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Opting Out

By Katie Makoski, compliance analyst, Communities In Schools of the Lehigh Valley

The United States has a long history of locally controlled education systems. The conviction that local communities know what is best for their schools and students is deeply ingrained in American culture, for better or for worse. This belief has been challenged, however, with the introduction of a nationwide system of high-stakes standardized testing.

It is in students’ best interest for educators and policymakers to agree that there is a minimum standard for what every high school graduate should know. In this sense, a set of national education standards, such as the Common Core, ensures that there is a very basic level of equality in the quality of education in schools across the country. Yet, while standards aim to protect students who may otherwise be short-changed by their local education systems, standards-based testing as it is being implemented now is not helping students meet those standards, nor is it helping schools maintain those standards.

This is because, for all of the number-crunching that goes into collecting standardized test scores for students in classrooms across the country, there is very little, if any, good data produced. A primary issue with the current system of standardized testing is that states have each been free to develop their own tests. This causes the threshold for proficiency to differ from state to state. This disparity has been evident when student achievement data produced by certain states—Mississippi, for example—has varied greatly from the data collected through the administration of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests. The question that follows then are whether any of the state-produced standardized tests are valid measures of student proficiency.

A second significant issue with the current system of high-stakes testing is that test scores are being treated as though they are measures of multiple items: student learning, teacher effectiveness, and school quality. It is arguable whether the test scores are valid measures of any one of these. It is certain that the test scores are not valid measures of all of these. Yet, provisions of No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top have led to many teachers and principals being removed from their jobs, based on their students’ scores on standardized tests.

This type of punitive action—in addition to being unfair to the teachers and principals themselves—harms students by creating instability within schools. This can be devastating for whom school is the only source of stability. Moreover, there is a shortage of quality teachers and principals in many communities, meaning that finding replacements can be extremely difficult. In some cases, finding replacements who are prepared to take on the task of turning the school around is next to impossible.

A smarter and more sustainable solution to the problem of allegedly ineffective teachers and principals would be to use support from the federal government to provide rigorous, research-based professional development to staff at persistently underperforming schools. This is not to say, though, that there will be a one-size-fits-all solution.

This is where the American culture of local governance of schools comes into play. Those who operate a school district—superintendents, principals, teachers, and countless support staff—know the challenges that face their school communities best. They simply need guidance and resources in creating the solutions that will work best for their schools and students.

Though there are a lot of strings attached to the federal money provided through ESSA, there is, relatively speaking, not a lot of money to be provided. The federal government cannot, on its own, effectively enforce equity through this system of standards-based assessment. Federal resources have to be used strategically to maximize their impact. The way to do this is to further train, guide, and empower education professionals at the state and local level to address underperforming schools themselves.

First and foremost, one uniform assessment of student achievement that has been rigorously tested for both reliability and validity needs to be developed to ensure that students across the nation are achieving a set of minimum standards. Then, by returning to its roots of locally controlled education systems, the United States can play to its strengths, make the most of its resources, develop the talents of its educators, and best serve the needs of its students.

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Katie Makoski

Katie Makoski