Sunday, October 02, 2005

"They call it reform, but it isn't"

Don't miss this editorial from Boston Globe correspondent Beverly Beckham. She hits the essential limitations of testing as perfectly as I've ever heard or read. The whole piece is virtuosic and I highly recommend you read it all, but if you're pressed for time, here are a few highlights:

For the first six years of school, I had been one of the kids who was headed somewhere. Top of the class. Straight A's. Gold stars on all my papers.

And then in seventh grade I entered a new school in a new town. And there I was, alone at the blackboard, unable to diagram a sentence or parse a verb or understand the simple rule that factor times factor equals product.

Humiliation came daily, along with the underlying message that I lacked the essential knowledge of every other kid in my class. I didn't get gold stars anymore. My parents said it didn't matter. I knew it did.

One voice, one test, one label can destroy a child.

Only half of Massachusetts fourth-graders were deemed ''proficient or above" on the MCAS English exam this year. Only 39 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or above in math. MCAS scores are broadcast on the news, headlined in the papers, highlighted and discussed from one school year to the next. When kids fail, their teachers, their parents, their schools, and their communities are all judged to be lacking.

Each MCAS report brings back those teenage memories. Each year, more children and towns are labeled losers.

On report cards, a teacher can write, ''Kate is a joy to have in class. Danny gets along well with his peers. Megan is a great artist. Sarah is good at sharing."

And a child and his parents get not just encouragement from this, but truth.

Because some of the most important things -- patience, kindness, loyalty, curiosity, dependability, steadfastness, grit, wonder -- cannot be measured on an exam.

Ain't that the truth? She concluded on this note:

Encouragement is vital. And patience. And practice. Practice may not make perfect but if you practice anything enough -- math, the piano, soccer, writing -- you don't get worse at it. You get better.

Today's teachers and kids practice all year for MCAS. Is this really the best use of their time? Shouldn't the primary goal of public education be educating children to want to learn, not to ace an exam?

They call it assessment, but it's judgment. They call it reform, but it isn't. To me, with four-decade-old memories still fresh, the MCAS pigeonholes children, teachers, and entire communities. And to me, there is nothing new -- or productive -- about this.


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