Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Duress Tests Stress Kress Best

“Why [states and districts] chose to have tests on top of tests on top of tests” instead of improving instruction “is beyond me”

Those words come from an NCLB architect, lawyer Sandy Kress, courtesy of a quick interview by Politico's Morning Education. It represents one more example of a special brand of clueless that we've seen again and again. Almost a year ago, NCLB co-author George Miller told EdSource the same thing-- can't imagine how NCLB could possibly have led to all this testing frenzy.

These are not dumb guys. But they are making some dumb assumptions.

Kress's comment was directed at the schools who load their students down with practice tests in preparation for the Big Standardized Test (the BS Test). Now, Kress used to work as a lobbyist for Pearson, so I'm betting just a quick look through his own memory bank would reveal to him some of the sales pitches used to convince school districts to buy the very tests he's complaining about.

But even if he had selectively forgotten all of that, he could still figure this out. Here's another quote from Politico:

Kress argues that the federal testing and accountability provisions were designed to prod district bureaucracies into demanding more qualified teachers, better instruction and top-notch materials. Instead, he said, administrators took the easy way out and bought loads of practice tests and test prep products in a frenzied rush to boost student scores.

There has to be some kind of Rule that covers this, but if not, let's write it now and call it the Kress Rule, so that Sandy can remember it.

Whenever you use brute force to require compliance with a bad proxy for your real goal, you will elicit completely different sets of behavior.

If you decide you want a woman to love you, but you decide that her saying the words will be your proxy for success, and you hold a gun to her head and demand that she say, "I love you," you would be an idiot to be sitting there later, handcuffed in the squad car, saying, "I don't understand why she took the easy way out and lied to me instead of actually falling in love with me."

Tell your thirteen-year-old child, "I expect you to take pride in your room's cleanliness and I'm going to come in there in one hour and see if everything is off the floor. If I can't see the floor, you will be grounded for a month." In an hour, you will probably see a clean floor. Would you like to make a bet about what you'll find in the closet?

There are two problems with Kress's complaint, problems that have been embedded in NCLB since Day One.

Problem one is the idea that you can prod, cajole, threaten, or punish people into agreement. Duress, at best, gets you just one thing-- compliance. And if I'm complying with you under duress, I am looking for the way to make my compliance create the least interference with my own values in particular and life in general.

Problem two is forcing compliance with a proxy that is unrelated to your actual goal. NCLB designers were sure that the BS Test would measure how well schools did all that swell other educational stuff. Schools, by their behavior, have been telling educrats for years that it's just not so.

The stakes have been high. If following the standards, getting great teachers, and using top-notch materials actually resulted in better scores on the BS Test, don't you think schools would be doing it? But schools learned quickly that only one thing reliably raises BS Test scores-- test prep. We've been at this for over a decade-- if test prep didn't work (and work best), we would have stopped doing it!

Kress uses the old, reliable weighing the pig metaphor-- but that's not really it. What we have under NCLB and RttT is a scenario where the government has announce that it's going to weigh the pig by having the pig whistle "Dixie." We could work on getting the pig's weight up, and because we care about the pig and got into the biz because we want to help pigs, we probably will. But at the end of the year, the pig's weight is going to be judged by how well it whistles that damn song and so if we want to pass that test, the pigs had better spend a little less time eating and a little more time puckering up.

I am absolutely dumbfounded that Kress finds any of this remotely mysterious. Lots of reformsters make serious mistakes because they don't understand schools or education, but this kind of baloney requires someone who doesn't understand humans. If this is how well our NCLB architects understand carbon based life forms, it's no wonder federal education policy is a terrible mess.

1 comment:

  1. Of course, that's if you assume that lack of understanding is the problem. I can think of other things Kress lacks that would explain this better.