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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Valarie Strauss: Education reform protests pick up steam

In Texas, New York, Illinois and other states, protests by parents and educators are getting louder against school reform that insists on using standardized test scores as the basis for evaluating students, educators and schools.
It is too early to call it a full-fledged revolt; Washington D.C. has yet to see tens of thousands of people marching through the streets against high-stakes standardized testing, which has been prominent in American education for a decade and is at the core of the Obama administration’s school accountability efforts.
But opposition is clearly growing, most prominently over “value-added” teacher evaluation models that purport to measure how much “value” a teacher adds to a student’s academic progress by using a complicated formula involving a student’s standardized test score. 
Researchers have repeatedly warned that this evaluation method is not reliable — and doesn’t take into account all of the out-of-school reasons that could affect how a student does on a test — but the Obama administration has pushed it and states have been adopting new teacher accountability systems that are heavily weighted to test scores.
In New York, hundreds of professors at colleges and universities have banded together and signed a letter to political and education officials protesting the state’s new educator evaluation system, Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR, which rests largely on test scores, and asking them to reconsider the reliance on high-stakes tests.
This effort follows one by school principals in New York to protest APPR with a petitionthat describes APPR is “an unproven, expensive and potentially harmful evaluation system” that “is not the path to lasting school improvement.” At this point, more than 1,432 New York State principals and more than 4,860 friends have signed the petition.
Meanwhile, in Texas, some 345 school districts — out of about 1,030 districts — have adopted a resolution that says that standardized tests are “strangling” public schools and asking the state Board of Education to rethink the testing regime. Those school districts represent more than 1.6 million students.
It was in Texas where the era of high-stakes testing was born. George W. Bush started a test-based accountability program when he was governor and then blew it out into a national education initiative known as No Child Left Behind during his presidency.
Thus it is somewhat ironic that this year Robert Scott, the Republican commissioner of education in Texas, caused a public stir when he told the Texas State Board of Education that the mentality that standardized testing is the “end-all, be-all” is a “perversion” of what a quality education should be. California Gov. Jerry Brown had said essentially the same thing last year. Scott also agreed to postpone by a year a requirement that the results of each end-of-course exam account for 15 percent of a student’s final grade in that course.
It’s impossible to know if Scott’s comments had an effect on any other officials, but The New York Times reported last month that the chief academic officer of New York City’s public schools, Shael Polakow-Suransky, said publicly that he, too, has concerns about APPR because of the value-added formulas that carry so much weight.
“A principal should not ever be in a situation where ultimately their judgment gets trumped by a mechanistic formula,” he was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, scores of professors and researchers from at least 16 universities throughout the Chicago metropolitan area recently signed an open letter to the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and Chicago school officials warning against implementing a teacher evaluation system that is based on standardized test scores. 
The letter says, among other things, that “students will be adversely affected by the implementation of this new teacher-evaluation system” for a number of reasons. They include: 
*A narrowing of curriculum as teachers focus more on test prep;
*Teachers whose jobs depend on their students doing well on standardized tests will “surely be incentivized to avoid students” with any kind of problem that could lead them to do poorly on the test
* Teachers will stop collaborating and become competitive, creating a bad environment for a school.
In addition to these protests, local groups of parents and educators in a number of states have started to seek ways to coordinate their efforts to protest standardized testing and help parents “opt” their children out of these tests.
Where this fledging revolt is going is unclear, but it is real, and for the moment, it is growing.