It's the season of testing again, a season that has no come so many times that lots of folks don't even question it any more? But it's a question that needs to be asked about the Big Standardized Test-- why, exactly, are we still doing this? We've had a variety of answers over the years-- let's see how they hold up.
The Bathroom Scales
Take the test! It's just like weighing yourself on the bathroom scales! Early on many reformsters suggested that weighing the pig would make it gain weight, but that's stupid. So we weigh the school-- then what? That "then what" is a huge part of the problem, but the other part of the problem is trying to use the read-out on the bathroom scales to determine how tall, how healthy, and how well-adjusted the weigh-ee is. This was always a really dumb analogy.
Compare and Contrast
The BS Tests would let us compare a rural school in Idaho with an urban school in Michigan. It would let us compare every third grader to every other third grader. This is no longer possible-- different states have different sets of standards, and there are a wide variety of BS Tests being given, so we're back to comparing apples to watermelons.
VAM has problems. So many problems that there's a long list of folks who don't think it should be used for this purpose.
Informing Staffing Decisions
It was a fond dream that test-based evaluation would lead to evaluation based hiring, firing and compensation policies. This balloon never lifted off the ground, perhaps because the teacher pipeline has dried up so badly that schools are in no hurry to inflict a staffing shortage on themselves, and because some states are already paying teachers so little that they don't need a ginned-up excuse to pay teachers even less. Also, as noted, test-based evaluation of teachers doesn't work. If you're a principal, who are you going to believe-- test data, or your own eyes, ears, and brain?
The failed evaluation piece means that another dream is also dead. That's the dream in which BS Test results are used to identify super-duper teachers, who are then tasked with spreading their super-duper teacherly wisdom to other less super-duper teachers. In fact, states were supposed to have a plan for moving good teachers to low-achieving schools, but that never happened because it turns out rendering educators is illegal in the US.
Helping Schools in Trouble
The BS Tests were going to help us identify schools that were "troubled" or "failing" or "sucky." One might argue that we can already find these schools without any trouble, but I suppose a case can be made that numbers you can wave at politicians might give some heft to that identification. The problem here is what hasn't happened. "Look, this school is clearly having trouble, so let's get them additional resources and help," said no legislature ever. Instead, the low-achievement label is used to justify targeting that school for destruction. Low scores can be used to justify the launch of charter businesses, or even the gentrification of entire sectors of a community. Low-scoring schools are not targeted for assistance; they are targeted for dismantling.
We would find where non-wealthy non-white student populations were being ill-served. Anyone who can't figure that out without the BS Test is a dope. And as with the last point, the problem has been that the data hasn't so much been used to find schools that need help as it has been used to find schools that are vulnerable and ready to be turned into somebody's business opportunity. Instead of focusing our will to address educational inequity, test-based accountability has highlighted our lack of will (and wasted the good intentions of some folks).
Teachers were going to get their data spreadsheets and figure out, with laser-like precision, how they needed to change their instruction. But right off the bat it became clear that data about students in your class would only arrive long after the students had departed for their next classroom. Then the security issue reared its stupid head-- I can see student scores, but I am forbidden to see the test itself. (For that matter, students who are so inclined are unable to see their specific results to ask "What exactly did I get wrong here?") This means I can tell that Pat only got an okayish score, based on some questions that might have asked about something about reading that Pat apparently answered incorrectly. How can that inform my instruction? It can't. It doesn't. The BS Tests "inform instruction" mostly by encouraging teachers to spend more time on test prep. That's not a good thing.
Letting Parents Know How Their Children Are Doing
Under this theory, parents have no idea how their children are doing in school until the BS Test results appear. Assuming for the moment that the parents are that disconnected, the information provided is minimal, scoring a few categories on a 1-3 or 1-4 scale. A BS Test provides very non-granular data, less nuanced than a report card-- and based on just one test. There is nothing for parents to learn here.
Unmask the Lies
Of course, guys like Arne Duncan were sure that once the BS Test revealed the Truth-- that US schools are super-stinky-- folks like the fabled suburban white moms would have to face the Truth that their children were actually doing terribly. And then we tried talking about the honesty gap. Basically, a whole bunch of folks started with the premise that schools and the teachers who work in them largely suck and the BS Test would be a tool for revealing the Awful Truth (for some folks, you can also insert a screed about a vast union scam and conspiracy here). Somehow, that never happened. It's almost as if the vast majority of teachers don't actually suck.
