Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Testing, testing. And vegetables.

Yes, it's that time of year again. The CA Department of Ed is rolling out the CAHSEE (that's California High School Exit Exam, pronounced caysee) and teenagers across the state are sitting down with their number two pencils and their Scantron sheets and bubbling in their tickets out of high school. One of them, anyway.

The English/Language Arts is a big part of the exam, and I remember spending class time every year getting my sophomores ready to take the test. We'd go over sample questions, review test-taking strategies, respond to sample prompts. I hated it, and so did they.

Diane Ravitch, an education scholar who served both the Bush I and Clinton administrations, was once a vocal proponent of No Child Left Behind. The author of the recently published The Death and Life of the American School System: How Accountability and Choice are Undermining Education, Ravitch has since rejected NCLB’s testing-and-accountability model, saying that it “turned into a nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else.” I heartily agree.

That is, more tests and higher standards do not make better teachers, schools, or students. In fact, they harm the very people they purport to help: poor urban and rural students, particularly ethnic minorities and second-language learners. Schools focus on the very narrow types of (superficial, fact-based) questions that get asked on the tests, despite the mind-boggling breadth of some of the standards. This sacrifices depth, critical thinking, and often, time better spent on actually getting kids to, say, learn how to read, and how to read to learn, rather than how to take a reading test. Students don't learn to write fluently--they learn to identify grammatical mistakes, or find the grammatically correct word that completes a sentence.

As for the top kids, like the population in TZ's school district, they're doing fine, and they don't need a test to prove it. But they have to take the STAR test--and waste valuable class time and resource money preparing for it--because the school gets money for "maintaining a high standard of education", i.e., high test scores. Actually, the school's API score could fall 100 points and they'd still get the money--all you have to do is stay above 800 out of 1000 (kind of an arbitrary number, as far as I can tell--I guess it amounts to a B-) each year, and you're golden. Nevertheless, pressure remains from up top to maintain excellence as defined by test, keep real estate values high and parents (I guess) happy: "Nyeh, nyeh, our test scores are better than yours."

The Obama administration proposes to reform education by giving more federal money to schools (yay) and pumping up the standards and accountability system (boo), exchanging the rescue-themed and nurturing "No Child Left Behind" for the more muscular and goal-oriented "Race to the Top". Bottom line? New name, same game. I'm sorry, but the only ones racing to the top are the ones who are already there, and they're being raced to death already. In the meantime, those at the bottom, well, it sucks to be them. Let's say their schools raise their test scores. Then what? Really. Then what?

By the way, Ravitch will be coming to StanfordUniversity to have a public conversation on the issues in her book with Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, national education guru: April 14 at Cubberly Auditorium in the School of Education, 5:30-6:30.

On a much happier note, there's a great new CSA in town with pickups at Springer Elementary, Los Altos High School, and soon, Bubb Elementary--$25 for tons o' citrus (lemons, tangerines, navel oranges, and something else orange), root vegetables (carrots, sunchokes, onions, shallots, sweet potatoes, taro root, radishes, and celery root), and greens (cilantro, kale, romaine lettuce, broccoli rabe). Phew! All organic, and all local. What a deal. Email Scott Manning at for more details.

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