The Metrics of Education

Posted on 08. Oct, 2009 by in Uncategorized

“Look to the left. Look to the right. Two out of every three of you will have dropped out by graduation.” – Ovidio Martinez, Vice Principal, Theodore Roosevelt High School, Fresno, CA, 1996.

We showed him, though. Almost 700 of us walked in our robes out of a starting freshman class of 1500. Well above 33%. When politicians talk about high schools as “dropout factories” or “failure acadamies,” I know whereof they speak. Half of the first floor of East Hall was a nursery for the babies of the girls who stayed in school after they got pregnant. There was an on-campus probation officer. Over half the students didn’t speak English at home.
Then the standardized tests started in earnest. What had been an inconvenience became a constant drumbeat – the test is coming, the test is here, don’t let your guard down, the test will return soon! There were district assessments, state tests, examinations in math, English, language arts, history and science. The purpose, nearest as I could tell, was not to teach us anything, but to rank our current schools based on what someone, somewhere, had decided our previous schools should have taught us.

The tests were clunky, at best, insulting at worst. For example, I flunked my language arts exam during my Junior year – we were supposed to write an essay in response to a syrupy prompt that assured us that optimism was the key to a grand life. My natural cynicism combined with the fact that I was a teenager, which in turn met up with the colossal anger I felt for the world since my brother had died two years previous, and I opted to (not very) respectfully disagree with the thesis. Either the people grading my response had never encountered sarcasm before or were appalled that a 17-year-old no longer believed that the world was a bowl of whipping cream that existed for his whimsy, but whatever the reason, they flunked me.

I’m not saying I’m the best writer. I have a terrible tendency towards cute alliteration and passive voice. I’ve more than once clearly articulated a half-formed idea or vice versa. But I’m willing to wager that I wrote an essay that forcefully disagreed with the premise that life would be a breezy stroll if only one approached it with a cheery disposition using language decipherable by the average reader of English.

“What does this story have to do with Barack Obama’s presidency, Voris?” I’m glad you asked. The president is a big fan of metrics in general, but when it comes to education, he’s a die-hard believer. He wants to tie teacher pay to performance, with that performance measured by student improvement on test scores. As someone who once won a bet with his Sophomore history teacher as to what year the Civil War ended, I understand that not every teacher should be paid to share their wisdom with the youth of America. That said, the notion that a teacher is nothing more than the sum of their students’ test scores, or that those students are nothing more than the numerals under Math and English next to their names seems, well, dehumanizing.

Everyone has the great teacher story. The person that got you to engage with a subject, that made you see a future for yourself in the world. Almost certainly, you worked harder for that teacher and achieved more. My point being that individual people tend to have far greater impact on us as individuals than the systems in which we all operate. And I can’t imagine anything more futile than to quantify personal interactions with a standardized test.

I’m not arguing that Vice Principal Martinez’ fatalistic outlook is better than handing over school funding decisions to the testing companies, but I admit that for me that was a more immediate challenge than gunning for a Golden Poppy on the next round of state tests. Maybe it’s just me, wanting to prove an authority figure wrong than get a certificate of approval.

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One Response to “The Metrics of Education”

  1. tuscany villa

    31. Jan, 2010

    Found this post on twitter, thanks for the info