On Sept. 8, the Kansas State Board of Education approved cut-off scores for new state assessments in math and English language arts. By an 8-to-1 vote, they celebrated supposedly moving away from an era of No Child Left Behind teaching-to-the-test to embrace a new framework of accountability and standards.
Unfortunately, the changes they passed constitute an even more severe round of blaming teachers and further standardizing the curriculum our Kansas children will take.
The board’s first action was to approve the proposed cut scores that ranged across five levels with scores providing supposedly fine grain measurements from 220 to 380. These tests would supposedly ascend above mere multiple choice and require higher thinking skills, a claim that has been made for previous iterations of testing. The new standards supposedly would be too broad to teach-to-the-test. And maybe someday, the computer administered tests would even be adaptive.
KSDE staffers explained all the problems with the earlier decade of testing that narrowed the curriculum. The board nodded in agreement during discussion of how well Kansas teachers could drill students and make scores go up each year by teaching-to-the-test when indeed there had not been overall general intellectual growth.
The new standards rank students into Levels 1, 2, 3 and 4. The state board accepted the claim that teachers could now use these fine-grain scores to advise parents on just where their child was academically deficient. Not one remembered that competent teachers used to provide diagnostic information in parent conferences before the “standards era.”
Nor did any board member ask about the reliability of the scores and the variation that is to be expected if Suzie takes the test on a good day or a bad day. The fact that today we have digital equipment that can assign scores of 273 and 278 to two students does not in any way prove a student who scores 278 is academically better at that skill than the student with a 273. There are so many variables in a student’s life that a teacher recognizes — and a computer does not.
Even Mister Rogers could have asked: “Children, can you say ‘mathematically insignificant?’ ” There is just something about numbers that make folks think they are being scientific.
After approving the new cut scores, the state board examined how Kansas ranked on the most recent assessment tests. Since the new standards are obviously harder than those easy old state standards, Kansas students would of course not score very high. And indeed, that is what the charts showed.
Considering that QPA required Kansas schools to establish standards well before the Bush NCLB era, and that every education reform since then has claimed to move to more rigorous standards, there appears no limit to how easy those first standards were, or how much more rigorous the standards will be when they are again revised after 2020.
The most appalling testimony came from a staffer who stressed the continued importance of holding teachers “accountable” to meet the new goals as the scores went up. Anytime we hear the term “accountable,” we can substitute “blame” because that is exactly what this system continues to be about: blaming teachers who don’t get students’ scores up.
So how does that avoid “teaching to the test?” Well, supposedly these wonderful new standards are too broad to be “taught to.” But teachers don’t teach to the standards; they teach to the test. And as soon as the prior test items become available, that is what will drive this next round of supercharged NCLB.
To call these “standards” is an error. What we are looking at is “standardization” where all students are expected to master the same common curriculum. But students come into the classroom unique, and they should go out unique.
So the most important skill for teachers who want to remain in the classroom continues to be gaming the system by teaching to the test. That system just got more complicated.
John Richard Schrock is a professor
in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State University.