My high blood pressure and test scores: The connection is not what you’d think

Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland teacher and Education Report blogger, thinks public education could use a new prescription.

Steven WeinbergNine years ago my doctor informed me that my blood pressure was too high and put me at higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke and could shorten my life. He put me on a medication which quickly reduced by blood pressure fairly dramatically.

Several years later he changed my prescription to a different medicine. When my blood pressure climbed back about half-way to what it had been originally, I became concerned and asked him why we had switched to a less effective medication. He said that although the first drug was very successful in lowering blood pressure, long-term studies had shown it had no effect at all in reducing fatal heart attacks and strokes, and reducing those was the real goal in prescribing the medication in the first place.

In other words, although the first medication was doing a great job changing the measurements we were tracking—blood pressure—it was having no real effect on the important goal, extending my life. The second drug, although less impressive in changing the blood pressure numbers, had a solid record in improving the things that really mattered.

Recent articles about test scores have caused me to wonder if something similar isn’t happening today in education. The testing/accountability campaign has been the dominant force in education for the last 20 years. When it was enacted it was expected that it would ensure a stronger American economy by making sure all students graduated ready for college or career. It was expected that graduation rates would increase, and that the achievement gap between racial groups would decrease.

While many states and districts are hailing upward trends in student test scores on the state tests mandated by No Child Left Behind, other news stories seem to show no progress, and even deterioration, in the areas the testing/achievement campaign was aimed to improve. No one would claim the American economy is stronger today than 20 years ago. There are few signs that American students are better prepared for colleges or careers. There is little evidence on national measures of any sizable reduction in the achievement gap or of significant growth in overall student scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress or the SATs.

Newsweek Magazine featured an article in its July 19, 2010 issue, entitled “The Creativity Crisis.” The article indicates that although “1,500 CEO’s identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future,” creativity scores of American students have decreased over the last 20 years. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” researcher Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William and Mary is quoted as saying. “It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is ‘most serious.’”

Just as the medical profession had to look beyond the blood pressure statistics to determine if a drug was truly effective in prolonging life, those of us concerned about education must look at the long-term effects of the policies we have been pursuing to see if the test/accountability program has been successful or if it has just been boosting numbers that bear no real relationship to the important work we should be doing.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    An interesting point on the way the meds work and the results.

    The desired result of our education policy is to produce adults well placed in the economy. At least with options open for them.

    I’m afraid OUSD produces too many unemployable adults who are poor criminals also. Life of poverty, early disability followed by early grave. But politically correct.

  • http://www.tigerthegecko.blogspot.com maestra

    Thanks, Steven, for that insight. You explained it in the way I’ve been trying to!

  • Hot R

    I agree Steven. America has always been know for its creativity. While nations like China ramp up their high stakes testing, when the earthquake hits, their poorly engineered buildings which cut every corner due to corruption and graft fall down. The milk is tainted, and the toys are full of lead. We should not trade creativity for high test scores.

    But don’t ignore the fact that the underclass deserves an education too, and that the fact that a testing atmosphere may stifle creativity does not mean that those students do not deserve a fighting chance in life. Creativity is bred in our genes, and cannot be exorcised by testing no matter what Arne Duncan does.

  • Jenna


    You’re still on medication – a different medication – because you are still ill – or your body is not functioning as well as it could to give you the best long life possible.

    We need to figure out a new medicine for our children in Oakland that combines a willingness to teach, a longing to learn, the ability of teacher and student to be creative and a way to make sure that the students coming from our Oakland schools are equipped to have the best, long life possible. This includes a way for them to give back to the city to make it stronger creatively, financially, and scholastically.

    The current testing method, teaching methods and school set up is not working. We need to work as a community to find a way to make the new prescription serve the needs of the students ingesting the learning.

  • oakey

    Maybe testing is your whipping boy. But we’ve had SAT’s since the 1930’s (and it was specifically introduced to make college entrance meritorious instead of an old boy’s network, excluding minorities). The problem being ignored is real reform of the teaching profession. And not a word about that problem in the article or in the comments. Arne Duncan is trying to do something about that, ergo the snide aside mentioning him. California will fall further and further behind if we are incapable of doing something about that. Of course, it’s only dysfunctional districts like OUSD where the reform is really needed. Badly.

  • Donna

    More and more colleges and universities are SAT/ACT test optional; currently, the number of schools is 840 and growing. (See list at fairtest.org.) Schools are finding that high school GPA, rigorous courseload, and class rank can also predict success in higher education.

    Education in the U.S. is subject to fads. Maybe this is due to the American spirit of innovation. Currently, it is testing/*accountability* and charter schools in K-12, and less dependence on standardized test for college entrance.

    At the same time, America has an underlying ethos of meritocracy and that we are a land of opportunity. How does this play out in policy and practice? Currently, the policy goal seems to be to prepare *everybody* for college. As Nextset frequently points out, a portion of the population will never be college material, so they are being set up for failure because they are not being vocationally prepared either. At the same time, if we make forks in the (college bound) road, particularly early ones, it seems we would be losing late bloomers and bright but misidentified youngsters such as those with vision problems or ADD.

    But college or not, we still need to make sure all our students are functionally literate and understand basic math. As shown by recent history, this country needs a populace that understands compound interest, adjustable rates, etc., and we aren’t there yet, in California or elsewhere.

  • Montclair Parent

    Incredibly interesting information and exploration of this subject – what the most valuable skills and talents will be in future business for our children in Daniel Pink’s book “A Whole New Mind” from a few years ago reached exactly this same conclusion – especially as many American jobs are outsourced that creativity and “high touch” skills will be the most valued and crucial for our country to continue to compete in a global economy.