My daughter is taking the PSSAs this week (and next). Those are the all-important Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.
You know, the ones that will make or break a school--thanks to NCLB's data-driven, ever-rising standards that fail to take into account ESL students, Special Ed or, um, anything relevant that might reasonably skew the stats.
My daughter is very bright, so I know she will help the school's scores. But, as I told her: the test isn't about the kids; it's about the school.
The school needs the kids to get in the upper echelon (or at least mid-range) of scores. It needs fewer kids each year to do poorly. Again, pay no mind to the quite-possible-fact that a recent influx of immigrants may have just moved here en masse. That's tough luck; no government bureaucrat will be paying attention to that.
(Side note: I certainly don't mind immigrants. My own relatives were 20th-century immigrants from Denmark and Ireland and Quebec. My point is only that NCLB is black and white and cruelly simplistic. It doesn't allow for the ever-changing, all-important gray areas of life.)
Schools in my town are desperate to have kids score well on the PSSAs. Apparently, the middle school is in dire straits due to the fact that it's a regional feeder school, with a wildly diverse student population. Instead of going up in scores, it has--abominations!--stayed the same or even dipped slightly from year to year.
This means (irony of ironies) that, thanks to NCLB's punitive set-up, the school gets less money to work with and it is threatened with closure.
The truth is, however, that student populations are especially pesky when they're semi-urban and diverse. You just never know where those kids came from, now do you? You just can't rely on diverse groups of people to be on the same page, can you? So, you might think that NCLB standards would take this into account.
But no. That would make too much sense.
In the beleaguered, threatened middle school, there are drawings for iPods (my daughter and I agree that an iPhone would be more of an incentive) if students do well on the PSSAs. There isn't really much chance of actually winning the equipment (out of all the kids who score well, their names go into a bowl and ONE is picked), but it's exciting for the kids.
It's also depressing for the people who are thinking about how clearly desperate those teachers and administrators must be. Their jobs may actually be tied to the school's scores--and any teacher will tell you that's just crazy.
Teachers can no more control how students will do on one or two days of testing than they can predict the stock market or when the next tsunami will strike. Yes, teachers can try their best to prepare students, but that leads to other issues, such as Teaching to the Test and cutting of "non-essential" programs.
While it's not quite as thrilling as electronics, in the elementary schools there is FREE CANDY on test days. My daughter was particularly psyched about this.
She didn't notice--until I pointed it out--that the candy is brain-enhancing gum and peppermints. Studies show people think better when they're sucking on mints or chewing gum...so it's chomp time when the test booklets are handed out, and "spit it out into this box" when the booklets are collected.
Again, all I can think about is that the schools are really freaking out about PSSAs.
So here's to you, Pennsylvania. I wish you the best in getting through this next week of testing (only the third or so full week this year, huh?).
I hope Costco doesn't run out of Peppermint Lifesavers...or maybe we can send the extras to Arne Duncan and the team that's trying to revise NCLB. Maybe some candy will help them all think better.