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Continuing Discussion of Testing

July 24, 2013

The ongoing saga of this year’s testing debacle cannot be captured as neatly as the Oklahoman editorial page tries to do this morning. Unlike Superintendent Barresi, who has blamed the school districts for the loss of connectivity (after initially blaming the vendor), the paper acknowledges that it was CTB/McGraw-Hill who screwed up. Also clear in today’s discussion is the fact that Indiana has been more transparent and aggressive in dealing with the same problem. The important thing to remember, as the paper points out, is the stress caused to students and teachers:

No amount of money can make up for the stress that students (and their teachers) felt as they tried repeatedly to complete the required tests despite technology-related issues. This was serious because high school students must pass a certain number of tests to graduate; pressure builds for months as test day approaches.

We understand the official reason the state gave for not giving details. It’s not unusual for negotiations to remain hush-hush. But the perception is a problem, particularly given the differing approach in Indiana. It has the feel of trying to shield a poor-performing company from adverse publicity. Problem is, there was no shield for the students and educators affected by the testing company’s apparent failures.

The testing breakdown has become one more distraction for an education system that desperately needs to focus time, attention and resources on core academic issues. And let’s not forget that the issue of damages — which should be substantial — won’t answer lingering questions about the validity of the scores. The validity question should perhaps be determined before deciding on financial and other potential penalties to the company.

It was a misstep for state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi to place some of the blame on school districts. That was inconsistent with previous comments about the problems. And it was no secret that Indiana experienced similar difficulties.

The fallout from the testing problems simply has to run its course. This can’t happen soon enough. A significant debate is happening in Oklahoma and throughout the country about testing, school accountability and academic standards. Too often in recent years, these important discussions have been overshadowed by egos, political rhetoric and poor communication.

Without getting into a “you started it” loop, I think it’s important to focus the debate on what’s important: the children.

The question we are not asking is Why do we test? Is it for the kids, or for us? Does the testing we do tell us anything that we can use? Is the disruption caused to the learning process (even when things go well) worth the expense and the low-quality data yielded from the results? That has to be how we frame the discussion moving forward.

(I also have to mention that our testing problems are compounded by the fact that as a state, we literally have no plan for testing over Common Core, which we have renamed something else, and which we are supposed to begin assessing in the 2014-15 school year.)

As far as the penalties go, the details will be critical. If CTB is to be “punished” by having to provide schools with extra services (such as more testing) that districts didn’t ask for, it’s really not much of a penalty. Tomorrow, when what’s left of the State Board of Education meets, they need to question progress towards a settlement in these terms. If we are to punish a vendor who failed us by agreeing to a settlement that effectually gives them more business (Once we get a taste for free online benchmark tests, we’ll be hooked, right?), it will be the state of Oklahoma who has failed the 2013 tests.

Tomorrow’s SBE Agenda hints at an update on testing. No mention of a settlement is included. I think I’ve established on this blog that I don’t exactly know every law ever written, but I have to think that any settlement would have to be approved by the Board. The lack of this as an actionable item on the agenda tells me either (a) that no settlement has been reached, or (b) that it will not be vetted publicly.

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