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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Stop testing and start listening to students

For San Diego's North County Times

States opting out of No Child Left Behind are required to find other ways to hold schools accountable for student success. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed California's first try, SB 547, which would have replaced the Academic Performance Index (API), with an Education Quality Index (EQI) that includes graduation rates and career and college-readiness, in addition to standardized test scores,

Never having been a fan of test scores alone to measure a school's success, I was initially disappointed by the governor's action. But after reading his veto message, I think he got it right, praising the bill for going beyond test scores, but pointing out the new EQI would require "multiple indicators that would be expected to change over time, causing measurement instability and muddying the picture of how schools perform."

Brown suggested that a better way of measuring success might be for "locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students and examine their coursework." He apparently doesn't understand how vulnerable to local politics that would be, creating the illusion of accountability, but making it more difficult to measure achievement over time or to compare schools.

If we don't use test scores, must we return to the days when schools were judged simply by how well-behaved their students were and how many of their graduates go to college? I don't think so. Despite its many failings, No Child Left Behind's use of measurable results has held schools accountable for the success of all students, regardless of family background. There's no turning back from that worthy goal.

Unfortunately, our path to better schools in this country has become a matter of teaching to the test and providing school choice. Finland proves there's a better way. Their 15-year-olds lead the world in reading, math and science test scores, but there are no mandated standardized tests in Finnish schools, other than one exam at the end of the senior year. Schools are not ranked. Every one of them is expected to do whatever it takes to help each student succeed. To see how they do it, read Lynell Hancock's recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine ("A+ for Finland," September 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html).

Vista's Trade Tech High School, enrolling many students left behind in other public schools, increased its API score by nearly 30 percent last year. The school uses the Hope Survey, and the Gallup Student Poll to assess three ingredients researchers say are directly related to school success: hope, engagement and well-being. All three can be reliably measured by student surveys and enhanced through direct action.

It's time to stop testing and start listening to the ones we're teaching to find out what gets in the way of their learning.

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