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VOL. 125 | NO. 115 | Tuesday, June 15, 2010

U.S. Ed Secretary Seeks to Improve Testing

By Bill Dries

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Just as teachers must improve and parents must become more involved, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to improve the tests students take in schools.

Duncan emphasized the point last week during a visit to Memphis at the National PTA Convention.

“In far too many states around the country, we are lying to children. You tell a child that they are on track to meet an arbitrary benchmark, and in fact they are woefully underprepared. We do them a grave disservice.”

– U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan

“Our tests have to become much less simplistic, much less fill in the bubbles,” Duncan told The Daily News. “We have to stop lying to children. In far too many states around the country, we are lying to children. You tell a child that they are on track to meet an arbitrary benchmark, and in fact they are woefully underprepared. We do them a grave disservice.”

He also referred to education reform efforts at the state level as “breathtaking.” Tennessee is one of two states that has received funding from the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) education reform fund. Tennessee was awarded $500 million over a six-year period.

Duncan is no stranger to education reform efforts in Memphis and Tennessee. He was involved in the 2009 decision by the Legislature to raise the state law’s cap on the number of charter schools.

And he watched this year’s special session of the Legislature closely as the state changed laws to allow the use of student performance data in the evaluation of teachers for tenure purposes. The changes were integral to the state receiving RTTT money.

Duncan spoke in Memphis the day after Memphis school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. hosted a teacher town hall meeting at New Olivet Baptist Church.

The dominant complaint from the teachers was about passing students who are not ready on to the next grade. They also complained about too much paperwork and too much of a focus on test scores.

“Don’t tell me about we’re going to be data-driven when data can be skewed to show whatever you want it to show,” said Dr. Natasha Seymour, a high school math teacher. “It’s more about business. We are not a business. We are not a corporation.”

But Duncan rejected the idea that there has to be a conflict.

“I think these are all false dichotomies, false choices, false arguments,” he said when asked about a balance between the reform theories and the concerns teachers have about the accountability measures that gauge whether students are learning. “This is one common enemy – academic failure. That’s what all of us should be focused on.”

A language arts teacher complained about a lack of parental involvement and requirements to call parents as part of disciplinary action against children.

“To me, if I call your Mom on my time on my phone, it’s a parent teacher conference,” she said.

Several teachers referred to themselves as “dinosaurs,” a reference to the fears that school reform is too focused on new teachers instead of experienced teachers.

Other teachers questioned the value of teaching civics or history or social studies when students struggle to learn to read or do simple math.

“Our students are not interested in extra credit,” a teacher told Whalum. “These are our schools. These people are going to be gone after a few years,” she said of administrators and reformers.

But Duncan said the subjects other than math and science are part of a basic education and not “ornamental” subjects that can be dropped or deemphasized by school systems in tough times.

“In the information age, a well rounded curriculum is not a luxury it is a necessity,” he said of subjects like civics, geography and the arts. “The complexity forces students to grapple with and resolve questions that do not have a single correct fill in the bubble solution. And those higher order skills build the ability to adapt and to innovate. Only by moving beyond basic skills and bubble tests can children develop the critical thinking skills that will one day give them the ability to compete successfully in our increasingly global, increasingly competitive international economy.”

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