Saturday, February 7, 2015

Aldeman in NYT: Up Is Down

In Friday's New York Times, Chad Aldeman of Bellwether offered a defense of annual testing that is a jarring masterpiece of backwards speak, a string of words that are presented as if they mean the opposite of what they say. Let me hit the highlights.

The idea of less testing with the same benefits is alluring.

Nicely played, because it assumes that we are getting some benefits out of the current annual testing. We are not. Not a single one. The idea of less testing is alluring because the Big Standardized Test is a waste of time, and less testing means less time wasting.

Yes, test quality must be better than it is today.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play. Again, this assumes that there is some quality in the tests currently being used. There is not. They don't need to be improved. They need to be scrapped.

And, yes, teachers and parents have a right to be alarmed when unnecessary tests designed only for school benchmarking or teacher evaluations cut into instructional time. 

A mishmosh of false assumptions. First, there are no "necessary" tests, nor have I ever read a convincing description of what a "necessary" test would be nor what would make it "necessary." And while there are no Big Standardized Tests that are actually designed for school benchmarking and teacher evaluation, in many states that is the only purpose of the BS Test! The only one! So in Aldeman's view, would those tests be okay because they are being used for purposes for which they aren't designed?

But annual testing has tremendous value. It lets schools follow students’ progress closely, and it allows for measurement of how much students learn and grow over time, not just where they are in a single moment.

Wait! What? A test is, in fact, single snapshot from a single day or couple of days-- that doesn't just give a picture of where students are at a single moment? Taking a single moment from four or five consecutive years does not let anybody follow students progress closely. This style of measurement is great for measuring student height-- and nothing else. This is like saying that the best way to assess the health of your marriage is to give your spouse a quiz one day a year.

Aldeman follows with several paragraphs pushing the disagregation argument-- that by forcing schools to measure particular groups, somebody somewhere gets a better picture of how the school is doing. It is, as always, unclear who needs this picture. You're the parent of a child in one of the groups. You believe your child is getting a good education or a bad education based on what you know about your child. How does getting disagregated data from the school change your understanding?

Besides, I thought we said a few paragraphs back that tests for measuring the school were bad and to be thrown out?

And of course that entire argument rests on the notion that the BS Test measures educational quality and there is not a molecule of evidence out there that it does so. Not. One. Molecule.

Coincidentally, the push for limiting testing has sprung up just as we’re on the cusp of having new, better tests. The Obama administration has invested $360 million and more than four years in the development of new tests, which will debut this spring. Private testing companies have responded with new offerings as well.

Oh, bullshit. New, better tests have been coming every year for a decade. They have never arrived. They will never arrive. It is not possible to create a mass-produced, mass-graded, standardized test that will measure the educational quality of every school in the country. It is like trying to use a ruler to measure the weight of a fluid-- I don't care how many times you go back to drawing board with the ruler-- it will never do the job. Educational quality cannot be measured by a standardized test. It is the wrong tool for the job, and no amount of redesign will change that.

Good reminder though that while throwing money at public schools is terrible and stupid, throwing money at testing companies is guaranteed awesome.

Annual standardized testing measures one thing-- how well a group of students does at taking an annual standardized test. That's it. Even Aldeman here avoids saying what exactly it is that these tests (you know, the "necessary ones") are supposed to measure.

Annual standardized testing is good for one other thing-- making testing companies a buttload of money. Beyond that, they are simply a waste of time and effort.


  1. Excellent commentary, Peter. Nicely parsed. What's hidden under all the crap is that the responsibility for any given assessment score is solely, and I use that word with consideration, on the shoulders of the teacher under this paradigm.

    Visually it looks like a big, fat bulls-eye.

  2. Keep up the good work, Peter! Yeah, what exactly are these tests measuring? The tests are rarely attacked on that front, but to me that's their biggest weakness. Some purport to measure "literacy" --but is literacy really a thng? I am a new homeowner and, while I scored 800 on the GRE verbal, my home maintenance literacy is zero. There's a study that shows "bad readers" who play baseball understand baseball articles better than "good readers". There is no "literacy". There are "literacIES". And these literacies are coextensive with one's fund of knowledge. I cannot be literate in home maintenance until I learn a lot more about it. People who seem more literate IN GENERAL are the ones who possess more GENERAL knowledge about the world. But within that general literacy there can be gaping lacunae. Conversely, an "illiterate" person can be stunningly literate in certain areas, e.g.. fashion or fishing or gutter repair. Holding a 7th grade ELA teacher accountable for a kid's "literacy" is Kafkaesque. Literacy is dependent on the thousands of streams of knowledge that ought to pour into a kids' head from birth onward. So you're right: the tests are frauds. Their makers don't even understand that the concept of literacy is fraught and complicated. They don't even know the issues. There are similar conceptual errors with the tests that purport to measure "critical thinking", etc.

  3. Fabulous analysis. Tests designed to find failure will never measure incremental progress. For students with special needs, the benchmarks are set to far apart, nuanced learning cannot be detected. They fail. They drop out. They are no longer left behind as they don't exist.