Another Ohio ed professor throws the baby out with the bathwater

Standards-based reform in education is imperfect. The ways that states and districts assess kids, design tests, and attempt to hold teachers and schools accountable are bound to be flawed, lead to unintended consequences, and create many enemies along the way. But I wish the opponents of standards-based reform in Ohio would at least get a little more creative.

You may recall from a few months ago that Karl Wheatley, Cleveland State University ed professor, said the best way to improve education would be to "stop focusing on student achievement ." I outlined why I thought that was a bad idea here . The gist of his argument, believe it or not, was that because standardized testing creates "collateral damage," perverse incentives, etc. the best thing to do is to stop trying to raise student achievement.

Yesterday's op-ed in the Columbus Dispatch from another education professor, Thomas Stephens of Ohio State, comes from the same predictable script (aka "we don't like the focus on standards/testing/accountability so let's call for its demise-or at least replace it with a nebulous emphasis on problem solving and innovative thinking"). In "Standards obstruct education," Stephens argues that Ohio's decision to revise academic standards is a waste of time and money because, among other things, it "doesn't consider the needs of... children." This commentary uses the same creepy factory language intended to pit "standards-teach-and-test fanatics" against reasonable, warm-hearted education professors - e.g. "assembly-line-atmospheres" and the metaphor of children as widgets. (The other op-ed argued that politicians and CEOs pursue higher test scores just so America can be no. 1. Right .)

To reiterate, standards-based reforms are bound to have problems (just like any other endeavor whose outcomes we attempt to measure and reward). But Stephens' analysis of Ohio's "obsession with learning standards" overlooks some obvious reasons that the Ohio Department of Education is right to spend so much time revising standards, such as the fact that the National Center for Education Statistics' recent report finds that states are watering down their standards and student proficiency is flat. Or that Ohio will be more competitive to win federal Race to the Top money if it aligns to internationally benchmarked standards.

The ultimate reason to spend "untold hours and millions of dollars" on getting academic standards right, however, is that the poorest and neediest kids suffer the most from inadequate standards. Poor children from places like Dayton, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus who don't perform well on standardized tests are less likely to graduate from high school and far more apt to end up unemployed or incarcerated as adults. Standards-based tests do measure something important, albeit imperfectly. And it is only because of this emphasis on testing and accountability that we are aware of Ohio's inexcusable achievement gaps, and can begin to address them.

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