America’s public schools continue to face a tremendous balancing act nearly 20 years after the passage of the watershed No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
It was that law, which has since been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, that brought high-stakes state testing to the nation’s education centers. And while that’s generally seen as an unpopular change, it’s important to view it in context.
Most would agree that data-guided instructional decisions are preferred to those based on someone’s gut (except perhaps in the cases of the most experienced teachers) and that there is value in diagnosing a student’s individual strengths and weaknesses and crafting an individualized lesson plan based upon that information. Such is part of the legacy of No Child Left Behind. It was also that law that put into context vast achievement gaps and forced educators to pay more attention to various subgroups – economically disadvantaged students or English-language learners, for instance – to ensure they did not merely fall through the cracks.
The problem has come from the extreme weight that accountability models have placed upon state tests as they determine whether or not a school is highly functioning. Like most states, Mississippi puts an outsized emphasis on those scores as it grades schools on its A-to-F model. That means regardless of millions of un-measurable intangibles that may take place across a 180-day school year, it is the performance of students on a couple of tests taken over a handful of days that largely determines whether or not the public views a school as being a good one. Such a model incentivizes extensive test preparation and “teaching to the test” rather than encouraging robust educational skills that will not be measured.
The crisis is not new, but what is disappointing is that over nearly two decades, models to rigorously and appropriately measure schools have not emerged at the state level.
In some ways, it is the biggest crisis facing public education, as the overemphasis on testing in accountability significantly inhibits teacher creativity and leads to disenchantment of students and parents, often followed by an exit from the system. And we continue to believe that a robust public education system is at the core of a thriving community.
Tupelo Superintendent Rob Picou is among those leading the fight against it – encouraging the district’s schools to maintain a more holistic focus – but the fact remains as long as state tests carry the vast majority of the weight in determining whether a school earns an A or B ranking, it’s difficult to completely eschew test prep.
The answer isn’t easy. Testing and data are vitally important, but they must be kept in the proper context. Statewide elections are always a good forum for new ideas, and we hope this is a topic that begins to receive the attention it deserves.
We need to find a way to measure schools that also encourages their optimal performance.