Sunday, December 21, 2014

Defending The Test

Feeling feisty after a successful election run, Republicans are reportedly gunning for various limbs of the reformster octopus, and reformsters are circling the wagons for strategic defense of those sucker-covered limbs.

People are finally remembering that it's the ESEA, due to be transformed from No Child Left Behind into something new since 2007, which gives current reformster wave of waivers its power. Fix the ESEA properly and you cut the legs out from under the current non-laws governing K-12 education in this country. At Ed Week, Klein and Camera report that some GOP aides are already drafting a version of an ESEA rewrite that removes the federal testing mandate. I'm a fan of the idea; months ago, I picked high stakes testing as the reformy thing I'd most like to see die.

Massive high stakes testing is at the center of the reformster program, but it's also one of the most visible and widely hated features of reformsterism. Duncan and other bureaucrats have been issuing word salads aimed at changing the optics since last summer, but nothing of substance has been done to lessen the impact of high stakes testing. Duncan saying, "Schools shouldn't focus on testing so much" without changing any of the policies related to testing is like a mugger saying, "Don't be so pre-occupied with my gun" while he continues to take your wallet.

Our current system is positively Kafkaesque, or possibly Dilbertesque. Schools have literally stopped doing our jobs full time so that we can devote more time to generating reports on how well we're doing our job. Even if the Big Test were an accurate measure of how well we're doing our job (which they are most certainly not), the current set-up is unequivocally absolutely stupid. It is like having welders spend half as many hours welding so that they can write up reports on output of the welding unit in the factory. It's like having your boyfriend go on half as many dates so that he can stay home and write notes about how much he misses you. It's like feeding your baby half as many meals because you need to keep him on the scale to check if he's gaining enough weight.

Actually-- it's worse than all of those. It is supervisory bureaucrats believing that their part of the process-- checking on how the work is going-- is more important than actually doing the work.

Objections to cutting testing all fall into that category. They are all variations on, "But if testing is cut, how will my office know what is going on in classrooms." Well, dipstick, we are trying to tell you what is going on in classrooms-- teachers regularly stop doing actual teaching so that they can prepare for and take your damn tests.

People propose local tests. Reformsters complain that local people just don't know how to make sexy, rigorous tests as well as corporate sponsors like Pearson. People propose staggering the tests, taking only one a year, or one every couple of years. Reformsters claim that this would make it easier to game the system, as if the testing system is not one giant game right now.

In his defense of testing, Andy Smarick offers this list of benefits of annual testing:
  • It makes clear that every student matters.
  • It makes clear that the standards associated with every tested grade and subject matter.
  • It forces us to continuously track all students, preventing our claiming surprise when scores are below expectations.
  • It gives us the information needed to tailor interventions to the grades, subjects, and students in need.
  • It gives families the information needed to make the case for necessary changes.
  • It enables us to calculate student achievement growth, so schools and educators get credit for progress.
  • It forces us to acknowledge that achievement gaps exist, persist, and grow over time.
  • It prevents schools and districts from “hiding” less effective educators and programs in untested grades.
Most of these are laudable goals-- that can be accomplished in other, better ways. Please don't tell me that if we put a group of teachers and education thought leaders in a classroom and asked, "What's the best way to make it clear that every student matters?"-- please don't tell me that the first answer on everybody's lips would be, "Why, to give them all a standardized test, of course!" Some of these are marketing issues-- reformsters like Big Tests Scores as a means to push choice and charters. And some of these are bureaucratic. Smarick's last three items have nothing at all to do with schools doing their job well; they are simply about making sure Important People have data points to put on bureaucratic and political documents.

Smarick shares with Andrew Saultz and others the belief that testing is also necessary in order to target failing schools. I call baloney on this. Smarick has been a critic of lousy urban schooling for a while; I don't believe for a second that he needed standardized test scores to conclude that some poor urban schools were doing a lousy job. If my hand is resting on a red-hot electric range, and the flesh is sizzling and smoke is curling up from my hand, I'm not standing there saying, "Hey, could someone bring me a thermometer so I could check this temp? I might have a problem here."

