By Christopher Paslay
There's an old saying that weighing a cow doesn't make it fatter. When it comes to educational testing in Pennsylvania, however, Gov. Corbett may beg to differ. His proposed 2012-13 budget calls for a 43 percent increase in funding for educational assessments, to $52 million, even as it keeps school funding generally flat and cuts spending on state-related universities.
The timing of this increase is interesting. Last year, a forensic audit of the 2009 state exams flagged 38 school districts and 10 charter schools for possible cheating; nearly half of them are still under investigation. This prompted state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis to order audits of the 2010 and 2011 tests and to require the Philadelphia School District, which had 28 schools flagged for suspicious results, to conduct an internal investigation.
The state Department of Education has been slow to release any results of these investigations. The Philadelphia Public School Notebook has filed right-to-know requests for the information, but to no avail.
If the audits reveal a pattern of cheating on the tests, that could call their validity into question, which may explain the state's lack of transparency. Cheating on high-stakes tests has become a national epidemic, with suspicious results surfacing in Georgia, New York, and Washington, D.C., to name a few. Tragically, this hasn't stopped the governor from proposing to spend even more on such tests.
Although accountability and data-driven instruction are often the stated goals of educational testing, politicians may be eager to expand it for other reasons. The most obvious one is control: The easier it is to label schools as failing, the easier it is to take them over - at which point politicians can influence their policies and curriculums and dole out more of the associated money and resources to whomever they want.
The federal No Child Left Behind law is a prime example. Whether or not it has truly improved education in America is debatable. What isn't in dispute is that the law is causing more and more public schools to be deemed failures. The education scholar Diane Ravitch has predicted that as many as 90 percent of the public schools in America could be labeled failures under the law by 2014. The situation has gotten so bad that the Obama administration has granted waivers from the law's requirements to 10 states, including New Jersey.
Testing is also big business. Pearson Education, one of the nation's largest publishers of textbooks, curriculum packages, and standardized tests, is making tens of millions of dollars from state assessments. It recently won a five-year contract worth $32 million to administer state tests in New York. It has also landed a $57 million contract in Kentucky and has $137 million in contracts in Illinois. In December, the New York Times reported that the New York Attorney General's Office is investigating whether Pearson's nonprofit foundation improperly influenced state officials by sending them on overseas trips.
Standardized tests may be lucrative for educational publishers and useful for politicians who want to control school resources, but they seldom improve learning. No Child Left Behind has promoted empty lessons geared toward such tests. As a result, teacher spontaneity is compromised, leaving students uninspired.
In this difficult economy, Corbett should rethink his educational priorities and invest taxpayers' hard-earned dollars in programs aimed at authentic learning, not questionable tests.