A plea to trust schools – not just tests

Interview with Deborah Meier, longtime educator and reform advocate

Deborah Meier is all for high standards and accountable schools. But don't even think about telling her we need more testing.

A leading education reformer and the author of, most recently, "In Schools We Trust" (Beacon Press), Ms. Meier has seen schools help children overcome obstacles to learning. She knows it can be done. But testing, she says, only lowers standards by emphasizing breadth over depth, and makes schools accountable for the wrong things.

That's not a popular viewpoint these days, as states race to implement high-stakes graduation exams and the federal government makes test scores the basis for most school decisions. But Meier has plenty of firsthand experience on which to base her opinions.

When she started the Central Park East elementary school in East Harlem in 1974, the district had the lowest test scores in the city. she was convinced that by giving teachers more autonomy and creating a small, democratic community with high standards, she could achieve results. The school became a model in the small-schools movement and spawned other elementary schools as well as the Central Park East Secondary School, which sends 90 percent of its students to college.

Soft-spoken and unassuming, she gets a gleam in her eye and conviction in her voice when she talks about school reform and how America defines a good education.

"I just can't see asking for so little," she says, shaking her head as she thinks of what tests cover. "I never imagined [educators] could water down the meaning of 'high demands' that way."

At Mission Hill School, the K-8 public pilot school that Meier founded in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood several years ago, "high demands" means that middle school students present and defend their work twice a year in public exhibitions. In addition to knowing facts, they must show patterns and connections, explain why material is relevant, and demonstrate they understand a variety of viewpoints.

Meier bemoans the current thinking – that "the definition of being well-educated is your test score." The skills and qualities most resistant to being measured by tests, she says – initiative, for instance, or responsibility, or critical thinking – are the very skills schools should be emphasizing.

Ultimately, as the title of her book suggests, Meier wants schools that parents can trust. But this trust, she writes in the introduction, "is not based on blind faith. It is a hard-won, democratic trust in each other, tempered by healthy, active skepticism and a demand that trust be continually earned.... If there is faith involved in the kind of trust I have in mind, it is faith in the extraordinary drive and capacity of all children to learn and in the ability of ordinary adults to be powerful, active citizens in a democracy."

Sitting in her wide-open administration office at Mission Hill, where exchange among children, teachers, and parents is a daily occurrence, Meier shares other thoughts on the qualities of a good education – and why it won't come from the current test-based approach:

On the shortcomings of tests:

Tests are the least susceptible to being influenced by what schools do. It's not that schools can't do a lot, but tests are not the mechanisms for picking up what it is schools can add.

A school can enormously influence your feeling that you have knowledge that is important to other people and to the world. It can enormously influence your sense of responsibility for your ideas.... [In my experience, school] didn't make a big change in test scores, but it made an enormous change in these kids' lives.

On passive learning:

When Ted Sizer [an education reformer] wrote "Horace's Compromise," it was on the question of the passive culture of schools. Kids go through school and as long as they can pass courses or pass tests, they never have to show that they can do anything. So he developed this approach toward a portfolio assessment and having kids show their knowledge.

But we've gone the other way [in US public schools]. We've now made school an even more passive place, in which ... you could do 6 million things terribly, but if you've got good test scores, that's what we say is the measure.

On measuring learning vs. measuring knowledge:

It's not the high stakes even that I mind ..., but first we have to agree what we want to hold kids accountable for.

Do we want to hold them accountable for the periodic table of elements? I'm not objecting [to the idea] that while you're taking a chemistry course you need to know those things. But what I hold the school system accountable for ... is that I know how to learn chemistry. And that I can demonstrate that not only do I know how to learn, but if I were presented with a new problem in chemistry which I wasn't taught, I can show you how I'd go about learning it.

On whether tests can be improved:

If we were ever willing to have simple pass-fail tests – if we weren't interested in where people rank compared to other people – we probably could get better tests. But there's absolutely no evidence anyone wants to know that. They want to know where you stand in relation to other people. They want a rank order. And no, there is no way to have a rank-order test that's much different than what we have.

On money and schools:

Once you think test scores are the achievement measure, you can start proving that "money doesn't matter." At the high school I ran in New York, 90 percent of the kids graduated from high school and went on to college and did well in college. But their test scores didn't change much.

So when people say to me, "Well, more money doesn't help test scores," I say that's not the only measure. You didn't send your kid to a private school just because their test scores would go up. You sent them because they had wonderful art programs, because they had good discussions, because they taught your kid to write good essays, because they pushed your kid to think more deeply. None of which are picked up in the test. The extra measures that money offers kids – such as smaller class sizes – are not sensitive to test scores.

On accountability and school choice:

Having choice is a good mechanism [for holding schools accountable].... The wealthy always have had those choices. And they've used those choices to get their kids in schools that they thought were accountable – [but they didn't judge schools] by their test scores.

We trusted the rich to be able to judgewhether a school is right for them. So I think the rest of the public who can't afford fancy private schools should have a range of choices and opportunities to think about what they mean by a good school.

On prescribing education:

Even a nutritionist feels it's hard to know what's scientifically true. But we don't dictate for the entire population what they will and will not be allowed to eat. So here we're [dealing with] education, which is nowhere near as easy to come to scientific conclusions about, and yet the Bush administration is saying, without a lot of complaint from Democrats, that we know which is the best reading program. And we not only know which is the best approach to reading, but we actually know which of the many commercial programs is best, and that's what we're going to push, and you only get federal money if you adopt one of those approaches to reading.

We keep saying to the schools, We don't trust you to do anything. So what we're saying to kids is: The grownups in your life – your parents and your teachers and the adults you know – are not trusted by society. But this test will tell us whether you know how to read.

On an encouraging trend:

[There is a resurging] interest in small schools. Part of it came out of a [concern for] sheer physical safety, but I'm hoping that [small-school advocates] are also attached to the idea that kids and grownups have to have relationships. There has to be a reconnection between generations.... The closer [kids] get to being grownups, the less likely they are to know any grownups.

On kids who don't test well:

We just recently got the scores on [the state] writing test. I was startled by one particular girl who we think is the best writer in the school [and who scored low on the test]. How do I say this to her when she gets this score?

We had another girl who was one of the most brilliant students I ever taught. And she couldn't get into Brown because her SAT score was 890. They said if she couldget 900 they would consider her. She ended up going to Cornell, and she ended up at a great law school, and [now] she's a great lawyer.

We even had Princeton Review and Kaplan come in, and she was one of the kids who took the courses diligently. But she was from a low-income black family and the first kid to go to college in that family.

She could be president of the United States or a Supreme Court justice, she's so extraordinary. But ... there were other kids whose scores were 1300 or 1400 who didn't hold a candle to her.

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