The State of Illinois has a state testing program, the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests or ISAT, in which third through eighth graders in the public schools are tested. Just recently they raised the scores required to be judged to be “Passing” just for reading and math (for now) and Lordy, Lordy, the pass rates dropped! The pass rates in English and Math, which used to be in the 70-80 zone fell to 55%! (The next thing they’ll tell us that the higher you raise the bar in the high jump, the fewer the people who can jump over it.)
The Chicago Tribune apparently considered this “news.” Possibly this was to help parents understand why their children who were comfortably passing last year are failing so miserably this year?
According to State School Superintendent Christopher Koch “The new expectations do not mean that our students know less or are less capable than they were in previous years . . . Raising the bar to pass the grade school exams better prepares students for high school and keeps them on track for college, careers and daily life.”
Apparently magical thinking is at work here. Please realize I railed against grade inflation for decades (and still do from time to time) in that the quickest way to get an ordinary student to stop trying harder is to tell them they have an A grade. But “passing”? “Not Passing” means “failing” to one and all. Failing is depressing and is virtually never an encouragement to work harder.
And how is this gerrymandering of the cut scores supposed to help? When the federal government increases CAFE standards (gas mileage standards for entire lines of cars), they don’t tell the car manufacturers how to do that, basically it is up to them. But telling a bunch of kids, especially kids who were doing fine just before they took the test and failing afterward, and their teachers to “just figure it out” presupposes a structural component that does not exist. The car manufacturers have brilliant engineers on staff and the resources to go out and hire some more. They have research projects going on that include designs that offer higher gas mileage but haven’t been implemented yet and which can be “expedited.” The teachers have no such R&D department. (One might also ask why this is so; could not the federal government launch a collective effort with universities and schools to identify the best methods available? Would that be so hard?)
Well, the teachers will just have to do better, you say. This request assumes they were not doing their best before. And is just raising passing scores the best way to find out whether teachers were doing their best? Study after study shows that poverty and hunger have bigger effects on kid’s educational performances than does the quality of teaching. Car engineers know that if gas mileage has to go up, the weight of the car has to go down or the efficiency with which the fuel’s energy is delivered to the road has to go up. They don’t start first by adjusting the aerodynamics of the car or the paint finishes, which are less important to the outcome. So, according to Illinois’s scheme, teachers are the #1 determinant of the amount of learning and all that is needed is more pressure on teachers and students and Voila! problem solved.
This sounds a little like the old joke sign “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”
The thing that is really disturbing is the lack of evidence behind the high-stakes testing movement. When you are experimenting on other people’s kids and on teachers, shouldn’t we have some idea that what is being suggested will work first. The car designers make what are called “prototypes” which they then test to see if their designs prove out. The auto companies maintain what are called “proving grounds” to do just that.
In education untested concepts are injected into our schools, asking them to be the proving grounds and to “make it work,” oh, yeah, and we just cut your budget. Or in the case of the City of Chicago, we closed 50 schools and laid off thousands of teachers and we are going to open 50 new (charter) schools using untested new college grads who have no intention of being teachers passed a couple of years as teachers. So, for those schools, if these standards are applied to them, they have to do the deed with teachers who don’t know what the heck they are doing.
Save us from idiot reformers!