At last week’s meeting, state Board of Education member Malia Sieve not only expressed her displeasure with the latest national science test results; she also called out her fellow board members’ Pollyannaish reactions to those results.
“I’m tired of us all talking so politely,” Sieve said regarding Connecticut students’ performance on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). “We act like if we talk politely — it will all be fine.”
Sieve’s main focus was the chronic achievement gap between white and minority students.
“[W]e do a better job with one population,” Sieve said. “We’re doing a whole lot better by our white kids.”
On his blog, Regional School District 19 board member Frank Krasicki described Sieve’s actions as a “State of Connecticut Board member aroused from a bureaucratically induced coma.”
Krasicki, a 10-year member of the Mansfield-based school district, is not a fan of national tests like NAEP being used to measure student achievement.
“Testing for student development is perfectly legitimate, assuming you are addressing the immediate cohort — the students you as a teacher are working with,” wrote Krasicki in response to several questions I emailed him. “This cohort (from the NAEP data) has a loose relationship to other classes and schools but the assessment is for them and not [meant to be] a horse race metric. We shouldn’t be competing for test score results — obvious enough — yet here we are doing exactly that on a national level.”
Research supports Krasicki’s contention.
The Economic Policy Institute, for example, criticized policymakers’ typical reaction to the release of national test scores as “oversimplified, frequently exaggerated, and misleading. They ignore the complexity of test results and [these results] may lead policymakers to pursue inappropriate and even harmful reforms.”
The data from standardized tests can actually be useful — if interpreted and applied correctly.
The international PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) releases “not only the average national scores on their tests but also a rich international database from which analysts can disaggregate test scores by students’ social and economic characteristics, their school composition, and other informative criteria,” reported EPI. “Such analysis can lead to very different and more nuanced conclusions than those suggested from average national scores alone.”
Unfortunately, nuance is not something policymakers and political appointees do very well.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for instance, said the 2009 PISA results “show that American students are poorly prepared to compete in today’s knowledge economy. Americans need to wake up to this educational reality — instead of napping at the wheel while emerging competitors prepare their students for economic leadership.”
Duncan added, “As disturbing as these national trends are for America, enormous achievement gaps among black and Hispanic students portend even more trouble for the U.S. in the years ahead.”
Such reactions make for arresting sound bites, but they mask the realities of education.
Just this year, Stanford researchers reviewed 200 million test scores and concluded that “nearly all U.S. school districts with substantial minority populations have large achievement gaps between their white and black and white and Hispanic students.”
Lead researcher Sean Reardon explained that “racial segregation is inextricably linked to unequal allocation of resources among schools” and that “policies that don’t address this will fail to remedy racial inequality.”
Reardon was quick to add, “Test scores are shaped by many factors: home environments, neighborhoods, childcare and preschool experiences, and after-school experiences, as well as by school experiences.”
When all is said and done, the achievement gap remains — not only in Connecticut, but in every other state. So Malia Sieve’s proclamation against the blithe acceptance of this reality as “status quo” is laudable and essential. But the solutions go well beyond educators “do[ing] anything differently.” We’re talking about systemic change at the societal level — a daunting task that has befuddled policymakers for years.
In the meantime, everyone involved in educating Connecticut children can make the biggest immediate difference by focusing on the kids right in front of them.
“Each school should be striving for excellence for their constituency and within their means,” Frank Krasicki wrote. “And the best of the best should be shared and celebrated. Today we have so retarded the system [by focusing on false metrics] that schools are unrecognizable as educational institutions. We aren’t falling behind anyone. We’re disassociating from the reality of how kids learn, who kids are, and what teachers do.”
I can’t speak for others, but I know that I don’t need standardized test scores to convince me of the truth behind those words.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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