Friday, March 4, 2016

If the PA Legislature Won’t Pass a Budget, Schools Shouldn’t Give High Stakes Tests

No one gives a high stakes test because he or she thinks it helps kids learn.

Public schools give tests because they are threatened by the state: give this test or we’ll withhold your funding.

In Pennsylvania, the legislature can’t be bothered to pass a budget. So lawmakers have already withheld funding.


Pause with me a moment for a smidgen of background.

It seems the Keystone State just can’t afford its public schools.

Not when there are natural gas drillers out there that need to make an obscene profit.

Not when rich folks need another tax cut so they can buy another yacht.

Not when legislative districts are so gerrymandered that lawmakers from rich localities serving a minority of the population will never be held accountable by the majority kept safely away from them in other districts.

Nope. The Commonwealth just can’t afford to educate everyone – especially those that are poor or black or brown.

That’s why the Republican-controlled legislature just can’t compromise with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on a budget.

Wolf wants the state to heal almost $1 billion in annual cuts to education made 5 years ago when the GOP also had control of the Governor’s mansion. Meanwhile, the Republicans just want to put another Band-Aid on it.

And this has been going on since July.

It’s time to make some hard decisions. We’ve got to make some cuts, and I have just the place to start: high stakes testing.

Since last year when we aligned our federally mandated assessments with the PA Core (i.e. Common Core lite), we’ve seen a huge spike in failure, test anxiety and public money going to for-profit testing corporations.

It cost taxpayers $30 million to administer the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests and $20 million for the Keystone exams last year, according to Department of Education representatives.

And when you add in the 164,500 students who failed and re-tested at least once, that’s an additional $4 million.

We simply can’t afford that kind of cost with no return on the investment.

These tests don’t make children more marketable. They don’t increase graduation rates (just the opposite). They don’t provide any opportunity for teachers to use them diagnostically and thereby increase educational outcomes. They have never been shown to help students in any way.

So why are we giving them?

Sure, the federal government decided in its infinite wisdom (after receiving mountains of cash from the standardization and privatization industry) that all public schools have to give annual assessments. However, the new federal Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) is supposed to allow states to decide what those assessments look like.

Students get teacher-created tests in school every week. Maybe our annual assessments look like that.

Heck! We’ve heard so much self-congratulation about how the new federal law gives power back to the states, it’s time to put that to the test. Cut this parasitic line item and move on to things that actually provide value for our students and their families.

And if the state government doesn’t have the guts to do this (spoiler: it doesn’t) then maybe our 500 public school districts do.

Why are school boards sitting back patiently waiting for their Constitutionally-mandated funding to come in?

The legislature is required by its own laws to have its books in order by July 1st. That was more than 270 days ago! If lawmakers can’t do that, why should our school districts listen to anything they say?

School directors should protest, and not just with angry letters. They should publicly proclaim they aren’t going to give their neighborhood children these tests.

The way I see it, that will do one of two things:

In either case, it’s a win.

People talk a lot about state vs. federal power when the real dichotomy is between local and everything else.

No one should be making decisions about how schools generally spend their budgets except for the people who actually live there. No one has the right to tell parents how to spend money on their families. Why should anyone have the right to tell communities how to educate their kids?

Sure, some communities may make bad decisions. And so do some parents. But it’s their decisions to make.

The contrast has never been so sharp.

While partisans in Harrisburg play games with the budget, our local public schools go wanting. They depend on state money to stay afloat. By December, many districts were planning to close their doors because of lack of funds.

Gov. Wolf unilaterally released $2.5 billion to keep them afloat but that’s less than half of last year’s expenditure. Meanwhile, Wolf has already proposed his spending plan for next year while the one for the current year still hasn’t been ratified!

Even under the best circumstances, public schools should stop giving standardized tests. The parents of more than 5,000 students refused testing for their children last year in Pennsylvania, and that number is expected to increase exponentially this year. Nationwide, the parents of at least 164,000 students opted out of testing last year. Parents are increasingly questioning the value of unproven assessments that do nothing but enrich for-profit corporations and unfairly label the hardest-working districts as failures.

The only carrot the state and federal government has to keep schools testing has been funding. In the absence of that, it is beyond ludicrous to continue the destructive practice. It would be tantamount to selling your soul to the Devil FOR FREE! Faustian bargains are generally not smart, but without remuneration, they’re idiotic!

So there is absolutely zero reason to follow the state testing mandate. The legislature has reneged on its side of the deal. Local school districts should be free to make whatever autonomous decisions their leaders can to keep them afloat and provide the best education possible for the students in their care.

That means if the state doesn’t pass a budget, local districts shouldn’t give standardized tests.

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