Tom’s Top Twelve Tall Tales: Tale #9

Posted by By at 7 March, at 11 : 28 AM Print

Governor Tom tells tall tales. Here is Tom’s Top Twelve Tall Tale Number Nine – Test scores show our public schools are failing.

In 1999, The Committee on Appropriate Test Use of the National Research Council stated: “Tests are not perfect…” and “a test score is not an exact measure of a student’s knowledge or skills.” They also found: “An educational decision that will have a major impact on a test takers should not be made solely or automatically on the basis of a single test score.”

Apparently, President George W. Bush didn’t read his own report because he advocated that states and school districts evaluate teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores.

Apparently legislatures didn’t read it either because two years later, laws were passed establishing harsh consequences for educators and school districts on the basis of the test scores. Eleven years later, Sen. Jeff Piccola still didn’t get the e-mail because he introduced an “overhaul” of the state’s school reform law stating that if a school district failed to hit the target achievement on state tests for nine consecutive years, a three-member statewide board will oversee the elected school board’s actions and have final say on the budget, the hiring and firing of superintendents and, oh, by the way, labor contracts. The Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee apparently didn’t get the e-mail either. They approved Piccolo’s bill by a vote of 9-1.

Here is the problem: The PSSA tests are designed to measure student learning; they are used to measure teaching ability.

Anyone taking a course in elementary statistics can point out the problem – the existence of confounding factors, that is to say, there are factors other than teaching ability that impact on a student’s test score. Such factors include something as simple as “Did the kid eat breakfast before coming to school?” to complex confounding variables such as “How is the child supported and nurtured at home?” Other confounding factors include how long has the child been in the school district,  did the child get a good night’s sleep, and were there any perils or problems on the way to school?

However, the primary confounding factor in test scores is poverty.  Poverty produces all kinds of devastating effects on a human being including poor health, lower life expectancy, despair, violence, and brain damage. For children living in poverty with growing bodies and minds, the effects are even more severe.  And yet, no exam looks for poverty as a possible confounding factor in low test scores.

What low test scores really show is our society is failing its people. We, the people, need to address the issue of poverty not only on exams, but throughout the Commonwealth. And before the wing nuts send in their usual appellations of “Socialist” or “Nazi,” may I remind us all that the place wherein we dwell is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Common wealth. It was founded by William Penn, the Christian, not Ayn Rand, the atheist. Penn took seriously the words of the prophet Isaiah “What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the face of the poor?” If we, the heirs of William Penn, have any connection at all to our founder and benefactor, it is that we are a common wealth, that we are connected to one another as a Philadelphia, a city of brotherly love.

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The Rev. Timothy Dewald was Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Lebanon Valley College joining the faculty in 1989. He retired in May 2010. In 1993 he won the College's Evelyn J. Knisley award for Inspirational Teaching. In addition to teaching mathematics, Rev. Dewald served the College in 1992 as acting chaplain, taught courses in East Asian religions, a First-Year Seminar on Darwin and evolution, Einstein’s general relativity, and the New Testament, as well as a mathematics and statistics courses. He also served as a parish minister for 23 years. Rev. Dewald graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in political science and religion. He earned a master of divinity degree from Andover Newton Theological School in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1987, he received certification in mathematics from the Pennsylvania State University. - Email Timothy Dewald

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