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Thursday, June 4, 2009

South Dakota Spends $5 Million on Standardized Tests; Worse to Come

South Dakota Secretary of Education Tom Oster tells AP that the state spends $5 million on a variety of tests. He suggests that's a lot of money and indicates the state might save some money by throwing in with the national standards movement and adopting a nationwide test.

National standards? Shouldn't Republicans hate that idea? Alaska Governor Sarah Palin does (and bless her heart for rejecting the national standards movement, something she and I can agree on). Yet Oster, a Republican appointee, not only wants national standards but also wants to turn those national standards into required exams for graduation. (Evidently he's unhappy that high school juniors have figured out the Dakota STEP test doesn't matter.) Local-control advocates, you should be saying yikes.

The main rationale I hear for national standards is to allow states to compare their kids to other states and countries. Funny: every time I try to compare our three-year-old's progress to other kids in our own town, my wife reminds me that child-rearing isn't about competition. Kids are supposed to develop in their own time, according to their own talents. One kid will start reading early; another will be an early whiz with numbers; yet another might not realize her full academic talents until she hits college. What real use is it for me to know that my daughter has a reading score three points higher than a kid in Iowa but 4 points lower than a kid in California?

When I coached debate and theater at Montrose, I certainly pushed kids to compete, to perform better than kids from other schools. We got judges' rankings that told us immediately whether we had performed better or worse than kids from Baltic or Sioux Falls. But those comparisons didn't really inform my coaching. Whether we won or lost a contest, we still came home to study and practice and learn more so we could perform better. We didn't learn from the scores other schools got; we learned from the other schools' performances: what arguments did their debaters make, and with what sources? How did their actors bring the script to life, and how did they use the stage? We learned from the content of the performances, not the scores. We used that knowledge to always improve our own performances and head back into battle, knowing that on any given day, in any given contest, we always had a chance to beat anyone... or to be beaten by anyone.

It's the same with academics. Give me a hundred South Dakota kids. Let me teach them grammar and composition for a year. Come April, send us to contests against kids from other states. One week, our kids may be at the top of their game and outscore everybody. The next week, Minnesota and Iowa might clobber us. We'll certainly hoot and holler when we win and ache when we lose.

But I don't need those test scores to tell me whether our kids can write literately or not. I don't need national percentile rankings to recognize that Mary still can't spell, that José has trouble focusing his paragraphs, and that Tasha is a brilliant writer who should enter every essay contest we can find.

National standardized tests won't help teachers do the practical daily business of helping each student build brainpower any better than the current five million dollars' worth of Dakota STEP and other South Dakota tests do. Standardized tests only fuel an abstract numbers game... and the profit margins of test-making companies and assessment consultants who take our education dollars and don't teach our kids a thing.

Oh yeah, about that five million dollars. What if we got rid of all those tests? What could we do with that $5M? Consider this: add up the annual state aid given to Wakonda, Geddes, Midland, Polo, Harrold, Pollock, South Shore, and Conde, small districts that have closed or consolidated since passage of the 2007 consolidation act. I get $1.6 million (and I'm rounding up). The total aid to Wakonda, Geddes, and Midland in 2007 was $640K, but the apparent savings to the state from consolidating those districts in 2008 was only $200K; in other words, 69% of the aid we sent to those small towns still went out the following year to the schools with whom they merged.

The point: the $5 million we currently spend each year on tests would be more than enough to cover the state aid necessary to keep pen the small schools we are forcing to consolidate. Five million dollars is actually enough to cover the state aid for the 23 school districts that received the least state aid in FY2008.

Maybe Sarah Palin means what she said about small-town values. South Dakota Republicans don't. They won't spend $1.6 million to keep small schools and small towns alive, but they'll spend three times that on bubble tests.


  1. CAH:

    I think you're forgetting that all of the actors in education aren't altruistically driven like yourself. The standardized tests are a crude method for grading teachers as well. Without them there is no accountability for the teachers. I'd like to believe that everyone is looking out for the best interests of the kids, but I know that isn't true.

    Further, without testing, how does the state know that it's providing an acceptable level of education to all of its citizens? If we can't compare broadly, how do we know the state isn't favoring one group over another?

  2. Steve Sibson6/04/2009 7:49 AM


    I will attempt to leave a comment for a third time.

    I agree with you post. Tony doesn;t understand that free-markets would better determine teacher qualtiy via vouchers thatn the current cronyizm found in the governemtn's education monopoly.

    I have more at my web site.

  3. Steve Sibson6/04/2009 7:51 AM


    Now that I successfully added a comment, next time I will edit for typos. (grin)

  4. The rage for accountability has placed testing over teaching and emphasized competition, which Frank Lloyd Wright saw was the scourge of creative and intellectual enterprise.

    Testing has become a contest rather than a diagnostic and communicative device that provides information and perspective to the educational process.

    We do have a national problem in that our students do not compare well at all on the international level. The problem is exacerbated by the attacks against our public school system from those who would rather fire teachers and eliminate the unions rather than support teachers and respect their own assessments of the educational process.

    No assessment studies of education in the past 30 years have asked classroom teachers what they see as the problems, the needs, and the goals, and how to meet them. Rather, the teachers have been tabbed as the problem. This all goes back to the times when school boards began to think of themselves as corporate boards of directors rather than bodies elected to act as the conduit of information between the professional school staffs and the public constituency.

    One point of dismay I experienced in my last years of teaching was that the best and brightest students were consciously avoiding education as a career. They saw that their minds and talents would not count for much in the way education is delivered today.

  5. Steve and Dave,

    You both seem to have far greater experience in this area than I do. How do we get accountability in education without across the board standards? How do we motivate teachers without providing a standard of measure?

    My background is in engineering so I'm very much a structural thinker. How do we solve these structural problems without seeing "how well" students do?

  6. How do we motivate teachers without providing some accountability standard? How about $125K a year?


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