Saturday, February 14, 2009

Standardized testing leaves collateral damage


Friday, February 13, 2009

It shouldn't take a Ph.D like David Berliner to tell us what's wrong with the way we do accountability in schools. He sees parallels in baseball, too, and he's no Joe Dimaggio.

Sporting analogy: When you put too much emphasis on home runs, he points out, you strike out more.

When you put too much emphasis on anything at the exclusion of other things, players adjust in ways that make them one-dimensional.

Berliner isn't an expert on baseball. A regents' professor at Arizona State University, he is an expert on education. With University of Texas-San Antonio professor Sharon Nichols, he wrote "Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts American Education."

Berliner recently spoke at Baylor University, his theme being how high-stakes testing makes America less competitive.

"Any time you invest a lot of value in an outcome measure you get a corruption of the measure," said Berliner, in a true academician's phrasing.

Texas being a proving ground for high-stakes testing and the federal No Child Left Behind law, it's notable that its schools have become poster children for "gaming the system to lie," Berliner said.

This includes not just outright cheating, but any number of maneuvers to make sure low-achievers aren't tested.

Beyond that is the problem of "narrowing the curriculum" to meet the task of passing a test on core subjects.

In Texas and across the country, we've seen schools with low math scores become slaves to computation at the exclusion of everything else.

"If you are going to gauge a school based on a test, then you're going to prepare kids for the test," he said.

Yeah, we need a Ph.D. to tell us this. Even Berliner sees the absurdity therein.

"What you get is really boring curriculum heavily favoring reading and math, and a drop in (emphasis of) almost everything else" — recess, music, arts, social studies, science.

Berliner said this problem is most pronounced in urban schools with more than their share of poverty cases, and with low-low test scores.

For many students in those situations, education is drained of its Technicolor in favor of dry work sheets and test-based drills.

Once again, it shouldn't take a Ph.D. to tell us this, but:

"Anyone who looks at the future of the American work force knows it needs to be more adaptable than it is today. We're developing a curriculum that's very narrow, a one-size-fits all approach.

"Instead, we need a broad approach, one that's wide so we have lots people who can adjust quickly when (economic) shifts happen."

Success demands that schools emphasize such traits as creativity, collaboration and problem-solving, he said.

Back to Berliner's warning about a too-boring curriculum. Some traditionalists would consider that a weak complaint of the "touchy-feely" crowd that doesn't want to crack the whip.

Well, Berliner cites a study in which 47 percent of those who dropped out cited boredom as the reason. It wasn't that they couldn't do the work. It was that they didn't see any reason.

I know that the martial-law crowd can't understand this, but: You know, schools ought to give children a reason to want to learn — other than passing a test.

It doesn't take a graduate degree to see that we need to stop examining our measuring cups and examine what we're putting in them. One idea would be to treat teachers as educators and not as vessels.

What you emphasize you'll get, or at least lunging efforts at it. In the age of test-driven "accountability," we are getting training and conditioning, but not education.

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