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Avoiding a fiasco in education


John Thompson July 17th, 2013

Nationally, a train wreck is coming to urban school systems. That disaster is much less likely in Oklahoma, however, and we must give state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi credit for that.

High-stakes testing forced schools to narrow the curriculum, focus on remediation and test prep, and commit to basic skills instruction that verges on educational malpractice. Worse, states must start using primitive bubble-in tests for teacher evaluations.

Teachers are also supposed to turn on a dime and teach the opposite types of tests, known as Common Core. Students who grew up on a diet of rote instruction for bubble-in tests are now supposed to adjust to assessments that are designed to confuse. The resulting drop in test scores is likely to range from 30 percent statewide to up to 90 percent for at-risk students.

Common sense says that states need a two-step adjustment:

• delaying test-driven teacher evaluations, which use dubious statistical models to control for poverty, until checks and balances are implemented or until we can agree on valid alternatives; and

• delaying or removing the stakes attached to Common Core assessments.

Barresi complained when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan finally announced that states can pause a year before using test scores to dismiss educators, but there is more to the story. Some states will continue to fire teachers with flawed experimental models. Others will delay until 2015. Those states are likely to face legal bills as they use the scientifically invalid method of mixing scores from different tests in an algorithm for firing teachers.

Duncan, however, merely allowed states to follow Oklahoma’s lead. We already delayed the punitive use of test scores until 2017, when we can feed three years of data from the same assessments into then-tested models. So Oklahoma has the time to see whether we can devise valid metrics and whether today’s models produce fiascoes in other states.

Secondly, Barresi announced that Oklahoma will pull out of the assessments process for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the consortium that’s producing tests for Common Core.

Since only 33 percent of Oklahoma schools are technologically prepared for PARCC testing, the exit is common sense. As Barresi said, “If we move ahead with this, we are going to be asking the state to drink a milkshake using a cocktail straw.” We can debate whether bubble-in “reform” ever made sense. (I don’t think it did.) But surely we can agree that the test-driven accountability has undermined any potential that data-driven reform once had to improve schools.

So let’s thank Barresi for listening. The delays have been granted so Oklahoma schools have a chance to lay a foundation for real, sustainable school improvement. Together, we can strengthen evaluations for dismissing ineffective teachers and raise our learning standards. And together, we can neutralize the harm done by high-stakes tests.

Thompson blogs regularly on national education issues at The Huffington Post, This Week in Education, School Matters and Living in Dialogue.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

 
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