Over the weekend, the Obama administration conceded that the emphasis on standardized school testing had gone too far and that it’s time to retrench.
“In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students,” the U.S. Department of Education said on its Internet site.
Standardized school tests have been a point of contention in Louisiana ever since they were adopted here. Colloquially they are known as “high stakes” tests, and the payoff, good or bad, is important not just to students, but to teachers, whose job performance is judged in part by the tests, and to the schools themselves.
The question, for example, of whether certain schools will be controlled by the local school board or by the state’s Recovery School District hinges on how its students perform on the tests.
If students at a particular school do badly, the school essentially becomes a ward of the RSD. Students at poorly performing schools also may qualify for private school tuition vouchers. That means if a student walks, the state funding allocated for that pupil follows him.
In New Orleans, the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina combined with school test results put the vast majority of public schools under the umbrella of RSD control. In turn, the RSD eventually, in effect, subcontracted the operation of individual schools to charter-school operators, making the city a test case for the charter experiment.
New Orleans’ predominantly charter-based school system is being watched across the nation, but recent test results are mixed and certainly make you think twice about the claims that the city’s schools are a screaming success.
On PARCC tests in English and math given to students in grades three through eight, 60 percent of Orleans students scored at Basic or above. Statewide, the percentage is 65 percent.
It’s good that Orleans schools were only five points off the statewide percentage of students performing at Basic or above. But it’s hardly a ringing argument for the superiority of charter schools over conventionally run public institutions.
The tests, developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, are linked to the controversial Common Core standards, and that represents another point of contention regarding standardized testing.
It turns out that some who have championed standardized tests for a long time aren’t crazy about the ones linked to Common Core. Gov. Bobby Jindal, a onetime Core supporter, now claims that the Core standards represent federal government overreach. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the Republican candidate for governor, has come to virtually the same conclusion.
Jindal said teachers whose students are facing Core-aligned tests have no choice but to “teach to the test,” that is, teach the things they know will be on the exams. Funny, but that turns out to be the same complaint that public school teachers, not often on the side of people like Vitter and Jindal, have had about standardized tests from the get-go — that they essentially remove the teacher’s judgment from the equation.
Vitter’s opponent in next month’s election, Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, also opposes Common Core. But Saturday’s election for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gave a different result, easy victories for Core supporters.
Does that mean that education policy on the state level will continue to have a split personality, with the new governor wanting one thing and BESE wanting something else?
Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s recent move adds another wrinkle to this complicated debate.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.