"My son can't sleep at night," his mother (and a friend of mine) said.
Why, I asked?
"Because his teacher told him that he had to do well on the tests this week or she would be fired. He's worried sick."
That conversation, which occurred almost exactly one year ago, continues to haunt me. What kind of teacher would say that to kids? Or, digging deeper, what were the circumstances made the teacher feel so desperate that she would say that?
It doesn't matter where that 3rd grader and his family live, because that sort of pressure seems to be everywhere. And it seems to be increasing, as scores on state/city exams become the single most important measure of a teacher's performance -- and as pressure grows to publish the test scores of every individual teacher's students.
Everyone is familiar with Campbell's Law, developed by social scientist Donald Campbell:
"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
Scaring the sleep out of a child is surely an example of distortion and corruption. So too is firing people based on the snapshot of one day's bubble test score.
And then we have the cheating by adults, proven in Atlanta very recently and over the years in Austin, TX, and Connecticut, and suspected now in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston and lots of other places.
Is help on the way? The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) has released a thoughtful plan, "For Every Child, Multiple Measures," that is worth your attention. It has the support of the great Richard Riley, the man who set the standard for Secretaries of Education (IMHO). If we had reliable multiple measures, that would take some pressure off the end-of-the-year bubble tests.
We would still be holding everyone accountable, but children would be able to sleep at night during March and April, and teachers wouldn't feel it necessary to violate a basic code of decency.
Will the Common Core, now accepted in nearly every state and the District of Columbia, bring some sanity? That's what the pundits and the bandwagon-builders are saying, but hold your applause. At least until you read Tom Loveless' latest report, "How Well Are American Students Learning?" It was released by the Brookings Institution recently, the 11th in a series of "Brown Center Reports on American Education." Loveless takes a clear-eyed look at our latest enthusiasm, the Common Core, and, since that bandwagon is picking up steam, it's well worth your time. He writes about 'aspirational standards,' likening them to that diet you (and I) keep promising to go on. And he reminds us that there's more variation within states than between states, an important dash of cold water on those who are prone to celebrate Massachusetts and put down Mississippi. In short, don't expect the Common Core to change much.
What will it take to relieve some of the pressure? Can President Obama and Secretary Duncan really believe that weeks of test prep and tons of pressure are good for our kids? Why aren't leaders speaking out?
Maybe parents need to say 'no mas' to this -- if only so their kids can sleep at night.
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