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Millions more for assessments. To tell us…what?

September 7, 2010

I’m sure by now many of you have seen the news: the federal government has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to several states and coalitions as part of Race to the Top funding.  Where are these many millions of dollars going?  Oh, to better testing and assessments.

In a recent eSchoolNews article several states have gotten the funding to “provide new state assessment systems to test students’ 21st-century skills.”


Ok, time for that irritating question I’m known for asking: “Uh, what problem are we trying to solve?”

Let’s be honest here…what do you think these better tests and assessments are going to find?  Something new or different that what the old tests and assessments have shown?  Heck, here in Washington State, we recently abandoned our high-fallutin’ WASL test in favor of the supposedly-better MSP (Measurement of Student Progress). Now dozens of states across the country have been given oodles of new dollars to create better tests and measurement systems?

Why?  We already know that too many of our students are not achieving to their potential. Do we want better charts, graphs, bubbles on an exam sheet to report the same thing…only more so?  Is it better if we see it in living color, perhaps high-def or 3D?  Will the better testing and assessments somehow decrease the 25/30…up to 50% drop out rate we see in many areas, particularly disadvantaged urban centers?

What WILL $300M+ do for us in terms of decreasing the achievement gap?  How about bullying?  Is any of this money earmarked for school violence and anti-social behavior?  Heck, how will testing/assessment money help if kids are afraid to come to school?

Of course, Secretary of Ed Arne Duncan does point out that the assessments are the be-all and end-all.  Mr. Duncan admits that the assessments are only as good as the standards being tested, but the problem is, the issues are even more basic than that. Standards are well and good, but it doesn’t matter WHAT you try to teach if they aren’t ready to learn or paying attention.  I can guarantee you that if you dedicated some real money toward THAT problem, we’d see test scores go up as a direct result.

And, conservatively $100B or so is being wasted every year in our schools nationwide on that problem of student disruption and managing classroom management behavior. Yet, we saw NOTHING allocated toward that in RTTT.  If you want to reward truly “innovative” schools, do something for those who recognize the problem of inadequate student social skills/emotional learning and character development and take steps to address it.

It’s the most fundamental problem we have in schools.  When you talk about “21st century skills,” are we saying that learning technology is more important than learning to get along with others, how to cooperate, how to be part of a team? Education is certainly about individual achievement, but you also have to do it in the context of cooperative learning.  It’s as Dr. Phillip Rodkin said at the federal Bullying Summit — the classroom is a “community of 30,” not as you see too often these day a universe of “1,” where it’s ok for me to do as I wish, and if that doesn’t work for anyone else, too bad.

I think testing and assessments are important, but we don’t need to dedicate these many hundreds of millions of dollars to continue to tell us what we already know: education is failing our kids in so many ways and we’re not making any significant progress in turning that tide.  For over 40 years, we’ve thrown increasing amounts of money at the problem, yet have seen no real improvement.  What that tells me is that it’s not about the money, and an extra few billion here or there isn’t going to change that.

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