Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Because It's On the Test

Peter DeWitt wrote a response spun from Marc Tucker's most excellent posting about testing culture and its effects on American education. Tucker's piece scathingly but accurately marks the harmful effects of test-driven education without actually attacking CCSS at all. In his response, DeWitt writes, "It makes me question whether the Common Core is guilty by association, or just plain guilty."

It's one of the most thoughtful versions I've read of the question, "Can CCSS be decoupled from testing? And once decoupled, could CCSS actually turn out to be a force for good?"

Even as recently as a year ago, we might have only guessed what the answer to that question might be. Today, we have a pretty good idea.

With the more widescale implementation of CCSS, we see the same scene repeated in classroom after classroom. A teacher (maybe elementary math, maybe high school reading, maybe some other affected teacher) contemplates a lesson from their CCSS-aligned Pearson-produced materials. "This lesson is terrible. Terribly paced and inappropriate for my students, and the explanation will not make any sense to them," the teacher says, or thinks. "But I have to do this material anyway because it's on the test."

"Because it's on the test" has increasingly become the leading pedagogical rationale since the advent of NCLB. The story of NCLB and RTTT has been the story of crafting an answer to the follow-up question-- "So what if it's on the test?" That answer is, of course, "If you fail the test, we will punish the students, the teachers, the administration, the school, and the taxpayers." And so educational value, pedagogical soundness, time-tested effectiveness, student need-- all of those old ways of planning instruction take a back seat to "because it's on the test."

So "Because it's on the test" is answer enough.

We teach writing badly because that style of writing is on the test. We teach mathematical concepts too early because they are on the early test. We teach a warped version of a single literary analysis technique because that's what's on the test.

Teachers commit any number of acts of educational malpractice in a week because they're on the test. It is literally the ONLY reason that we are doing some of the things we do in the classroom.

The decoupling question is really asking this: What would teachers do if "because it's on the test" were no longer a reason to teach anything?

We already have a hint.

We already do it because of the test. The CCSS has some lovely language about cooperative learning. Nobody's teaching that because it's not on the test. There some nice lip service to questions with multiple correct responses. Also sitting gathering dust, because that's not on the test.

Take away the test, and teachers would rewrite the standards on the ground. Teachers would use their experience and training and professional judgment to adjust the standards to suit the students in their classroom. They would add (without regard for 15%) the standards that are missing. They would adjust the pace and depth of their instruction to match the needs of the students in their classrooms. They would replace "because it is on the test" with "because it best serves the needs of my students."

The coupling of testing and CCSS is, in its own way, the ultimate proof of CCSS's suckiness. Because if the CCSS were good, really good, you know what would happen if we decoupled?

Nothing. Teachers would say, "Thank you for these most excellent standards! I will take them back to my classroom and use them happily! They're so great; I'm not going to change a thing."

But CCSS are a straightjacket, and "because it's on the test" is the padlock that keeps it tight. Like a terrible performer, CCSS can only command a captive audience, and the chains on the door are "because it's on the test."

DeWitt wonders if CCSS is guilty by association, and it's true. Sometimes a nice guy looks like a criminal because he's hanging out with the wrong crowd, and test-driven accountability, as Tucker rightly argues, is one of the ugliest crowds around. But sometimes a guy is hanging out with a bunch of bad guys because he is, himself, a bad guy. With CCSS and test-driven accountability, I don't think it's so much a matter of "guilt by association" as "birds of a feather."


  1. Hi Peter,
    I’m going to respectfully enter the Curmudgeon Zone. First and foremost, thank you for recognizing my blog as thoughtful because, as you can imagine, not everyone saw it that way. Some readers thought it didn’t come out hard enough against the Core, and others thought it was too strong against the Core. Others thought it was somewhere in the middle…which is really where I am with this. I guess as I battle the modules, it’s hard to think about the Core.
    I agree with what you are saying about “it’s on the test.” To play the devil’s advocate a bit, some students long before the new accountability measures were subjected to the importance of curriculum because it may appear on the test. As a college student I remember have countless conversations about material because it would be on the test.
    Clearly, as one of the N.Y. principals who helped draft a letter in opposition of high stakes testing being tied to teacher/administrator evaluation, I completely disagree with the NY State tests because we get absolutely no effective feedback from them. I think these tests are abusive, and offer nothing constructive.
    I think it is important to point out the Marc, who you mention in this blog, is a strong proponent of the Common Core. He too, separated test-based accountability and the Core. Personally, I have heard from teachers that like the idea that they may have students come from other districts or states who have learned a common set of standards. In a leadership role in a state that enforces the Core, how do I respectfully lead as some teachers do not like the Core, while others do? How do I lead fairly?
    Where I question your alternative is when you write, “Take away the test, and teachers would rewrite the standards on the ground.” Wouldn’t we just be going back to a time when kids were learning different things in different classrooms, even if they were in the same grade but happened to be in different schools? Perhaps that is ok with you? I think we can have standards and creativity at the same time.
    This quotation is one I firmly believe in, “Teachers would use their experience and training and professional judgment to adjust the standards to suit the students in their classroom.” I think somewhere along the line, many school leaders forgot or ignored that teachers have a great deal of experience. I guess I wonder why teachers can’t still do that with the Core? I can’t tell you I have the answer. I really would like to know. It goes back to having teachers who like the Core but hated the implementation.
    I know your answer…it’s on the test.
    What would you offer as an alternative? That is not meant with tone, but with real sincerity.
    Thanks for the dialogue.

    1. I appreciate your response. I've read a lot of your stuff, and while you and I sometimes disagree, I appreciate your thoughtful tone and approach.

      I do agree that "this will be on the test" has always been with us, but I think there is a huge difference between "I am going to test this because it's what I'm teaching" and "I'm going to teach this because somebody somewhere put it on the test."

      What alternative? I recognize that I'm a little fringy on this, as I don't believe that national standards will ever serve any useful purpose. While I totally get what makes them appealing to some folks, I don't believe that they will ever accomplish the purposes for which they are proposed, but that they will have several undesirable side-effects. I'm pretty sure I have a piece or two on the subject lying around here somewhere.

      I think the Core has several built-in features that make it a bad choice, but those arguments are all over the net and I'll skip recapping them here for the moment.

      But teachers who liked the core but hated the implementation? I think many many of them don't really understand that the implementation was not a quirk-- that top-down standards require exactly the implementation that the Core got, and that much of what they don't like about the implementation is that it didn't allow them the usual wiggle room to just interpret the standards as they saw fit.

      My alternative is local standards. I think the people teaching in the same building need to be coordinated, as do the grade levels from building to building. I think those standards should be locally developed and regularly revisited and tweaked as student populations change and as new ideas come in from other localities. I think as soon as you get above the local level, you've got people setting and enforcing standards for people they never see or meet, and once you have that level of disconnect, the standards cease to be useful.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful response and the dialogue.


  2. Peter, I have a reply based on my background both as a student who moved from district to district and from state to state, and as a teacher who taught both without standards and with standards.

    Teachers who are professionally educated know what is best for students at their grade level. If we offer effective teacher education programs, then treat teachers as professionals, we solve most of the problems you mention. We do not need rigid standards, and we certainly don't need high stakes standardized tests in the name of accountability (which I know you believe as well).

    Every time I moved, I had a teacher who was passionate about something different. I learned how to love learning and how to think for myself BECAUSE my teachers were allowed to teach what they cared about and what they thought was important (within general guidelines). We have totally lost this lately, and I see it with my students. They seem generally baffled by the idea of being passionate about learning, and that is the saddest thing I have seen.