Commentary: Student testing has lost its focus

John Thompson (Mark Hancock)
Mark Hancock
John Thompson

By the first of April, the quest for knowledge often came to a complete halt.

Not long ago, however, the beginning of our fourth quarter at John Marshall High School launched my students’ “victory lap.” We also pulled together the concepts they had mastered and synthesized the year’s standards of learning. We celebrated the way that urban students, when treated with respect, excelled with a legitimate college readiness curriculum.

Now, we will hear more horror stories about the educational malpractice prompted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This year’s accounts of primitive test prep and doomed basic skills worksheets, in lieu of instruction that honors students’ strengths, will accompany an equally sad ritual: the countdown to 100 percent proficiency. In nearly three months, 12 years after NCLB test score targets were set, all American students are supposed to be “proficient” in core subjects.

This utopian overreach was due to an unholy left-right alliance. Liberal true believers in test-driven reform blamed inequities on teachers’ “low expectations,” not poverty, and demanded that all demographic groups be required to reach these utopian goals. Conservatives salivated at the prospect of 12 years of headlines about awful schools.

The predictable failure of schools to meet impossible goals opened the door for corporate reformers seeking the privatization of public education.

Mandates for unreachable targets were doubly destructive because they undermined the best part of NCLB. Had the disaggregation of student performance by race, economic status and English Language Learner and special education status been used for a Consumers Reports-type diagnostic metric, the data would have been invaluable.

It became clear that districts across the nation, in return for additional federal money, were concentrating on the law’s loopholes. I assumed that the inevitable statistical gamesmanship would be harmful, but I had no clue that it would inflict such extreme damage. Anticipating defeat, districts mandated nonstop test prep, narrowed the curriculum and played the blame game.

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

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