Monday, February 9, 2015

6 Testing Talking Points

Anthony Cody scored a great little handout last week that is a literal guide to how reformster want to talk about testing. The handout-- "How To Talk About Testing"-- covers six specific testing arguments and how reformsters should respond to them, broken down into finding common ground, pivoting to a higher emotional place, do's, don'ts, rabbit holes to avoid, and handy approaches for both parents and business folks. Many of these talking points will seem familiar.

But hey-- just because something is a talking point doesn't mean that it's untrue. Let's take a look:

Argument: There's too much testing

Advice: You can't win this one because people mostly think it's true (similar to the way that most people think the earth revolves around the sun). But you can pivot back with the idea that newer, better Common Core tests will fix that, somehow, and also "parents want to know how their kids are doing and they need a [sic] objective measuring stick."

We've been waiting for these newer, better tests for at least a decade. They haven't arrived and they never will. And aren't parents yet tired of the assertion that they are too dopey to know how their children are doing unless a standardized test tells them? How can this still be a viable talking point? Also, objective measuring sticks are great-- unless you're trying to weigh something or measure the density of a liquid or check photon direction in a quantum physics experiment. Tests may well be measuring sticks-- but that doesn't mean they're the tool for the job.

Do tell parents that the new tests will make things better, but don't overpromise (because the new tests won't make a damn bit of difference). Do tell parents to talk to the teacher, but don't encourage them to get all activisty because that would cramp our style because that will probably scare them, poor dears.

And tell business guys that we're getting lots of accountability bang for our buck. Because who cares if it's really doing the job as long as it's cheap?

Argument: We can't treat schools like businesses

Advice: People don't want to think of schools as cutthroat, but tell them we need to know if the school is getting results. "Parents have a right to know if their kids are getting the best education they can." Then, I guess, cross your fingers and hope that parents don't ask, "So what does this big standardized test have to do with knowing if my child is getting a great education?"

People want results and like accountability (in theory). "Do normalize the practice of measuring performance." Just don't let anybody ask how exactly a standardized test measures the performance of a whole school. But do emphasize how super-important math and reading are, just in case anyone wants to ask how the Big Standardized Test can possibly measure the performance of every other part of the school.

At the same time, try not to make this about the teachers and how their evaluation system is completely out of whack thanks to the completely-debunked idea of VAM (this guide does not mention value-added). Yes, it measures teacher performance, but gosh, we count classroom observation, too. "First and foremost the tests were created to help parents and teachers know if a student is reading and doing math at the level they should."

Yikes-- so many questions should come up in response to this. Like, we've now been told multiple reasons for the test to be given-- is it possible to design a single test that works for all those purposes? Or, who decides what level the students "should" be achieving?

The writer wants you to know that the facts are on your side, because there's a 2012 study that shows a link between 7 year old reading and math ability and social class thirty-five years later. From the University of Edinburgh. One more useful talking point to use on people who don't understand the difference between correlation and causation.

Argument: It's just more teaching to the test

Advice: A hailstorm of non-sequitors. You should agree with them that teaching to the test is a waste of time, but the new tests are an improvement and finally provide parents with valuable information.

Okay, so not just non-sequitors, but also Things That Aren't True. The writer wants you to argue essentially that new generation tests are close to authentic assessment (though we don't use those words), which is baloney. We also recycle the old line that these tests don't just require students to fill in the blanks with facts they memorized last week. Which is great, I guess, in the same way that tests no longer require students to dip their pens in inkwells.

As always, the test prep counter-argument depends on misrepresenting what test prep means. Standardized tests will always require test prep, because any assessment at all is a measure of tasks that are just like the assessment. Writing an essay is an assessment of how well a student can write an essay. Shooting foul shots is a good assessment of how well a player can shoot foul shots. Answering standardized test questions is an assessment of how well a student answers standardized test questions, and so the best preparation for the test will always be learning to answer similar sorts of test questions under similar test-like conditions, aka test prep.

The business-specific talking point is actually dead-on correct-- "What gets measured gets done!" And what gets measured with a standardized test is the ability to take a standardized test, and therefor teachers and schools are highly motivated to teach students how to take a standardized tests. (One might also ask what implications WGMGD has for all the subjects that aren't math and reading.)

