Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What Duncan Got Wrong About Testing

With the whole world of education to talk about, Arne Duncan somehow ended up centering his Big Speech around testing, and indeed, that was picked up as the main story. So what, if anything, did the Secretary of Education get wrong about testing?

Short answer

Pretty much everything.

Long answer

First, Duncan positions assessment in the center of his education universe. He starts out by describing a large vision of education, one that is filled with innovation, meets the needs of every child, promotes equity, provides opportunity, values all subject areas, and provides every school with sufficient support and resources. And somehow considering all those aspects of a grand vision of education leads him to a Big Standardized Test. That's it.

It's like someone who describes the awesome heights and sensations of a gourmet dinner, teasing you with visions of tastes and textures, savory combinations and a palate immersed in gustatorial ecstasy and then, after all that description and anticipation, at the moment of the Big Reveal, draws back the curtain on--- a can opener.

Testing is Chef Duncan's can opener.

Teacher evaluation

After all this time, Duncan still sees VAM as viable and valid. He wants a teacher evaluation system that will "identify excellence and take into account student learning growth." He says that "good" assessments should be only one part of that picture, but he has never endorsed any method of measuring student learning growth other than a Big Standardized Test (let's just call it a BS Test for short).

Testing is still the cornerstone of Duncan's vision of teacher evaluation, despite the endless parade of debunking that VAM has received.

College Readiness

I believe parents, and teachers, and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness.

It's a weird construction. Parents deserve to know how all students are progressing, or just the students they are the actual parents of?

Anyway, I guess this means that students who aren't going on to college, who are bound for trade school or the military or stay-at-home parentage don't need to take the test. Duncan also uses this argument to support yearly testing in grades 3 through 8, which again raises the question of college-bound eight-year-olds. I seriously doubt that we can identify as third grader as "on track" for college, but if we can, why not have them fill out college applications on the spot? If the BS Test has that much magical power, why not put it to use. I mean, if your third graders is already accepted to Wassamatta U, you'd have ample opportunity to start financing that college education.

Test Prep

Duncan continues to act mystified by the source of all the time wasting test prep going on.

I am absolutely convinced that we need to know how much progress students are making – but we also must do more to ensure that the tests – and time spent in preparation for them – don’t take excessive time away from actual classroom instruction. Great teaching, and not test prep, is always what best engages students, and what leads to higher achievement.

But "higher achievement" is not what the USED has thrown its weight behind; it has attached all the incentives to higher test scores. The feds have created a system in which the continued existence of school buildings and teaching careers is based on test scores. Duncan is a man who has pointed a gun at schools and says, "Get those test scores up, or else I'll shoot. But don't let the tests distract you from other things." And he still hasn't put down the gun.

A Revealing Quote

 We’ll urge Congress to have states set limits on the amount of time spent on state- and district-wide standardized testing...

Yes, Arne Duncan just admitted that test prep is separate from actual education.

The usual narrative is that if we just teach our students really well and follow the standards closely, great test scores will just automatically happen. After all, the tests are supposed to be measuring educational excellence, right?

Well, no. The BS Tests measure how well students take BS Tests, and Duncan just admitted it. He didn't say, "We should make sure schools should have all the resources and tools to teach the standards well so that their scores will just automatically go up." He said that we need to stop letting the business of testing, pre-testing and test prepping take so much time away from actual education.

This shoots a hole right in his central assertion-- that the BS Tests are a measure of how well schools are educating students.

Redundant and Unnecessary

Once again Duncan argues that we need "to urge states and districts to review and streamline the tests they are giving and eliminate redundant and unnecessary tests."  Does anybody know what these redundant and unnecessary tests are supposed to be. I mean, my judgment would be that the PARCC, the SBA, my state's Keystone exams, and all the various BS Tests are unnecessary and redundant, and I fully support stopping them today. I'm betting that's not what Duncan means, but since he's never teamed this talking point up with a single concrete, specific example, I don't know what he does mean.

It's not me, it's you

Again, Duncan never takes responsibility for creating a systemic culture of BS Tests focus. Here he is with a typical line--

Sometimes, educators are better at starting new things than we are at stopping things – several decades of testing ideas have sometimes been layered on top of each other in ways that are redundant and duplicative, and not helpful.

You know who didn't mandate test after test after test? You know who didn't decide that we'd better have practice tests, too, since everyone's career is riding on test results? Spoiler alert- not classroom teachers. Not even "educators." I believe the correct answer is "government bureaucrats."

Parents are morons

It wouldn't be a Duncan speech about testing without the presumption that schools are liars and parents are dopes.

Will we work together to ensure every parent’s right to know every year how much progress her child is making in school?

Because only with the intervention and oversight of the federal government can parents have a clue about how their children are doing in school. And only a federally-mandated BS Test can give them a picture of their child's education. 

Irony overload

Later in the speech, Duncan suggests that "maybe our only hope is absolute honesty and transparency." It is a great line, and one that I absolutely agree with.

And yet, like most of Duncan's prettiest rhetoric, it's not reflected in any policy that he actually pursues. Doubling down on testing without considering its damaging effects and its utter failure to measure anything it claims to measure-- this is not honest or transparent. The continued investing of BS Tests with powers they don't have and effects they cannot achieve is neither honest nor transparent. The absolute refusal to hear opposing viewpoints is neither honest nor transparent.

Duncan makes much noise about the need to supply quality education to the poor, to minorities, to students anywhere in the country who are not getting the full benefit of public education. He hears the cries for education and equity and justice and having heard them, he is sending... standardized tests (well, and charter schools, for some of those students, anyway).

Regardless of your diagnosis of US educational ills, I don't know how you arrive at the prescription, "We need more Big Standardized Tests driving all major decisions from the federal level." Particularly after we've had a few years to see just how poorly how that actually works. Duncan's speech includes an impassioned plea not to turn back the clock, not to return to a failed past. What he either can't or won't see is that his devotion to a failed test-based education policy is just such a retrograde response to education concerns.

The Big Standardized Test can now takes its place in the gallery of failed educational policies of the past. If Duncan really wanted to move forward, he would leave BS Testing in the past where it belongs.

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