There's no rhyme or reason in school testing and funding
I recently watched the Heights High Drama Club perform “The Phantom Tollbooth,” the story of a bored young boy who travels to a different realm with two imaginary kingdoms. After a disagreement, the kingdoms banish the two princesses, Rhyme and Reason. Without these two royals the whole realm is in chaos, as you might expect. This all strikes a little close to home in our current era of national and state politics.
In the play, one of the most interesting scenes is a banquet where the spoken word is taken literally, with “square meals” being some sort of square-shaped food. Students updated the “half-baked ideas” part of the dinner with their own reflections of current society. One pulled out a half-baked idea and read “the earth is flat,” which made everyone chuckle. Another picked “vaccines cause autism.” Clearly, our students are up-to-date with the current news. The last student’s half-baked idea was “standardized tests accurately measure student learning.” Our students know that the tests they are forced to take are a joke.
Half-baked ideas abound around standardized tests. How can real teaching go on when students are being tested for 90, 110 or 180 minutes, seven different days in April. This disruption leads to shortened periods two or three times per week, so teaching starts and stops constantly. It is difficult to teach new material in 30 minutes to students who have just concentrated intensely for 90 minutes on a high-stakes test that will determine if they will graduate high school. By the second week of this regimen our kids are exhausted, frustrated and angry. Similar testing schedules also occur in elementary and middle schools during April. Thanks to oppressive testing, April is the doldrums for learning; it is hard to get anything done.
One hopeful possibility in Ohio is that there seems to be some recognition by state lawmakers that, in creating a new biennial budget, there is an opportunity to create a funding formula that works properly for more schools. Currently, more than 80 percent of school districts in Ohio are not funded by a formula because it would strip them of needed funds—they are on a “guarantee” of some random amount of money. Perhaps this makes our current funding formula a 20-percent baked idea, even less than half-baked. Representatives Bob Cupp (Republican) and John Patterson (Democrat) have been working together on creating a new formula that has promise. It still needs some work, but appears to try to address funding issues through a lens that takes into consideration multiple factors, such as poverty of students, property wealth of the district, and services needed.
Even though voucher and charter students are counted in the number of students enrolled, the amount of funding our district loses for these students is disproportionate to the money allocated on a per-student basis. Local property tax revenue is forced to subsidize students our district does not teach. This school year, CH-UH lost more than $9 million through this flawed method—a number that will continue to grow unless there is change at the state level. The Cupp-Patterson plan would fund these parallel school systems so that public schools will not suffer a loss of funding for students they don’t serve.
I am often inspired by my students, especially through the arts. “The Phantom Tollbooth” was refreshing to see. I am proud that these kids take the time from schoolwork and do something real. The actors, stage crew, lighting and sound technicians all contributed in making this an amazingly entertaining production. I am also inspired by them for using this venue to slip in issues directly impacting their lives. Too bad standardized tests are not fiction or some joke from the past. Instead, students are still forced to suffer, since rhyme and reason in Ohio still seem to be banished.
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.