Saturday, February 19, 2011

Revisiting an Op-Ed from 2007

This post at The Answer Sheet by Marion Brady made me think of Lou LaBrant and her brush with accountability from 1932:

Thomas, P. L. (2007, June 13). Rethinking school accountability. The State

Superintendent Jim Rex has opened the door to revising how SC holds schools, teachers, and students accountable—reinforcing evidence that he is not simply tolerant of change but actively seeking it. While this recent move must be applauded, we must also use the opportunity to look closely at the assumptions behind any accountability system designed to improve education.

First, consider this scenario: A teacher secures a position teaching and soon finds that she must implement periodic tests to gather evidence of her students’ achievement throughout the year in order to insure that those students perform well on a year-end high-stakes test. Both her on-going and the year-end assessments are linked to standards and materials approved by the district and the state.

Does this sound familiar? Of course, both in terms of how our schools in SC work now and how Dr. Rex envisions them working better in the future.

This scenario, however, is the life and work of Lou LaBrant, and her teaching position in 1932. Holding teachers and schools accountable through testing and standards is at least seven decades old.

If we are seeking to revise our accountability system and improve learning for our students, we had better commit ourselves to a few large-scale changes in how we think about teaching, learning, testing, and accountability. That rethinking must include the following:

• While Dr. Rex is correct in calling for reducing how often we test and how often we prepare students for tests, this new system does nothing to address the disproportionate weight we place on testing. Education has always suffered from seeing tests as goals of school instead of seeing tests of tools within the teaching/learning dynamic. No accountability system will ever improve learning as long as tests remain the goals. Teaching to the test has measurable negative effects on all aspects of schooling. Tests must not remain the primary measure in our accountability system.

• Further, our commitment to testing grows from our myopic belief that accountability must by “objective” and that certain forms of testing fulfill that goal. We continue this charade despite overwhelming evidence that standardized tests—which are deemed most objective—have strong negative correlations toward distinct populations of students—including gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Our pursuit of objectivity must be balanced with other concerns—or any new accountability system will show the same weak results as in the past.

We must be deeply skeptical of any new program or system that grows from our political process. In my career as a SC educator, we have had BSAP and PACT. Neither has satisfied their stated goals—or popular perceptions of our schools.

• Accountability as a concept must also be reconsidered. Prodding schools to change either through the promise of rewards or the threat of punishment has never worked and will never work. The primary reason schools are not better is not a lack of motivation by those who run our schools, but the ill effects of poverty and the lack of concern for education by students and their parents. Traditional accountability systems address neither of those.

• Beware the promise of technology. One complaint about our current system anchored by PACT is the failure of those tests to provide valuable and timely feedback for teachers. Tthe new accountability system seeks testing that will provide quick feedback for teachers, which appears to be a move toward computer-based testing. The type of testing found on computer-based testing is highly limited, and a move to computer-based testing will have two effects: (1) Research shows that computer-based testing produces lower scores for students in poverty and students of color; (2) Computer-based testing will provide teachers with lousy data quicker.

In an effort to reduce testing, we appear to be planning to test fewer content areas—adding that this will not lessen the importance of any of the areas not tested. The reality is that as long as tests are the focus of accountability, teachers will focus on only that which is tested. Currently, we have students taking tests on SAT vocabulary words in art classes; this sort of nonsensical practice grows from that reality.

• Finally we must drop the all-or-nothing mentality of accountability. We are seeking 100% success for our schools while accepting 70% as passing for students in those schools. 100% success is a fine goal, but it can never be achieved.

Now is the time to form a line at the door Dr. Rex has opened, but let’s not allow that door to be closed until we rethink and redesign accountability in SC—creating a system that is more than a new set of letters we can associate with why schools are failing yet again.

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