Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ask Arne: Testing and Accountability

You know I'm a huge fan of the Ask Arne video series, because who doesn't enjoy seeing their tax dollars used to produce little pieces of high tech advertising for failing policies? You can read about previous Ask Arne videos here, here, here, and here.

Today's entry was put up on December 9, but seems linked to the baloneyfest that started with CCSSO and CGCS announcing they were really looking at testing, with "looking at" meaning "trying to fix how it's playing in Peoria" and not "considering substantive changes." Then Arne said, "Me, too" in a Washington Post op-ed that dodged the issue of federal responsibility for testing issues. All of that happened back in October, but it appears to be in the recent past for the making of this video.

This video represents a real change in style for the Ask Arne franchise, which usually depends on a "conversation" between the Secretary of Education and ordinary civilians (hand picked by the Dept. of Education). Today's host is my personal favorite-- Emily Davis, on loan from her job teaching middle school Spanish in St. Augustine, FL-- but beyond her intro (filmed in what is below-standard lighting for this series), her function is to ask basically just one question.

Her intro sets us up. "Lately we've heard a lot of questions from educators, principals and teachers, as well as parents and students around the current climate of testing in schools." It's a nicely shaded choice of verbage, suggesting a more generalized curiosity ("So, how's that testing business shaping up?") rather than actual complaints ("What the hell is up with all this testing!?"). But she assures us that we're going to sit down with Arne to "discuss some of these challenges" (reminding me that the substitution of "challenges" for "problems" is on of the great modern rhetorical inventions).

And so, her question:

Arne, everyone is talking about testing. I recently came back from the Bus Tour [yes, the closed caption capitalizes it] and talked to principals and teachers in the Southeast. The President is talking about testing. The Chief State Officers and the Council of Great City Schools are talking about testing. You, yourself put out an op ed about testing, so I am just wondering what your thoughts are on the current testing environment.

Arne is not looking as chipper as he usually does for these little chats. His usual goofy grin is not in evidence; he looks a little stern and irritated, and as I type that I realize that had I known that blogging would lead me to a place where I would be even slightly expert in Arne Duncan's facial expressions, I might have chosen another path. Look what you have done to both of us, Arne.

Anyway, Arne opens with the philosophical observation that you can have an extreme too muchiness of anything. "Too much of anything is too much" is an actual string of words that comes out of his mouth. But the very next string of words notes that there are "some who would like to walk away from any assessments and go the other extreme" and my experience would suggest that "some" is a pretty small group since pretty much every teacher I've ever met uses some sort of assessment on a very regular basis. But sometimes Arne gets "assessment" and "standardized test" confused, so maybe that's it. At any rate, Arne does not support abandoning tests, and he wants you to know that he says that as "a parent with two young children." Because Arne has no idea how his kids are doing until he sees those standardized test scores.

 "We want to know how much our children are learning each year," says Arne, and I'm going to do some close reading here because "how much" implies that learning is a single homogenous quality like water or distance, acquired in uniform units and measured with beakers or yardsticks that can be used to measure any learning that has been poured into any child. He does not express an interest in knowing what students have learned or how they have learned or how they grew or what sort of people they are becoming. Physics or musical instruments, writing or cooking-- it's all the same. He just wants to find out whether the students had six or twelve or eighteen liters of learning poured into them. Yes, it's picking at a small thing, but the small things are revealing, and it's what I do here.

Arne then lays out exactly what testing problems he's concerned about. Redundant testing and duplicative testing-- those are bad. It also doesn't make sense to spend too much time on test prep or teaching to the test, says Arne, and I would suggest to Arne that those things make perfect sense in a world where the federal government has mandated that schools and teachers be evaluated based on those test results. This remains a point of sublime obtuseness for Arne. He mandated that teachers, schools, districts, and states would be rewarded or punished based on test results-- what could he have possibly imagined would happen? Does he seriously mean to say, "Your career depends upon these test results, but whatever you do, don't act as if your career depends upon these test results."

Emily observes that a principal in Nashville says that we're testing so much that we don't know what the good data is any more (pro tip-- nothing that comes from the standardized tests is good data). And she slides into some form of, "So you also wanted to make a point about the year's grace period." Arne is making such a face; with a frozen frame it looks like a bad moment in marriage counseling in which Arne is reacting to Emily's admission of some guilty with a face that says, "Well, that's what I would expect from an ignorant slut like you." It's a very odd moment.

Arne says that states and districts committed to taking a hard look in the mirror and "figuring out if they had a coherent theory of action" and if they are getting actionable data-- "is it useful, timely, relevant" and if they can say yes to that, they are probably on a good path. Teachers and principals should be weighing on this conversation, which means I guess that they're not really involved in it to begin with, but just sort of consulting. Anyway, they should weigh in because the testing stuff is supposed to help instruction and student learning. If it is taking away from those things, then "it is part of the problem." Arne does not say what to do if you determine that all the things that are detracting from learning are the result of federal mandates, which is of course the real question that non-koolaid-drinking schools are wrestling with-- how do we do the things the government says we must, which we know are educational malpractice and a waste of time, and still educate? How do we keep the government off our backs while doing our jobs.

Emily says that out in the field nobody knows what the hell the flexibility year is about, and would Arne clear that up. Now Arne looks less angry and more sleepy.

Arne says that many folks are moving to the next generation of tests-- less filling of bubbles, more critical thinking and writing etc and as always, I'm going to call bullshit. Tests that actually measure those things do not exist. But policy appears to be that we'll just keep calling a watermelon a pig in the hopes that when you bite into a slice you'll taste pork. Arne says many places are also "thinking differently about teacher and principal support and evaluation" but the rest of his sentence is not "for example, the state of Washington, where we took their waiver away for thinking TOO differently."

The year, he says, is to play with this stuff without having scores count for teacher and principal evaluations. "There is no right or wrong answer here," says Arne. This is a great sentence because it captures both his wrongness (there are, in fact, lots of wrong answers, some of which have full federal support) and his disconnect between the words coming out of his mouth and the policies coming out of his office (he will certainly punish states that choose answers he thinks are wrong, e.g. Washington).

Some states are ahead, some are way ahead, there are no value judgments, blah blah blah. He is on a quest for a true accountability system.

Arne reiterates that student growth and gains should be a part of teacher evaluation-- so bad tests providing useless data run through discredited VAM models remain his fave. But don't put too much emphasis on testing or test prep. But include other things-- don't have just a test score and cut score. Let's get all holistic up in there.

"We now have states holding themselves accountable for graduation rates, reducing dropout rates, making and ensuring their high school graduates are truly college and carer ready."  Well, no. We have the feds holding states accountable for those things, and we have the feds strongly encouraging states about what the measures of those things should be. And we have Arne claiming not to see the obvious outcome of the federal mandates about what will be the goal and how success will be measured. Lower remedial class rates in college and more college completion would be great signs of success (though of course there's no right and wrong or value judgments and states can totally have any color Model T they like as long as it's black).

Emily reads her closing thank you's off her notes and Arne gives her a look that says, "Don't think I'm not going to send my boys to lean on that mailman you've been making eyes at."

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