Learning Testing Skills Takes Priority under School Reporting

Australia is on the verge of introducing centralised reporting of all individual school results which inevitably involves league tables.

If anyone ever wanted proof that it distorts teaching priorities and leads to the learning needs of some students being ignored, they do not need to look beyond some recent statements of Michelle Rhee, Washington DC Schools Chancellor.

Rhee, along with Joel Klein of New York City, is one of the new generation of aggressive business managers of education systems in the US who see more standardized testing and reporting as the way to improve student achievement link to her profile.

In January, Rhee introduced a new program to improve student achievement in Washington DC. It is called the Saturday Scholars program and is designed prepare students for the city’s Comprehensive Assessment System (DC–CAS) test. For three months, a select group of students is invited to come to school on Saturdays to work on their reading, math and test preparation skills.

The program is exclusively directed at the “bubble” kids. These are the students whose test scores form a group (or “bubble”) just below the passing score or a key proficiency score. Students who are a long way below key performance levels are not invited to participate in the Saturday Scholars program. Rhee’s circular to Washington DC principals on the new program reveals all. It says:

“As you know, this program addresses the academic and testing needs of students on the cusp of proficiency in reading and math as tested on the DC-CAS.”

The reason for restricting the program to these students is that improving their scores is the quickest way to increase the proportion of students achieving a benchmark and thus improving the City’s education performance. As a consequence, the learning needs of other students are ignored. But, it isn’t just the low achievers who miss out. Students who are well above the pass mark or key proficiency levels also receive less attention.

Giving priority to the “bubble kids” has become an increasingly widespread response to school accountability systems and has been well-documented in Texas, California, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Washington DC and England. It involves adopting a teaching and resource allocation strategy within schools to maximise the school’s rating.

Schools divide students into three groups – non-urgent or safe cases (the middle and high achievers), suitable cases for treatment, and hopeless cases. They ration resources to those students most likely to improve their school’s scores. Programs include additional time in class, enrichment sessions with the literacy teacher, and after-school, Saturday, and summer tutoring. Because of the diversion of resources to these suitable cases for treatment, fewer resources are available for students who would safely pass the test or for very low-performing students.

Another idea behind the Saturday Scholars program is to improve school attendance. Here the solution is not to engage students in relevant and interesting curriculum, but to bribe better attendance. Rhee’s circular approves schools which have found resources to provide attendance incentives for students such as calculators, MP3 players, and school supplies.

But to top it all off, Rhee’s media release on the program says that its main goal is to improve test-taking skills:

“Saturday Scholars will give District students confidence and instill lifelong testing competence”.

So, education under the new regime of testing and reporting is not about developing lifelong learning, but lifelong testing skills.

Michelle Rhee is one of the new business-type managers of schools systems who are clueless about teaching and learning and rely on incentives, data, and tough approaches to mask their ignorance of curriculum and teaching. It results in more and more time being spent on testing and test preparation to the detriment of deep learning and a broad education.

This approach is already happening in Australia as the new national assessment and reporting scheme gets under way.

The Brisbane Courier-Mail reported last week that education officials are putting tremendous pressure on teachers to lift results by practising for tests. Schools are being told to put extra time into practising for the national tests, even if it is at the expense of time spent on other subjects.

The Queensland Teachers Union said that teachers are being told that if the results don’t improve, their own employment positions will be reviewed. Teachers refer to the new national literacy and numeracy tests as “napalm” because they say it “kills everything in the classroom”.

There is widespread evidence from England and the US that reporting individual school results turn classroom experience into test preparation takes the form of repeated drills and practising on test items. Weeks and months can be devoted to test preparation at the expense of other learning areas and developing deep understanding.

As all teachers know, the outcome is a diminished education for all.

Trevor Cobbold

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