Historian and education scholar, Diane Ravitch recently made a bold claim on her EdWeek blog with Deborah Meier, "Bridging Differences":
"The reading and math scores for 12th grade students on the National Assessment of Education (NAEP) were just released, and they are unimpressive. Scores are no better than they were in the early 1990s. The achievement gap is unchanged. I can hear the gnashing of teeth, the cries for more accountability, more charters, more this or more that. But not to worry. In fact, the 12th grade scores don't mean much. They probably mean nothing at all."
A few weeks ago, I was interviewed about the most recent HSAP scores in upstate schools. I made a similar comment to Ravitch's—that test scores don't really mean much. But I have found that few people respond well to such claims.
Since A Nation at Risk in 1983, under President Ronald Reagan, the US and SC have invested a great deal of time and money in identifying standards, testing students, and labeling schools. In SC, where we were early and committed to the accountability era, we have participated in most of the reform initiatives championed today:
• SC has historically characterized itself and been characterized from the outside as ranking last, or near the bottom, of education throughout the nation. Part of that ranking rests on the flawed practice of ranking states by SAT averages. As a result of the charges of "last in education," SC has pursued three decades of accountability, standards, and testing (begun nearly two decades before No Child Left Behind) along with implementing education policy and funding that support increasing the number of students taking the SAT and providing in the schools extensive SAT preparation coursework and technology/software.
• SC has also stood at the leading edge in terms of teacher quality with several phases of state-wide teacher assessment/evaluation programs and one of the most aggressive campaigns for teachers to achieve National Board Certification, including the state providing fee reimbursement for the board certification process and rewarding board certified teachers with a yearly supplement of $7500.
• As reflected in a court case and resulting documentary, Corridor of Shame, SC has wrestled with pockets of poverty impacting negatively schools across the state, particularly along the I-95 corridor. Again, SC has been proactive by creating several programs offering teachers incentives to teach in high poverty schools; concurrently, the state has implemented an aggressive accountability system, identifying schools quality through report cards and intervening where reform appeared ineffective.
• While SC has resisted powerful efforts to bring school choice to the state, SC's largest school district has practiced public school choice for many years, presenting a snapshot of choice dynamics, which resulted in greater stratification, pockets of affluence and poverty.
• And SC has experimented with a number of reforms being championed today: charter schools, single-gender education, on-line schools.
Since I have been a public school teacher (eighteen years) and teacher educator (nine years) in SC for almost three decades, I can attest that the people leading these policies and reforms have overwhelmingly been sincere, and while education reform has often been contentious throughout the past thirty years, many bright and dedicated people have worked tirelessly to improve the schools of SC.
So as we stand at the end of 2010, what has been the result of three decades of high accountability?
We continue to lament low SAT scores, and we are faced each testing season with scores that do not attain the goals we have set for ourselves. In fact, in the most recent election season, both major parties portrayed our schools, once again, as failures.
It is time that we all set aside our preoccupation with test scores. We should not bemoan scores that are too low, and we must not praise scores that appear successful.
Instead of standards and tests, our energy should be spent on children, students who are much more than any test scores. And our focus on these children in the care of our schools must not be just inside school walls.
The great irony is that test scores do not mean what we claim (the quality of learning in our schools), but they are a mirror to something worth noticing, something that we continue to ignore—the fact of many children's lives outside of school.
Test scores are yet one more marker of the inequities of our society, and while not one more second or dollar should be spent chasing higher test scores, we should find the courage to face and address the plight of poverty that makes learning impossible for children struggling to live.