Tuesday, October 16, 2007

John Edwards and No Child Left Behind

There is a refreshing depth to Edwards' positions on No Child Left Behind. He certainly does much better than Bill Richardson's get-rid-of-it view, which has to be the stupidest campaign plank ever from such a demonstrably smart man. Edwards joins the multitudes in supporting changes that would allow states to track the growth of students over time. He also likes the proposal in the George Miller draft that would make it easier for schools that just have a few failings in a few categories to make adequate yearly progress. I remain among those who think this is a bad idea, since it weakens the law's focus on disadvantaged children, but if they don't do something like that the law is going soon to look ridiculous to taxpayers and voters, who will wonder why nearly every school in their town has missed the federal targets. It is not good for a law to look ridiculous, so Edwards is likely smarter than I am on that issue.
My main complaint with his NCLB position is his stand on testing, which I think betrays a lack of understanding of what good teachers do. He is not alone in this. I have yet to find a presidential candidate who understands, or is willing to discuss, this point, so I can't see this as a major Edwards flaw. None of us is perfect.
Here is what his Web site says about his view on tests under NCLB: "Rather than requiring students to take cheap standardized tests, Edwards believes that we must invest in the development of higher-quality assessments that measure higher-order thinking skills, including open-ended essays, oral examinations, and projects and experiments."
Sounds great, doesn't it? So why have so many states shied away from such tests? Why has the state of Maryland just decided to end its use of written answers to questions---the brief constructed responses?
The answer is that such tests are very expensive, very slow to grade and don't give you any important information that you cannot get from multiple choice exams. In addition, attempts to write such exams for ALL children---as opposed to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams written for high schoolers who choose to take a challenging course--usually fail, because the test makers find they have to dumb down the process or graders will go made, and they will be reporting May's scores the following February. Such tests also cost millions of extra dollars that would be better spent raising teacher salaries.
That is what happened with Maryland's BCRs---they came out slow and stupid and expensive and led to bad teaching. Maryland was smart to get rid of them.
It may sound odd, but it is much better to make do with short, cheap standardized tests. They give you enough to know how a student, and a school, are doing in general, and can provide some quick clues to a kid's weaknesses. All that fine teaching on critical thinking will come if the student has a good teacher, and the cheap tests can show which teachers are good at raising achievement levels and which are not. Those are also the teachers who are most likely to be teaching those thinking skills that Edwards rightly praises. But until we get to high school and can give students tests of the quality of AP and IB, those good teachers do not need a standardized critical thinking test to help them. They prefer a cheap, quick multiple-choice test, something they can get out of the way, so they can continue their imaginative classroom work.
The cheap tests will help identify teachers who are not so good, and need help, and also identify those teachers whose students do well on the cheap tests and thus are most likely to be learning the thinking skills we all want our children to have. That certainly has been my experience, watching hundreds of teachers in action over the last 25 years. But if anyone can point me to a teacher who managed to raise scores significantly on those cheap tests without cheating, and yet did NOT teach those deeper skills, I would like to hear about it, so I can talk to the teacher and do a story. In my experience, teachers who raise achievement on cheap tests are very good teachers. They are just getting started. Their success on those tests is as closely tied to their success in teaching critical thinking as long spring walks are entwined with young love. Edwards should stop asking for tests that won't work, and emphasize his many other ideas that have merit.


omelas said...

Yet Maryland's switch to cheap bubble tests have plenty of new and perhaps worse problems. Teachers graded the old system and got paid to do it, while a machine calculates the bubble ones, and how good are elementary school students in staying inside the lines? Also, the company that got hired to create the new test routinely includes material from grade levels higher than the student's current grade level, making it impossible for many advanced students to actually place that way.

There are greater concerns to be addressed than what kind of test gets used. On a high school level, Edwards' ideas on testing are certainly better than bubble tests. Do you remember what treaty ended the War of the Roses? I don't and I got a cummulative score of 98% in World History. Yet my essay writting skills are actually employable.

Further real issues to be addressed include the continual denial of services to disadvantaged students, as school administrations push them off learning plans. Students who do well with test assistance are not served by failing the test the next year due to a genetic learning disorder, despite whether or not they know the material.

Additionally, principals decide which students are in what class, and can use that pooling effect in order to dump all the low acheivers into one classroom, and make a teacher look horrible who is actually quite good. The way the bubble tests work now, if the student is 3 grade levels behind and the teacher gets the student up to 1 grade level behind, both teacher and student are labeled as failures. No matter what test system is used, unless these two issues are addressed, either kind is worthless.

Zoe said...

No child left behind is actually doing more harm than good!
Check out a similar article I saw at Dailycents.com, the
direct link to the article is http://blogs.dailycents.com/?p=819