Redefine What It Means To Be Educated
I don't know that this was a very widespread goal, but it was certainly near and dear to the hearts of guys like David Coleman, who had a good idea of what he did and didn't approve of in education, and dreamed of using standards hard-wired to high-stakes tests to force people to see things his way. Very few hearts and minds have been won at this point.
As a Backdoor Method of Imposing State and Federal Amateur Top-Down Control of Curriculum in Local Schools
Okay, this goal has kind of worked out. Many school districts have redesigned their curriculum to "align" with the BS Test (not the standards, but the "anchor" standards, or standards that will be tested). Heck, some school districts have restructured the district itself to accommodate the test (what's the best to handle the fact that 8th graders tend to do poorly on these tests? either fold them into your high school, or lower your "middle school" years so that they include elementary tests.) Test-centered curriculum affects students scheduling, with students who come up short on the practice tests may find they have to schedule around double math or double reading (no art, music, or history for you, kid). Within math and English classes, teachers are directed to use "data" from practice tests to "inform" their instruction, which fo course necessitates dropping content that is not On The Test.
So yes-- this particular goal of the BS Test is being achieved. It's just a very bad thing.
Bonus Paranoid Goal
You may believe that one of the goals of the testing regime is to destabilize, dismantle, and destroy public schools. I think some reformsters really thought this was going to help, and you can spot them because they are acknowledging that they failed. I think other reformsters weren't necessarily scheming, but when this came down the pike, they smelled an opportunity. And some reformsters absolutely want to see public education dismantled and the pieces sold off. BS Tests have been a useful tool in selling the narrative that public schools are "failing," that students are "trapped" in terrible public schools. In fact, BS Testing has been a kind of two-fer, because if you want to claim that public schools are failing, you can argue that they are now tied up in testing and following stupid government rules. Hey-- it's even a three-fer, because reformsters who want to move on to the Next Big Thing can say, "Yes, this test-centered reform is awful-- what we really need is Personalized Competency Based Learning Education Stuff!"
But How Else Will We Know How Schools Are Doing?
It's a fake question, because it assumes that BS Tests are now telling us how schools are doing, and they aren't. Nobody's definition of a Good School is "one in which students score well on a once-a-year math and reading test." There are so many things that matter in deciding if a school is a good one or not, and the vast majority (perhaps all) of them are not measured by the BS Tests.
So, Back To The Main Question
The Big Standardized Test was launched into schools with big goals, big plans, big dreams-- and none of them have come true. We've been doing this for oh so many years now, and if we were going to reap benefits, we would be awash in those benefits right now. We are not. Not by the measure of the supposedly "gold standard" NAEP test, not by college success, not by an economic and cultural renaissance caused by an influx of super5-educated young people.
Some of the goals associated with the test were not worthwhile goals to begin with. Some of the results have proven to be hugely undesirable. I don't believe that anyone associated with test-centered accountability said, "Oh, and let's try to make young children really stressed out to the point that they are crying and pulling hair-- that would be cool!" And yet, here we are.
Here we are spending a buttload of tax money on a product that has not delivered on any of its promises-- a buttload of money that could be spent to make schools better. Here we are shortening the school year so that even less instruction can take place.
Here we are continuing with the testing regimen even though, after two decades, we don't have a shred of evidence that it is doing any good, and a ton of evidence that it is doing harm.
So why are we still doing this?
Inertia? Affection for the status quo (which test-centered schooling now is)? Corporate lobbying to keep the tax dollars flowing? Policy leaders unwilling to confess they screwed up? Because legislators understand education as well as they understand the internet?
I don't know the answer. But I do know what we should do next.
Cancel the BS Tests. Throw them out. Have an honest conversation about which of the above goals are worth pursuing and how best to pursue them. That will take time; it won't be easy. Maybe there will be a place for the right tests, used correctly, in the future. Maybe. But what we have now continues to do serious damage to US public education. It's costing us so much, both in terms of money and human toll and opportunity costs, and it is giving us nothing in return
Stop. Stop the testing. Stop it completely. Stop it now.