Friday, July 8, 2011

Our Students Are Watching Our Behaviors

In the spring of 2009, I had the honor of standing on stage with my fellow state superintendents of the year at the annual American Association of School Administrators (AASA) conference in San Francisco. Little did I know that one day I would be working with one of the four finalists -- Stu Silberman -- in Kentucky.

This past week, I was reminded of that recognition ceremony but not in a positive way. Beverly Hall was selected as the AASA National Superintendent of the Year in 2009. Beverly was the superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools at that time. This week, the state of Georgia released the results of an investigation concerning cheating by principals and teachers on standardized tests.

This report from Georgia comes on the heels of two major national reports on standardized testing. From the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a recent report entitled Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education and from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), a report entitled Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform. I think it appropriate to highlight some of the key points from these reports.

The NAS report has two major conclusions and two major recommendations. The report concludes that test-based incentive programs have not increased student achievement enough to bring the U.S. close to the levels of the highest-achieving countries. The other conclusion is that high school exit exam programs decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement.

The recommendations from the report promote the development and evaluation of promising new models that use test-based incentives in more sophisticated ways as one aspect of a richer accountability and improvement process. Also, the report recommends that policymakers and researchers design and evaluate new test-based incentive programs in ways that provide information about alternative approaches to incentives and accountability.

From the NCEE report, the basic premise is that the U.S. should look to those practices from countries that are performing at higher levels than the U.S. on international assessments. The report discusses a focus on teacher preparation, rigorous standards, continuous improvement and support for the existing teaching force. The report highlights the fact that no country performing at higher levels than the U.S. has a singular focus on standardized testing and incentives related to performance on standardized testing.

What does the Atlanta scandal and other testing scandals in D.C. and Baltimore mean for our work in Kentucky? What implications do we draw from these recent reports? The key learning for me is balance. Standardized tests do not create scandals. People create scandals. How leaders both in the classroom and outside the classroom utilize results from standardized tests can either create a focus on improvement of teaching and learning or create negative pressure. How leaders use the results for personnel decisions and incentives can either create a focus on teaching and learning or create negative conditions for teaching and learning.

In Kentucky we are committed to a growth model for our accountability system that is balanced. We are committed to utilizing standardized test results as part of the accountability model; however, test results will not be the singular component of the model. While the state can certainly set the tone, it will always be up to individual school boards, superintendents, principals and teachers to model professional behavior for the eyes that are watching – the students.

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