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Enough is Enough: Abating the Pursuit of Test Score Growth

Why are we so hung up on making sure students’ test scores rise, year after year? Is this a sustainable and humanistic approach to educating children and youth? Is using the metric of competency-based test scores a valid measure of student learning and a convincing appraisal of teaching?

This week Illinois raised the “cut score” on its high stakes standardized tests in math, English language arts, and science making it more difficult for students to “meet competency.”

Isn’t enough enough?

Ever since the U.S. government enacted the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, schools have been bound to a standards-based education reform model in which each outcome on every student is measured using standardized tests, such as performance-based tests, or end-or-the-year tests. As of now, each state sets its own achievement levels. However with most states adopting the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts, and the Next Generation Science Standards, we will soon see “national achievement standards.” By next year, schools will use technology-based common assessments in mathematics and English language arts to test American students. Imagine the data that will be produced by this massive digital invasion of U.S. classrooms. We are managing our schools as if they were corporations in the business of training students to take tests. Test scores equal sales, profits, and losses.

Growing Student Test Scores

In education today, the major goal of instruction is to increase student test scores from one year to the next, much like it is the goal of Wall Street to see growth in the markets, or for a business to show increased sales from one year to next. Student growth is a metric determined by counting the number of questions answered correctly on multiple-choice standardized tests. In Georgia, for example, we use the CRCT, or Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and End of Course Tests (EOCT) to get a score. Students in Georgia can go online to practice taking the tests at the department’s website to use an online bank of test items. Georgia requires all students to take these high-stakes tests. Because Georgia is a Race to the Top winner ($500 million), its expected that academic test scores grow each year. Like Illinois, the cut scores on the Georgia CRCT will rise each year. The Department of Education expects students to score higher each year to meet competency.

And one more thing. Student Growth and Academic Achievement is part of Georgia’s new Teacher Keys Effectiveness System (TKES). TKES is the system that Georgia uses to evaluate and most probably will use to pay teachers. Unfortunately, Georgia bureaucrats have designed a system that is based on the flawed assumption that teacher effectiveness can easily measured by using student test scores.

Here is how it works. If you are a teacher of a tested subject (math, reading/LA, science, social studies) the state will use student growth percentile and value-added measure, and achievement gap reduction. If you are teachers of a non-tested subject it’s even worse, but your effectiveness will be judged based on some district wide average. This has not been accomplished. Georgia will use student achievement test scores (high-stakes, end-of-the-year) to show a percentile/value-added measure (VAM). On the state website, it says: “The model will be developed soon.” The problem is the state will never find or develop a model that will produce stable ratings of teachers. In studies where VAMs have been used, the results were unreliable in establishing how much a teacher contributed to student learning.

But more than that, the entire system is tired and old, and pushes us further backward instead of embracing an entirely different generation of students whose world outside of school is native to them. When they come to school, they are more like immigrants entering a world foreign to them.

AAA & Star Ratings for Schools

And if growing student test scores isn’t enough, the Georgia Senate approved Senate Bill 420 which is an amendment to part of the Official Code Georgia. The bill relates to the accountability assessment forK-12 education. The passage of the bill further degrades education and Georgia, and applies punitive measures to further humiliate and disregard educators in the state. The 5-Star evaluation of each school and district, and a numerical score for each school’s student performance indicators is simple for such a complex system as K-12 education.

The Georgia senate claims that it has established an evaluation report card that will use a 5-Star system. The 5-Star system is vague, and of course, it will worked out later. But the idea is to somehow link together a system that will test how schools use their finances, rate the school climate, and use a simple numerical scale to grade schools in their efforts to improve academic achievement, achievement gap closure, and student progress. Keep in mind academic performance, gap closure and progress will be based on the CRCT achievement tests administered once a year.

This probably makes sense if the bottom line is how much profit a company made during the past quarter or year. But we are not talking about a company that is based on market-indices such as profit margins. Instead we are talking about schools, with real students and teachers working together in a learning environment. Yes, schools should be diligent in terms of how they use funds from Federal and state sources, but the notion that the senators want to get blood from a stone is a bit outrageous.

In addition to the “star” rating system, the Georgia Department of Education will annually calculate a score on a scale of 0 – 100 based on quality indicators of learning including student achievement, achievement gap closure, and student progress. Each schools’ and districts’ report cards will be available to parents, educators, and the press.

The report card shall include performance data on quality of learning, financial efficiency, and school climate as “calculated” and based on the most current data available disaggregated by student groups. Here is the deal:

Beginning with the 2013-2014 school year, the office shall assign a letter grade of A, B, C, D, or F, including plus or minus delineations, for each school and school system. Such letter grade shall be derived from the numerical rating score calculated with a majority of the grade based upon student achievement.

Isn’t enough enough?

What do you think using the lens of test scores as the principle marker of success in academic learning? Do you think enough is enough?

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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordina...