Thursday, May 01, 2003

Testing: Thomas Sowell looks at education this week. It's worth reading for itself, but this paragraph struck a local nerve:
The other thing that happened last week was announcement of a study showing that forcing students to take tests that have real consequences for the students, the schools, and their teachers, seems to help minority students. This should not be a surprise to anyone but these results go completely against the grain of what our "educators" believe and practice.
Massachusetts is trying to rein in some school districts who are flouting the state requirement that high school seniors pass a standardized assessment test (the MCAS, or Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam). Principals and superintendents have threatened to ignore the requirement, although the state is having some success bringing them in line. My own town, last I heard, is holding out.

I'm split on this. I'm for local control of public schooling, assuming that such a beast will exist; but if it does exist, it should be held to some kind of standard. Given the nature and state of public schooling, there is no reason to believe that school districts will hold themselves accountable, absent any kind of voucher/charter incentive. I don't see anything particularly odious about a state-imposed standardized test to evaluate schools by some quantitative measure.

Tests with consequences make it harder to play all these games. Moreover, these tests give parents, voters and taxpayers some way to keep track of how well or how badly the public schools are doing their work. No longer can a lot of cheery-sounding mush from teachers and administrators substitute for hard facts.
I'll frame it in more libertarian terms: First, local schools shouldn't have to bow to the state, as long as those same local schools are content to do without any state funding. Second, when the state runs a near-monopoly on the education racket, citizens should have access to information on performance. In the free market world, it's called transparency.

Back to Sowell.

Now that a study has shown that minority students benefit from tests with consequences, do not expect teachers or administrators to pay the slightest attention to this study -- except as something to deplore or try to discredit. Real teaching is hard work. Job fairs, play-acting, assigning students to keep diaries or write letters to public figures, or encouraging them to vent emotions in class -- all these things are a lot easier than teaching.
Easier than learning, too. His point is important because I think both the students and the schools suffer from the same problem -- a lethargic torpor brought on by a lack of several things, among them accountability, standards, and responsibility. Further, the schools specifically have no incentive to innovate, and no competition exists to motivate a near-monopoly to return some semblance of rigor to education. Time to go to vouchers.

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