Real and Test Learning
by Tom Pauken
Issue 213– October 10, 2012
A recent article on the Texas school testing system entitled “Accountability 2.0” by William McKenzie seeks to make the case that the so-called accountability system, embodied by the current, heavy emphasis on standardized testing to measure performance has improved the quality of education.
To the contrary, the current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students — rather it makes them beholden for performance on a single test. As a consequence, real learning has been replaced by test learning. The excessive emphasis on testing and the push to make all high school students “college-ready” is a broken system, badly in need of overhaul.
Mr. McKenzie cites a June report in Education Week which purports to show that “high school completion rates nationally have increased” during this period of an increased emphasis on testing. That data flies in the face of a National Academy of Science study on the impact of what has become, in effect, a “teaching to the test” educational system. One of the main findings of the NAS report was that high school exit tests, like the STAAR, actually result in lower graduation rates “without increasing achievement.” Their research suggests that the high school graduation rate drops by 2 percentage points because of the tests.
Sandy Kress’ claim that “minority scores [are] going up nationally” should be taken with a grain of salt. First, it should be noted that Mr. Kress is a principal lobbyist for Pearson & Company which has a $450 million, five year contract to run the testing system in Texas. Secondly, Kress’ claim that this system is good for minorities is not borne out by the evidence. Citing findings from the Intercultural Development Research Association, Dr. Julie Westerlund, of Texas State University notes: “The racial-ethnic gaps for dropout/attrition rates are dramatically higher than 26 years ago. The gap between the attrition rates of White students and Black students has increased from 7 percentage points to 16. The gap between the rates of White students and Hispanic students has increased from 18 percentage points to 23”.
Young people have different talents and interests: They learn differently. As a consequence of this excessive emphasis on preparing all our high school students to be college ready, we have downgraded the value of vocational and technical education at the secondary school level. Dr. James Stone, the author of College and Career Ready in the 21stCentury: Making High School Matter, states: “After nearly three decades of focus on sending all youth to college, [we] have produced a system that works reasonably well for less than half of those who start 9th grade.”
We are losing too many kids who become throwaways and dropouts because they are not given the opportunity for skills training at the high school level. The irony is that the greatest demand for workers in the American economy today is in the skilled trades area where students, with a high school education and vocational training that leads to an industry-certified credential, are in great demand.
How can we improve the quality of education? Dr. David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas and a former school superintendent recommends “adding multiple pathways to graduation.” One would be an academic pathway emphasizing math and science, another would place priority on the humanities, and a third would focus more on career and technical education.
In order to measure school performance, we could return to something akin to the Iowa standardized tests to measure progress at the grade school level. Those who are college-oriented could take the PSAT, SAT, and ACT tests at the high school level. Those enrolled in the vocational and technical fields would receive training that would lead to an industry-certified credential in their field of interest.
This is a common sense approach to preparing young people to be college-ready or career-ready. It is time to end this “teaching to the test” educational system which isn’t working for either the kids interested in going on to a university or for those more oriented towards learning a skilled trade.
Let’s replace a system driven by “test learning” with one that emphasizes real learning.
Tom Pauken is Commissioner Representing Employers for the Texas Workforce Commission and author of BRINGING AMERICA HOME. A version of this appeared in the Dallas Morning News.