Time to stop using standardized tests to judge school performance

Posted: Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In the report card of Alaska's schools released earlier this month, eight of Juneau's 14 schools failed to meet the Annual Yearly Progress standards established by the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The results across Alaska weren't much better. But rather than blame the schools' teachers and administrators for failing to perform, maybe it's time we let go of the standards based educational measurements.

To a large degree, NCLB was a culmination of a 20 years effort by American society to retool our public school system. It began when Secretary of Education Terrel Bell published "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform." The report warned "the educational foundations of our society" were "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

According to the report's authors, the signs of decline were "unimaginable a generation ago." They believed the nation had "lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them." What that says to me and anyone else who graduated from high school in the 1970s is that many of us are the products of a systemic failure in our public schools.

But if that's true, the nation's been churning out mediocrity for 40 years now. So how qualified are any of us to judge the progress of today's educators as they seek to reverse so many years of decline? And who is responsible for allowing the system to erode in the first place?

Obviously, as a mediocre layperson, I lack the educational skills to evaluate the standards developed to determine the quality of education in our public schools. But the questions I hope to raise have nothing to do with understanding NCLB or the AYP results. Instead, I want to consider the public school environment of those who influenced the findings reported in "A Nation at Risk." Because the alarm they sounded was largely based on their experiences, especially if they believed their basic education contributed to the accomplishments of their generations.

Terrel Bell was born in 1923 and was schooled during the Great Depression. David Gardner, the chair of the commission which produced "A Nation at Risk," attended grade school during World War II. Shouldn't they have understood a prime motivating factor behind their desire to learn was the serious consequences of failure their generations faced?

"There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands" wrote Richard Bach 30 years ago in his bestselling book "Illusions." The gift of the Great Depression and World War II was the educational discipline needed to survive the austerity of their times. Bell and Gardner not only learned from their teachers, they went home afterwards to observe their parents' struggles in the school of hard knocks.

Furthermore, the successes of their generations gave rise to an era of affluence that was accompanied by softer challenges for us to overcome. Thus a return to the educational formulas that worked wonders for America's so-called Greatest Generation is incomplete. We have to recognize that the source of their success included the very problems they had to solve and that the gains they made fed the slide downward to mediocrity.

We certainly don't want to invite a new world war or deepen the economic recession into a full depression in order to inspire today's teachers and students. Instead we could consider re-imagining society and our models for education as organic processes with natural cycles of growth and decay.

Aren't we witnessing a form of societal decline today in the resource scarcities and environmental degradation that were also unimaginable generations ago? Isn't it true some of the inventive triumphs of the past have grown into monsters that distract our intellectual curiosities? If we can admit there is a downside to the growth of affluence then we might see such decay as an elemental necessity to the human drive for learning.

It's time to stop using standardized tests as a means to judge the performance of our schools. It's a method that has outlived its usefulness. If we allow these ideas to rot away they might become the nutrients that feed new meaning to the value of education.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.



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