In EdWeek, Marc Tucker enters the debate between educators and some civil rights groups regarding the regular standardized testing of students. It is a good summary of all the reasons that the civil rights community should reconsider their support for the reformster testing program.
This is notable because Tucker, while a smart man with a lot to say about education, is not exactly a champion of government non-interference. He's the author of the infamous Dear Hillary letter which gives us one of the earliest visions of the education system as a giant data-grabbing, Big Brothery monstrosity. It's Tucker who helped give us one of the first pictures of the cradle-to-career pipeline, a program for following every child through life with handy data scoopers. That was decades ago-- today Tucker is a champion of comparing US education to other nations that more thoroughly oversee the educations of every child.
In other words, Tucker is not one to shy away from the kind of large-scale, intrusive program represented by reformsters' beloved Big Standardized Testing. And yet, here he is, counting off the reasons that BS Testing is not actually the civil rights issue of our time.
He hears what the civil rights community is saying:
Take this requirement away, the civil rights groups say, and we will go
back to the era in which schools were able to conceal the poor
performance of poor and minority children behind high average scores for
the schools. Once that happens, the schools will have no incentive to
work hard to improve those scores and the performance of poor and
minority kids will languish once again.
None of this is true, though I am quite sure the civil rights community believes it is true.
Why not? Let's count the ways.
Things were getting better before testing.
The advent of No Child Left Behind actually slowed down the progress we were making with poor, non-white students. There is no evidence that any of the reformy stuff has helped improve performance of high school students.
There's no evidence this works anywhere.
If you're going to argue that testing every child every year will help, you need to be able to point to a place where it has been done successfully. There is no such place. There are, however, plenty of places with smaller achievement gaps but without the testing going on.
We can get the data we need less intrusively
Tucker, as mentioned above, is actually a big fan of data. But tests given to a sample of students every few years would tell us "everything we need to know" about how poor and non-white students are doing school by school. It's cheaper, less disruptive, and just as useful.
Current testing is not neutral
It's not just that BS Testing of every child every year isn't helpful. It is, Tucker argues, actually harmful.
Massive testing makes "bargain tests" most desireable.
This is an interesting point that I have not often seen. Because schools have to buy sooooo many tests, we ends up with a cheaper product. The argument for state (and, once upon a time) national tests has been that massive buying power would drive test costs down. But that's a rich person's argument. Cost per unit may be low, but the number of units is huge. Getting 500 iPhones for $100 each is a great deal, but you still have to spend $50K to take advantage of it. Tucker does not also address, but could, that testing-related expenses leave high-poverty schools with less money to spend on other materials, resources and programs that could be improving students' educations.
Tucke'rs point-- school systems need bargain tests, so we've got these bad "dumbed-down" tests.
Teaching to the (bad) test
Wealthy communities already expect their students to work beyond what the dumbed-down tests require, but poor communities need to do well on the BS Tests to survive (otherwise, it's turnaround time). So those poor and non-white students get a heaping helping of dumbed down curriculum to prepare for their dumbed down tests.
Tucker is slightly off the mark here in that he underestimates just how bad this gets. He argues that teachers learn to ignore the students who will certainly pass the test and the students who will never pass the test and focus all attention on the maybes. He is correct about the focused targeting, but this isn't a classroom teacher thing-- in many areas it becomes a school policy. Students find their schedules reconfigured based on practice test results, with a large chunk of students getting less time and attention based not on their educational need, but on their potential test results. He also misses that this focus on test prep squeezes out other aspects of education-- Pat doesn't get to take band or art or even history because Pat's day is devoted to test prep.
Tucker asks whose interests all this serves and determines "it is the interest of those who hold that the way to improve our
schools is to fire the teachers whose students do not perform well on
the tests." That's the real reason for every student every year-- we need that level of data to be able to fire teachers based on test results.
Teachers are not opposed to annual accountability testing because they
are enemies of their students' civil rights. They are opposed to annual
accountability testing because it is being used to punish teachers in
ways that are grossly unfair and singularly ineffective.
Tucker becomes the sixty-gazzillionth person to point out that VAM is crap, and he notes that this approach is damaging the teaching pool in general and the teaching pool of poor schools in particular. Teachers will avoid poor schools because the combination of bad tests, predictably poor results, and a junk science evaluation system makes high-poverty schools career-killers.This makes it just that much harder to get high-poverty schools the top-quality teachers they need.
Tucker is saying to civil rights groups, "Your concerns are real and legitimate, but BS Testing every year every child not only isn't helping, but is actually hurting the very students you want to help." It's a compelling argument; only time will tell if it's convincing.