Standardized Tests:Is the earth really the center of the universe?

Ptolemy was a Greek astronomer who lived primarily in the second century of the common era. His observations of celestial bodies convinced him that that we live in a geo-centric universe. With the earth in the center of the universe, his model was widely accepted for nearly 1500 years. It became the fundamental basis for the Catholic Church’s teaching about man’s relationship with God and our place in what has been called the Great Chain of Being. Anyone who questioned the idea that the earth was the center of the universe was sanctioned by the Church. There was very little incentive to publicly speak or write about all the inconsistencies in Ptolemy’s theories because challenging the Church had very little upside.

It wasn’t until the early 1500’s that Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, proved that the Earth actually revolved around the Sun and not vice versa. Not only was he able to prove it, he was willing to publish his findings. Since the early 1500’s, of course, we have come to know a lot more about how our universe is laid out and fortunately the Church no longer owns a monopoly on what we are allowed to think. But for nearly 1400 years astronomers who undoubtedly were capable of making the same observations as Copernicus were forced to accept Ptolemy’s fundamentally flawed system and try to fit what they knew to be true into that broken set of rules.

No matter what evidence sky-watchers had, they could only speak of that evidence while playing homage to Ptolemy. And no matter how hard they tried, there was no way to fit what we were forced to believe into what we actually knew.

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On February 7, I made my way down to Kalamazoo to attend a conference sponsored by The Center for Michigan. I had recently run across the work of this group while researching education policy in our state. The Center for Michigan purports to be a non-partisan “Think and Do” Tank. As its found, Phil Power, told us “A Think Tank that doesn’t ‘do’ doesn’t have much value, and one that ‘does’ without “thinking” is even worse.” Now we’ve heard all sorts of organizations call themselves non-partisan and often it’s just one more lie they are putting out there. Foremost among these, of course, is the Mackinac Center, which does damage every day in our state, because some people are foolish enough to believe in their “cooked” research. So my skepticism about The Center for Michigan was appropriate.

I have read a lot of their work which is published in “The Bridge” magazine. They do a lot more than look at education, but it was their recently released “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education” that really caught my eye. It was clear after reading the study that The Center for Michigan’s claim of non-partisanship is supported. When I learned that they were presenting the results of the study in a couple of public forums, I arranged to attend one in Kalamazoo. As an educator and an active MEA member, there is no way to adequately express my frustration at what is going on in Lansing as the GOP, under the guidance of the misguided Mackinac Center, is dismantling public education, demonizing teachers and teacher unions, and putting the future of our children at risk.

This is MY takeaway from “The Public’s Agenda for Public Education.” I urge you to read the study yourself and my opinions are not necessarily those of The Center for Michigan. (Here’s the link.) They may in fact completely disagree with me, and they are free to respond to this blog to explain why. The study reveals that the people of Michigan are fed up with what’s going on in Lansing and in numbers that defy any party affiliation. People want more education, especially early childhood education, and they don’t mind at all paying for an improved system. The people and organizations of southwest Michigan are doing a remarkable job in trying to essentially ignore the foolishness coming out of Lansing and find creative ways to educate their children. It’s not easy and it’s costly, but philanthropic organizations have stepped up and found ways to fund several early childhood programs that have been proven effective in returning seven-fold every dollar invested.

As I was listening to a panel discussing teacher evaluation and accountability, I was interested in what these forward thinking education leaders would say about standardized tests like the MME, MEAP, and ACT. In Michigan, and across the nation, standardized tests have become an important element in determining the effectiveness of teaching methods and of individual teachers. Michigan recently legislated that “student progress” is now required to be an increasing portion of all teacher evaluations. And what is the one thing that people are using to measure student progress? Standardized tests. There are even proposals floating around Lansing that a first grade teacher can be fired if a student she had does not do well on the MEAP test in third grade. Think about that. The state cannot afford to adequately test students each year, so a discipline policy can be retroactively applied two years down the road without regard to what happened to that student’s growth as a result of what happened in second and third grade. I’d like to say this is just me exaggerating because of my frustration, but I’m not.

The most important thing to understand about all this is that educational researchers overwhelmingly conclude that standardized tests are not a measure of student achievement. They only measure how well students take tests. You cannot bubble in knowledge on a ScanTron. There is no way to measure critical thinking and problem solving in a timed test that can only accept multiple choice answers. Educators, administrators, school boards, students, and parents all know that standardized tests are a sham. When anyone questions why we are using tests if they are so flawed, the answer invariably comes back “We have to have some accountability. We have to measure something.” Even the members of the distinguished panel assembled in Kalamazoo could not see how to avoid including standardized tests in their otherwise creative ways to look at teacher effectiveness.

It was just about then that my mind drifted back to the early 1500’s. How we think about teacher evaluation and student progress today is exactly how astronomers before Copernicus thought about the Earth’s position in the universe. Just like the frustrated astronomers who looked up at the sky and excitedly made observations they could not use, the education community today is forced to frame all their efforts to measure teachers and students inside a severely flawed system.

Millions of dollars are spent each year in Michigan to administer, score, and evaluate tests which education professionals KNOW don’t measure what they claim to measure. Millions more are spent by schools who are trying to do genuine teacher evaluation with meaningless data from these flawed tests. So where is our Copernicus? When will some district stand up to the State and say “No more.”? When will someone find the resources and the courage to settle this matter in the courts if the legislature and the governor are incapable of joining the 16th century?

If we are ever going to be able to weed out ineffective teachers and improve student progress through genuine evaluations, we have to say good-bye to Ptolemy. I hope we don’t have to wait 1400 years.

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