Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Bust a Deal and Face the Wheel" - The Craziness of High Stakes Testing!

Sometimes moments in your life become juxtaposed to create a heightened awareness of reality - or -  a new view of it.

I just watched Mad Max - Return to Thunderdome for the umpteenth time and then a few days later during the holidays I listened as my nephew described the depressing situation in his elementary school.  The story thrust a line from the movie into my head - "Bust a deal and face the wheel" uttered by Auntie Entity (Tina Turner).

First, the background. Dan is a gifted special ed teacher who has dedicated his career to helping children, like his mentally disabled brother, achieve the highest levels possible. Yet, it is challenging to say the least. Every day he sees slight progress - he's a professional and recognizes and can measure his students' progress.

Yet, once a year the teachers are forced to administer the state tests. And here's the "deal": if your students pass with adequate yearly progress, the government will leave you alone. But if they don't make the expected progress, and you "bust the deal." you become a failing school and get to "face the wheel" - choosing between longer hours for more drill and kill, getting fired or furloughed, being taken over by a charter organization, etc.

So he is now in a failing school.

Here's the craziness of it all. Our rules around testing in the U.S. seem almost as strange as the rules in Barter Town in the movie, a bureaucracy carved out for a failing system. When Dan tests his kids, they must be tested at their grade level and they must read the test by themselves. Now the population in his school is 25% special education (it is a kind of magnet school) and on top of that, 50% ESL, leaving only 25% of the students without these challenges. He told me of one boy who had just arrived in this country from Africa, who could speak no English, and was directed by the teacher to 'play the game' of marking one circle per question - questions that he could not read!

One test, on one day out of 180 school days, determines the fate of an entire school community. Welcome to Thunderdome! "Two men enter, one man leaves" - 50% drop out rates have some root causes and this is one of them!

Dan is thinking of changing careers, though he really doesn't want to - he loves his students. But for his mental health, he might have to.

We must stop the insanity! Give back the schools to their communities and apply what we know works to make all schools better!

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