High-stakes testing: Resolve to reverse the trend

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Pat Deutschman, guest column, 07/08/12

By Pat Deutschman

There is a great deal of misconception about why some people (including me) are becoming increasingly critical of the whole standardized testing regime.

I was first elected to the Citrus County School Board in 1998, ushering in the accountability movement. I understand the need to know and monitor student performance and often insist on making decisions based on the value of data.

So why am I advocating joining other school boards in Florida by approving a “Resolution on High Stakes Testing” requesting that the standardized testing in Florida be re-evaluated?

I am not against testing or accountability. I am opposed to the overuse and misuse of test scores. This is a simple distinction.

There has been much written recently listing all of the problems with the current over-reliance on tests that were never designed to determine: readiness to graduate from high school; teacher effectiveness or performance pay; school funding; school district ranking ; declaring the test as diagnostic when the teachers are forbidden from seeing the questions or answers!

The system of accountability is completely over-weighted on the FCAT and now also the End of Course Exams. Soon we will add to the mix the Common Core Assessments and thousands of teacher evaluation exams!

The issue for you, the voter and taxpayer, is much more personal. You elected me and four other school board members and a superintendent of schools to determine what is best for students in Citrus County schools. But our hands are now being tied by people who are not accountable to you or any voter of Florida. You should be angry — I am.

The educational reform movement that supports the growing list of mandated tests is led by people who are not elected. Private corporations and foundations are dictating the educational standards — readily adopted by state legislators, most of whom are not educators nor do they seem willing to listen to them. The mission and future of public education has been dramatically changed by their efforts and hinges now 100 percent on test scores.

The rules for testing and scoring in public schools are set by the commissioner of education and a six-member state Board of Education. These people are all political appointees, most holdovers from the Jeb Bush administration. They are accountable to no one except perhaps the governor who has not interceded in their controversial decisions. They are also the ones responsible for the recent debacle of test scores plummeting, changing the passing rates, and now sending letters to parents declaring the lower scores are simply a reflection of new assessment procedures and not a reflection of student performance.

Really? That is their response to 50 percent of high school students who are now at risk of not earning a high school diploma? When a non-elected group of people manipulate test scores, change pass rates at will, arbitrarily “raise the bar” and dictate the standards, they are essentially controlling the outcomes of public education. It is not a coincidence and you need to be aware that these same efforts are supporting the growing charter school movement.

A lot of chest-thumping has gone on recently by those claiming the tests are the sole factor in improvements to student performance and graduation rates. If that were so, all schools in Florida would be performing at the same level. The truth is teaching matters and tests don’t teach. School superintendents and school boards have been the ones to create educational policy, hire the best teachers, provide effective training, develop evaluation and assessment systems to track student performance all year long, and finally to analyze data to set priorities and be accountable for results.

We are also the ones who must deal with the ramifications of the test scores. To undermine those very people who have actually and daily provided the environment and ability for students to thrive is a gross injustice. To give credit to a test for student learning is a deception.

So the question to you, the voters and the taxpayers, is this: Who do you ultimately trust to make the decisions that impact our public schools? Is it the locally elected boards and superintendents who will meet with you face to face, answer your questions, talk with you in the grocery store, lose sleep over our students and be willingly accountable for student performance — or the corporations, big-money contributors and political appointees who may never have stepped foot in a classroom and don’t answer to you? 

This is also the heart of the resolution and efforts by Florida’s school boards to push back against unreasonable mandates that make no sense for our students, are punitive and cause more problems than they solve.

When the Florida commissioner of education, who is appointed, not elected, tells a room full of hundreds of elected school board members to basically stop questioning the testing regime and to do as we are told, something is terribly wrong with the balance of power and I honestly feel is a significant challenge to democracy.

Not all the school boards in Florida, nor the 300,000-plus membership of the PTA and various other grassroots educational support groups in Florida, can be wrong. We are at a crucial crossroads in public education and the time to speak up has come. I and others have recognized and accepted the challenge.

Your voice should not be silenced. Please support us in our efforts to act on our students’ behalf in determining what is best for them, our schools, our teachers, our community, and being held accountable to you for our decisions. You elected us to do what is best for students and that is what we are aiming to do.

Pat Deutschman is a member of the Citrus County School Board. She can be reached at: deutschmanp@citrus.k12.fl.us.