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"Reform" of AZ Learns & NCLB Is Bad for Students, Bad for Business, Bad for Arizona

How testing fails business: Stress on scores cuts time for teaching skills crucial to participation in the work force

If we are going to intelligently discuss the ends and means of educational reform in our state, then we need to agree on the purpose of Arizona’s K-12 educational system. Is it to develop basic reading, writing and math skills in every child as the more conservative, back-to-basics crowds argues? Or is it to encourage critical and creative thinking as the more progressive crowd offers?

Could it also be, in light of current events, Thomas Jefferson’s notion that we need to develop good citizens for democratic participation? Or is the real goal to effectively prepare tomorrow’s workforce? Could it be a combination of all of these?

While each of these purposes has its proponents and its truths, no group in our state is listened to as carefully as those who argue that we need to prepare children to be good employees. Whether it is from leaders in the business community, or from politicians in both major political parties, we have heard much of the failures of today’s schools turning into the economic problems of tomorrow.

With this danger in mind, many of our current educational reform ideas--from high-stakes testing to school labeling to paying teachers based on test scores-- will further exacerbate these problems. Consider the “Workplace Skills Standards” adopted by Arizona and displayed clearly on the Department of Education’s website. These standards are a list of critical workplace skills developed with the oversight of members of Arizona’s business community. The problem is: much of the school efforts on such skills are being dropped to focus on pumping up AIMS and Stanford 9 test scores.

Like art and music before it, this list of Workplace Standards is being pushed aside due to inflated importance being placed upon higher test scores. Many of these standards simply cannot be tested on a standardized test, such as oral and listening skills, working collaboratively within team settings, technological literacy and development of skills that promote personal and professional competence.

Just because we cannot put these on AIMS or Stanford 9 does not mean we should ignore them. As any business owner will tell you, these are key attributes for employees. We neglect such important facets to the peril of our future economy and society. And yet when we place undue emphasis on testing, teachers are forced to drop such skills so they can use the extra time for test preparation.

Please do not think I am suggesting that we halt a strong emphasis on the three R’s. All students should graduate from our schools with the a solid ability to read, write and do basic math. Rather, I am suggesting that our politicians stop excessive emphasis on standardized tests and realize they are only one aspect of a much larger picture.

Moreover, almost all of our state’s overabundant stress on test scores, certainly derived from a national testing exorbitance, is being directed at our schools in the lowest socioeconomic areas. The students of these schools, of course, will someday be expected to take their place amongst our state’s workforce. Upon first glance, strong emphasis on raising their test scores seems to make sense--they have the most challenging clientele. But further examination shows that these schools need more than impossible standards. They need the most talented educators.

Paying teachers based on test scores and school labeling encourages better teachers to move to schools in wealthier areas. You cannot blame the educators. It is a basic rule of free-market economics that teachers would do this. Why would anyone want the hardest job for the least pay?

The only rational solution to this dilemma, rather than demanding higher test scores at the expense of other skills, is to follow the lead of Palm Beach County, Florida. Starting next month, their philosophy is: the more difficult the socioeconomic area, the better the educator’s pay. While they are applying this to administrators, this concept could easily be transferred to the teacher salary scale.

Can you imagine a schooling system where the best principals and teachers are competing to work at the most difficult schools? Why don’t we give additional state resources to those public and charter schools who work with such students?

Until we adopt such a system, however, it is important that we tell our political leaders certain educational reforms, contained in both our state’s AZ LEARNS and in the national No Child Left Behind law, encourage little more than pumping up test scores at a hefty price--the loss of skills not on the test. This is bad for the students, bad for business and bad for Arizona.

(More information on this subject is available at www.azsmart.org. The author can be contacted at scudpolitics@msn.com.)

— John Scudder
How Testing Fails Business
(Arizona) East Valley Tribune

April 8, 2003


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