News » Hartmann

The Parent Trap

Why we shouldn't test public schools in a vacuum


"So what do you liberals want to do about our public schools -- just throw more money at the problem?"

The question fairly reflected the audience's pique. My 1993 speech to a middle-aged group in South County had gone over about as well as Gov. Mel Carnahan's tax increase for education, which I had unskillfully defended (among several irritating stances), and these people had had enough of me.

Not prepared with much of an answer, I became even more offensive:

"How many of you agree that the public schools are not doing a decent job, say, of educating the kids about current events?" I asked. Without hesitation, every single one of the 80-or-so members of the audience shot up a hand.

"OK. Please keep your hands up if you can tell me the name of the lieutenant governor of the state of Missouri," I said.

All but about 10 of those hands dropped like flies, even though we'd elected Roger Wilson to his statewide post just six months earlier.

"Are y'all helping your kids with their homework?" I inquired, to nary a smile.

You won't find this anecdote in your Great Triumphs in Public Speaking text. A point was made without any being scored.

But it's my frame of reference every time the subject of "educational reform" comes up. Whether it's the debate over President George W. Bush's simplistic quick fix of unfunded federal testing mandates or the state's robotic devotion to the Missouri Assessment Program [Jeannette Batz, "Testing, Testing, Testing," RFT, April 11], one link in the educational chain seems always to be spared in the rage for "accountability."

That would be the parents.

I say we test them.

That's right. About the same time the state administers the MAP test -- on which the careers of educators and the existence of schools may hinge -- the parents of every public-school kid should be given a comparable test to measure their levels of competence and attainment.

You want fun with statistics? Let's correlate the test results of students and parents over a few years and see what the parental-achievement factor means to educational outcomes.

Here's an unscientific guess: It matters greatly. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if no other factor -- not curriculum, not class size, not spending, not anything -- mattered as much as the educational background of the parents.

Lest I be tried for felony political incorrectness, this isn't to suggest that those fortunate enough to have received a better education are somehow better parents. To the contrary, one would suspect that a parent with a humble education who took an active interest in his or her kids' schooling would produce a better student than an uninterested parent who tested higher educationally.

But, as is the case with all forms of educational testing, you can't reach conclusions in a vacuum. That's why we should view with much suspicion any form of statistical measurement that triggers an automatic response by the government.

Missouri's MAP program is a good example. As the RFT reported, the MAP is an outstanding test that is "wreaking havoc," not because of what it is but because of how it is used.

Poor and falling MAP scores can cost principals their jobs, teachers their tenure and schools their very existence -- albeit after corrective measures are tried -- and this new approach seems more suited to increasing the neurosis levels of educators than the learning levels of kids. The obsession with MAP numbers means schools teach to the tests, not necessarily to the students.

There is another big problem with MAP. Though borne of a desire to improve accountability, it is useless as a tool for tracking individual students' progress because of its "rolling" tests (changing content and emphasis each year), which produce a perpetual cycle of statistical apples and oranges.

Why go to all this trouble and expense to judge the schools for future purposes without yielding a tool that can actually help the students in those schools now? The answer, I'm afraid, is political.

The national rage for "fixing" the schools -- tapped adroitly by Bush -- is driving legislatures and Congress to oversimplify the problem to death. No more excuses: Just give the kids test after test and punish "failing schools" until teachers and administrators start doing their jobs right.

Implicit in this is the false assumption that we can home in on test scores caeteris paribus -- that is, presuming all other factors are equal. It would be a great concept in a world in which every kid showed up every day at every school with precisely the same likelihood of educational success as every other kid.

In reality, however, this tunnel vision spawns ideas such as the charter-school movement, which presumes to bring more "accountability" to education by promising better test scores in exchange for private control of public dollars. Charter schools are sprouting like educational weeds across the nation.

It's the perfect example of the danger of testing in a vacuum: Charter-school students tend to have parents who are motivated to help their children succeed. It stands to reason that charter schools would welcome comparisons with traditional public schools.

Ironically, what a successful charter school does "prove" is how important a role parents can play in the education of their children. If that's the case, doesn't it follow that in a "failing school," someone should be holding parents accountable?

Imagine that: accountability for parents. Next thing you know, we'll be testing parents, too.

Instead of pandering to them.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.