Nearly two decades of high-stakes testing have left Delaware’s public schools with a legacy of failure.
I co-chaired the Governor’s Social Studies Curriculum Frameworks Commission from 1992-95. Our commission included teachers, parents, students, administrators, academics and business partners. All commissions held public meetings, engaging in deliberations to create “world class standards” in English, math, science and social studies. We did our job well enough that many of those standards remain in place today.
Those standards were designed to be tested via “performance assessment,” but the General Assembly thought individualized testing cost too much. Instead, they approved the DSTP, which lacked reliability and validity; failed to assess all the standards; and was compromised by backroom politics from Day One. DSTP was high-stakes: students who failed could not be promoted to the next grade without summer school and retaking the test.
As the first legislators’ and donors’ kids failed, student accountability evaporated.
Under No Child Left Behind, consequences migrated to the schools, rated via a complex system of “cells” that often left Annual Yearly Progress for each building determined by test scores of a handful of students. One elementary school repeatedly failed AYP due to the scores of profoundly handicapped children who never entered the building, but lived in that feeder pattern. School districts employed full-time managers to challenge attendance patterns and force failing scores to be credited to other districts.
When the U.S. Department of Education announced waivers to exit this insane system, Delaware got in line.
Meanwhile, DCAS replaced DSTP, and SBA is now replacing DCAS. If you don’t comprehend the acronyms, don’t worry: They’ll change again.
Race to the Top brought Delaware $119 million for data analysis, teacher learning communities, Common Core, and testing computers. (Simultaneously, the General Assembly cut reimbursements for transporting homeless children to school.)
Accountability in high-stakes testing now descended on teachers.
State bureaucrats generated strict, test-based teacher accountability regimes, while legislators enacted unprecedented regulations for teacher preparation programs in our universities.
None of this actually improved public education, which Gov. Jack Markell tacitly admitted in his State of the State Address: “Only 20 percent of our kids graduate from high school ready for college or a career.”
Content standards and standardized tests have their place in education, but high-stakes testing has proven not merely ineffective, but also potentially harmful.
Pursuing the idea that moving the consequence to this group, or changing to that test will abruptly erase the socio-economic disparities dogging public education has wasted critical resources. In Delaware alone, hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars and tens of thousands of teacher preparation hours have not been spent placing great programs at inner-city schools, providing full funding for special needs students, or turning lose the individual creativity of classroom teachers. Resources devoted to music, the arts, the humanities, physical education, and special needs have declined.
Here’s a modest plan for returning to sanity:
First, exempt special needs students on IEPs from standardized testing that often traumatizes them and rarely returns valuable data.
Second, accept the unanimous recommendation from teacher representatives in the Delaware State Education Association and legislate a parental “opt-out” from standardized testing.
Third, revisit the adoption of Common Core. Research indicates that content standards should not be so extensive that they become a de facto curriculum. The breadth of Common Core – all arguments about quality placed to the side – is too wide to leave room for instructional depth or teacher creativity. We need a Delaware process, driven by your child’s teachers and not political/corporate reformers, to re-examine our academic standards.
Finally, cap testing costs to direct resources back into the classroom. When our poorest schools have access to the high-quality programs like Gifted & Talented or Odyssey of the Mind that our suburban schools boast, we can consider new testing expenditures, not before.
The money already invested in the high-stakes testing mania is irrevocably lost. Parents, teachers and voters must now unite to insure that more good money does not follow the bad.
Send resources into our classrooms, not new testing computers.
Steve Newton is a professor of history and political science at Delaware State University and the Libertarian candidate for State Representative in the 22nd District.
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