THE LANDMARK VIEW
How crazy is this? Brook Park School in LaGrange Park records its highest scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), but at the same failed the exam. And by its “best-ever” scores, we mean it. Fully 92 percent of Brook Park students taking the exam either met or exceeded state standards in reading or math.
The trouble for Brook Park is that a subgroup of students, identified as low-income, did not hit the ever-rising benchmark set by the state for reading. As such, Brook Park is a failed school, according to the No Child Left Behind law.
To be sure, No Child Left Behind shined a light on the achievement of students that traditionally fell through the cracks, and forced school administrators to face that problem head on instead of relying on higher-achieving students to carry the day.
Of course, one trouble with NCLB is its goal of requiring every student in the nation to achieve at grade level in both reading and math by 2014. That’s fantasy. Yet, instead of rewarding schools for improving the performance of students who traditionally were left behind, schools like Brook Park are “failing,” because they aren’t hitting an arbitrary benchmark.
Another problem is that the benchmarks and even the test itself have changed over the years, providing a moving target. And each state in the union produces its own exams, so it’s tough to compare achievement nationwide.
For the past two years writing was part of the ISAT test. Students typically fared poorly on that section, and the grading of the writing portion has been criticized as perfunctory. The solution has been to drop writing on the test all together. Will this make for better writers, or does it just bury an inconvenient bit of information – that U.S. school children just don’t write very well?
In 2007, eighth-grade math scores jumped statewide after the state board of education decided to change the way it recorded math scores. Did it reflect achievement, or something else? And in 2006, the state hired a new company to produce the ISAT test. What change did that have on scores? Who knows?
In 2008, students with limited English skills were required to take and pass the test given to native English speakers, because the state board didn’t come up with an alternate exam in time for that year. Predictably, those students didn’t fare well.
And while school districts say their teachers don’t teach to the test, it’s clear that the curriculum has to reflect what’s being tested for fear of being branded a “failed” school. Meanwhile, there never appears to be any meaningful enforcement against schools that are truly failing their students. The schools remain poor performers year after year without any improvement in sight.
Standardized tests are an important way of determining the quality of instruction at a particular school and the focus the ISAT test has placed on children traditionally at risk for failure has been laudable.
But we continue to argue that reliance on one test to determine success or failure is a short-sighted and extremely restrictive way to educate the nation’s children. We need to develop a nation of critical thinkers, not robots pushing test-strategy buttons.