By Skip Kifer
Stephen Jay Gould esteemed paleontologist, MacArthur Foundation prizewinner, and award-winning author, dedicated his book "The Panda's Thumb" to three of his elementary school teachers. He was particularly grateful to his fifth grade teacher who recognized and accommodated "youngsters with a developing passion for science." Ms. Ponti, who provided materials and books, also set aside time each week for the group to sit in the back of the room and talk about science.
Fayette Advocates for Balance in the Classroom (FayetteABC), a group of parents concerned about test-driven instruction in our schools, might rightly wonder whether something comparable to Gould's experience could happen here.
Those who manage the local school system view testing through an accountability lens, apparently believing only higher test scores mean better schools. FayetteABC notices, on the other hand, more time being spent on testing and test preparation and therefore less time and fewer opportunities to respond to the legitimate interests of children.
They are right. Research shows that an emphasis on accountability testing undermines the authority of teachers, leads to students dropping out of school earlier, and narrows the curriculum (what is tested is what is taught). In addition, studies of results on comparable assessments do not replicate score gains found on Kentucky's assessments; that is, students learn to take a particular test but do not master the instructional material upon which the test is based. And, perhaps even more problematic, because of the imprecision of educational measurements, tens of thousands of Kentucky kids each year when given the labels of Novice, Apprentice, Proficient, or Distinguished are given incorrect ones; e.g., students are labeled proficient when they are not or are not labeled proficient when they are.
It is good that FayetteABC has sounded the alarm about these excesses because even more accountability testing is forthcoming. At the Federal level, the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act (No Child Left Behind) will surely contain more testing because of a misguided attempt to use test scores to measure teacher performance. At the state level Senate Bill 1 is, at best, just more testing. In addition, Kentucky is part of both consortia that will build new assessments for what are called the Common Core Standards. Those tests are expected to do so many things that inevitably there will be just more testing. Finally, Fayette county schools, beginning in kindergarten, do still more of their own testing and preparing for tests, over and above what is done to meet federal and state requirements.
Informed citizens in a democratic society have an obligation to make schools their own. More than anything FayetteABC wants parents, teachers, and administrators to engage in a conversation about effects of test-driven instruction upon Fayette County children. Although state and federal laws mandate testing, they do not mandate the effect that this testing currently has on classroom instruction. FayetteABC presented their concerns to the Fayette County Board of Education, asking that body to endorse a more balanced approach to instruction in our schools, particularly in the current search for a new superintendent.
FayetteABC has an online petition signed by nearly 400 county residents from at least 14 different schools and 16 zip codes that continues to grow, speaking to the scope of their concerns in Fayette County. They have produced an informative website that I would encourage interested and concerned parents to peruse:
Almost anyone you talk to has a favorite teacher who greatly influenced him or her. In all of the years I have heard persons talk about that teacher, the testimonials were of the Gould variety. I have never heard someone say his or her most influential teacher increased a test score.