Monday, May 31, 2010

Maine Voices: STUDENTS VARY TOO MUCH TO RELY ON TESTING: The newspaper's pleas for improvements based on scores is simplistic and ignores how worst-performing schools got that way.

High school students’ abilities and knowledge can’t be measured adequately by standardized tests, a teachers’ union leader says.

By CHRIS GALGAY | Op-Ed in the PortLand (ME) Press Herald

  • 4LAKids is in Maine this week. This is what they are saying here, pretty much no different from what they're saying there … no matter where there is …or who they are!
  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris Galgay ( is president of the Maine Education Association, the union representing a majority of Maine’s public school teachers.

May 30 -- AUGUSTA — These newspapers have a habit of seeking simple answers to complex problems in education; those answers are, unfortunately, usually wrong.

Thus, the editorial, (Our View: Bad grades bring big opportunities for schools | The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram, embraces one of the flaws embedded in the federal government's School Improvement Grant program.

The editorial says the student test scores being used to create the list for Maine's "low-performing schools" list are valid.

It says it is like getting a bad report card that should spur improvement by students and teachers. After all, what could possibly be wrong with evaluating school programs and student performance based on a single test, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the Maine Educational Assessment?

What the paper fails to comprehend is the complexity that most teachers and schools face today. Let me convert it into the simple terms that you prefer.

Let's assume you take all the journalists in CEO Richard Connor's newspapers and give them a test on English usage and grammar. I would expect them to do well.

But, what if we gave the test to all of the employees in the organization, including the graphics, advertising and printing departments and the route carriers? Not surprisingly, the test scores would fall because that is not necessarily the skill set or knowledge base of those employees.

That is the situation in Houlton and Deer Isle, where the top students do well on the SATs but others do not, because they are going to work on the farm or at sea and the SAT is not germane to their skills and knowledge.

Conversely, let's give your journalists an exam on diagnosing and fixing a problem with a tractor motor or a marine engine. How would they do? Not as well.

Or, let's assume that we give a test to the journalists on mathematics, including algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus. How would they do?

Rather poorly, I expect, because that is not your area of interest or expertise. And, that may be the reason for poor SAT scores in Lakes Region High if students are tested on subjects beyond their knowledge base or interest.

Or, let's assume that the journalists take a grammar and vocabulary test in a foreign language like Spanish or Somali. How would they do?

Would they do as well as some of our students at the Riverton School in Portland or the Longley School in Lewiston, for whom English is a second language?

Or, let's suppose that we give the SAT exam to all MaineToday Media employees, including those who just received a layoff notice. What will that do to the average test score?

It will plummet, just as it does in small high schools like Sumner or Carrabec in North Anson where a few disaffected students can sleepwalk through an exam and ruin the test score average because they see the SAT as irrelevant.

Or, let's assume that we give the SAT exam to MTM employees who have just had a death in the family or a divorce or have just been released from the hospital? How would they do? I imagine they would do about as well as our students who are abused, neglected or disadvantaged as they take the tests.

Educators do not dispute the need for appropriate testing; we do it all the time. We spend hours teaching and testing, reviewing and testing.

Testing is not easy, because students are human beings, with all their frailties -- not widgets on a production line.

Testing is a complex pedagogical science; I doubt any educators worth their salt can defend the use of the SAT or MEA in this manner. Their use as a means of fulfilling a School Improvement Grant requirement is a matter of expediency and the cynical pursuit of money and nothing more.

There are schools that need help and additional support, but using this definition for the 10 "lowest performing schools" tells our students that it is all about the money and that the ends justify the means.

Before you endorse the latest hare-brained idea out of Washington, I suggest you actually visit the schools labeled as "failures" and talk with the students, educators, parents and school board members about their programs.

They are the best judges of successful and unsuccessful schools and have excellent ideas for improving their programs.

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