• Restoring trust
    July 01,2014

    Common sense is gaining a foothold among Vermont education officials with regard to testing in schools.

    Standardized tests became the style of the day during the past decade after passage of the No Child Left Behind law, which subjected schools to a regime of testing designed to create a new level of accountability.

    The trouble became evident quickly. When schools were judged and money was apportioned on the basis of test results, teachers tended to focus on areas of study covered by the tests. Subjects not directly tested got short shrift — history, science, music, for example.

    In some places, teachers cheated in order to gain favorable test results from their students, the opposite of the lesson about character and ethics that we expect our teachers to teach.

    These perverse incentives were bad enough, but to add to the futility, standardized tests have limited usefulness. All those testing results do not give teachers an insight into how individual students are doing. That is not what they are for. Standardized tests are like an aerial photo of a forest that might show areas where foliage is stressed or diseased but tells little about the health of individual trees. And it is the individual tree who is the focus of education.

    Among the useful findings revealed by standardized tests has been information confirming that students from low-income families tend not to perform as well as students from families that are more well off. Most teachers probably know that already, even though they are always exceptions. We have learned also that by middle school, girls have started to perform better than boys. Teachers probably know that, too, but it helps to have data that confirm one’s suspicions.

    Now the state Board of Education is considering a resolution urging the use of a diverse array of testing methods and urging Congress to ease federal testing mandates.

    An array of testing methods is a good idea, such as tests developed by individual teachers designed to show whether the students are learning the lessons the teachers are teaching. In other words, after you have studied a unit on the Civil War, the teacher presents students with a test on the material students have studied — not an array of unrelated questions devised by a testing company in New Jersey.

    In its essence, education is a communication between a teacher and a student. Good teachers can tell us more about the performance of individual students than any standardized test. They always have. They listen. They pay attention. They talk with students. They give assignments and tests. Some limited standardized tests can help with the big picture, but the routine communication in the classroom between teacher and student is what education is about.

    The new education secretary, Rebecca Holcombe, appears to understand the limited usefulness of standardized tests, and the waste of time and money they entail.

    “Testing is a dipstick to take a read of one aspect of learning,” she said. It may be useful depending on how the information gleaned from the tests is used.

    The overreliance on standardized testing has arisen at the same time that trust in public education has eroded. Because public money is used for schools, there has been a demand that schools show they are using the money effectively. The trouble is that standardized tests are a poor tool of accountability. They don’t measure the music program.

    Restoring the humanity to our schools involves restoring trust in teachers and principals, on the assumption that we can learn best from them about our children and how they are doing. It doesn’t mean that a teacher can make every child succeed, but the teacher can be truthful about a child’s challenges and can help meet them.

    There are always incompetent teachers, boring teachers, unprepared teachers, but to construct a system based on the assumption that they are the rule rather than the exception is to wreck the humanity of the system. Our reforms must begin with supporting our teachers, improving their capabilities and giving them our trust. Kids know when parents respect teachers, and when it is present, respect and trust are likely to rub off on the kids, which can only help.

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