Though the Times is still claiming that the idea under No Child Left Behind of sanctioning schools that had lower test scores, usually those in poverty-stricken areas, was a good one, its description of what clueless school officials did in their zeal to game the system, is accurate:
Congress made a reasonable decision a decade ago when it required the states to give annual math and reading tests in grades three through eight, and once in high school, in exchange for federal education aid. Schools that failed to meet performance targets for two years were labeled as needing improvement and subjected to sanctions.
But Congress could not have anticipated the reaction — more precisely, the overreaction — among school officials who, afraid of being tagged as low-performing, rolled out wave after wave of “diagnostic” exams that were actually practice rounds for the real thing. Worse still, districts often deployed primitive, fill-in-the-bubble exams that gave no sense at all of whether or not children were developing the writing and reasoning skills essential for jobs in the new economy. These junk exams are sometimes still used even after the curriculum they were based on has been abandoned.
Joplin jumped on the bandwagon during the Huff/Besendorfer era, paying $50,000 annually for Acuity, a practice test system devised by the same company that was doing the yearly MAP tests. We were forced to take weeks of classroom time giving eight tests, including one that was given after the MAP test.
In addition to those tests, we ended up giving practice tests for the practice tests since upper administration was watching the results from each of the schools. Students who were not doing well were given more practice tests to practice for the practice tests to practice for the MAP test.
The hours in which the tests were given were not the only times that students' education was damaged by the administration's allegiance to Acuity. Teachers were pulled out of class for half-days so we could score papers or compile data for upper administration.
Adding to the lunacy, we removed teachers from the classroom to meet with teachers from the other middle schools in Joplin to create curriculum that would go along with the Acuity tests.
Thankfully, Acuity is a thing of the past, but the test-taking mania continues, thanks to an ill-advised decision by the R-8 Board of Education to spend $300,000 last spring on a testing regimen that not only takes the place of Acuity, but adds grades K-2 to the grades that are being tested.
When I first arrived in the Joplin school district in 2003, we gave one practice standardized test in the fall and then the MAP test was given in the spring. Scores were on the rise in those days.
If you hire good teachers, provide them with a sound curriculum to teach and give them as many days possible with their students, the scores will take care of themselves.
Unfortunately, for many schools and for a long time Joplin has been one of them, upper administrators who lack faith in their teachers and their curriculum have to see what is essentially meaningless data to allow them to micromanage and prevent students from receiving the kind of education they deserve.