Pressure on Schools, Unions Misplaced

In “Ohio urges school districts, teacher unions to sign up for Race to the Top money,” Edith Starzyk writes in The Plain Dealer about the pressure being applied to school districts to enter the federal sweepstakes for additional funding under specific circumstances. Both school districts and teacher unions are right to consider carefully what they’re being urged to agree to.

For over twenty years now, Ohio education has been increasingly driven by high-stakes testing. Originally aimed at graduating students, it now drives instruction at every grade level in every public school.

It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. At a time when knowledge is multiplying, high-stakes testing reduces what is taught. While students need to learn material of greater complexity, it forces concentration on simpler, formulaic learning. As students need access to a broader curriculum, high-stakes testing restricts it. And perhaps most insidious of all, it diverts resources (time, money, and people) from instruction to measurement, making it harder to accomplish its well-intended goals.

Because high-stakes testing is flawed from the beginning, it’s especially wrong when it’s being used for purposes for which it wasn’t intended. The tests do a poor enough job of measuring student learning: they are even less appropriate for making salary, retention, and transfer decisions regarding teachers, the one group of people who can do something to mitigate the disaster.

In her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch points out that both Democrats and Republicans have subscribed to the myth of high-stakes testing as an accountability tool. How ironic that this pressure is coming from a President and a Governor who were supported by teachers!