A Better Football Hoop
Warning: This article contains a sports analogy, albeit a very simple one. All you need to know to follow along is that the goal of basketball is to put the ball through a hoop, while football's goal is to get the ball into the end zone. (For more sports-obsessive readers, yes, those are oversimplifications.)
Here comes the analogy part. To my mind, the upcoming changes to how Minnesota identifies and responds to “successful” and “failing” schools are like building a better basketball hoop in a football field's end zone. It may be a better hoop, but it's the wrong goal built to the wrong scale, with the potential to just get in the way.
Don't get me wrong, the previous football hoop was worse. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools received the “failing” label in numbers far out of proportion to reality. If Minnesota hadn't received a waiver from NCLB, every school in the state would have been “failing” by 2014. That's because NCLB relied strictly on student proficiency levels on state tests to determine “failing” status, with the end goal of 100% student proficiency. It was a football hoop with no backboard that got taller as the game went on.
The new system keeps some weight for student proficiency on standardized tests, but it adds weight for student growth (on standardized tests), smaller achievement gaps (on standardized tests), and high school graduation rates (on stander... oh, wait). One of these things is not like the others, but otherwise you should notice a theme.
Don't get me wrong, this is a better football hoop. Many good schools that were labeled “failing” under the old system won't be under the new system. There's no impossible goal set for 2014 or any other year. It keeps a spotlight on disparities between different groups of students. It includes positive recognition for successful schools, and it will help us better focus on which schools are struggling. Unfortunately, it's still a football hoop.
It's still a football hoop because it reinforces the idea that the information we most need about schools comes from standardized tests of math and reading (and, to a lesser degree, science). Those tests are still going to do a poor job of evaluating higher-order thinking skills, and an obsessive focus on them is going to narrow the curriculum. This is true not just in tested subjects—I'm still upset about the minimization of writing in English courses because of reading's privileged status—but also in untested subjects where teachers face increasing pressure to change what they do to focus on the tested skills. This is not because the tested skills are inherently better or more worthy goals, but rather because they generate the numbers we use to label schools (and, increasingly, teachers).
Racial and economic achievement gaps are so much deeper than differences in test scores. Those differences are the most visible symptom, but the real problems are a broader cross-section of in- and out-of-school factors. Continuing to rely almost solely on test scores increases the likelihood of “solutions” that rely on kill-and-drill approaches to test preparation or other efforts to make the numbers come out without addressing the real educational problems.
The bottom line is that the new system for schools makes it easier to put the football through the hoop in the end zone than it was to put the ball through the old hoop. Until our policy is focused on a wider range of indicators across the entire end zone, however, we aren't playing the game right. Portfolio-based evaluation systems could give us a richer view of student performance than standardized tests, and improvements in the relationship between education and technology offer real possibilities for diverse yet well-monitored approaches to curriculum, instruction and assessment. Shifting our mindset around education to focus on helping each student find a route to individual success would be more helpful than trying to improve a standardized service that treats students as relatively uniform in needs and goals.
We won't put as much energy into considering these possibilities, however, if we continue to obsess over building a better football hoop. One of my biggest worries is that Minnesota is going to sink another fifteen or twenty years into education policy built on standardized tests only to look back and realize that our focus should have been elsewhere all along. Let's make sure we've got the right goal in mind.