Focus Should Shift From Testing to Teaching

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for Dec. 14 and thereafter
730 words

INDIANAPOLIS — Remember the old definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? The description comes to mind with the release of Indiana ISTEP results.

Every year, schools spend more time and money on test preparation, remediation and analyzing test scores. Then we react with disappointment when scores fail to rise in proportion to our investment.

ISTEP scores are not going to shoot up just because state and federal governments have written higher standards and decided to hold schools accountable for student achievement. They may go up a percentage point here and a point there, but as a general rule we can expect only incremental improvement as long as we cling to the same old ways of doing things.

Whether you love or hate the federal No Child Left Behind Act, it got one thing dead right. It said federal grants for education reform should go only to states and schools that use "proven strategies and proven methods for student learning, teaching, and school management that are based on scientifically based research and effective practices and have been replicated successfully in schools."

It’s time for Indiana to follow the federal lead and mandate the use of scientifically proven programs for teaching essential skills assessed by ISTEP.

Very few Indiana schools — schools anywhere for that matter — can say the ways they teach reading and math are based on sound research. Our country has been engaged in "education reform" since John Dewey in the early 20th century, yet there’s been little effort to identify specific curriculum or instructional materials that are most effective for the greatest numbers of kids. What’s worse, the education establishment doesn’t seem to care.

The best example comes from the world of reading. Over the past decade, a compelling body of research has concluded that the most successful early reading programs are those that emphasize phonetic skills in a sequential and systematic way.

Yet in Indiana, most of the reading textbooks on the state-approved list are not explicitly phonics-based. And the textbook series considered the most phonetic — SRA/McGraw Hill’s Open Court — gets no special recognition from state education officials. In fact, the state refuses to label any reading program as superior to others.

The National Council of Teachers of English recently held its annual convention in Indianapolis. Incredibly, with few exceptions, its professional development sessions repudiated No Child Left Behind and the notion of scientifically superior ways to teach reading. Of the dozens of programs devoted to reading, only one used the word "phonics" in its title. One prominent panel discussion was titled, "No Child Left Behind’s Assault on Learning to Read" and focused on how the federal law "is detrimental to the reading and writing growth of students."

Math instruction is no better. The Nov. 24 issue of Education Week reported on the results of a federal research review of 44 off-the-shelf mathematics programs used in middle schools across the country.

The report, "Curriculum-Based Interventions for Increasing K-12 Math Achievement-Middle School," found only five math programs had a research record strong enough to meet U.S. Department of Education evaluation standards. Of those, just two had studies showing that students learned more with their programs compared with other programs. The researchers found no acceptable scientific studies on programs produced by some of the most popular publishers, including Addison-Wesley, Heath, Holt, Glencoe and Scott Foresman.

Indiana needs a law that says plainly: Schools must use reading and math programs backed by science.

Each year, ISTEP statistics allow us to identify schools that have boosted scores more dramatically than the average. Typically, these schools attribute the improvement to some change they have made in the way they teach. In some cases, they have brought in reading specialists to work with children functioning below grade level. In other cases, they have implemented reading or math programs that focus on sequential and systematic learning. State education officials need to hold up those programs as models.

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, he expects his doctors to know about the latest studies on treatment regimens, their success rates and all possible side effects.

Why do we let school systems choose textbooks that have no track record? Why do we let education schools ignore the evidence about effective instructional programs? To ignore the science is to commit educational malpractice against our children.

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