This, the third in my series on education problems and eventual solutions, deals with the current direction of the mandatory, high stakes testing movement, also known as “accountability.”  But before I delve directly into the newest and most potentially destructive direction of that educational fad, let’s hear from several unexpected voices.

In September, Thomas Ratliff, a member of the Texas State Board of Education, published an article questioning the excessive nature of state mandated testing:

This year, our public schools will spend almost one out of every five days conducting tests for the State of Texas? Yes, that’s right, an average of almost one day a week, or nearly 20 percent of the school year.

According to the Texas Education Agency, Texas public schools will spend 34 days out of the 185 day school year conducting tests mandated by state government, an average of four days per student. Keep in mind that this figure doesn’t include the number of days spent taking other tests — six-weeks tests, weekly quizzes, semester exams — or getting students ready to take the state’s tests.

Because of the high-stakes nature of these tests, schools spend extra time getting their students ready by working on testing strategies and other things that take away from learning the material. I think this is over the top.

So do I, Mr. Ratliff, so do I.  Ratliff outlined the financial costs:

To put a dollar figure on this problem, consider this: Texas spends $44 billion per year on public education. Of that, almost $1 billion is spent on testing days, just for the state. If you are looking for ways to make public education more efficient, this seems like a good place to start.

To be clear, I support accountability. There should there be some general measure of how our public schools compare to one another. But I also believe the State of Texas should be accountable to the parents of public school students and explain why we must endure so much testing at the expense of learning…

…We don’t need more mandates or rules from Austin or Washington. We need less.

Consider too the experience of Rick Roach, a member of the Orange County, FL Board of Education in the fourth of four 4-year terms.  A long time teacher, Roach has two master’s degrees and by anyone’s reckoning, serious educational credentials backed up by actual performance and experience.  Earlier this year he came up with an interesting idea: why not take Florida’s high stakes tests, see what the kids were dealing with?  And so he did.  To those who understand the nature of such things the results were predictable:

I won’t beat around the bush. The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a ‘D,’ and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities….

It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.

He summed up the tests thus:

They are defending a test that has no accountability.

By all means, read both articles, but know that tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of competent teachers across the nation reading the same articles are shaking their heads in agreement and clenching their fists in anguish and frustration.

Ratliff reinforces a point I made in last week’s article: these tests completely change the focus of education in the direction of producing high test scores at the expense of all else.

Roach’s scores are hardly surprising.  I have no doubt that I could score very well on my state’s English tests, but that is so largely for two reasons: I have studied, for years, precisely how to teach kids to pass that very specific—and largely useless—test.  But more, I know how the educratic mind works.  I can successfully choose between an answer that makes complete sense in the real world, and an answer an educrat thinks works.  They’re very seldom one in the same.

Despite being well read in history and probably more generally well-versed in science that the average bear, absent the very specific preparation necessary for those tests, I might well fail.  And regarding math, despite the fact I was born without the math gene, I know how to study and take tests, and do basic math with speed and fluency, including fractions (I do a great deal of carpentry work of all kinds).  However, without an intensive crash course in the very specific requirements of the math test, I have no doubt I’d fail, just as Roach did.  He’s right: these tests have little or no relation to the real world.

There is no question that there is value in learning some things that one might never use in their eventual career, a career most can’t imagine as teenagers.  That is in fact why we require kids to study a variety of disciplines.  Learning math builds the brain—physically—in ways that studying literature cannot.  Studying music builds the brain in ways that learning a foreign language can’t, and on and on and on.  Even if I never actually use the formulas I learned in college algebra—and I haven’t—I have a more flexible, capable brain for having had the experience of working with them.  This is not what Roach, and I, address.

When the failure to pass a given test can deny a child graduation from high school, despite a 12 year record of academic achievement, we have gone far beyond any semblance of “accountability” into allowing government to deny individuals their choice of a future.  “But they can take the test over again, often many times.”  Quite true, but this demonstrates only the capricious nature of the test.  How do they pass the second or third time?  By drilling relentlessly on how to pass that particular test, not by actual learning, not by building a bigger, better brain, but essentially by cramming sufficient information into a portion of the memory bank that will be promptly dumped as soon as the test is passed.  Such tests are not indicative of the success of a given school or of the intellectual capacity of a given individual.  They are crude political instruments, instruments of control, and once any government, local, state or federal gains control over the lives of others, it is very, very reluctant to relinquish it, even those governments controlled by Republicans.  The “accountability” movement is largely a Republican invention.

Allow me, please, to move now to the specific topic of this article: what I’ve come to call the “magic curriculum.”  To better understand it, it may be useful to review this exchange between a concerned parent (CP) and a test booster (TB):

CP: Are high stakes tests highly reliable and predictive?  Can we really be sure they test something worthwhile?

TB: Sure they are! They’re designed by experts, and approved by your state politicians? What could be better?

CP: But what it they aren’t?  Anything produced by humans can fail.

TB: It doesn’t matter; they’re perfect, designed by experts, the best, and policians like them so much they’re willing to spend billions on them!

CP: But if they’re so good, why is it necessary to produce entirely new tests every five years or so?  Wouldn’t that tend to prove that the previous test wasn’t perfect, and doesn’t that cost outrageous sums of taxpayer money?

TB: Shut up.

