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Testing for Testing’s Sake?

Testing for Testing’s Sake?

Debate rages over who benefits from the push for standardized testing pushed by the Martinez administration

Editor’s note: This is an email conversation between Alan Webber, a businessman who sought the 2014 Democratic nomination for governor, and Paul Gessing, a Libertarian who heads the Rio Grande Foundation. The topic was Gov. Susana Martinez’s push for standardized testing of New Mexico schoolchildren.

BY ALAN WEBBER AND PAUL GESSING

Alan Webber: As the product of a good education, I know that learning is the ladder of opportunity. As the father of two children with learning differences, I know that each child has his or her own way and pace of learning.

That’s why education matters. That’s why what we’re doing with testing in our schools is madness. Used correctly, testing is a tool, not an end in itself. But we’re substituting testing for teaching, punishing children, privatizing public education and driving away good teachers.

It’s expensive and it’s not working. Let’s put our money where it can make a difference: early childhood education for every New Mexican.

Paul Gessing: I understand Alan’s frustrations with testing. But today’s testing is a result of past frustrations with our educational system’s lack of accountability and performance.
One-size-fits-all testing regimes are not ideal, but that’s because government-run monopolistic educational systems are ill-equipped to serve the diverse needs of students of varying abilities and with different learning styles.

If you want to solve American education, try offering school choice and empowering parents with education dollars. Parents, not bureaucrats (especially) in Washington, but even in Santa Fe, can better judge which schools are succeeding and which are failing.

Our educational struggles are nothing new. It’s time to end the one-size-fits-all government monopoly.

Webber: Talk about muddying the waters! No more straw men, Paul. Let’s talk about what works.

A terrific book called “It’s Being Done” offers a comprehensive look at high-performing schools in low-resource communities.

These schools have high-expectations for their students, because they know how high the stakes are: These students need a good education to escape a life of poverty. They constantly re-examine what they do. They hold themselves accountable to the community, because the students they’re teaching are future citizens. In return, they ask the community to contribute to the school. They take professional development seriously.

These are all things we could do in New Mexico, if we tested less and taught more.

It’s great that a few public schools in poor areas are performing well. But if “It’s being done” in some schools, why isn’t it being done consistently in New Mexico and across the country? It’s not like New Mexico schools were beating the world before Gov. Martinez came along and destroyed the system.

Gessing: Replicating success is the real challenge in education. School choice works consistently. As reported by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, “Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment. Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.”

Webber: The Friedman Foundation, Paul? Next you’ll quote “The Fox Foundation in Favor of Unguarded Henhouses.”

Here’s an objective source: The Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic, Inc. polled 56 of the nation’s best teachers and found that student success depends more on factors outside the classroom than inside. Poverty and the problems that accompany poverty, family stress and learning differences all shape how – and whether – students learn.

It’s not school choice. It’s food, healthcare, a safe home, counseling.

Testing won’t address these factors. Testing doesn’t even consider them. We need to stop doing things we know don’t make sense and develop a made-in-New Mexico education strategy.

Education is still the ladder of opportunity. That’s what our children deserve.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.