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Teaching to the Test

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Spring parent-teacher conferences were held this morning at the school where I teach and my belief, that in my dozen years as a teacher I had heard everything, was shattered to the core.

"My son is worried about his scores," a mother told me. I quickly reassured her she had nothing to worry about. Her son, who moved into the school district midway through the fall semester, has a solid A in my English class and is a skilled writer.

"He got A's in all of his classes," the mother told me.

I was having a hard time understanding the problem.

"He can't figure out why he doesn't do better on the ACUITY tests."

"The ACUITY tests?"

"He received a C on the first one he took," she said. "I told him to take his time on it last time and he made a B. He wants to know what he can do to get an A."

Don't worry about it, I wanted to tell her. The ACUITY is just a tool to help determine what we need to do to excel on the annual Missouri Assessment Program tests (MAP). We interrupt regular classes seven times a year to give these practice standardized tests, which are created by the textbook and testing company McGraw-Hill, the same outfit that publishes the MAP.

In addition to the seven tests, we take practice tests to make sure we do well on the practice tests and we use ACUITY information to determine what students should go into a guided study program, which also uses ACUITY preparation materials.

To make sure our schools do well on the practice tests, for the practice tests, for the standardized tests, we aligned our curriculum to go with ACUITY.

So now we teach toward the practice test, for the practice tests, for the standardized tests.

Such is the state of modern education and the "success" of this portion of it can be partially laid at the doorstep of Harold McGraw III, chairman, president, and CEO of McGraw-Hill.

Like so many of us involved in the education field, Harold McGraw has to pinch pennies to make ends meet.

According to a proxy statement filed with the SEC Friday, McGraw's 2010 pay package totaled $9,591,916, an increase of $2.4 million over his 2009 take-home pay.

The company's other three top officials earned $3.9 million, $2.5 million, and $2.2 million, respectively.

While the teachers at my school, most of whom make in the neighborhood of $35,000 a year, are taking a sizable hit from the high gas prices, McGraw does not have to worry about such problems.

According to the proxy statement, he is required to take the company plane everywhere for security purposes and can even use it free of charge for personal travel, unless, of course, he exceeds $200,000 a year. At that point, the company gets strict and makes him pay it back.

And at a time when teachers all across the United States worry about losing their jobs or their hard-earned tenure, McGraw also has to worry about what will happen if his board ever decides that he, too, needs to have his tenure brought to an end. If he is fired, he will receive $2,921,095, the proxy statement indicates. If his removal comes because of a sale of the company, that amount climbs to $5,812,290, and either way, McGraw picks up $2,433,938 in stock options.

Nice work if you can get it.

As you might guess, the man who has done so much to take the learning out of public education did not attend public schools.

McGraw is a product of Salisbury School, a boys school in Salisbury, Conn., where the educators, according to their website, strive to "educate young men by inspiring in each student an enthusiasm for learning and the self-confidence needed for intellectual, physical and moral development," -- the kind of enthusiasm that McGraw's ACUITY tests is destroying in young people across the United States.

As the mother asked me what could be done to improve her son's ACUITY scores, I wanted to tell her, "Don't worry about it. Your son is a great student and the last thing he should be worrying about is how well he does on a poorly-written practice test."

The words never left my lips.

I can't argue with success. Two studies have been released showing that the use of ACUITY has resulted in dramatic increases in standardized tests. Of course, both of those studies were financed by McGraw-Hill, and each featured results from only one school, but who am I to argue with scientific studies.

I couldn't tell the mother her son's ACUITY scores are not important, because they are. It's not learning, but as long as we worship at the altar of "accountability," it's as close as we are going to get.