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MASSON: Schools need flexibility to craft testing

March 12, 2016

Masson
In the 1840s, Caleb Mills began publishing a series of “addresses” directed at the General Assembly in the Indiana State Journal, culminating in the Indiana School Law of 1852.

Through the efforts of Mills and others, the state—which lacked a common system of education—was moved to adopt legislation that translated the aspirations of universal education found in the constitutions of 1816 and 1851 into more of a reality. By 1876, one Hoosier scholar was able to write, “Whilst we have profited much by the example of other states, our people have acquired strength, wealth, and intelligence by incentives and means which they themselves have originated.”

I do not have the expertise of Mills nor, for that matter, the column inches of newspaper space he enjoyed. Nevertheless, I would like to work in his tradition and urge the General Assembly to reconsider current education policy such that, in the future, we can once again earn such a glowing assessment of our schools.

The recent wave of testing hysteria to which the state has succumbed is damaging our schools and our children. Legislators have heard this before, of course. Likely they are numb to the rhetoric. But I would truly urge them to sit down and speak with teachers in their communities.

I recently had the privilege of attending a community meeting in Tippecanoe County. The meeting was attended by the superintendents and school boards of the county’s three public school corporations, along with representatives of the United Way, leaders of the business community by way of the chamber of commerce, representatives from Purdue University’s College of Education, the mayors of both of the county’s cities, and numerous teachers and members of the public.

The group discussed a potential opportunity for replacing state- and federally-driven, high-stakes standardized testing with a locally created accountability model focused on short, formative assessments. Such assessments would help guide teachers by providing timely data about a student’s needs.

ISTEP is a cumbersome tool that takes too long to provide information about a student’s needs. An opportunity to change course has been created by the federal government’s recent replacement of No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act. However, a local initiative will require the cooperation of the state.

Tippecanoe County’s initiative is very much in the formative stages. Even so, the impact on the teachers in the audience was palpable.

Public comment included remarks from a new teacher, a teacher in the middle of his career, and a recently retired teacher. Their responses were similar. The mere idea that maybe things could get better instead of worse energized and excited them. We have so disserved our educators and our children with an oppressive, ineffective, expensive testing regime, they are deeply grateful for what should be a routine expectation: that the community—business leaders, school administrators, public servants and community leaders alike—should do what we can to help teachers to educate our children.

The districts represented were an interesting mix: the relatively affluent West Lafayette schools populated by children of Purdue faculty, the Tippecanoe County schools with more rural areas, and the more urban Lafayette schools. If the initiative can serve this varied population, perhaps it will yield benefits statewide. This is the type of locally originated initiative that, in the past, contributed to Indiana’s strength, wealth and intelligence.

My hope is that, as this process moves forward, state officials will cooperate to provide the support and flexibility necessary for this initiative to succeed.•

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Masson is a Lafayette attorney, author of Masson’s Blog and former counsel for the Legislative Services Agency. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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