The one argument I can concede is that terrible test scores might allow activists to light a fire under the butts of non-responsive politicians (who would not notice a burning hand unless it was holding a thick stack of $100 bills). But we've had time for that to work, and it isn't happening. Lousy scores in poor urban schools are not being used to funnel resources, make infrastructure improvements or  otherwise improve poor urban schools-- results are just being used to turn poor urban schools into investment and money-making opportunities for charter operators and investors, and after a few years those outfits have no successes to point to that aren't the result of creaming or creative number-crunching. So this pro-test argument is also invalid.

Mike Petrilli has also stepped up to defend testing. Responding to the reported rewrite initiatives he asks,

Do Republicans really want to scrap the transparency that comes from measuring student (and school and district) progress from year to year and go back to the Stone Age of judging schools based on a snapshot in time? Or worse, based on inputs, promises, and claims? Are they seriously proposing to eliminate the data that are powering great studies and new findings every day on topics from vouchers to charters to teacher effectiveness and more?

The biggest problem with Petrilli's defense is that the current battery of bad standardized tests are not accomplishing any of those things. They are not providing transparency; they are just providing more frequent bad data than the "stone age" technique. The current Big Tests get their own authority and power from nothing more than "inputs, promises and claims." For-profit corporations are really good at creating that kind of marketing copy, but that doesn't make it so. And if data from the Big Tests are powering great studies and new findings, I'd like to see just one of them, because I read up pretty extensively, and I haven't seen a thing that would match that description.

Petrilli does, however, have one interesting idea-- "kill the federal mandate around teacher evaluation and much of the over-testing will go away."

I've always said that Petrilli is no dummy (I"m sure he feels better knowing I've said it). Tying teacher (and therefore school, and, soon, the college from which the teachers graduated) evaluation to both The Test and to the teachers' career prospects guarantees that schools will be highly motivated to center much of everything around that test. This is an aspect of the testing biz that Arne either doesn't understand or is purposefully ignoring. I tend toward the latter; if we go back to the Race to the Top program, we see that teacher evaluation linked to test results is the top policy goal.

If the test result mandate didn't come from the feds, each state would come up with its own version. It might not be any better than the current situation, but we'd have fifty interesting fights instead of one big smothering federal blanket. And each state would still have to come up with some sort of answer to the question of how to evaluate a fifth grade art teacher with third grade math test results.

Of course, there's a trade-off with reducing pressure to do all testing, all the time. The less pressure associated with The Big Test, the more students will not even pretend to take the tests a little bit seriously, and the less valid the results will be (and as invalid as the results are now, there's plenty of room left for that to go further south).

Tests are going stay under the gun because they are at once both the most visible and most senseless part of reformsterism. They are an even easier target for Republicans that the Common Core itself because unlike CCSS, everybody knows exactly what they are and whether or not they've been rolled back, and their supporters can't point at a single concrete benefit to offset the anxiety, counter-intuitive results, and massive waste of school time. And tests have reached into millions of American homes to personally insult families ("You may think your child is bright and worthy, but I'm an official gummint test here to tell you that your kid is a big loser").

But tests will be vigorously defended because-- Good God!! Look at that mountain of money!! The business plan of Pearson et al is about way more testing, not less. Test data is important to create charter marketing and support voucher programs. And because technocrats need data to drive their vision of reform, so they can never admit that the emperor not only has no clothes, but also is not actually an emperor but rather a large hairless rat that has learned to walk on its hind legs.

In short, The Big Test may turn out to be the front line, the divider between people who are worried about actual live human children and people who are worried about programs and policies and -- Good God!! That mountain of money is sooooo huge!!! You can bet that as we speak, lobbyists and their ilk are being dispatched toot suite to do some 'splaining to those GOP politicians who are after the bread and butter. Keep your eyes peeled as we enter the new year to see how this plays out.


  1. Exactly why I joined the opt out movement 3 years ago: High-stakes testing is the root of corporate education reform.

  2. "Schools shouldn't focus on testing so much" without changing any of the policies related to testing is like a mugger saying, "Don't be so pre-occupied with my gun" while he continues to take your wallet." this is happening from the Commissioner's letter when they send out information -- they use this tactic. The Commissioner's office develops the state VAM model -- our "growth model" in Massachusetts is flawed. Plugging experimental tests (with no reliability or validity) into a flawed algorithm won't provide any valid information about students or curriculum. The Commissioner's and Governors need to hear that

  3. Even if the Big Test were an accurate measure of how well we're doing ...