Filling in the Bubbles

Posted: Jun 17, 2007 12:01 AM
Filling in the Bubbles

When educrats call for "a broader definition of rigor," beware.

What they really want is to broaden the definition of rigor until it includes dumbed-down drivel.

National Education Association President Reg Weaver used those words in March when he spoke to Congress as it sets out to reauthorize President Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation. The NEA's idea of rigor, of course, is to make it harder to tell if schools are failing students. How? By going after standardized tests, because Weaver regurgitated, their scores "reflect little more than a student's ability to regurgitate facts."

As Don Soifer, education analyst for the Lexington Institute noted, such talk harbors "a worse case scenario for the American public -- all of the money for NCLB and none of the accountability."

According to NEA documents, the association wants states to be able to adopt standards and assessments that "include more than what can be assessed on a paper-and-pencil multiple choice test."

"Multiple measures" are needed because: "Schools are held accountable based solely on a one-day snapshot of student performance on a standardized reading test and a standardized math test."

The NEA has recommended that states be allowed to add portfolios -- collections of student work that can include essays, drawings and reports -- to their NCLB assessment, along with other measures, such as attendance rates and the number of students enrolled in advanced classes.

It sounds so reasonable that it is easy to forget that Washington passed President Bush's NCLB measure because too many public schools produce students who cannot read at grade level and are semi-literate in math. Or that standardized tests were needed to push schools away from fuzzy content that promised higher learning and critical thinking, but instead delivered middle-school students who could not comprehend what they read, spell or multiply 11 by 11.

"There's no doubt that, if done right, a portfolio can be a valuable tool for a teacher and kid. What it's not good for is measuring what an overall impact a school or school district or state is having comparatively," Soifer noted.

Multiple-choice tests may not determine everything students know, but they can help ascertain what students do not know (of what they should know). They can help districts figure out which approaches and curricula work best for their students.

They can be graded quickly and easily.

They cannot be subverted by well-meaning graders who want to make a class score better than it should. With multiple-choice tests, grading is not subjective.

No matter who grades the test, the same answer gets the same score.

Another plus: There's no reward for wrong answers, as subjective tests have been known to do. Consider the infamous 1994 California Learning Assessment math test that directed graders to award a higher score to students who gave the wrong answer to a math problem, but wrote a peppy essay, and a lower score to students who calculated the right answer, but without a full explanation.

(A California educrat defended the bad scoring with the same sort of language you hear in support of "multiple measures assessment" when she explained, "I validate 'different' solutions that are mathematically appropriate because I want my students to become more powerful problem-solvers and to be willing to risk exploring ideas in non-traditional ways." Feel the rigor?)

The NEA's argument no doubt appeals to parents who think that today's students are subjected to too many multiple-choice tests.

I am all for states consolidating tests so that they can reduce the time students spend filling in bubbles with their No. 2 pencils. But parents should be aware that NCLB does not constitute the array of tests students take in public schools, but mandates one math and one reading test, chosen by each state, for third-graders through eighth-graders to take each year.

I can't think of a better cause. As U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and chair of the House Education and Labor Committee wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle: "Five years in, we are beginning to see how the law is making a difference. For starters, it has shown us which children are getting left behind. Before the law, we didn't have the information necessary to identify where the students were who needed the most help."

Portfolios -- essays, reports and artwork -- play a vital role in the classroom.

But portfolios have no place in a nationwide assessment that focuses on whether children are learning basic skills.

When the NEA argues that schools "need to help students become well-rounded individuals," that's like giving a pass to seemingly happy kids who aren't learning what they need to know.

When educrats promise a "richer accountability system," children are less likely to be richer in academics. They argue that they want to promote critical thinking, but without steeping children in the content needed to thrive in the information age.

Their ideal assessment is the equivalent of a meal that starts and ends with dessert. It's all sugar, no protein.