Fabulous letter from a superintendent in Georgia about his insights and regrets regarding NCLB and the high-stakes testing mania that has been and continues to ruin children’s sense of what is possible for them through education:
(From Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled blog at AJC)
10:11 am August 31, 2011, by Maureen Downey
A while back, I ran a piece from Jim Arnold, superintendent of Pelham City Schools in Mitchell County. Several of you commented that you wished you worked for such a straight-talking school chief.
I think that sentiment is going to be even stronger after this piece, which I plan to run on the Monday education page that I assemble for the AJC. But I can’t fit all of it in the newspaper, so here is the full version.
By Jim Arnold
We’ve done it now. Eleven years we had to educate the public, to register our protests and do everything in our power to warn people what was coming, and we blew it. We knew the moment would eventually come and we hem-hawed, looked at the ground, kicked at the dirt with our shoes and failed to look the opposition in the eye and face them down. All of us saw this coming, but very few took a stand and now we – and our students – are paying the price. We could have been prophets but failed the test.
We allowed the proponents of NCLB to control the discussion from the beginning. They wrote the language, sent out the media notices and explanations, wrote the definitions of AYP, Highly Qualified and leaned heavily on the fact that none of us would dare protest anything to do with a name that implies we would be providing a high quality education for every single child in America. They were right. We chose not to speak out, not to fight against a system we knew from the beginning would set us all up for failure, and instead, in our best Dudley DoRight impersonations we set about to change the way we taught and measured and tested and graded and thought.
We knew from the outset that NCLB and its goal of 100 percent – every child proficient in every area as determined by a single test on a single day each year – was patently, blatantly and insidiously absurd, but we took no concerted action. We knew Adequate Yearly Progress was a sham, and we literally and figuratively rolled over and tried our best to meet whatever impossible goals they set for us and our students. We knew that Federal law in NCLB was a violation of Federal law in IDEA but we went along with the insanity of testing Students with Disabilities based on chronological age rather than by IEP.
We learned very quickly and much to our chagrin that some student scores – usually the lowest ones – were counted not once, not twice, but often as many as three times, but we went along to get along. All of us were aware that Highly Qualified, for all the high rhetoric that went along with it, only served to make certification as much of a barrier as humanly possible for Special Education teachers regardless of degree or experience. It seems the teachers we needed most were subjected to the greatest roadblocks to reaching the nirvana of HiQ certification.
We tried our best to play the game but the game was rigged from the start. When the AMO’s were low it was pretty easy for most schools. When the AMO’s went up and more and more schools were labeled “failing” we looked around in a panic for help. Surely nobody believed a school deserved the failing label because two or three kids in a subgroup didn’t pass a test? Yes they did. Yes they still do. We let them make the definitions and apply the labels, even when we realized the absurdity of it all.
We actually pretended to believe that it was important for us to make sure that every child was tested on those all important test days so none could escape the trauma we inflicted upon them. We even learned in some places to game the system and hold back those kids we feared might not pass the test or might raise those student numbers to create a subgroup in areas we really didn’t want to see a subgroup or, God help us, to cheat or to make sure that we could hold out two or three or four of “those kids” on test days so their poor scores wouldn’t have a negative effect.
Oh sure, some of you stuck your necks out and said something to the effect of “NCLB forced us to take a closer look at ourselves, and we are better off for that” in spite of the fact that it was our students that were suffering the consequences. What balderdash. What hubris. Our kids were the ones whose education was stilted by our submission to the belief that one test could effectively distill and determine the depth and extent of an entire year of a child’s education. They are the ones whose time was wasted by “academic pep rallies” and “test prep” and by the subtle and insidious ways we told them the test was “important” and put pressure on them to “do their best because our school is counting on you.”
They were the ones that did without art and music and chorus and drama because we increased the amount of time they spent in ELA and Math. They were the ones that had time in their Social Studies and Science classes cut back more and more so schools could focus on the “really important areas” of ELA and Math. They were the ELL’s that couldn’t speak English but still had to take the test. Their teachers were the ones that were told “your grading of the children in your classes doesn’t count any more because standardization is more important to us that the individual grades you provide.” This told them in effect that their efforts at teaching were important but only if they taught using “this” methodology or “this” curriculum, then, when things started to go badly, they were the first to be blamed for the failure of public education. They were told to teach every child the same way with the same material but make sure to individualize while you’re at it. Hogwash.
After a couple of years of this insanity, the “NI” status began to take its toll. Someone somewhere invented the term “failing schools” and, unsurprisingly, the label stuck. Students were given the opportunity to transfer to more test-successful schools, but at a price. Schools that did not meet AYP standards, oddly enough, were often those with high minority populations and high poverty. Nobody seemed to notice the zip code effect that left predominantly white schools meeting AYP standards and minority schools caught by the “failing” label. Oh surely, we reasoned, our government would not want to put public education in a situation it could not win………..or would they?
I struggled with the rest of you as to why NCLB would go to such great lengths to make public education appear to be such a failure, to set up a system that would guarantee failure for practically every public school as we advanced toward that magical 100 percent level and provide no tangible rewards for success and such punitive actions for not meeting arbitrary goals. On top of all of that, I failed to recognize why our nation’s legislators so nimbly avoided even the discussion of reauthorization to change what everyone knew was a failed policy. One day it finally hit me.
They didn’t want to change the policy, because the policy was designed in theory and in fact not to aid education but to create an image of a failed public school system in order to further the implementation of vouchers and the diversion of public education funds to private schools.
I am not usually a conspiracy theory guy, but this was no theory. These were cold hard facts slapping me in the face. We failed in our obligations to protect our students from one of the most destructive educational policies since “separate but equal.” We did not educate the public on the myth and misdirection of Adequate Yearly Progress, and we allowed closet segregationists to direct the implementation of policies that we knew would result in our being the guys in the black hats responsible for “the failure of public education.”
Now we are paying the price. AYP is here to stay in one form or another, and the vast majority of our parents and public really believe the propaganda that it actually measures a school’s educational progress. If we try to convince them otherwise we are “making excuses.”
Vouchers – especially for private and charter schools exempt from the same restrictive, destructive policies we are forced to endure – are a part of every legislative session in almost every state. High stakes testing for all public education students is considered a necessary reality and teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Student test scores will soon determine teacher pay in some places even with no data to support the correlation. Students that do not graduate high school in four years are labeled as dropouts, even if they graduate in nine or 10 semesters.
Only first-time test takers are considered in the grading system for schools regardless of how many students ultimately pass the test. It will take years to undo the damage done to science, social studies, fine arts, foreign languages and other academic electives. Generations will not be enough to rid ourselves and our students of the testing mania neuroses created by our attempts to quantify the unquantifiable.
I hope the generation of teachers and administrators that follows has learned something from the failure of our generation to ward off those determined to destroy public education. We didn’t stand up to be counted, we didn’t stand in the schoolhouse door and tell them they couldn’t do that to our kids, and we didn’t educate the public about what a gigantic failure another one size fits all education policy would be. In the words of that great educator and philosopher Jimmy Buffet: “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
We have all been left behind.
– From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog