SADOW: Either Commit To Testing, Or Watch The Schools Get Worse

Louisiana’s education policy-makers need to resist any changes at the federal level that may prompt foes of reforms in this area over the past few years to claim these as justifications for retreating down the long path of educational excellence, and embrace state-based school accountability alterations that will complement these reforms.

This week, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s committee dealing with school and district accountability heard a report it commissioned on potential improvements to its rating system for schools. Currently, while it varies among levels of schools, all scales used take as its major input, at least half of the appropriate rating, achievement of students on tests and then a letter grade gets assigned as a result to the school.

The study recommended that the grade be computed at least half on aggregate student academic growth rather than level of achievement, mimicking that component for assessment of many teachers in schools, in that level of achievement has too many exogenous factors such as socioeconomic background of students affecting it. Also suggested was to create more gradations in the letter grades, such as awarding plusses and minuses, because otherwise movement from one category to another took such an amount of change that this could encourage staffs from satisficing with a particular non-poor grade and discourage them from trying to move out of it if much effort would not be rewarded with an incrementally higher grading.

These sensible conclusions merit BESE’s approval, but it will face pressure from regressive elements trying to undo reform efforts on one of the key elements, student academic growth, which is how much better a student performs from one year to the next beginning in the third grade. This may come by changes coming from Congress that would remove, as a condition of federal education aid, that annual testing of students from third to eighth grade be discontinued.

Typically arguments against requiring annual testing essentially third grade to graduation involve the testing itself takes up potential instruction time and tends to focus on the federally-mandated testing areas of mathematics and language at the expense of other subject areas. Unions have resisted such a comprehensive testing regime because that eases the identification of inferior teachers by overall lack of their students’ growth in learning, and one union boss in Louisiana said should take these tests only once in elementary, junior high, and high school.

Which would constitute a backdoor way of sabotaging the teacher accountability program, where for many the tests determine the student academic growth portion of their evaluations. Without having testing every year, the universe of teachers getting evaluated with this input would fall significantly and almost guarantee reliance on far more subjective methods that in the past proved largely ineffective in spurring quality in and improvement from teachers.

If, as critics maintain, testing eats into instruction time and at the expense of certain subject areas, abandoning much testing takes a rather myopic view. Instead, the number of and/or the length of instructional days should be increased, leaving room for adequate subject coverage and testing intervals.

Just because the federal government reduces its influence over testing does not mean that Louisiana should abandon annual testing. As a linchpin of a teacher evaluation system that soon will begin bearing fruit and as a component that has proven valuable and can increase in that for school accountability, policy-makers would act unwisely to reduce its role in any way.

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