Thursday, December 8, 2011

What Do the Numbers Really Mean? Not Much, Really...

Recently, two articles from The Washington Post's blog The Answer Sheet got my attention. One detailed the adventures of a school board member who took a version of the Florida standardized, high-stakes test students must take in order to graduate and help their schools earn a "successful" label. The other outlined the "evidence" that shows how education majors come from the bottom third of college students. Both, I feel, tell an interesting story about what we've come to value in education and how we've let it corrupt our notions of learning.

I was very intrigued by the school board member who took it upon himself to take a version of the Florida high-stakes test. While he was not allowed to take an official version, he took one that was similar to what students must face each year. He took subtests in reading and math, and he failed miserably. This upstanding, community-servant, double-master's-degreed businessman could not complete one math question and only got a D on the reading section. His performance, though, was not what intrigued me. His motivation was. He wanted to take the test because the schools in his district were continually being labeled as failing with students not passing these tests, yet he personally knew teachers who were doing outstanding work and students who could read and do math. His experiences didn't match the reported scores.

The second article also intrigued me because I've heard reformers complain before that teaching would be a better profession if we could attract the "best and brightest" of our college students to pursue teaching. Groups such as Teach for America were founded on this premise. TFA began by recruiting Ivy League all-stars to work in schools for two years with the belief that their brief service would revolutionize schools. Being in the presence of a passionate, brilliant Harvard grad would surely make a sullen, inner-city, disaffected youth love learning again, right? But learning that my colleagues and I are believed to be underachieving, dispassionate, regular-college grads who have ruined kids' love of learning was not what intrigued me. My reality was. My experiences do not match this study's report or TFA's philosophy.

I have personally known thousands of students in my career. The vast majority of students I've worked with could read, do math, write, and speak well enough to be successful in college. Now, I'll admit that I have worked in communities that value education and support their schools. Even so, not all students in those schools came from families that supported the quest for education. I've worked with students who did not pass our state tests, but even those students could read, write, and do math. And most of those still went to college and were successful.

I have worked with hundreds of teachers. The vast majority of teachers I worked with love school and learning so much that they overachieve at schooling. They are bonafide nerds about school. They are conscientious about doing work and want to help students be successful at school. While I never sat around with my colleagues bragging about our high school test scores, I do know that most of my colleagues graduated with honors from high school, college, and graduate school. The teachers I know are not in the bottom third of anything, except maybe in salary.

Ultimately, our notions of learning have been corrupted by a system that values test scores over something more meaningful. The fact that I'm calling it "something more meaningful" and not giving it a more concrete name shows that we really actually don't know what we want students to have when they walk across our commencement stages. We want for our SAT/ACT scores and GPAs to mean something - that we've learned something valuable and important. But the more we assign that value to these scores, the less it seems that they actually signify anything important. The numbers have come to have more value than what they signify. And that has lead us to this ugly place where numbers bestow value onto people instead of people assigning value to the numbers.

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