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January 16, 2014

Tests aren’t about smartest; they’re about best-prepared

One of the craziest things I experienced in my long military career probably occurred in the last three or four years of service.

After 2001, our unit was called upon multiple times to deploy and carry out our wartime mission. We were very good at what we did, and we were one of the top three deployed aerial ports in the Air Force Reserve Command.

We were selected to spearhead the transfer of aerial port operations from active duty to reserve command in both Baghdad, Iraq, and Kandahar, Afghanistan. Ironically, after we returned from one of our six-month tours, we were subjected to an evaluation on our ability to go to war (we had already deployed five times). The sad part was the evaluation was spurious and totally unlike what we had experienced in preparation for deployments and in the combat zones.

All those who had deployed knew it, but the evaluators, who had never deployed, truly believed that what they were doing was beneficial and correct. Leadership knew the evaluations were meaningless. Yet, they were bound by regulations to expend valuable resources (nearly $2 million) to complete the test. We stopped doing important training and practiced the test. Everyone knew that regardless of whatever score we earned, it did not reflect our ability to conduct our wartime mission. As a matter of fact we knew of several units that had scored very well but failed miserably in real life application. We knew the test was not a predictor of success.

Unfortunately, school districts are stuck in a very similar crazy situation. Testing, whether its the Pennsylvania School System of Assessment, Keystones or some other Common Core evaluation, really is not a valid prediction of how successful a child will be in life, nor are they an indicator of intelligence. They are great indicators of how prepared a child is to take the test. What good is scoring well on a test when you can’t solve a problem in real life?

Testing results are not a valid indicator of how good a school district is, nor do they adequately reflect the ability of the staff to teach students. There are plenty of articles that show tests and standards do not line up with cognitive abilities of students, especially in the earlier grades. There is also plenty of research that shows the abilities of poorer students and students whose parents do not take an active role in their child’s education lag in cognitive development. So to say all fourth graders should be performing at a specific level is just insane. Likewise, to think a cookie cutter approach to instruction is a sound practice just is not backed by what we know about child development.

Additionally, just like our evaluators who had not deployed to a combat zone, it appears the Common Core standards for kindergarten through third grade were not developed by the people who had the most knowledge and insight. According to The Washington Post, “In all, there were 135 people on those panels. Not a single one of them was a K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional.”

Like the $2 million we spent on our Air Force test, school districts are forced to waste valuable dollar assets on programs, curriculums, assessments, test preparation and testing strategies that do not necessarily help students truly master subject matter. Have you ever seen a strategy called “kid friendly writing”? Spelling doesn’t count — the idea is to just get them to write.

A very good friend of mine who is a reading specialist believes we cannot teach kids to read if they have not mastered spelling. Too many districts have dropped music, art, extracurricular activities and elective subjects such as reading and technical education just to pass the test. Are they really creating well rounded, well educated young adults? No!

Lastly, politicians sing the praises of testing because they need a report card to justify their existence. They can thump their chest in an election year and say, “See how good we are and how we are improving our schools.” Just like the Air Force evaluations, school district leaders are bound to carry out the policy because it is the law. With that being said, testing is in no way a predictor of success nor is it a marker of how a student will function in real life. It is a great indicator of how well we prepared them for the test.

John Amato is a veteran, Meadville businessman and newly elected member of the Crawford Central School Board.

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