Standardized tests are the simple answer to a complex social, economic and political issue. No wonder it doesn’t fit. In 1999 W. James Popham, a UCLA Emeritus Professor, wrote an article for Educational Leadership, in which he said, “These days, if a school’s standardized test scores are high, people think the school’s staff is effective. If a school’s standardized test scores are low, they see the school’s staff as ineffective. In either case, because educational quality is being measured by the wrong yardstick, those evaluations are apt to be in error.”
We advocate for changes in the testing system yet, as educational leaders, we have been eager to seek simple answers ourselves. We have often placed our energy into silos of change. We rally around the value of fixes, some of them more relevant than others. The debates within the field have flared over such issues as literacy approaches, sex education, inclusion, tracking, project based learning, and, yes, even early childhood education. The truth is, there are no simple answers and there is certainly no one answer. But, there must be progress and accountability. We must be the leaders who reconnect with our aspirations and contextualize them in our reality. Even that isn’t simple.
We question what we have added to the intelligence of the debate. Long before Marion Wright Edelman tweaked our consciences and our collective will by writing about the commitment to leave no child behind and before the law No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed, we knew there were children being left behind. We regret we have been part of the silence keepers. We have done so much good work for so many that we want to draw attention to our successes. In so doing, the majority became content. That is when systems begin to die, when contentment takes over.
How would it have played out if the reverse had happened? If we had become the advocating voice for those falling behind, would politicians and business leaders have spoken out about our successes? Would they have held press conferences announcing that a growing percentage of America’s students complete high school, now up to 78 percent according to the USDOE? Instead, we reported our successes and remained too silent on those who had fallen behind. Then reform changes began at a policy level and soon it was known that so many of those who were less well served were poor and minority children. Then the tests began, the economy broke, and skepticism of all things public, especially of their leaders, infiltrated our thinking as a nation. We were right there, on the front line, local and expensive. In what seems a nanosecond, the problem became ours.
We do all need to be told, now and then, that our purpose is lofty and our work making a difference. We have chosen to lead the system and accept the responsibility to prepare our students to be literate, actively engaged, contributing citizens of the world. We want them to hold firm to ethical actions and be guided by a true moral compass as they make their contributions. And, oh yes, we want them to be happy. As every generation wishes for the next, we want them to be better than we are and do more than we have.
But, now, we are called to be “the ministers of the tests”. It is not a high calling but we cannot change that. We can, however, be wiser than we were. We are leaders with a public responsibility and a public voice. We can tell the story...all of it, our triumphs and our troubles. We cannot allow others to create the story for us ever again. We will be obedient to law and to our souls. None have poured more blood, sweat and tears into helping children than we have. We can speak truthfully, with transparency, about the country’s most precious resource: our children. We have spent too long letting others talk about us.
We also need to seek those who are innovative from among us. As educational professionals, we must applaud and emulate those who are ahead of us on the change path. Where schools flourish, let’s all be proud. Let’s be resourceful miners to discover them since don’t know where they are. And, let’s steal from them whatever part of their solution is relevant in our system.
Systemic change takes time. It will be years before the results of common core standards and new assessments and evaluations can be measured. But, the children left behind don’t have time to give us. Each of us in every classroom, school office, system office and board room must make little and significant decisions and actions every day. Because, in more than a testing way, every child matters.
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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.