FACEOFF: Should federal funding for schools be tied to student performance on standardized tests?

Be sure to read what FACEOFF columnists Charlie Meyer and Steve Smoot have to say on this subject and if you have something to say about it, send us a letter-to-the-editor at: letters@newstribune.info. We want to hear what you have to say.

FACEOFF: Should federal funding for schools be tied to student performance on standardized tests?online survey

FACEOFF: Should federal funding for schools be tied to student performance on standardized tests?


By Charlie Meyer:

After what was supposed to be a “relaxing” summer, parents make a weary happy-dance of relief that summer “vacation” is over, and the kids are back in school. 

Unless we want to spend what used to be called our “golden years” still slaving to pay for the basic expenses of life, we’d better make sure the kiddies learn how to ultimately take their productive turn in society. As a reminder to all those firebrand conservatives now frantically trying to hide their nutty schemes to turn Social Security over to Wall Street, there’s a peril waiting at the ballot box from those of us who get all that AARP junk mail. We vote.

School testing is nothing new. Lately. though, it seems to be causing the onset of stomach butterflies in teachers and administrators, too.  Federal funding is tied to standardized test performance. That said, it is hard to quantify the mostly unquantifiable. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t measure our progress.

Back when I was Inside the Beltway, the Commonwealth of Virginia instituted Standards of Learning exams, usually abbreviated from the bureaucratese to S.O.L. While your average Mom, as well as school officials, could say the abbreviation in public straight-faced, most boys, aged six to fifty-something, couldn’t. If you can’t figure out the “potty” word before “Out [of] Luck” of the alternative meaning, ask any male in that age group. You’ll get at least a few snickers, too. 

The educational process is too important to be left to crossed fingers, a wing, and a prayer.  Education is far less expensive than ignorance in the long run.  As taxpayers, there’s a natural query as to whether we’re getting our money’s worth.  Any testing protocol comes up short, but no testing at all isn’t an option.

I recall one of the many training courses I attended as a submarine sailor, the better part of three dozen years ago. It covered the care, feeding, and maintenance of large diesel generators, usually found in locomotives, but also shoehorned into submarine pressure hulls.  As the instructor reached a tidbit that was on the exam, a heavy, steel-toed black boot kicked the side of the podium with a “Bang!” that would wake the napping. Not only were we to prove we learned something, but the instructor was also evaluated on whether he could get a majority of his students to pass the course. Cynics called it “Teaching the Test.”

In the never-ending search for measures, it’s understandable for people to focus on what their livelihoods are based upon. We all do it.  In commerce and industry, it often reaches the obsessive, as companies try and wring maximum profit from operating expenses, including packing American jobs overseas chasing “cheap labor.”  Governments and schools use testing to allocate limited resources to educating our children. Our schools work hard to get the most “bang for the buck.”

Measurements are important, but what is measured is but a fraction of what is supposed to be learned.

Take, for example, history. It’s been a lifelong passion for me, and my pal on the Right’s profession. There’s far more than mere dates, names, and places to be taught, and regurgitated-on-command on the final exam.  There’s the “why” that is most of the lesson. 

Lawyers.  The academics and testing of that field of study are among the most rigorous, and few of us could pass.  The practice of law is far more than being able to guess a trivia game show question about the date “United States v. Smerd” was decided. There’s a specialized, trained methodology of thought to determine why Mr. “Smerd” did or didn’t have a case long ago, and most importantly, how it affects us today. It might just cost you lots of money, or even your liberty, if you get it wrong.

I can try to mimic some of what I see my veterinarian doing when the meter is running and my under-the-weather Basset Hound drips yellow-green snot on the exam table. It might seem to be “cheaper”, but as many “do it yourself” projects prove to be, really  isn’t.  After all, that pooch, who I love more than most people, is a very complex beastie beneath that shedding fur.   My Vet’s many years of study and exams certainly weren’t for the faint-hearted, but it’s knowing the “why,” and the incredible complexities of practice that comprise the value.

We trust physicians to know things about our bodies we’ll never know.  That physician endured tests that would make most of us wilt.  There’s a value to tested expertise, and it’s measured in lives, ours, or in someone who is dear to us.

Each of these professions illustrates that while much of life isn’t on the classroom test, we test what we can.  Testing is an imperfect, inexact science, but it’s a lot better than not knowing if the lessons “took.” That doctoral diploma assures us that there is more professional prowess than just getting a good night’s sleep at a Holiday Inn Express.

Education is so vital to America’s future that it requires the best at local, state, and federal levels.  That framework builds and continuously improves our schools, and our children. As a state and nation, we advance culturally and economically, minimizing those shortchanged were local school systems be left to fall through the cracks. Succeeding as a nation isn’t just reserved for building fences or fighting wars.

