Standardized testiness

Fallen colleague:
The News & Review lost a family member last weekend with the passing of Ralph Brave. A staff writer and occasional editor for our Sacramento paper, Ralph wrote several stories that ran in the CN&R--most recently the May 31 cover story on CalPERS. For more about him, check

The Chico Unified School District is changing the way it does business. It has to on the financial front; it wants to on the educational front. Interim Superintendent Kelly Staley preaches the same paradigm for both: creativity through collaboration.

The budget remains a moving target, but CUSD is off to a good start with Professional Learning Communities (discussed in the Guest Comment on the opposite page). Secondary teachers have dedicated an hour each Wednesday to share ideas and gauge progress in small, analogous groups. As Roland Lamarine writes, anything that reduces isolation and increases their involvement is a positive development.

Most significant, it’s a grass-roots development. This idea percolated among the teachers themselves. They liked what they heard at educational conferences, then agreed to add time to their work week to make it happen.

Top-down policies rarely get this sort of acceptance—and that’s the biggest problem with public education today: too many edicts from too far away.

No Child Left Behind has a well-meaning title. Every student should have the same opportunity to learn and advance. Fact is, it’s impossible to guarantee that a third-grader in Chico will get the same education as a third-grader in Carmel, or in Clovis, Coronado or Chicago. And that’s probably a good thing, actually, since no student, school or area is exactly the same.

The cookie-cutter mentality of No Child Left Behind leaves a lot to be desired.

Schools get assessed based on standardized tests. By definition, that means half are above average and half are below—or, to put it in NCLB terms, half pass and half fail. Schools/districts with a series of failing scores face sanctions, the most serious being a takeover by outsiders.

Not surprisingly, with so much at stake, teachers spend chunks of time “teaching to the test.” That leads to the sad irony of NCLB: Legislation aimed at treating each child the same breeds cookie-cutter lessons.

Another irony: The law is national, but it sets no national standards. Instead, each state determines how to measure achievement. California uses STAR testing, which is more rigorous than tests chosen by other states. How can we tell if our kids are underperforming or just unlucky?

NCLB is up for renewal. It clearly needs some revamping. Maybe it should just disappear.

I think we should do away with standardization. Let districts assess themselves, with some oversight from county education offices and with state standards as their signpost. Let Staley, Paradise’s Steve Jennings and Oroville’s Dwayne Robinson be free to choose or create whatever assessment they feel best gauges how their teachers and students stack up. (Staley’s predecessor tried this, but had to do so on top of STAR, which meant even more tests.) Exams like the PSAT and SAT offer measurement on a national scale—use those scores as an indicator. As incomplete as that may be, at least they’re apples-to-apples comparisons.

Equality in education is an ideal, maybe even a fallacy. Children learn differently, even if their instruction is uniform. Let’s allow educators the latitude to find creative, practical approaches that work in their classrooms. Then, perhaps, we really could leave no child behind.