Monday, March 3, 2014

11 Essential Questions from the Network for Public Education

At the wrap-up from last weekend's Network for Public Education conference in Austin, TX, the leaders of the national pro-public education (I realize that alignment should be obvious from the title, but these days you can't assume these things) issued a call for Congressional hearings " to investigate the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s K-12 public schools."

NPE offered a list of eleven essential questions for Congress to ask, but I'd offer those questions to anyone who is questioning test-based high stakes education in their schools. There will be, I hope, plenty written about this, but the word needs to be spread far and wide.These are questions that need to be answered, in public, loudly.

Do the tests promote skills our children and our economy need? Is there a big market for professional bubblers, or people who can take tests that are easy to score with a computer? If we need creative thinkers, problem solvers and collaborators for the future, do these tests foster or measure any of those abilities? Tests promote certain values by virtue of saying "This is what counts." Are the tests aligned with the skills we really value?

What is the purpose of these tests? Couldn't be to help me teach, because the students in my class who take them will be gone by the time I see my highly generalized results. Nor will my students get any kind of useful feedback from them. So why do we need to take these again?

How good are the tests? Take a look at them. This may take some work, because test security is high, almost as if the test-makers knew that their work couldn't stand the light of day. "Tests are not scientific instruments like barometers; they are commercial products that are subject to multiple errors."

Are tests being given to children who are too young? Let be plain-- if you are giving a standardized test to a kindergartner, you are a dope. If you are giving a timed test that requires keyboarding to an eight-year-old, you are a dope. And an abusive dope at that.

Are tests culturally biased? Do we even have to ask? Standardized tests universally correlate to socio-economic class. That tells us either that a) class is completely a function of intellect and all rich people are rich because of their superior merit or b) tests include a class bias. Take your pick.

Are tests harmful to students with disabilities? The horror stories of dying children being forced to take standardized tests are terrible in and of themselves, but they underline a larger point-- the people pushing this stuff really haven't thought things through. At worst, testing is damaging to students with disabilities. At best, the tests have been rushed through so quickly and haphazardly that adaptations that might allow disabled students to actually be measured by the tests have been completely overlooked.

How have the frequency and quantity of testing increased? Testing time has an opportunity cost. A day spent testing is a day not spent playing in band or drawing art or playing in phys ed. It's a day not spent studying history or science. Increased testing has the effect of shortening the school year. What would you say if your child's school announced that the year would be over in March? That is effectively what increased testing is doing in some schools.

Does testing harm teaching? Are teachers in your district so worried about the test scores that they have narrowed their instruction? Do you have teachers who are buckling under the stress of possible bad evaluations because of test scores that, in many cases, they can't even control?

How much money does it cost? Again, don't just look at the expense-- look at the opportunity costs. LA schools spent $1 billion on ipads for their students as part of a testing initiative. If someone had given LAUSD $1 billion dollars and they had said, "What's the best stuff we could get with this money?" would over-priced ipads have carried the day? Districts are looking at the cost of tests, pre-tests, hiring test prep coaches, and in some states, technology upgrades to make testing possible. What is this costing you?

Are there conflicts of interest in testing policies? Not really a question here. By working all sides of this issue-- producing the test, producing the aligned materials, producing the legislation and standards that drive it all-- corporations are creating both the demand and the supply. \

Was it legal for the U.S. Department of Education to fund two testing consortia for the Common Core State Standards? Okay, so this question really is for Congress. But the feds are barred from directing local education, and the last twelve years sure look like a clever end-run around that legality. Is this administration even worse with legalities? Before you answer too loudly, you may want to keep in mind that the current administration believes it's legal to kill a US citizen who in their opinion represents a threat to our country.

On one level, I'm not that excited about asking Congress to look into this (that would be the level that believes the current Congress is not capable of getting much right, as well as the level that believes the federal government needs to just get out of the education biz). But on another level, I welcome anything that puts the current test-driven high stakes status quo under scrutiny. There's so much going on that can't stand the light of day any better than a light-sensitive cockroach, so anything that throw light toward it is welcome.

1 comment:

  1. "Are tests harmful to students with disabilities?"

    My concern with this one is that some of these cases are so egregious that it's easy to say that's not right, enact some law that pardons some terminal students from having to do their time on the test, and then move onto the next thing without ever actually looking at the issue. Yes, obviously, severely disabled students shouldn't have to take these tests (it's a testament to how screwed up things are that this is even an issue), but what about the student with a learning disability who can't read? Does forcing him to take the reading portion of the test accomplish anything? I mean other than shoving his failure in his face? Sometimes you can argue for something that causes harm because it also causes a greater good (doesn't mean it is right, but that at least there's an argument to be made for it); however, with these students, there's absolutely nothing to be gained from taking the test.