Much of what's passed off as ed reform these days involves a tricky logic chain with some wobbly connections and oddball sleight of hand. Let me try, as is my way, to create an analogy. Here's how we get from creating more effective education for all Americans down to stupid multiple choice questions on a bad bubble test.
Let's start with our vision. It will be a golden city. Seriously-- a city all shining gold.
Well, actually, an all-gold city would be unsustainable, so what we'll shoot for is a city with gold leaf surfaces worked over a framework of high-grade super-strong lightweight aluminum.
Now, there are hundreds of details and features and infrastructures that will be needed to build that city, but let's focus (just for a moment, you understand) on the girder frameworks that will be built for medium-sized buildings.
Now, those frameworks will have several dozen structural elements to hold them together properly, and none of us really know how to attach that much gold leaf to that much external surface, but let's focus on the techniques we're going to use to tie the girders together.
Those connections will include bolts and rivets and welds, but let's just focus on the rivets. To create the rivets we're going to need-- well, there are several steps to the process of creating rivets and several different ways we could make them, but we'll focus on the supply of steel cable that will be cut to size for individual rivet bodies.
That steel comes from many different suppliers, but we're going to look at the suppliers in the northeast. Those supplier operations are influenced by dozens of different factors, but the quality of the steel is the one we'll focus on.
The supply chain for the steel is long and involved, but let's focus on finding the right patch of ground to mine for iron ore. Let's determine what the qualities of dirt are that are mostly likely to lead us to the iron ore.
And that is how we end up staring intently at soil, judging it and testing it to determine whether it will lead directly to a shining city of gold.
We have traveled this road backwards, cheerfully ignoring and discarding thousands of crossroads and turns because we were traveling backwards. We never made a competely senseless jump, or a connection that wasn't really there. We just kept pruning away a forest of "distractors."
But now that we have to go the other way, the progression that made so much sense leaves us lost and confused. When someone hands us a bucket of earth and says, "I want a shining city of gold by next Wednesday" we just don't-- I mean, man, it seemed so clear when we were headed this way and the guy was explaining his vision and we could just see the city in our mind and it was so clear that this dirt was a critical first step to creating that city, but now that we're turned around the other way, we're just lost. How do I make a city of gold out of this bucket of gold?
In this same way, we've been walked backwards from a vision of every child in America getting a top-notch education that leads to a good job. And as we've walked backwards we've ignored, walked past, tossed out (because they were inconvenient), glossed over (because we didn't know) a thousand thousand branches and alleys and factors and features, until we find ourselves sitting in front of a set of bubble test questions and talking about them as if they have a real, strong link to the vision we started with. We have gone from a great complete education to standards that only address two content areas while strolling past every single factor that could affect student learning that isn't a teacher, wandered past all the possible ways to assess learning, and landed on standardized bubble test.
If I handed you the bucket of dirt and said, "Okay, so what can you use this to make," your first answer will probably not be "A shining city of gold."
Likewise, if I showed you this question:
What does the phrase "talking to itself" mean about the water?
A) It is noisy
B) It may be dangerous
C) It is moving swiftly
D) It would be fun for swimming
Yes, there is a reading that goes with this actual sample test question. But if I showed you this question, told you we were going to ask third graders to answer it, and then asked, "What do you think that will tell us?" do you suppose that your answer would be, "Why it will tell me whether this child is on the way to successfully attending college and ultimately starting a well-paying career."
Standardized tests are so tenuously connected to the stated reformster goal of well-educated college-and-career-ready students that it just makes my head hurt to talk to people who really think their bucket of dirt takes them directly to the city of gold.
But really-- we're not crazy. The standardized tests really don't point us in the direction of anything except the tests themselves. It's just a bucket of dirt. Don't let anybody convince you otherwise.