By Christopher Paslay
The results of Pennsylvania's annual standardized tests came out recently, and it seemed everyone was pointing fingers. Math and reading scores are down an average of 1.5 points statewide - 8 points in Philadelphia. Teachers' unions are blaming cuts in education funding for the slump, and they have a point.
Last school year, Gov. Corbett cut $860 million in funding for K-12 education, or about $410 per student. This hit impoverished school districts the hardest; in Philadelphia, state education funding decreased by about $557 per student. "When resources are pulled from our schools, scores drop," said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan.
But state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis insisted the decline had nothing to do with the cuts. "I don't buy the excuse the numbers went down because of budget cuts," he said. According to Tomalis, scores are down because of heightened test security. This conclusion was backed by the state's Technical Advisory Committee, which found that "the only scientific cause for the drop in scores from 2011 to 2012 was the [Education] Department's investigation of past testing improprieties, which has led to heightened test security measures."
But the committee's report offered no analysis of the effect of changes in funding. How did losing hundreds of teachers, nurses, librarians, counselors, and school police affect scores? How did losing art, music, foreign language, sports programs, clubs, and a multitude of other extracurricular activities impede education? The committee's report never adequately addresses these issues.
The state has bullied us into thinking that narrowly focused standardized tests are the only way to measure learning. Because the impact of such things as sports, clubs, art, music, and the like are not immediately measurable, politicians looking to control educational resources refuse to acknowledge their value. But they do have merit - perhaps more merit than interpreting archaic literary passages on reading tests or solving advanced algebraic equations on math exams.
Take, for example, sports. If budget cuts put an end to a school's track team, a talented sprinter may never get to train and compete. She never works her body into top shape or learns about gamesmanship and teamwork, and she misses out on athletic scholarships. So she ends up channeling her after-school energy into smoking cigarettes and hanging out at the Gallery.
Or take extracurricular clubs. If money woes shut down a school's robotics club, a young whiz may be prevented from winning a city science and technology competition. Instead of traveling to Atlanta and participating in the regional finals, he ends up staying in Olney and never experiencing the world outside his little old neighborhood.
These are some of the intangibles that state tests fail to measure.
Did $860 million in education cuts hurt public schools? Of course they did. And nothing state officials say can change that reality.