Saturday, August 6, 2011

More Talk About ISTEP Testing

HARBESON: Playing the percentages

SELLERSBURG — A couple of weeks ago when this newspaper reported on local government schools’ ISTEP testing, I said it made me yawn because the results bear little relationship to my definition of learning.

So when I saw the ISTEP report on Southern Indiana’s two government charter schools, I prepared for a nice nap. However, I was jolted awake by the justifications both charters used to defend their inadequate scores.

Like me, Community Montessori administrators don’t put much stock in ISTEP scores because the learning that occurs in a Montessori environment would not necessarily show up on a standardized test meant for traditional schools. They believe if they did teach in a way that focused on standardized testing, then it wouldn’t be a Montessori school.

But since the school is government funded, it has to accept the strings attached and as a result it spent 20 percent of its time on improving ISTEP scores. So is it really a Montessori school any longer? I suppose we can say it is an 80 percent Montessori school, which is better than any number less than that point. But how much does a 20 percent change affect the philosophical goals?

Take a moment and pick something you value, such as your income, your family or maybe even the number of hours you sleep. Now, if you suddenly lost 20 percent, would anything change? For example, if your spouse suddenly went from being 100 percent faithful to 80 percent faithful, would you still define your relationship as a marriage?

What if we could ask Maria Montessori if she would accept 20 percent less focus on her philosophy? How do you think she might respond?

Of course, the most important person to consider in regards to the 20 percent marker is the actual learner. If a child has to spend time being molded to fit inside a government-imposed test, can we even measure the potential damage this might have on his ability to truly absorb Montessori values about learning?

Now, Rock Creek Community Academy probably doesn’t have it quite as bad. It’s true they had to dump their religious principles to grab government money, but they were already believers in the traditional school model of domination and control, so submitting to the authority of government-imposed testing is not really out of their boundaries.

However, even though the schools are quite different in philosophy, what I found most interesting in their comments is that they both claim to value the growth of the whole child over training skills for a government test. This is a fine goal, but what set my alarm buzzing was both schools’ direct claim on teaching moral development.

These two charter schools have a problem if they want to claim authority to teach moral and character-driven approaches because they are stuck in a moral contradiction of their own — accepting other people’s money taken by force in order to fund what they do.

That’s a tough enough moral quandary for traditional government schools, but these charters have it even worse because they both previously operated in the voluntary market. What is their lesson?

Well, if you are struggling to persuade people to voluntarily fund what you do, then it’s OK to use government to force people to fund it.

ISTEP might make me yawn, but I’m awake enough to realize it wouldn’t be right to lie down and pretend not to notice when ANY entity that uses aggression and coercion claims that their first priority is to teach the moral and character development of children.

I trust that those who believe in these schools and the values they claim to hold will seriously consider the contradictions here. I know it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for me, too, because I have personal connections to good people involved in these schools.

But that does not give me an excuse to ignore basic contradictions and not challenge them when I hear them. That just wouldn’t be right — even 20 percent of the time.

— Southern Indiana resident Debbie Harbeson says that when she loses 20 percent of her sleep time, it’s always a nightmare, particularly for the people around her.

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