Standardized tests are, alas, all we have to measure school success

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Only six of 10 Pennsylvania public school districts made adequate yearly progress this past year, according to state measures, and that's pretty much how the numbers shook out in Allegheny County, too.

Johnny Connolly, a teacher at Gateway Middle School in Monroeville, emailed me after he read that. Mr. Connolly, 41, teaches U.S. history to eighth-graders, which means he's not directly affected by these assessment measures. They cover only reading and math.

Even if he doesn't have a horse in this race, Mr. Connolly finds the state's goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 ridiculous.

He compared that to getting everyone at the Post-Gazette to run a four-minute mile by 2014. The editors can let us start with a 10-minute mile this year, he said, but we'll have to knock that down to eight minutes by June, and six by next December, and knock it down another minute in each of the next two six-month intervals -- or else. Any shortfalls will show that editors aren't doing their jobs and should lose theirs.

That's an imperfect analogy. We're talking about proficiency in reading and math, not extraordinary athletic achievement. But Mr. Connolly's larger point is that when goals aren't reached, it's overly simplistic to think there's only one reason.

"If you took the teachers from Upper St. Clair and swapped them for a full year with teachers in Wilkinsburg,'' he asked. "Do you really think there would be some miraculous difference in each school's test scores?"

No, nobody would. Teachers matter. They matter quite a lot, as anyone who's had a great one would tell you. But teachers aren't the biggest factor in low -- or high -- test scores.

Just ask Diane Ravitch, who was in the White House East Room with President George W. Bush in 2001 when he announced the reforms that became the No Child Left Behind Act. Since then, Ms. Ravitch has made a 180-degree turn, writing a book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System,'' that decries a "simple-minded focus on standardized testing'' and the "punitive'' use of test scores.

"Part of what is going on is to try to blame low performance on teachers instead of recognizing that poverty is the single greatest determinant of low scores,'' Ms. Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education during the first Bush administration, told the Economic Policy Institute a couple of years ago.

Test scores should be considered, she said, but she's unimpressed by the quantifications that legislatures have concocted. "Those who can teach, teach," she once put forth on Twitter. "Those who can't teach, pass laws to make teaching more difficult."

OK, but then how should we judge schools? We can accept that a child brought up in a prosperous family with books, newspapers and computers is likely to pass these proficiency tests. That's often irrespective of how their classmates do. But parents crave -- and deserve -- good data on the second-most important place in their children's lives. Thus there's widespread belief in and reliance on these tests most of us have never seen.

So even as critics suggest these tests are a set-up, with goals unreachable by design to increase the pressure to privatize schooling, they're all we've got. The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment has been in place 10 years now as Harrisburg's answer to the national reform mandate. The No Child Left Behind Act, up for reauthorization for five years, hasn't been updated by our chronically stalemated Congress. The Obama administration has allowed states to apply for waivers, and at least 33 states have them, but Pennsylvania hasn't asked for one.

As the standards get tougher, expect more Pennsylvania schools to trip over them. The bar was set purposely low in the early years. The shelters that gave schools more time to make their marks are fast disappearing. As Mr. Connolly put it in another sports analogy, "They're not giving mulligans anymore.''

Maybe that's too cynical. Maybe this year's trends were the fluke. Sure, statewide satisfaction of the standards fell from 94 percent of school districts to 61 percent, and the number of Allegheny County school districts failing to make the mark rose from four to 17, but that could all turn right back around next year

Believe that, and I've got a newsroom full of world-class distance runners for you to bet on.


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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