Test anxiety

A few weeks ago, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a “major shift” in how the Department of Education evaluates special education programs. As usual, whenever Duncan starts talking I start to get a headache. Duncan wants to see students receiving special education services make the same progress on standardized tests as any other students. 

First of all, I am not a special education teacher myself, but I have worked with special education teachers and students for the last six years and I have to say, by and large, that SPED teachers are the toughest, most competent teachers in any building. They wrangle some of the toughest kids from rough home situations and serious medical issues. They balance ridiculous amounts of paperwork with the needs of their students and the outrageous expectations of suits like Duncan. So, the idea that this group of professionals is not doing enough great teaching makes me laugh out loud, in a “Duncan-I-can’t-believe-you-are-this-clueless-or-thoughtless” kind of way. In case you’re wondering, that laugh sounds like this.

But underlying Duncan mindset is a real problem: all the “reforms” in education today are driven by standardized tests. And standardized tests suck at determining long-term growth for diverse learners. By the way, when I say “diverse learners”, I mean ALL KIDS EVERYWHERE. They are a one-point-in-time, highly culturally and linguistically specific “dipstick”, not a source of data that should be used exclusively to determine effective teaching and learning. This idea, that we can track and assess kids and teachers with testing and then punish and reward as the numbers go up and down, is the most damaging underlying assumption in educational leadership today.

Speaking of punishing, at the end of Duncan’s announcement he says he plans to spend 50 million dollars on a technical assistance center to help schools comply with his changes, and that states that can’t meet the new expectations could lose their federal funding for special education. Right. My idea would be, give the 50 million to states that need better medical care for kids, day treatment, family assistance, and teacher salaries and toss the technical assistance center blueprints in the same dark hole we reserved for plans for a land war in Asia and other similarly horrible ideas.

While we’re at it, lets examine the logic (and I use the term loosely) of taking money away from educational agencies that are already struggling. Yeah, that’ll teach those kids for not testing well enough.

The whole testing craze pulls attention and money away from the real problems and true victories of American schools. Kids are struggling because we test instead of teach, and they aren’t engaged in school because instead of learning about the world they are learning that they aren’t good at tests. Wonderful insightful teaching and learning happens every day in schools in this country, but you can’t always plot it on a spreadsheet. To people like Duncan, it seems that means it didn’t even happen.


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