Don't let tests determine future of students

Amy Morton, the chief academic officer at Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, recently submitted a letter to the editor of my local paper with the endorsement of all the school superintendents in Adams County. You might have seen a similar letter in the newspaper where you live.

Here’s what it says: If you have kids in school, they’re going to get their standardized test scores back soon, and those scores are probably going to be bad. Really bad. Maybe spectacularly bad.

How do we know this? Well, it’s simple: The state ramped up expectations for students recently by instituting a more rigorous curriculum (it’s Common Core, by the way, in case you didn’t know), and simultaneously changed the passing scores for the tests it gives. In other words, they moved the goal line after the game had already started and then changed the number of points required to win.

The letter is essentially a plea for mercy, a request that parents not lose their cool if they discover that the state has suddenly labeled their previously “advanced” student merely “basic.”

Just trust us, Morton says. Everything will be fine in the long run.

But will it?

I’m personally not all that concerned about the shenanigans Pennsylvania’s Department of Education engages in as it tries to convince some invisible, but obviously very influential, constituency that demonstrating our testing prowess is the key to securing our children’s future. Maybe China is watching, waiting to find out if the Americans are actually serious about competing in the 21st century. Maybe the Germans are waiting with bated breath to assess our creditworthiness and only need to be assured that we have instituted desperately needed education reforms to sleep more soundly at night. Surely somebody out there cares that we’re doing this.

That doesn’t mean we should be too concerned with these results. It doesn’t really matter to me what a passing score is on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), as long as I can be certain that people are not misusing the “data” produced by these tests to do exactly the opposite of what they claim to be doing.

See, test scores don’t do anything to make my kids more competitive in some still-hidden economic future. In fact, they do the opposite. They give school officials an excuse to segregate kids into classes based on their perceived abilities, abilities supposedly revealed by a mysterious test that the state manipulates without much transparency whatsoever. We can’t even be sure where the test came from or who authored it since Gov. Tom Corbett, frightened by conservative caterwauling about Common Core, chose not to join either of the two major testing consortia producing exams to match the standards. Thanks to Corbett’s flip-flop, we ended up with a watered-down version of Common Core called “Pennsylvania Core” and a PSSA exam that no one was prepared to give or take. Thanks for nothing, Tom.

Basing academic placement decisions on a single test score, as my local schools do, doesn’t make students “globally competitive.” It reinforces existing inequalities and consigns many students to endless hours of boredom, making adult claims that school is actually important ring hollow. There’s a fine line between differentiation and tracking, and tracking students into classes based on their test scores doesn’t communicate anything positive to anyone.

I’m not concerned about how parents and students respond to the new test scores; I’m concerned about how school officials will respond to them. I don't care what label the state gives my kid. I care about how the label is used to justify putting my kid into one class instead of another. I’m concerned about how labels are used to justify remediation and lower expectations. I worry about how this kind of labeling is weakening public education.

When the state, which insists on assigning labels to students, suddenly changes those labels — when a kid who was once “proficient” is suddenly proclaimed to be “below basic” — it loses all educational credibility. Is this the message we want to be sending to a skeptical public already being served glass after glass of school reform Kool-Aid?

I propose that our local superintendents, and others from around the state, sign a new letter. I’ll draft it myself. It will state plainly that test scores won’t be used to make high-stakes decisions about students. Period. Maybe that will buy us some time to work on figuring out a more meaningful, and more humane, way to evaluate what students, and their teachers, are doing in school.

Do our school leaders have the guts to stare down the invisible monitors of education reform and do the right thing for kids, or will they just keep telling us to take our medicine and wait for things to turn around? We should find out soon enough.

Dave Powell, an associate professor of education at Gettysburg College, is also Education Week’s “K-12 Contrarian.” djpowell@gettysburg.edu