The suggestion for teacher-specific message is hilarious-- "The new tests free teachers to do what they love: create a classroom environment that's about real learning, teaching kids how to get to the answer, not just memorize it." And then after school the children can pedal home on their pennyfarthings and stop for strawberry phosphates.

Argument: One size doesn't fit all

This is really the first time the sheet resorts to a straw man, saying of test opponents that "they want parents to feel that their kids are too unique for testing." Nope (nor can one be "too unique" or "more unique" or "somewhat pregnant"). I don't avoid one-size-fits-all hats because I think I'm too special; I just know that they won't fit.

But the advice here is that parents need to know how their kids are doing at reading and math because all success in life depends on reading and math. And they double down on this as well:

There are many different kinds of dreams and aspirations, with one way to get there: reading and math... There isn't much you can do without reading and math... Without solid reading and math skills, you're stuck

And, man-- I am a professional English teacher. It is what I have devoted my life to. But I'll be damned if I would stand in front of any of my classes, no matter how low in ability, and say to them, "You guys read badly, and you are all going to be total failures in life because you are getting a lousy grade in my class." I mean-- I believe with all my heart that reading and writing are hugely important skills, but even I would not suggest that nobody can amount to anything in life without them.

Then there's this:

It's not about standardization. Quite the opposite. It's about providing teachers with another tool, getting them the information they need so they can adapt their teaching and get your kids what they need to reach their full potential.

So here's yet another alleged purpose for the test, on top of the many others listed so far. This is one magical test, but as a parent, I would ask just one question-- When will the test be given, and when will my child's teacher get back the results that will inform these adaptations? As a teacher, I might ask how I'll get test results that will both tell me what I have yet to do this year AND how well I did this year. From the same test! Magical, I'm telling you!

Argument: A drop in scores is proof

I didn't think the drop in test scores was being used as proof of anything by defenders of public ed. We know why there was a drop-- because cut scores were set to insure it.

Advice: present lower test scores as proof of the awesomeness of these new, improved tests. But hey-- look at this:

We expected the drop in scores. Any time you change a test scores drop. We know that. Anything that's new has a learning curve.

But wait. I thought these new improved tests didn't require any sort of test prep, that they were such authentic measures of what students learn in class that students would just transfer that learning seamlessly to the new tests. Didn't you say that? Because it sounds now like students need a few years to get the right kind of test preparation do well on these.

Interesting don'ts on this one--don't trot out the need to have internationally competitive standards to save the US economy with college and career ready grads.

Argument: Testing is bad. Period.

Advice: Yes, tests aren't fun. They're not supposed to be. But tests are a part of life. "They let us know we're ready to move on." So, add one more item to the Big List of Things The Test Can Do.

Number one thing to do? Normalize testing. Tests are like annual checkups with measures for height and weight, which I guess is true if all the short kids are flunked and told they are going to fail at life and then the doctors with the most short kids get paid less by the insurance company and given lower ratings. In that case then, yes, testing is just like a checkup.

The writer wants you to sell the value of information, not the gritty character-building experience of testing. It's a good stance because it assumes the sale-- it assumes that the Big Standardized Test is actually collecting real information that means what it says it means, which is a huge assumption with little evidence to back it up.

Look, testing is not universal. Remember when you had to pass your pre-marital spousing test before you could get married, or the pre-parenting test before you could have kids? No, of course not. Nor do CEO's get the job by taking a standardized test that all CEO's must take before they can be hired.

Where testing does occur, it occurs because it has proven to have value and utility. Medical tests are selected because they are deemed appropriate for the specific situation by medical experts, who also have reason to believe that the tests deliver useful information.

Of all the six points, this one is the most genius because it complete skips past the real issue. There are arguments to be made against all testing (Alfie Kohn makes the best ones), but in a world where tests are unlikely to be eradicated, the most important question is, "Is this test any good?" All tests are not created equal. Some are pretty okay. Some are absolute crap. Distinguishing between them is critical.

So there are our six testing talking points. You can peruse the original to find more details-- they're very peppy and have snappy layouts and fonts. They are baloney, but it's baloney in a pretty wrapper in small, easy-to-eat servings. But still baloney.

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