The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

July 3, 2011

How much testing is enough when taxpayers are footing the bill?

Dave Knepper

“It is time to end the obsession in Washington and elsewhere with standardized tests.”

– Ralph Nader

Undoubtedly, most public school administrators have had more than their share of sleepless nights this spring while preparing a balanced budget for 2011-12 that avoided raising taxes, furloughing teachers, and eliminating educational programs and services. 

No doubt they never expected to see a reduction of $550 million under Gov. Tom Corbett’s  budget plan to fund public education in 2011-12.

Back to their computers they went to recrunch the numbers. There would be no catching up on lost sleep.

Corbett made it perfectly clear that he was determined to make good on his campaign promise not to raise taxes to help reduce Pennsylvania’s budget deficit of $4 billion.

Yet, consideration to place a moratorium on statewide standardized tests never saw the light of day.

Many in public education today believe that the spiriling costs for a lavish system of  assessment should be scaled back or eliminated. 

Given the skyrocketing costs to administer statewide testing, it is believed that such funds should be reallocated back to school districts in order to improve the instructional delivery system, particularly to assist students who were identified as needing remedial services.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Education pays a staggering $30 million each year to administer the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment in all 501 school districts in the state. PSSA was instituted in 1999 to establish academic standards for reading, writing, speaking and listening, and for mathematics.

These standards identify what a student should know and be able to do in grades 3 through 8, and grade 11. 

Now the recently adopted Keystone Exams are projected to cost more than $100 million (Harrisburg’s Patriot-News, April 11).        

The Department of Education released the results of the 2010 testing conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card.”

For more than 30 years information on what American students know and can do has been generated by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. On its website, NAEP reported that it had received nearly $140 million from America’s taxpayers. 

Noted American author David McCullough, in a recent interview for the Wall Street Journal, stated that “We’re too concentrated on having our children learn the answers; I would teach them how to ask questions because that’s how you learn.” 

His approach to learning would certainly baffle test-makers in developing an achievement test that demonstrates a student’s ability to reason and to think in terms of “why” rather than recall the “who” or “what.” 

The “McCullough theory of learning” would certainly baffle test-makers in devising an achievement test that took into account such variability of responses and “correctness.”

Part of the problem regarding the testing business, which has been a “cottage industry” for the testing companies, is the passivity of the taxpaying public. They have remained silent while their taxes have been squandered on testing that yields no more than questionable results at best.  

Maybe if we, the taxpayers, demanded a more accurate accounting of the validity of all this expensive testing we might arrive at a better definition of what we as a society must demand of our educational system, and thus arrive at a definition of what it means to be “educated” in the truest sense of the word.  

One has to admire the gravitas of Michele Forman, Teacher of the Year in 2001, in her remarks at a White House ceremony:

“Learning and teaching is messy stuff,” she said. “It  doesn’t fit into bubbles. I don’t think a simple pencil-and-paper test is going to capture what students know and can do.”

You can’t say it any better than that.

David A. Knepper is president of Allegheny Development Group LLC and is currently the executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from Penn State. His column appears the first Sunday of each month.

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