- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2011

As Congress and the Obama administration weigh a major reform of education policy, the government should overhaul testing methods that have handcuffed teacher creativity and done little to boost student achievement, according to a new report from the National Research Council.

“Incentive programs” in the decade-old No Child Left Behind law — with school districts being rewarded or punished based on standardized test scores — have improved student performance in key subject areas by less than 1 percentage point when using benchmarks set by the National Assessment of Education Progress, an arm of the Education Department.

Assessments designed to both measure student achievement and determine school funding levels simply don’t work, the report’s authors argued.

“The No. 1 message is, you can’t assess the system with the same test you use to pass out rewards,” said Michael Hout, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and chairman of the committee that produced the report. “It’s shocking to me” that policymakers haven’t learned that.

Mr. Hout said new legislation should let schools administer two separate tests: one designed solely to see what students know and another to measure a school’s educational quality. The latter, he said, would be a “low-stakes” test for the students, meaning they wouldn’t be penalized for doing poorly. Instead, the information would be used to determine whether a school’s standards are adequate.

Similarly, assessments that focus on students’ knowledge would not directly affect the funding a district gets. Without the fear of financial punishment from the federal government because of students’ poor results, teachers would not be forced to “teach to the test,” the report says.

Forcing teachers to focus the majority of their attention on a single year-end assessment can have a devastating effect on students, the NRC said.

“Students knowledge of the part of the subject matter that appears on the test may increase, while their understanding of the untested portion may stay the same or even decrease,” the report says. The test scores “may give an inflated picture of what students actually know.”

Teachers can’t be blamed for that trend, since they essentially are forced to devise narrow lesson plans geared to the tests or risk seeing their school’s funding slashed, said Barbara Kapinus, a former seventh-grade teacher and senior policy analyst with the National Education Association.

“There’s a lot of things that teachers don’t teach. You have a decreased likelihood that they’ll try something new” under the current system, she said in an interview.

While it sometimes appears students are making progress in mathematics, science and other subject areas, Mr. Hout argues that the advances have been illusory.

The system has “improved student test-taking” but little else, he said.

Furthermore, the system encourages teachers to spend extra time with students who are on the cusp of passing the standardized tests while ignoring students who are so far behind there’s little chance they will catch up in time to help the school’s overall score, Mr. Hout said.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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