Monday, December 02, 2002


Everybody’s all in a tizzy about expensive, intrusive, time-consuming, statewide student assessments. For good reason.

They were written for educrats by educrats. They come straight out of the federal government. They are boilerplate of other states’ standards and assessments coast to coast, including many states that are academic basket cases compared to Nebraska.

The system imposed by these new standards and assessments forced teachers to dumb down and align their curriculum to the government’s learning specs, called “standards.” Voices crying in the wilderness a few years ago – including yours truly – warned that standards and assessments were a bad idea. Here we are in Nebraska, the Beef State: don’t we know that “standard” is a grade of beef BELOW GOOD?

One thing is clear: statewide K-12 educational standards and statewide assessments as we now have them, and as most other states have developed them slightly differently, are destructive, not constructive, because they do the opposite thing of what schools that are working do. The action in education right now is in private schools and homeschools . . . where clear accountability reigns, and testing is cheap, effective and efficient.

In stark contrast, widespread public-school standards and assessments are expensive, pointless and meaningless for students, parents and the public.

That standards and matching assessments are part of a plan to nationalize America’s schools has been well-documented by authors such as Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt (“The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America,” http://www.deliberatedumbingdown.com).

That the overemphasis on testing has damaged K-12 education, is profit-motivated, and shows little or no correlation to an improvement in learning, were all exposed in the book “Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It” by Peter Sacks, available on www.amazon.com

That we don’t want to have anything to do with a national testing system and the 20% elite, 80% worker bee political structure that it creates, like European and communist countries have, and thus must avoid any participation in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), has been pointed out by education thinkers and citizens’ groups such as Minnesota’s Maple River Educational Coalition (www.EdWatch.org).

So now what?

Well, we don’t want to get rid of standardized tests. We just want tests that give clear signals to students, parents, teachers, policy-makers and the public, and are useful for accountability purposes.

The reason the statewide assessments are so useless is that they are mostly subjective, performance-related “authentic assessments” that are of questionable validity and reliability and have to be hand-scored and so forth. But still, we don’t want to get rid of authentic assessments in our schools. They’re useful for individual teachers and students . . . just a rotten choice for broad-scale goalsbecause they provide no systemic accountability.

So . . . the answer is obvious:

1) Admit we made a mistake, and scrap all our state standards and assessments. If the feds squawk, claim state’s rights and refer them to #’s 2 and 3.

2) Pass a state law requiring that all K-12 students in Nebraska take the same objective, machine-scorable, commercial, standardized test each year, and tie that mandate to the receipt of state aid to education. This could revolve around to several companies and could be a contract negotiated by the State Board of Education. My suggestion: The Iowa Basics.

3) When test results are announced, it’s a good idea to publish aggravating and mitigating factors that, believe it or not, make a much bigger difference in student achievement than spending per-pupil or teacher pay. Remember, we’ve been paying teachers more and more over the past 30 years and test scores have been showing that students are learning and able to do less and less. It isn’t the money, it’s the method, but it’s also the background of the kids who are being tested. Key factors such as educational attainment of students’ parents, median household income, and major textbooks and teaching styles should be published alongside scores. Then if two relatively well-off suburban districts have significantly different math scores and have been using two different math textbooks for the past few years, we can at least get a start on understanding these numbers . . . and parents of the underachieving schools can force their political leaders to lose the loser textbooks that don’t work.

One last thing: it’s probably a good idea to test kids in fourth, eighth and 11th grades. But we should demand tests that are geared to the three objects of education at those three levels: grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Grammar is the basics; we used to call K-6 “grammar school,” remember? At the middle school level, we expect students to have the basics in place and the skills to apply them logically. By the end of high school, it is reasonable to expect them to use their strong academic foundation and logical thinking skills to develop cogent conclusions and support their own opinions logically.

The “creative” forms of assessment now in use mix those ‘way up. Instead of “assessing” the attitudes of fourth-graders on thorny political issues, they need to be tested on the basics. Until kids know how to find things out, how to think about them, and how to draw valid conclusions about them, it’s pointless to keep doing the subjective types of assessments we’re now doing, such as the writing assessments, which are a complete boondoggle.

In truly assessing a student’s writing ability, we need to test them on the basics of our language: spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, parts of speech and so forth. There is no way kids can advance to the upper levels of logic and rhetoric in writing, or any other subject, without the basics.

Isn’t that a rational assessment?

Let’s keep it simple and sensible . . . and we’ll all pass the test.

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