Thursday, March 17, 2011

March Madness

I used to love March.

I attended the University of North Carolina as an undergraduate and March meant madness of the best kind. There was the ACC Basketball Tourney and then the NCAA playoffs—and of course, March meant spring break as well.

Now, I hate it. Forget the fact that there is so much more to love as I have grown older. Sure, there is still the basketball—and for all you doubters my Tar Heels have returned! But with March my farm comes alive starting with the spring peepers calling from the creeks, the first bass from the ponds, and wildflowers in fields and the smell in the woods telling me spring is here.

While it should be one of my favorite months all of this is overshadowed by the most important part of March for the kids and schools in Ohio--the annual madness called the Ohio Graduation Tests.

For five days during either the second or third week of March (it depends upon when your spring break falls) tenth grade students across Ohio sit for five days for tests that will decide whether or not they will graduate from school two years later. Those same tests also determine the school’s ranking with the state and whether it will fall prey to the Annual Yearly Progress measures that determine its fate with the state and federal government.

For five days students sit for two and one half hours taking tests in Reading, Math, Writing, Science and Social Studies. During these five days students face a barrage of questions covering the Boxer Rebellion to quadratic equations, possessive plurals to theocracies, Punnett squares to the meaning of a poem. Questions that I doubt any adult in Ohio not currently in high school could answer. It is like nothing they have done before and nothing they will ever do again. And yet it is one of the most important measures of their success in school.

We have been giving some version of these tests for nearly 20 years now—and I keep wondering why.

Someone once said (it is attributed to Einstein, but no one is really sure) that the definition of madness is continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Our own March madness is exactly this. We continue to give standardized tests as if giving them will in some way improve schools. Sure enough, each year states enter into the test score sweepstakes (led by Education Week magazine among others) to see whose scores are the highest. So what?

There is no study that links the scores on these exams with success in life, college, the military, or the workplace. There is no study that says these tests have led to a richer or more challenging curriculum, or more engaging teaching practices, or more welcoming schools (in fact, the evidence seems to suggest just the opposite). There is no study that says that the money we are spending on these things is a good investment, with more of a payoff than, say, more teachers, books, supplies, or extracurricular activities. There is simply no evidence that doing more of the same will get us different results.

But when you are suffering from madness, reason does not matter.

Which is probably why I have the Tar Heels winning the national championship in my local pool.

1 comment:

  1. George,
    I am happy you are using this kind of format with your blog comments now. I am almost always moved to make some sort of reply when I read your commentary, and it should be easier to do so now.

    We had a brief correspondence earlier this year, and found that we had attended UNC-CH at roughly the same time as undergrads. I didn't quite have enough faith in the Heels this year to pick them to win it all, but they certainly did give a great effort over the last month or so of the season.

    As to your article, I would say that the most telling "non-statistic" is the absolute dearth of research supporting the claims of the proponents of these high-stakes testing programs. One of the truly maddening aspects of it all for me is the fact that politicians - even the best of which know virtually nothing about schools or schooling - are calling all the shots these days, and they are relying on the flawed, incomplete, and ultimately meaningless data generated by these tests to guide their decisions. The thought of "merit pay" systems based upon this kind of information makes me shudder.

    Thank you for your ongoing efforts to eliminate ignorance in the world (and I am not referring to the innocent ignorance of callow youth).