One of the schools with whom I am very involved (let’s call it Brookside) has struggled with its NCLB status in the last few years. Widely considered to be a “good” school, the students and teachers nevertheless struggled with the local, standardized measure of “good”- the NECAP. They did well, but they didn’t do well enough in one subject for one particular sub-group and so, as we all know happens, they took a long hard look at their options and they decided to game the test. I suppose that they, like many, rejected the notion that the test was a valid, reliable measure of student learning in this case. When you reject that presupposition, then you find yourself looking for ways to manipulate the data so that it says what you believe to be true (without doing anything immoral or illegal- just to be clear). As we all know, the perfectly valid and reliable testing instrument has not been created, so there is some logic to this argument. Then again, as an assessment instructor, I know that standardized tools like the NECAP have their place- just not the place of honor that they hold under NCLB.
So anyway, getting back to Brookside. As the teachers and parents looked over the scores and the looming specter of “restructuring,” they made a startling realization. There are a zillion modifications that can be made in the way the test is administered, many of them requiring additional staff and time, but all available to all students, and nearly none of them had been utilized in the past. One didn’t have to have an IEP to qualify, one just had to be a student! Rather than herding the whole 3rd grade into the cafeteria to take the test together, they could take it in their classrooms, at their desks. Easily distracted students could take the test in a separate space, could take frequent breaks, could eat and drink if they wanted…Who knew?
A plan was hatched, the PTA was recruited, snacks were provided and voila! Test scores went through the roof. Brookside was “good” again! Hooray! Let’s celebrate! Let’s shout the news from the rooftops, in the paper, in notes-home-to-parents!
Except…when we reject test scores as a true measure of success, can we really, with integrity, celebrate them when they’re high? If we say over and over again that high stakes tests are damaging and that no single data point should ever be used as a measure of student learning, then what do we do when they tell us we’re doing well? Are we really able to reject the “good” news of Proficient w/ Distinction with as much passion as the “bad” news of School in Need of Improvement?
This is certainly a sticky wicket for those of us in schools that have traditionally done well. It’s still stickier for the teachers and parents of the students in those schools, trying to come to terms with voices in our heard arguing simultaneously that “test scores mean nothing” and “I’m so proud to be connected to such a good school!” The reality that test scores can influence everything from the value of my home to the way my kids are perceived by their teachers, well, that’s pretty sticky too. As a mom, I must admit that I was happy to see the high scores my kids brought home. As an educator, I was instantly ashamed of my momentary flash of pride. I of all people should know that those percentile markings measure only the way that my kids performed on a single test on a single day. I know this- I preach it to my students.
But until we as students and parents and teachers are able to live and work under an educational policy that allows us to live within our pedagogical beliefs, this sticky wicket will just grow larger. We’ll continue to experience the cognitive dissonance of knowing one thing to be true- that test scores are but a single point in a large constellation of measures- but also knowing it’s opposite- that we live and die by whatever standardized assessment is cooked up next.