am amazed and awed and delighted by the wonderful teachers who dedicate themselves to our kids. My daughter's school has an impressive group of truly devoted teachers, and I know that there are many, many more great teachers at other public schools. It's just too bad that the very testing processes that are designed to help our kids get better education are likely to drive these great teachers away from the profession.