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Remembering “A Nation At Risk” Part II

September 1, 2014

The seeds for high stakes testing were planted in “A Nation at Risk”… and the groundwork for high stakes testing was laid the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1987 I was appointed Superintendent in Washington County MD where I was quickly introduced to the work of John Murphy, celebrated Superintendent of Schools in Prince Georges (PG) County. The President of the County Commissioners arranged for me and the Board president to join him in what can only be described as a pilgrimage to Prince George’s County to witness Dr. Murphy’s miraculous transformation of public schools. As noted in the link to Dr. Murphy’s obituary, he was credited with improving PG county’s stature by increasing its standardized test scores. What our county commissioner liked was the WAY he did this: he had a conference room plastered with test results from each school and convened periodic private meetings with principals to make sure they knew how important the improvement of test scores was to him and the school board. If a Principal was unsuccessful at increasing test scores, they would be replaced. In short, Dr. Murphy was using what became the SOP of today: “no-excuses-data-driven-management”.

On the two hour ride back to our district the county commission president shared anecdotes about the horrible leadership at the building level, the terrible teachers in the classroom, and “the fact” that high expectations are more important than more money. In short, he hoped our district would embrace some kind of system like PG County. Evidently, he was not alone in his belief that “money was not the solution to improving schools”… and Dr. Murphy’s results in PG County were getting state and national attention. Change was about to happen in MD as well… in the form of a Report Card that would be issued to every county on an annual basis.

 

While I DID and DO agree that data collection and analysis is helpful in identifying ways to improve a school district, I DID NOT and DO NOT see a single metric as sufficient and— because of my experiences with Dr. Renzulli and trying to use item analyses from off-the-shelf standardized tests to inform instruction— was ESPECIALLY suspicious of national norm-referenced tests as a valid measure. I was pleased that Nancy Grasmick, the State Superintendent in MD at the time of the advent of Report Cards, and the majority of my colleagues shared this perspective. We made sure the Report Card included more than test results, offered data on school spending, provided disaggregated test data, and was presented in a thoughtful and comprehensive way to the media.

I was distressed to see that in order to receive a waiver for RTTT, Maryland had to abandon its tests and, presumably, the Report Card system that they had in place. For one short time period in the early 1990s it looked like States would be providing legislators and voters with timely and helpful information on what schools needed to be successful. Sadly, that time has passed and we are left with the hollow test scores as the sole metric for school performance.

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