Monday, January 12, 2015

Testing as Target Acquisition

One of the areas shaping up as a key part of the Big Fight over ESEA/NCLB rewriting is the issue of testing, an aspect of modern ed reformsterism that the public mostly hates, but which various advocacy groups love.

The AFT issued its own re-authorization wish list, which included praise for the NCLB innovation of disagregating data by sub-groups. They call for testing "that provides parents and communities with real evidence of how their children are learning, and that holds the system accountable for the kids we know the system is not serving well." (My emphasis).

A fairly distinguished list of twenty civil rights groups, including the ACLU, Easter Seals, NAACP, and the United Negro College Fund issued a call yesterday for the feds to stay firmly entrenched in the education biz. That included

Annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting, the state’s college and career-ready standards, and

Are valid and reliable measures of student progress and meet other requirements now in Sec. 1111(b)(3) of Title I.[i]

I can understand the appeal here. And for further understanding, I can recommend this excerpt from Jesse Hagopian's excellent book More Than a Score. The Big Standardized Test can look fair (everyone takes it). But it's not.

I also get that since NCLB's call for disaggregation, it has been much harder for states and districts to simply hide their low-income, minority, low-achieving students. The lousy scores of low-income students have been a way to target our problem areas.

But target it for what? X may mark the spot, but what exactly is the big X going to attract? Advocates seem to believe that the target will draw assistance. but that's not what everyone is thinking. You can see it subtly in the ESEA advice from the Business Roundtable, who are also huge testing fans.

The Business Roundtable says, "There has been talk that some members will use the ESEA reauthorization to push for an end to the federal requirement for annual testing for reading and math. This is something the business community cannot get behind." They further assert that "supporting effective teachers and school leaders goes hand-in-hand with testing..." Of course, they also say that tests must be internationally benchmarked, so it's possible they don't know what they're talking about.

But the problem is even more clear in this post from Rachel Burger at The Hill last week. "America Is Secretly Number One" starts out sounding like a great rebuttal to all the Chicken Littles who declare, "The scores are falling! The scores are falling!" and despair of the US ever reigning supreme over the test-taking giants like Shanghai and Estonia. But Burger quickly heads somewhere else. She establishes that our poor schools are the ones having trouble, and then...

But, contrary to what many experts say, the solution is not simply pouring more money into failing schools. The more fundamental problem is that American students are set up to underachieve because they must attend these failing schools. Most students do not have an option not to.

She then goes on to make a more baldfaced version of the privatizer argument-- low test scores help us identify the schools that are ripe for takeover.

So (to grossly oversimplify) we have one group of advocates saying, "We must slap loud test-based labels on these high-needs schools so that they can be easily spotted," while another group rubs their hands together and smiles, "Yes, please, by all means-- label those schools." We have farmyard advocates saying, "Chickens must not be ignored," and demanding big neon signs marking the henhouse, while the wolves salivate and say, "Yes, you should definitely do that." We have people who believe they are targeting schools for assistance when they are actually targeting those schools for destruction.

We could also say that to some activists, the test results are like flares being sent up from otherwise-ignored lifeboats lost at sea. And (this absolutely must be said) too many districts have a long, sad, always inexcusable and often racist history of ignoring and underserving large portions of their student population for no reason other than those students were a little too poor or a little too not-white. Nobody can make the argument that districts like Philly or Detroit were doing a fantastic job of looking out for their poor and minority students before reformsters messed everything up, and everything would be great again if we just went back to those days.

If charters did, in fact, have a proven plan to go into "failing" schools and rescue all the students, I would be an outspoken supporter of choice-charter-voucher solutions for these areas. I might even support the continued use of standardized tests as a way of targeting the areas of need. But that's not what's happening. Here are my biggest problems with this targeting by test:

1) Sending up the flare from the lifeboats isn't bringing rescue; it's attracting sharks. Charters do not rescue all students; they only rescue some of them (and in the process often become instruments of segregation). They are not closing the achievement gap. They are not serving the entire community. They are not making long-term commitments. They are simply cashing in. And "failing schools" have always been the foot-in-the-door of choice systems (We must rescue students from these failing schools.)

2) Tests are designed for failure. They correlate directly to family income, not any true measure of academic ability or achievement. They are almost unnecessary-- I'll bet that anybody well-versed in testing could predict a school's scores before the test was even administered, based simply on demographic information. These tests are useful in generating targeting data for poor schools, but not for helping diagnose and deal with the real problems of the school.

3) The testing process is in and of itself toxic and corrosive to education. The very business of preparing for, taking, and responding to the testing regimen comes with enormous costs in terms of time, resources, educational opportunities lost, and wear and tear on the students themselves.
Even if the test results were actually targeting schools for assistance, we'd still need to ask if that was even worth the cost.

Arguing that annual standardized testing must be continued in order to keep low-income and minority students from disappearing into the data mix is like arguing that we should keep feeding babies cake for breakfast, because cake is made with eggs, and the babies need to get some protein. You may have a real problem, and you may really need to solve it, but this is not an actual solution. In fact, not only is it not an actual solution, but it comes with side-effects so bad that you're creating more problems to go with the original problem that you're not solving.

If we want to find and help the schools that need to do a better job of serving their students and their communities, there have to be better ways than subjecting students to bad tests in order to generate bad data to be used by politicians and privateers so that resources can be stripped from the community in the name of solutions that aren't really solutions at all.

We can do better, and we certainly don't need to waste money by throwing it a testing corporations in order to do it. Let's stop pretending that The Big Standardized Test is the key to anything other than power and riches for corporate interests, and work on real solutions, instead.

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