You Don’t Fatten a Pig by Weighing It

By Debra Weiner

I was a fan of No Child Left Behind when it was adopted. Working in a college-prep program, I welcomed standardized testing as a counterforce to the wild grade inflation that had produced 9th graders entering our program with A’s and B’s but unable to assemble a coherent paragraph or do long division. I figured that NCLB would lead to more reasonable grading, promotion, and graduation standards. And I believed it would provide a sound approach for holding educators accountable. How wrong I was.

No education policy in recent memory has produced more dangerous, unintended consequences, especially in challenged urban school systems: the disappearance of the arts from the curriculum; cheating by teachers and principals; the death of creative instructional approaches such as project-based learning and inquiry methods; two months or more of the school year focused on test prep, “drill and kill” often replacing recess and gym; the loss of creative teachers and gifted principals who refuse to give in to rote learning and memorization; the immorality of forcing recent immigrant students to take the test in English.

The time has come for all all-out attack on this madness. Some efforts, like parents opting their kids out of testing, have already begun. Here are three more:

1. Advocate that President Obama, members of Congress, top officials of the U.S. Department of Education and their counterparts in all state capitols take the highest grade test from their home states to see for themselves how much it has to do with skills needed for successful adulthood. (And be sure that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan takes the test in Vietnamese).

2. Add up how much money states have spent on test development, security, and scoring since the adoption of NCLB — and how much more they will be spending with the switch to the Common Core — and calculate what those funds could have brought to struggling districts in the form of universal pre-K, improved teacher salaries, enhanced professional development for teachers and principals, proven instructional technology to supplement great teachers, social workers to help students address family issues, air conditioning to facilitate an extended school year, college counseling and career guidance, apprenticeships and internships, school-based health clinics, etc.

3. Re-administer the tests to a random sample of low-income urban students two months later to see the difference between what has been crammed and what has been learned, and publish the results for each state.

These measures will not automatically generate an objective measure of students’ skill levels. But at least they will make room for courageous conversations about what will be needed to produce more fair, robust, and functional assessments of student, teacher, and school progress.

Farmers are right that you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it. When it comes to assessing educational progress, we need both better feed AND a more accurate scale.