The war has started. The first shots have been fired in Florida by an irate group of parents in seven different school districts. Their children were a part of the growing wave of “test-day opt-outs” that are occurring in every State that uses a high-stakes State test to determine students’ fitness for being promoted to the next grade, consideration for accelerated programs, and evaluating teachers for competence, ability, and possible execution. State tests have developed such power over our learning lives that students and teachers obsess about them to the point of making themselves ill with stress.
The districts being sued have all decided that since the students who opted out did not take the tests, they have therefore not passed the tests, and have no right to be promoted to the next grade level. So, a whole lot of sweet, pig-tailed little honors students that avoided super-stressful testing are now weeping over the prospects of still being in the third grade as their BFF’s now advance to fourth grade. 180+ days of instruction with a teacher does not apparently count at all towards advancement. State tests are sacred.
You can tell by Florida Governor Skeletor Scott’s evil grin that he is quite satisfied with how State tests are working out. After all, State tests provide aggregate data that public schools are failing in Florida. Emperor Perry and the Crowned Prince Gregg Abbott of Texas have used them for the same purposes in the State where I spent my career teaching. Low performing schools are taken over and run by a State agency. Funds are cut to public schools. Art and band and music programs are dropped in favor of remedial teaching and repetitive basic courses. More money is given to private schools, magnet schools, and charter schools whose test scores prove they are more worthy of spending it (especially since the wealthier kids with fewer handicaps from their background are the ones going there, while kids from lower-income groups, minorities, special-needs students, and English language learners are generally kept out).
And, of course, State tests can weed out the teachers that the State deems incompetent, unworthy, and, well… goofy because those teachers who don’t mindlessly engage in test preparation, don’t have students who score well on tests. The State can use this means to get rid of teachers who are too innovative, popular among their students, creative, engaging and nice. It can promote teachers who have “good discipline” because students constantly fill out test-preparation worksheets mindlessly in their classes all day.
But the numbers are there to prove the State is right about education. Test data exists in black and white. How can anyone argue that numbers don’t tell us which kids are stupid and which kids are acceptable? How can I argue it?
Well, it helps to be able to understand the endlessly boring hours of test analysis that teachers are subjected to by school administrators panicking about how poorly they are soon to do on the high-stakes test. I happen to be smart enough to hear and understand how the tests measure what they measure, and what they actually mean. For example, the reading portion of the State test emphasizes certain skills over other skills. Inference, the ability to draw conclusions from the evidence given in the text and determine what is true by logic, is given more weight in the scoring than simpler abilities like factual recall or simple spelling ability. Scores are not a matter of the percent of questions the student answer correctly. They are based on which skills and sub-skills the student shows mastery (80% or higher success). A student can get 80% of all questions correct and still fail the test. And for some students with learning difficulties, developmental delays, or English-as-a-second-language difficulties, those more valued portions of the test are still beyond their current level of functioning. I have worked for schools that received commendations for their tests scores. I led a middle school writing program that topped expectations on writing scores through middle school and high school. I have also worked at schools who were punished for low test scores, and worked for good principals who lost their jobs because the scores were beyond their control.
I pray that the judge in Florida will support the parents and censure both the heartless school districts and the State testing program of Florida itself. Darth Vader’s education system should not be winning. We need to go back to the source and learn from Jedi Master Kenobi…. or even Yoda again.