A New Beginning or More of the Same?

There is a blind faith in data and numbers that pervades much of our society, particularly education reform circles. People who worship at the altar of this faith look at a school with low test scores and assume that the school (and by extension the teachers and principal) are “bad”. They often fail to ask some basic questions, such as:

  1. What is the quality of the test that the students took? Does it even measure what it purports to measure?
  2. Is the exam developmentally appropriate?
  3. How many of these students are emergent bilinguals? Were there any language accommodations given other than extended time and a dictionary?
  4. How many of these students experience violence or hunger or fear or insecurity on a daily basis? How does this affect their ability to concentrate?
  5. Did the students even try? Were they invested in the exam? Does it really represent the students’ best effort and understanding?

I could go on and on and on. This is just a small sampling of the many factors that make student standardized test data significantly less than reliable. Education reformers will tell you that there are big, complicated algorithms to account for things like student background and prior knowledge. As a mathematician, I am not intimidated into complacence by talk of a “complicated algorithm”. Rather, I note that the American Statistical Association has discredited the current obsession with test scores.

This brings me to the big news in DCPS this week: Kaya Henderson has announced that she will be leaving as chancellor. Will Mayor Bowser appoint someone who understands the vast limitations of standardized tests? Will she appoint someone who views PARCC results with serious skepticism? Someone who genuinely recognizes and trusts the professionalism of the district’s teachers (beyond the mere lip service that Kaya Henderson is so fond of)?

I’m not holding my breath for the kind of chancellor this district needs, but maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. New beginnings are new beginnings, and maybe DC will finally decide to listen to solid research instead of blindly chasing meaningless data points.

If you’re interested in more information about how and why standardized testing is ruining education, check out the article I wrote for the Washington Post last year. I like my original title better than the one they used: The Real Education Crisis.

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