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Is testing becoming less central to Idaho education policy?

Not so long ago, at least in Idaho political circles and very often at the legislature, all the discussion about schools seemed to center around making them “accountable.” In a general sense, of course, they have been accountable for many decades, with records of many kinds kept: Graduation rates, SAT scores, attendance records, grades and much, much more. You won’t easily come up with a major institution in our society much more accountable than schools traditionally have been. But what was really meant, in this discussion from, say, a decade ago, was aggressively scheduled and high-stakes testing.

The exact structure of testing on the table has changed some over the years, from “no child left behind” (ironically named, since the way it was structured it did leave behind whole schools that didn’t score well enough) to Common Core. Budgets and salaries were on the line when students put pencils to paper.

The idea that parents and taxpayers, not to mention citizens in our society who need an educated public as a broader matter of social good, should have an idea of how well schools are doing their job seemed reasonable. It still does, but those of us outside schools and setting policy (as voters or in some more direct capacity) never figured out the metrics – another way of way of saying we haven’t been clear about what we want schools to accomplish. I’ve long thought, for example, that serious civics education should be a core part of the public school experience. But we generally have never had discussions about things like that, political discussions since this is a logical subject for our politics. We’ve wound up with basic-level testing on math and English, teaching to the test, and a compression of what students learn (goodbye arts, for example) and what we emphasize in class.

Over-emphasis on this kind of accountability can and does short-change students.

Gradually, some shaking up seems to be underway.

Last week, the Idaho Board of Education said it would waive two key requirements for a big Common Core test that was tried this spring but whose results have proven hard to compile, even five months later. The test has been administered in many states, but criticism of it has grown, and some Idahoans even have filed a federal lawsuit to quash it. The lawsuit has an iffy states-rights basis, but it may cause a number of Idaho political people to take second and third looks at the testing regime.

And nationally, the number of states running the tests has dropped from 18 to 15, according to Idaho Ed News.

And IEN points out that the Boise School District board last month “unanimously approved a resolution calling for working alongside the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Legislature and the State Department of Education to “consider adopting other testing measures in lieu of the SBAC that will have the primary goal of improving instruction without overburdening Idaho classrooms.” If Boise’s proposal gains momentum, it could serve as the catalyst to a major policy and testing debate during the 2016 legislative session.”

The dialogue is changing. Testing won’t go away, nor should it, but its role at the center of education policy may get some adjustment in years to come.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus