After much thought during these last weeks, I made a difficult decision, especially since Sumter’s teachers feel the pressure more than ever to be “effective” and “increase student achievement” thanks to the SWEET 16 “audit” introduced by our new district leadership. I looked into the eyes of Sumter’s educators, both principals and teachers, people who I greatly admire, and informed them that my children would not take the PASS test this year. I “opted” my children out. When children don’t take the PASS test, schools and teachers are penalized, possibly deemed “low-performing” or “ineffective.” Why did I make this heart-wrenching decision? Simply put, children are not test scores.
What do these high-stakes tests really exemplify in regard to student success and progress anyway? Sadly, I find most South Carolinians don’t realize that since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind legislation, South Carolina is one of the few states along with Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri and Wyoming that maintained high standards that are comparable to federal tests like the National Assessment of Education Progress. Did everyone get that? South Carolina is one of FIVE states in the nation that did not lower its standards in order to try to meet the impossible goals set by NCLB. With higher standards, South Carolina’s PASS is a more rigorous assessment than most other states’ standardized tests. Thus, comparing South Carolina’s test scores to other states is meaningless. No wonder we are consistently ranked toward the end of the testing spectrum; the public needs to realize that the comparison is not “apples to apples.”
The accountability plan of NCLB requires that all students be 100% proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. Dr. Diane Ravitch points out that the NCLB bill exceeded 1,000 pages and “it is unlikely that many members of Congress read it thoroughly and fully understood all the eventual consequences.” Consequences which our public schools, teachers and students are now suffering! Every child being 100% proficient in reading and math (there are other accountability measures, as well) is an unattainable goal, utterly out of reach. If Congress mandated that pollution must vanish or all American cities must be crime-free by 2014, would police departments or other public officials be sanctioned? Yet our public schools and teachers are being demoralized because of the punitive high stakes that our government and non-educator policy makers have tied to tests like South Carolina’s PASS. Furthermore, NCLB failed to acknowledge that students share the responsibility for their academic performance. They are not just passive bystanders! Test-based accountability removes virtually all responsibility from students and their families when it comes to academic performance. Tests are not infallible instruments; they do not have the precision of a thermometer or a yardstick. Tests vary in quality and are sometimes error-prone. Questions can be poorly worded or wrongly scored. Yet the general public and elected officials do not realize this, and decisions affecting people’s lives are being made on the basis of a single test score!
For years, as a public education advocate, I played the “testing game.” I volunteered my time and monitored the PASS test. I donated snacks and candy for the children to have during the testing days. I made certain that my three children were rested and prepared them a nutritious breakfast before school. I did all that I could to help “prove” what excellent schools and teachers we have in Sumter, just like our teachers have to “prove” that they are “effective” via high test scores. In recent months, while reading about the influences of corporate education reformers and venture philanthropists (Bill Gates and Eli Broad) and their obsession with data-driven decisions, test-based accountability and unproven reforms, I can no longer in good conscience allow my children to participate in these high-stakes tests. While the teachers and schools are being labeled as inferior because of one annual test, companies are raking in billions for tests, test prep materials and the grading of these tests. Companies like Pearson, Data Recognition Corporation and others are paid handsomely while class sizes are increasing, teachers are not receiving pay increases and teaching positions are being eliminated. As South Carolina implements the controversial Common Core Standards and finalizes our No Child Left Behind waiver, we will see more high-stakes testing, more test prep, teacher evaluations linked directly to student test scores and narrowed curriculum. Test-taking skills will take precedence over meaningful learning.
With our current district leadership’s quest for “effective teachers” and increases in “student achievement” (i.e. improved test scores), I have a request: Would our school board members, superintendent, chief teaching and learning officer and any other community leaders who think standardized tests scores are a valid measurement of authentic student learning please take the PASS test and publish their scores? Only then might they realize what they are asking of our teachers and of our children.
To the teachers of Sumter School District, for the last decade, I have watched you dedicate your lives to the children of this community. I, along with many other parents, respect you, appreciate you, care about you, and we will always have your back.