We evaluate through testing because we must have at least some measure of the effectiveness of our schools. It’s our children. It’s our tax dollars. One should hope if our students did well on the tests, the greater educational process is working.


By Stephen Smoot:

This week news broke across the country about a taxpayer funded abomination in Los Angeles.  The Los Angeles Unified School District opened a $578 million high school.  It comes complete with fine art, a technologically advanced swimming pool, and a faculty dining area nicer than most restaurants.  This school cost more than China’s Olympic stadium.  It was built in a district sporting a $600 million deficit, layoffs of 3,000 teachers, and a 35% dropout rate.  Apparently they felt that money was better spent on fine art and fancy designs than retaining experienced teachers and educating students.  This comes at a time when Americans express lower confidence in the public school system overall while parents look for affordable alternatives.  At one time, schools formed a trusted

foundation in the community, effectively educating children and preparing them for the next stage in life, whatever that might have been.  What happened over the past twenty or thirty years?  Our schools endured the increasingly destructive power of consolidation, standardized testing, and federal funding.

We’ve tackled the destructive effects of consolidation before; this time we have to examine whether or not standardized testing and its links to federal funding have any benefits for teachers or students.  To be honest, federal funding itself represents the worst threat to our schools’ ability to educate our children.  According to a *New York Times*article from last summer, the federal presence in our local school systems will likely become more pervasive and burdensome under Obama than ever before.  Gee, you couldn’t see that coming, could you?

The most recent federal meddling in local education comes from the most misguided of George W. Bush’s initiatives.  The president’s concern for education and desire to be bipartisan ran into Senator Ted Kennedy’s interest in increasing federal control over schools.  This created the abominable No Child Left Behind Act, one of those good intentions that paves the highway to hell.  School systems get addicted to federal funding like previously decent people get addicted to crack.  Like crack addicts who have little or no money of their own, the schools sometimes find themselves doing things at the behest of their “dealer” that they otherwise would never even fathom.  Teachers suffer the most under these guidelines, spending more time doing mindless paperwork and having less time to come up with new ways to inspire their students.

Earlier this year, Texas Governor Rick Perry (a Republican), backed by two of his state’s largest teacher unions, refused to apply for $700 million in funds from Obama’s “Race to the Top” Program.  They, much like many West Virginia state legislators, found that the money came with unpalatable strings.  The program emphasized punishments for teachers whose students failed to meet standards measured by standardized tests.  Test standards generally come without regard to the situation of the individual student or the community from which he or she hails.  Every state has its own unique culture, as do most counties within those states.  Usually only at the county level do the people have any direct say on educational policy. An impoverished county will have more difficulty producing high test grades than an affluent one, not because the students are less intelligent, but they often have a lot more to worry about.

As federal funding and meddling increase, you see a decrease in the authority of states and local districts.  Communities have less control over their schools and educators are more subject to the whims of bureaucrats, less responsive to parents and taxpayers.  Bureaucrats do not have the direct experience that parents, teachers, and community leaders enjoy.  How can they make decisions that will shape schools in places like Mineral County when they have neither seen it, nor would they care to?

Standardized testing is a good tool to use, but only in limited ways.  It should form a small part of the total assessment of teachers and the school itself.  However, overreliance on testing can warp the educational process.  It leads teachers and schools to teach to the test, rather than training students to think, or even giving them vital information.  Anecdotally, I can tell you that since No Child Left Behind passed, basic student knowledge has plummeted.  That is only my experience as a teacher of college survey courses, but it would shock you what the average student does not know (unless he or she had a teacher who tried to improve knowledge and thinking, as opposed to trying to pass a standardized test.)  Tying federal funding and punitive measures against teachers to standardized testing creates an environment of fear among educators and an unseemly worship of statistics.   Instead of crunching numbers, they should ask the question “have the kids really actually learned anything?”

Although it is hard, states need to start severing their ties to federal funding when the strings force the states to submit to federal guidelines.  Although corruption and malfeasance happens at the local level, ignorance and ineptitude occur at the state and federal.  I would rather have schools almost totally in the hands of the elected school board.  That way, if they screw up, we can punish them at the ballot box.  If the federal government is screwing up our schools and discouraging our teachers, how do we hold them to account?  Tying federal funding to standardized testing compounds the evil.  You might as well ask our teachers to swim while holding hundred pound barbells than to try and teach with federal bureaucrats running the show, threatening them at every turn.

FACEOFF: Should federal funding for schools be tied to student performance on standardized tests?online survey