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.
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