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Wagging the Dog

Posted: December 13, 2013 1:34 p.m.
Updated: December 16, 2013 5:00 a.m.

A few months ago, I was talking with a mother of a private school student, and I asked her if she minded telling me why she chose a private school for her child. I’ve asked this question to numerous private school parents over the years, and I always learn something. But the answer I got in this case was one that I hadn’t heard before. This mother said, “I don’t want my child to be a test score.” She went on to tell me that in her opinion, standardized testing in public schools had become more important than teaching and learning. I think I hear some folks saying “Amen” as they read this.

I’ve been reflecting on this conversation quite a bit, especially recently as the state released two different report cards and a slew of test data. (By the way, don’t ask me to explain why South Carolina has separate state and federal report cards that calculate ratings in very different ways. I don’t understand it either. While we’re at it, don’t ask me why we have both a State Board of Education and an Education Oversight Committee, both of which can be overruled by the General Assembly. Topics for another time….)

So how did we get here? When I started teaching in 1975, standardized testing was very low-key and accountability was pretty much non-existent. Standardized testing at the time was mostly used to make decisions about whether or not a student qualified for a particular course or program such as gifted. Fast forward to the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” that said our nation was supposedly falling behind other nations in terms of academic achievement. (I say supposedly because much of the data used in “A Nation at Risk” compared the very best students from other countries to all of ours.) In hindsight, the current obsession with high stakes standardized testing had its origins with “A Nation at Risk.”

The increased emphasis on testing was actually productive at first because the focus was on using test data for school improvement. When I became a principal in 1986, our school utilized data from the state test to figure out how we could strengthen our instructional program and help kids learn more effectively. This was a pretty new concept at the time; the discussions were useful and exciting and made a big difference for our students. Ah, the good old days.

In the early 1990s, however, state legislatures and other assorted politicians got into the act, which is generally speaking not a good thing. (Unfortunately, too many politicians think that because they once attended school, they are experts on education.) When this happened, standardized tests began to take on the high stakes consequences we see today. As the 1990s passed into the new millennium, test score-based school report cards, accreditation, performance sanctions and teacher pay structures were instituted throughout the country. South Carolina implemented its own high stakes testing program as part of the Education Accountability Act in 1998, four years before Congress passed the now infamous “No Child Left Behind” legislation.

As I’ve followed the debate on the Common Core Standards, one of the strongest concerns I hear is the overemphasis on and possible misuse of standardized test data. While such concerns should have been an issue years before the Common Core came into play, the Common Core debate has brought the whole debate to the forefront. I do find it curious that school voucher proponents structure their legislation to allow public resources to be funneled to private schools without requiring the high stakes testing, report cards and other accountability and transparency structures mandated for public schools. A fascinating double standard, shall we say.

Interestingly, a recent study by the Thomas Fordham Foundation found that only 23 percent of respondents wanted a strong focus on tests scores. (This study also found that parents were most interested in strong instruction in English, math, science, social studies and technology.) Another recent study, this one by Phi Delta Kappa, indicated that only 22 percent of respondents believe that increased testing has improved public schools. It’s obvious that parents aren’t huge fans of high stakes testing.

So what is a reasonable use of testing? The lack of accountability I encountered at the beginning of my career wasn’t acceptable. I would like to see the Common Core debate shift to how standardized tests can be used to improve teaching and increase student learning versus their current function as the proverbial two-by-four. Educators aren’t opposed to standardized tests and a reasonable level of accountability. Educators, and parents for that matter, are simply weary of standardized testing wagging the dog.

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is frank.morgan@kcsdschools.net. Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district Website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at on our award-winning website, www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.

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