Let’s consider poor Texas again, not because I have any problem with Texas, but because it has always been a leader in education in virtually every way.  By its sheer size, the textbooks—and yes, the tests—consumed in Texas end up being reproduced throughout the nation.  Texas is in the process of implementing an entirely new series of “end of course” tests, tests designed to be given at the end of a school year which will supposedly reflect what students have learned—or failed to learn–in school that year.  On one hand, the Texas model does produce one worthwhile result: Kids will apparently no longer be denied graduation—directly—for failing the tests.  The new system is subtler and requires every school district to make the tests 15% of each student’s grade for the year.  On the other hand, there are far more tests in far more disciplines than ever before (the old tests covered only English, science, math and history), and the new requirement will drive schools even further toward nothing but a year of test drill than ever before, and because there are more tests, essentially the final month of school will be lost to testing.

If the culmination of a year of “learning” is a test that amounts to 15% of a student’s grade–particularly when those scores will be used to determine “accountability,” or the performance, the very worth of teachers, administrators, schools and school districts—what do you suppose those districts will do to ensure their worth?  You guessed correctly: they’ll drill all year to be certain the test scores are appropriately high.

And of course, this will force schools to adopt virtually identical methods, curriculums, schedules, and grading structures.  More and more, the idea and practice of local control is being crushed.

It becomes a vicious, circular argument.  By testing at the end of the year, it is a certainty that schools will spend that year teaching to that very specific test.  And the validity of the test will be “proved” by the high test scores achieved through a year of drilling for that test, allowing test boosters to trumpet the worth of the test, which must be a great success because over time, test scores will rise, which must indicate that the test is a success because it is obviously forcing the schools to teach more effectively.  Accountability, you know.

In reality, if I put you in a room and drill you for a month with the goal of passing a very specific test, wouldn’t you expect to do well on that test?  But would you draw the conclusion that the test was brilliant and necessary, or resent the time you wasted?  Would you consider that you had actually learned anything, that you were a more intelligent, more effective human being?  Educrats and those profiting in one way or another from the testing industry would surely choose the brilliance of the test.

This is where the “magic curriculum” comes in.  In order to understand it, you must buy the idea that diversity in teaching ability and style is a bad thing—surely one of the few times “diversity” in education has ever been considered a negative.  It is undeniably true that some teachers are not as competent and effective as others.  Only a relatively small proportion of all teachers can be truly excellent or excellence has no meaning and we’re all living in Lake Woebegon where everyone is above average.  Rather than in trying to increase the proportion of excellent teachers, it’s much easier to manipulate the curriculum, particularly under the guise of “accountability.”  Who can oppose holding public servants—the teachers—accountable, even if such accountability is a fraud?

There are those who would like to essentially remove the human element.  Replace as many teachers as possible, substituting instead les well paid, less educated monitors who would do little more than keep order, and use a perfect curriculum, a curriculum designed by the elite, by experts so smart, so capable, that mere exposure to that curriculum will ensure heretofore unheard of end of course test scores!

In practice, teachers have no say over such curriculums.  Their job is to manage the administration functions of the classroom: role taking, handing out materials, computers, keeping order, etc.  They ensure that on October 12 at 10:05 AM, their 11th grade students—like every 11th grade student in the state—are on page 137, paragraph 2, sentence 3, line 18 of the approved text, and promptly at 11:02 AM are watching supplementary video clip #287BX3.  Only with such magnificent, pre-planned, elite-mandated and written precision can appropriately high test scores, scores that will validate the entire system, possibly be obtained.

End of course tests are the first, and the necessary, step toward the magic curriculum, produced gladly by the same companies that produce the tests.  Who better to know how to pass the tests and prove accountability and educational excellence?

Am I being paranoid?  Elements of exactly this sort of thing are already in effect in school districts across the nation.  And there are certainly elements that distrust teachers and would love to diminish their influence and role in education, even where unionism is not a factor.  But even where such specific political goals are not the primary motivator, money and political power are compelling inducements to increase central control to the greatest degree possible.

But what would we lose with such a system?  Everything that makes education truly valuable.  As I mentioned in the last installment of this series, education is a process, a life-long process of building bigger, better brains.  We teach and learn through the Socratic method–for example– because despite wearing different clothing and carrying electronic devices, we are no different than the students of Socrates and learn in the same ways.  We are inspired by practice, example, dedication, and the excellence and expectations of others, not by texts and computer programs, which are mere tools that help to present materials.  Isn’t it interesting that many of those that decry computer games and similar devices want precisely that as their children’s tutors?

While we have all had teachers who were of average, perhaps less than average, ability, we have also had excellent, inspiring teachers, people we wanted to please, whose joy and humor guided us, willingly and with anxious delight, to real learning and accomplishment, and molded not only our brains but our character.  They knew when a given class needed more time on a given concept, or a slightly different approach or practice.  They knew when humor was most effective, or when a more serious approach was needed.  They cared for their students, loved them, and gave of themselves without reservation.  They knew precisely what their students could achieve and demanded that and more in ways their students could accept and come to love.

Ultimately, human beings learn through proper practice and application of knowledge.  Competent teachers understand which knowledge is necessary, how to present it, which practice is required, how much of that practice is required, and how to assess students to ensure the necessary learning has actually occurred.

Think about it: Isn’t that what every good teacher you’ve ever had has done, even if you couldn’t understand it at the time?  Who and what would you be now without them?  Less.  Yet so-called “experts” would remove the essential human element from the learning process in the name of “accountability,” and call it progress.

What test, what magic curriculum can accomplish what those capable, talented teachers accomplished, at any price?  The best part is this: there are tens of thousands of teachers out there right now, doing precisely that, and at far, far less cost than any testing regimen and any magic curriculum.  That’s real accountability.