Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Replacing the MEAP: A Statement of our Values

Standardized Tests: A Values Statement
By Rod Rock, Ed.D.
Superintendent, Clarkston Community Schools

This week, Michigan’s Legislature is considering the future of standardized testing in Michigan. Having recently approved the adoption of the Common Core Curriculum, our elected officials must now determine which standardized test they will use to measure student achievement, teacher and administrator effectiveness, and to grade schools.

In school, students study math, science, social studies, language arts, physical education, art, music, and technology. The Federal Government, through the No Child Left Behind legislation, requires states to assess all students in grades three through eight each year in math and language arts. States must also assess students in grades ten through twelve at least once in math and language arts, and less frequently across all grades in science.

With these single test results, the Michigan Department of Education determines school, administrator, teacher, and district effectiveness. These results also identify how much money a school gets from the State of Michigan. If a school does not perform at a level set by the state, it can be shut down or the principal and a majority of teachers may be fired. Teacher tenure and administrative advancement rest on test results. And there’s merit pay. These are very high stakes, for one test.

In preparation for this decision, Michigan’s Legislature received a report outlining the positives and negatives of a variety of potential assessments. This week, legislators will hear testimony from stakeholders regarding their opinions on assessment.

The fifty states spend over $1.7 billion to assess all students as required by federal law--approximately $34 million per state. Test publishers are certainly in the game, affecting policy, assessment, and budget decisions.

As our policy makers consider the options, they will most certainly weigh costs, validity and reliability, how long it takes to return results, accessibility, and relationship to the Common Core. This makes sense.

What they most likely will not consider is that ultimately, how we assess our students is a reflection of what we as a state value. Assessments reflect what we believe about intelligence, knowledge, success and failure, teachers, schools, work, and the future. The questions that we ask students and the problems they must solve show them what adults think is important. Since these tests are such high stakes for teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, parents, and students, kids who take them feel a tremendous amount of pressure to do well. They hear their teachers remind  them to get a good night’s sleep and to eat a healthy breakfast. They sit in their seats and work through practice tests for weeks in advance of the actual tests. Those students who did not perform well on last year’s test may be taken out of their gym, music, science, social studies, or art classes to get an extra dose of math or language arts, since these are the subjects that really matter to the federal government.

When Henry Ford was transforming America through the production of the automobile in the early part of the last century, standardized tests in Michigan and America reflected an assembly-line values system. It was not necessary for a person to be able to think at a high level in order to make a good living. This was the value of the day and it carried through on standardized tests well into the 21st Century.

We know definitively that today’s workers must understand how to collaborate, solve problems and think critically, adapt and be agile with their thinking, demonstrate initiative and entrepreneurialism, communicate effectively, analyze large amounts of information, imagine, and be curious. The level of these skills in today’s workers must match their level of knowledge. This is a much different skill set then was required in the day’s of Henry Ford.

Henry Ford passed away in 1947. His company lives on and is a vibrant part of Michigan’s economy. Many of our high school graduates will after college go on to work for the Ford Motor Company and make a great living. These workers will encounter a very different work environment. They may not have a pension to count on. They will start their careers with significant debt from college. They will fund a good portion of their own healthcare. If they do not already, they may be independent contractors as opposed to union workers, thus having less protection between themselves and management. And, unlike the past generation, today’s graduates will work in a global market competing against college educated workers from other countries who are willing to work for less and have accumulated lower amounts of debt.

If we adults know the skills that our children require in order to succeed in today’s world, then we must select a standardized test that reflects these skills. If we wish for our children to compete in a global marketplace and we are interested in student achievement between countries, then we should select an international assessment. Otherwise, it is impossible to compare and to know definitively how our students stack up against their global counterparts.

Let’s choose the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which asks students to demonstrate higher order thinking skills. The results are highly correlated with a nation’s economic vitality. Let’s show our students what we value by asking them to match their thinking skills with children from all over the world.

Henry Ford was an amazing entrepreneur. His genius, problem solving and critical thinking skills, creativity, imagination, agility, curiosity, and ability to analyze information made him the world’s first billionaire. These are the exact skills that each one of today’s high school graduates needs. Let’s prepare our students for the future by asking them to take a test that measures today’s skills. Let’s not miss this opportunity to show them what we value.