It came to light last week that Sanderson had, more or less unilaterally - as usual - switched the grade in which the system administers the nationally normed Iowa Test of Basic Skills to seventh grade from eighth for this school year. That test is the gold standard for assessing the effectiveness of the system's quality, the strength of the curriculum and the performance of individual students all across the United States and has been used in Cobb for at least the last decade.
Why does the switch in grades for the test matter? Because it severely disrupts the flow of year-to-year data on which the system's progress can be measured. A key baseline for eighth-grade progress has been jettisoned. What arguably is the best way of judging the system's quality will be shelved, and it puts off for a year any data that shows the system is improving or moving backward.
How sneaky, and how clever for those responsible for improving our system, which remains on the dreaded Needs Improvement List under No Child Left Behind.
In addition, giving the Iowa test to seventh-graders each September won't offer much information about the quality of local middle schools because it essentially will be testing the students on what they already learned in elementary school. Remember, most educators across the country consider middle school to be the weakest link in the K-12 chain.
The change in testing years is part of a behind-the-scenes effort to disrupt the system's strategic plan, which was conceived by Chairman Dr. John Abraham and the rest of the school board, to its credit, as a way of helping hold the superintendent and central office accountable and raise the academic bar. Now, it looks that plan is being shaped by the superintendent to his own ends, including reducing his accountability. Some of its 340 or so listed goals are worthwhile, but others are silly or simply hard to measure, such as "implement programs to encourage bus ridership," "increase the servings of fruit" in school cafeterias, "increase district and school community participation," "schools (will) use available tools effectively and frequently" and "issue more press releases."
We may eventually get a strategic plan from this board, but it may be meaningless. For all practical purposes, the board's plan has been co-opted by the superintendent. Remember: If Sanderson was truly serious about such a plan, he could have set goals at any time without waiting for the board.
The plan started out as a good idea, but those good intentions have slowly fizzled. It was announced in January, and approved in draft form by the board in June. But it has yet to get around to setting the plan's goals and targets. Private sector companies routinely set quarterly and annual goals for themselves and use them to hold themselves accountable to stockholders and others - but for the Cobb school board, it's been an effort in foot-dragging. At the rate it's going, this board could leave office at the end of next year and still not have passed its strategic plan. And when it arrives, it's likely to gather dust, especially since it remains murky as to who sets the goals and whose heads will roll if they are not met.
MEANWHILE, THE BOARD made a mockery of its newfound emphasis on transparency at its meeting last Wednesday when the subject of the tests came up. The board, at that meeting, voted to approve a welcome slate of changes aimed at doing more of its business in public. But at the same meeting, when board members David Morgan and Alison Bartlett began questioning the switch, Chairman Abraham hastily called a "five-minute break" so he and the other members (with the notable exceptions of Morgan and Bartlett) could huddle.
Why? Sanderson, associate superintendent Dr. Steve Constantino and an array of other staffers were just feet away, and easily could have answered, in public, any query on the topic from Abraham and the board.
Abraham later admitted the interlude was not a "potty break." Rather, it allowed him and the four board members in favor of moving the Iowa tests to talk privately, apparently to get their stories straight about the genesis of the move, and to decide to accuse Morgan and Bartlett of failing to read all 33 pages of the June version of the strategic plan. But old habits seem to die hard with this board. Secrecy seems to be in its DNA.
SO THE DUMBING DOWN of the Cobb school system continues. The board this spring approved the move by Sanderson to implement the faddish 3-2-1 Standards Based Report Cards in the early grades, and the equally watery Standards Based Grading, which likewise fails to reward excellence and is spreading like kudzu in Cobb high schools without board approval or any explanation from Sanderson about why it's being used. Now the system is dumbing down its standardized testing, apparently having decided that the CRCTs are a better gauge of system and student results than the nationally administered Iowa tests.
The problem with that theory is that the CRCTs (Criterion Referenced Competency Test) are developed by the state - and Georgia isn't exactly known for the rigor of its public education system. We're at the bottom of the proverbial barrel. The state not only designs the CRCTs but sets the passing scores, and thus the educational "bar," however high or low it wants. The CRCT is hardly in the same league as the prestigious Iowa test.
Recall that last year more than half of Cobb students failed their summer school CRCT retests. Asked about that dismal showing, the county's chief accountability officer, Judi Jones, noted that summer school is not long enough for most students to catch back up and pass the test. Fine. So what is the answer? Obviously, longer summer sessions or longer summer school days.
But what was the board response? It may vote Aug. 27 to slash funding for summer school by $1 million as a budget-cutting measure, and merge summer school into an untested after-school program. In fairness, Cobb is not the only system taking such an approach during this shaky economy and belt-tightening.
In addition, CRCT scores have been trending upward the past few years, while Georgia's Iowa Test scores have been trending down. So which test is Cobb preparing to start emphasizing? You guessed it - the easier, self-serving one, the CRCT, the one without a national reputation, not the one that, for example, businesspeople and others look at when considering whether to move to our state.
SHIFTING THE IOWA TEST by one grade may not be that important, although without the baseline it delays any comparisons with other systems by a year or two. But the episode is just more of the same: Sanderson hiding information from his board, co-opting his board's strategic plan and usurping their authority. Moving the test to seventh grade from eighth cancels the most authoritative way of making an "apples to apples" comparison between our schools and those elsewhere in the country. If you wanted to disguise the results turned in by Cobb's students and schools, this is the way to do it.
Cobb's public schools historically have been among the best in Georgia. But if we are ever to achieve the "world class" system we've heard so much about, we're going to have to be able to hold our own against the best on this test and others, such as the SAT, the results of which are due in just a few days and which for years have shown Georgia's schools far behind.
The Iowa Test of Basic Skills is the "gold standard" of standardized tests, and it's the one by which our system and our eighth-graders deserve to be measured before they start high school.