My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


Every System Has A Flaw

This is the time of year in Colorado public schools when all the talk, all the planning, and all the anxiety is about the CSAP tests. For those outside this state, or those in the state who take only a passing interest in education issues, CSAP stands for Colorado Student Assessment Program. This is the program by which Colorado meets the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation to issue standardized tests to every child and to evaluate schools based on the results of those tests.

Colorado actually instituted the test before NCLB, and the controversy has been nonstop. At first, teachers were insulted at the imposition of state controls over their curriculum and their classroom. There were, as always, the strong educator contingent that dismissed standardized tests as incomplete, random, and unfair. And, I think, by and large, educators fell into one of two camps: let's just pay the king his shilling and get it over with, and those who denied the importance of this reality. Over time, however, a few wonderful side effects started showing up. For one thing, faculty meetings started to focus on student performance and student achievement; in the years before CSAP, faculty meetings tended to be about "self-esteem" and "inclusiveness." For another thing, teachers started seriously talking about best practices, focused instruction, and common curricula.

None of this positive change, however, could mask what I perceived to be two serious--perhaps even fatal--flaws in the CSAP test. First, in what is not fatal, CSAP ends up occupying an extraordinary amount of classroom time. For example, my daughter's 3rd grade class has already dedicated 3 hours to taking a portion of the test, and (if I'm readingmy bulletin right) will be spending no less than 9 more hours of classroom time on taking this assessment. And this is third grade--12 hours. Contrast that with the amount of time high school seniors get to complete their SATs or ACTs--four hours. Are you telling me that it really takes us 12 hours to assess the educational growth of 3rd graders, but it only takes 4 hours to evaluate 12 years worth of learning? This seems to be a tremendous misallocation of education's most precious commodity: time.

But the second flaw is, to my mind, a backbreaker for the CSAP program. This is the flaw whereby the persons actually responsible for performing on the CSAP are not held at all accountable for the results of the CSAP. The school is assessed, and in a few cases the data is useful enough to evaluate individual teachers, but the people who actually have pencil in hand on testing day--the students--pay no price for tanking it, and, likewise, reap no benefit from performing well. And if you think this doesn't effect performance on the test, you NEED to read this article in Friday's Rocky Mtn. News.

"Most (students) would rather eat a golf ball before they try to do well on the CSAPs," Wilson wrote. "Students aren't idiots. We know what the CSAPs are for. They grade the school. They don't grade us."

Wilson, a student at a DPS high school, is one of a handful of students whose parents have signed a waiver form allowing them to opt out of the CSAP. Unfortunately, this "opt-out" counts towards the school's overall average as a 0 (as in zip, zilch, nada. . .). So Wilson gets to miss out on all the fun of taking the test, pays no real consequence for doing so, and manages to damage the results for his school in the process. For most kids, this seems like the ideal circumstance--a couple days off, no stress, AND I get to stick it to my school.

This is the same phenomenon that governs professional sports, it seems. When was the last time you saw a player get fired in mid-season for playing badly (and in Denver, of late, we've seen plenty of bad performances)? Right. Never. Occassionally someone might get benched or traded, but they're still making the same salary. No, what always happens when players are playing badly is that the person responsible (in theory) gets fired--as in, the coach. The difference is that a player underachieving will see some consequence eventually, as they try to negotiate a new contract or attract free agency offers and their worth (monetarily)is so linked to their performance that the market takes care of itself.

But to climb back out of the metaphor, for a high school student who "underperforms", there is no consequence.

And that is a fatal flaw of this design. The coaches (teachers) and organizations (schools) will be evaluated--and evaluated harshly, where appropriate--while the players (students) skate through without so much as a "howdy-doo." And until the CSAP begins being used to evaluate STUDENT achievement ( as the name of the program implies), we will never get a complete picture of how our schools are doing. Or, in economic terms, unless there is an incentive for students to perform, there is no reason at all to expect a positive change in behavior.

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