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Calif. Teachers Mobilize

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In another sign that teachers are pushing to be heard as Congress works on a renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act, educators in California this week spoke out against the law’s testing-and-accountability system. In news conferences across the state sponsored by the California Teachers Association, teachers took particular aim at the NCLB’s requirement that all students score at proficient levels by 2014. “We’d like for all students to score at grade level—period—without that definite time,” said Dennis Kelly, president of the United Educators of San Francisco. “It’s education, not a car race.” The teachers said that schools should not be judged by test scores alone and that they should be recognized for improvements in student achievement, even if they don’t meet the law’s timeline. At the gathering in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom, who had dyslexia as a child, joined teachers in warning of the law’s potential negative effects on students: “If No Child Left Behind were enacted when I was a student, I would not be here. I would have failed miserably.”

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This sounds strange to me. Is the problem with the tests themselves? Then change them. If a test measures outcomes of importance, which is all it should measure, then the famous "teaching to the test" is a good idea ... would we prefer teaching to things that are not important outcomes? And Gavin Newsom's remark seems particularly inappropriate. School policy is not aimed at the individual; it aims at doing the most good for the most students. Saying that an idea is bad because HE would not have graduated does not make sense. It's either a good idea or it's not. Something should be done to help students with particular needs, but policy is not made for individuals.

It would help a great deal if teachers unions could organize an educational campaign to help the public understand which kinds of tests measure which kinds of learning. Currently we have a great mismatch between the tests being used for accountability and the kind of assessment that leads to instructional change. Teachers as a whole can see the immediate and long term harm done to individual children, teacher morale and professional discretion, curriculum scope and depth, undermining of the profession in the public's eye. But these stories aren't enough on their own to shift the public's imagination. Much better information about standardized tests' usefulness to measure student progress toward achievement of relevant and powerful learning goals needs to be part of the message. For example, are we testing for media literacy? Critical consumption of news analysis? Capacity to participate in a democracy? James Popham's recent books are a good place to start a conversation.

Regarding "outcomes of importance:"

There needs to be some common understanding of what those outcomes are, but the way I see the world, the standardized tests do not come close to testing outcomes of importance. In fact, I'm not sure that outcomes of the greatest importance lend themselves to any kind of standardized testing.

If that is true, then "teaching to the test" takes us away from teaching for outcomes of greatest importance.

There is nothing wrong with the concept of testing and expecting students to do well, the real problems will arise as society eventually admits that one size testing does not fit. We were not all born the same. There will always be the students who are not far enough down the IQ scale to qualify for special assistance and not high enough to funtions on the same level as children the same age. There will always be those kids who are treated as if they can when they clearly can not do the same level as others, these kids will sit lost in regular ed classes and act like fools to compensate for inabilities, distracting teachers who long to teach the ones who can and want to learn. American children will need real answers and need to be taken seriously when they speak out about problems they face in school.

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