Today’s Washington Post reports that the test scores of elementary school kids slipped this year after two successive years of growth, “a setback to Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee as she seeks to overhaul the city’s schools.”
No doubt, this news is being used by Rhee’s critics to point out that her particular brand of reform can’t bring the city the lasting change in its public schools that everyone desires. Meanwhile, Rhee responded to the news with equanimity. “We like to celebrate when we do well, and when we don’t, we have to take responsibility,” she said. “We have to own this and figure out how to move forward.”
Can I please make a wish to the education fairy and ask that this be the last of this sort of story I ever see? For those of us who believe that the best way to assess a school’s overall health involves a balanced scorecard of assessments, we can’t have it both ways — you can’t criticize Rhee for focusing on tests, and then lambaste her when those same scores are poor. It either is or isn’t a viable way to assess the health of a school.
In that same spirit, why aren’t folks like Rhee proactively diffusing these sorts of stories by getting out in front of the curve and releasing their own bundle of assessment measures, as a way to diffuse the potential power of the test scores when viewed in isolation? Rhee could do this immediately, without even getting into the contentious issue of using performance assessments. The city could stitch together an interim scorecard, made up entirely of existing measures (student and faculty absenteeism rates, student disciplinary data, graduation rates, a balanced set of course offerings, school climate surveys, and yes, test scores) and use it to educate the public about the many elements that go into a high-quality learning environment? Depending on what the data tell us, it might even lead to some insights that could drive future policy proposals. So let’s stop bickering over the wrong thing — otherwise, we’ll be stuck interminably on this basic-skills testing carousel, and forced to watch it go round and round while other countries are actively revising their education systems to become more effective at imparting higher-order skills and preparing children for the 21st century.
We can do better.