Tests without context

We dutifully report the test scores from the Storm Lake School District every time they come out. And every time, the district students come up short on proficiency ratings required by the federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation, a bipartisan albatross that is distorting education by measuring it in standardized test scores alone. The Storm Lake community is doing everything it can — early childhood education, tutoring, intervention with failing students, alternative school, volunteer reading mentors — to teach newcomers the Three Rs and then some. But that’s not how the test scores report it.

Each year, it seems, the elementary school grows by 30 to 50 students on opening day, with more trickling in as the school year proceeds. Most of these students come in deficient in reading and writing in their own native language, much less English. Students are coming from refugee camps in Asia and Africa, from the slums of Chicago, from the barrios of East Los Angeles and San Antonio. The sheer number of languages spoken here makes the mind reel.

So yes, our test results show it.

The test results do not necessarily tell us how that boy from Honduras who began with Head Start and now is in the middle school is doing. He might have been among the deficient three years ago and today is among the proficient. But how deficient was he, and how proficient is he? The reports do not follow a student year after year.

Awhile back we posted a stirring essay by J.B. Tut, a Sudanese refugee who has gone on to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., one of the top small liberal arts colleges in America. He told about how he came here with no life skills and, thanks to the Storm Lake public school system, he left here as a college prep student hoping to attend law school.

Tut’s inspirational story is not reflected in the numbers. It never could be.

Percentage results from multiple-choice tests do not tell us how much brains or ambition a student has. We saw a television interview from the wealthiest female entrepreneur in America who noted that she bombed the law school entrance exam twice. She was smart enough without an MBA to build a $500 million company selling women’s under-garments. According to ACT or SAT, she might be a middling nobody.

The best way to measure student performance is through a teacher working in consultation with a principal and the children’s parents — supervised by a superintendent and school board that know the community and how the school is performing. That system made Iowa the top K-12 public education state in the nation.

Storm Lake has its failings, just like anyplace else. But the test results tend to paint a picture of a district that is going nowhere. And that ­couldn’t be farther from the truth. It wouldn’t matter if the federal law that set up these distorted mirrors had no teeth or strings attached. But it does. In Iowa, we are relying even more on quantitative scoring than we did in the past under the Branstad education reform. We hear nothing from Washington that would give Storm Lake relief from this teaching-to-the-test perversity. Storm Lake will continue to devote extraordinary effort to teaching our young new neighbors as best we can. And that is pretty darned good under the circumstances, no matter what the numbers say.

King stands alone

Our prediction all along was that a comprehensive immigration reform package had no chance of passing with Steve King and Wrecking Crew standing in the way. Republican House Speaker John Boehner has proposed a piecemeal approach — first build that electrified fence and then we can talk about young immigrants — because of the Tea Party zealots like King standing in the way of Establishment Republicans who want to attract Latino votes.

The atmosphere might be changing. Earlier this month a kickoff was held for the “Stop Amnesty Tour” organized by the Tea Party and featuring none other than our Rep. King as the headline speaker. Problem is, almost nobody showed up except for pro-immigration advocates who took pictures of King talking to himself. The rest of the tour was abruptly cancelled.

It could be a sign that immigration reform has a chance.

King just might have gone over the top with his suggestion that the vast majority of Latino youth are drug runners. Self-respecting Republicans might realize that they don’t want this Northwest Iowa redneck with the mouth dashing their hopes to ever win a national election with just old white men. We would note, sadly, that King could draw an appreciative crowd in his home district. That’s why our hopes remain firmly in check.