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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 01/13/2011

Are more high-stakes tests inevitable? A teacher says 'no'

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by educator Anthony Cody, who taught science for 18 years in inner-city Oakland and now works with a team of science teacher-coaches that supports novice teachers. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. This post appeared on his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue.

By Anthony Cody
There are a great many fallacies swirling around our schools, and perhaps the biggest among them is that more testing, and ever higher stakes attached to tests, is inevitable, and thus resistance by teachers, students and parents is futile. Nothing could be further from the truth. The proponents of educational reform have committed the greatest error of the powerful. They have promised far more than they can deliver, and their enterprise is already failing by the markers they laid down.

The original vision of No Child Left Behind was the rather absurd plan that every single child in the nation would be proficient by 2014.

Every day we move closer to that date, and more and more schools are labeled failures as a result of its relentless and irrational timetable. These failures belong not to the schools and teachers who work there - they are taking on the challenges in their community and usually working hard to meet them. These failures belong to those who, from the comfort of their offices, made the supposedly "courageous" decisions to hold someone else accountable for fixing problems society does not care to address in meaningful ways.

According to reformers such asMichelle Rhee, we have the opportunity to "fix our broken education system." She cites our recent performance on the PISA to prove her point. But as many have pointed out, this data proves just the opposite.

As high school principal Mel Riddile points out here,

"Schools in the United States with less than a 10% poverty rate had a PISA score of 551. When compared to the ten countries with similar poverty numbers, that score ranked first.

"The problem is not as much with our educational system as it is with our high poverty rates. The real crisis is the level of poverty in too many of our schools and the relationship between poverty and student achievement. Our lowest achieving schools are the most under-resourced schools with the highest number of disadvantaged students. We cannot treat these schools in the same way that we would schools in more advantaged neighborhoods or we will continue to get the same results.

Serious scholars and educators have known this for years. And Rhee had very little results to show for her years as the tough-minded chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools, similar to her counterpart in New York City, Joel Klein.

These are stubborn facts, and they will not go away with another round of new and better tests, nor when we have fired the teachers supposedly responsible for the low scores. Until we are prepared to invest in our schools and communities, and until our students have very real opportunities as a result of the education they are receiving, our schools in impoverished communities will not magically improve.

It is, in fact, inevitable that this test-driven reform will fail. It will fail because it cannot deliver on its lofty promises. The only reason the project totters forward is because of the steadfast sponsorship by an alliance of billionaires and the politicians and policymakers they employ, directly and indirectly.

The challenge for those of us who see that these emperors and empresses of reform are naked is to stay clear on our own vision of what school should be, and continue to call it out. Continue to speak the truth, and shame those who claim to have all the answers. And we must work with parents and students and our fellow teachers, so they understand that our schools will not improve when we have fired ten percent of the teachers, base evaluations on test scores, eliminate tenure and seniority, and expand privately run charter schools.

Instead, they will improve when we seek stability and growth in our struggling schools, and support the teachers there so they are retained, and have time to collaborate and learn together. We will improve these schools when we have small class sizes that allow teachers to give individual attention to students, and differentiate for diverse learners.

They will improve when we give teachers professional autonomy and challenge them to authentically assess their students on meaningful work, not do endless test preparation. They will improve when they have strong connections to the parents and communities in which they sit, and serve their aspirations.

These are the things that must be priorities for our schools -- not more and more money for more and more sophisticated tests and data tracking systems.

It is perhaps inevitable that when we have a society in which one percent of the population has more than one-third of the wealth, these billionaires will believe that they have that power due to their wisdom and intelligence - and thus are entitled to tell the rest of us what to do. But it is also inevitable that some of us will continue to think for ourselves, and continue to fight for schools that serve our communities.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 13, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Anthony Cody, Guest Bloggers, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  anthony cody, high-stakes standardized tests, high-stakes tests, nclb, no child left behind, school reform, standardized tests  
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I sure hope you're right, but even if it does change, it won't happen anytime soon. It's just too easy for the 'experts' to sit back and blame teachers - we're the ones that WANT to be in the classroom, and they will take advantage of that.

Posted by: peonteacher | January 13, 2011 7:00 AM | Report abuse

In as much as the finger pointing continues it solves nothing. We need to address improvement, not fault. We need to meet the needs of the kids, not the need of politics or pundits.

Nothing is wrong with the testing, except the disconnect between adults implementing or refuting the testing.

Suppose we change our mindset to make 2014 a point of reflection and review instead of an either/or date? Study the good, bad, and ugly for change. What would be the issue with using a target date such as for refinement vice refraining.

Suppose we use the test results to decide a child's path to success instead of a reason for failure? Would it harm a child to discover they can't learn as fast so set them back a year? What is more costly, a child set back a year or a child unable to perform as an adult, or worse case a prisoner? We need to make better use of what we are doing instead of making use of what we are doing to provoke an agenda.

There is another issue here in this writing that sets my Baumonometer a little higher. The idea that poverty somehow can't be overcome. The press and politics played this as the trump card. Yes there are problems, but using that as the stick to prod kids to believe they are inferior is a poor method of trying to improve their ability. If you really want to level the playing field, drop the computers out of class, go back to basics, and stop trying to force children to grow too fast.

You wouldn't write so negatively about your pastor's sermon, but berate the very system to support the children.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 13, 2011 8:13 AM | Report abuse

I respect greatly Mr. Cody's passion and knowledge of what we should be doing in our classrooms so our students can learn; no 'reformer' could refute or challenge his experience and ideas. Yet as teachers, we have NO CONTROL over poverty, are not trained/certified to mitigate poverty, but we always point out poverty as the primary cause for our students' inability to achieve.
The same way test scores aren't a complete academic measure, 'poverty,' and it's inverse 'affluence' are blanket statements that don't identify causation. Are 'affluent' students successful only because, for example, their parents can 'hire tutors' or 'buy computers and books?' If the only reason they succeed is because they have money and poor people don't, then the simple solution would be to cut a check to all the 'poor' people in public schools so they can provide their children what affluent parents do.
Indeed a retort to that solution would be, "Poverty is more complicated," yet when we cite 'poverty' as an excuse for poor academic performance we rarely clarify what 'poverty' is, or how it manifests itself in a classroom in a way that hinders academic growth.
Everything that Mr. Cody states schools should do to foster academic growth is sound and reasonable, but does it change poverty? What does 'investing in our schools and communities' look like, and who should do it? What is 'stability and growth' in our pubic schools? Is it a steady, increasing budget? Is it keeping quality teachers in the schools for at least 5-8 years? If my classroom has only 16-20 students, but they're all poor, does the class size change their poverty? It seems if high-poverty PISA scores are low, it doesn't matter how small my classes are if the students are poor; they'll always score below affluent students based on what the PISA data seems to say.
Indeed having 'professional autonomy' to 'assess authentically' is what teachers must demand whether your students are poor or affluent. Does that professional autonomy change poverty? Do we not have 'strong connections to parents and communities' because so many teachers have 30, 40 60min or more commutes to and from the communities they serve?
Having taught only in urban schools with high poverty, I agree these students have unique needs. If we want to change 'poverty,' then be explicit about what 'poverty' is, and enlist those who can impact it directly to engage the issue, too. I've always seen my mission as inspiring the learning and growth in my students so that they develop the knowledge, skills, and reasoning that help them overcome their circumstances. While what I try to do may not make poor students affluent immediately, I expect it to give them the tools to overcome whatever challenges they have.

Posted by: pdexiii | January 13, 2011 9:40 AM | Report abuse

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