A local perspective on “high-stakes testing”

Dealing with our transportation system and our schools are the two most common ways citizens interact with government, so it’s no surprise those two topics elicit so much commentary here. As the passionate comments on SGW and Facebook attest, there’s no shortage of opinions on these subjects.

I’ve certainly made no secret of my thoughts on our education system:
1) I recognize the challenging and vital role our teachers play and I’ve seen firsthand the difference a quality teacher can make for a classroom of kids.
2) I believe tests and assessments are a necessary component of evaluating and supporting our schools and the effectiveness of their curricula.
3) State government, per the McCleary decision, needs to fully and uniformly fund basic education in our schools.

No topic in education has been more controversial of late than the Common Core State Standards. The debate raging around Common Core reminds me in some ways of Obama Mania in 2008. Candidate Obama was a blank slate onto which others projected their own aspirations and visions. Rationally, of course, one man could not contain all of the positive traits ascribed to him, nor achieve all of the (sometimes contradictory) goals people imagined for him.

We’ve seen the opposite effect with Common Core. People have projected on to it any frustrations they have with their local school or school district, any beef with curriculum, and all doubts about the role of tests in education. With so many varied criticisms, sometimes contradicting each other, we know that at the very least, not all of these things can be true.

What Common Core is and isn’t
Common Core is not perfect but we should not ascribe to it every ill, real and perceived, in education today. It does not dictate curriculum, and it does not supplant decisions best made locally. Rather, it is an agreement among many states about what students should know when they leave school.

None of that is to say that Common Core’s influence is all positive or that, since its inception in the states, the federal government has not become too involved in Common Core (a top criticism). Common expectations for student achievement are still a worthwhile goal, though, local curriculum is still decided by local boards, and Common Core is not a conspiracy theory.

A local perspective
Beth Sigall, a Redmond mom and thoughtful, positive thinker on the local education scene, launched a new website non-profit recently – Eastside Education Network – aimed at parents interested in education topics. One of her first blog posts shares her and her third grader’s experience with the Common Core-related Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests.

Her post reminds us that a quality, professional teacher at the helm of every classroom is key for our students:

From a parent’s perspective, preparation for the tests was certainly substantial but not overwhelming. And that’s in large part because our son’s teacher did an extraordinary job preparing everyone. From the beginning she explained the entire process and answered everyone’s questions in a calm, professional manner. She introduced the new testing format and material incrementally, with plenty of previewing and reviewing, so that the kids could adjust and learn without feeling overwhelmed.

Those opposed to the emphasis on tests to measure school performance have said the result will be teachers who “teach to the test” and neglect a more well-rounded education. From Sigall’s experience, an important test need not mean neglecting the factors that make school both varied and fun for kids:

Most importantly, from the first day of school until the day the tests were given, my son’s classroom and his school community remained the same warm, welcoming place they had always been. Our school didn’t mutate into a mind-numbing, test-prep factory. In fact, the students all managed to go to recess every day. They enjoyed library, P.E., music and drama class each week. They created art projects such as clay pinch pots and chalk drawings, wrote poetry, participated in school-wide plays and assemblies, did hands-on science projects and had a blast at their Halloween and Valentine’s Day class parties.

Our schools have experienced a fair amount of churn lately and that always raises questions and anxieties. They are moving in the right direction, though: High standards, common expectations, and an emphasis on different learning styles. That movement – whatever label you put on it – is, on balance, a good thing.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.