Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Very Best Policy Memo on Testing

Policy memos, like white papers, reports and means for grown-ups to say, "Hey, here's what I think should happen," are often a motley crew with little foundation and a lot of hot air. These kinds of reports are all-too-often just blog posts in a glossy tuxedo.

But the National Education Policy Center can be counted on to do actual research, use actual facts, and express their ideas in clear, cogent prose. And when it comes to the issue of ESEA renewal and testing, they do not disappoint.

"Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Time To Move Beyond Test-Focused Policies" is a mouthful of a title, but in a mere dozen pages (several are endnotes), Kevin G. Welner and William J. Mathis deliver a clear and thorough response to those who insist that annual standardized tests need to be the engine that drives the pubic education system. I am not going to do it justice here in this space, but let me give you the nickel tour of some of the best of the many great pull-quotes in the piece.

Their first paragraph presents a clear foundation:

Today’s 21-year-olds were in third grade in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act became law. For them and their younger siblings and neighbors, test-driven accountability policies are all they’ve known. The federal government entrusted their educations to an unproven but ambitious belief that if we test children and hold educators responsible for improving test scores, we would have almost everyone scoring as “proficient” by 2014. Thus, we would achieve “equality.” This approach has not worked.

They drop back for a history lesson, beginning with where we started:

NCLB was an ineffective solution to some very real problems.

But policy fails to provide supports for student success and ignores "the many opportunity gaps children face outside of school." Federal funding has been insufficient, has run out, has been kicked in the teeth by the Great Recession. "Adequate school funding remains a key, unaddressed issue."

NEPC then goes on to look at the testing debate itself, making this key point about what is not being included:

Nevertheless, the debate in Washington, D.C., largely ignores the fundamental criticism leveled by parents and others: testing should not be driving reform.

But the problem is not how to do testing correctly. In fact, today's standardized assessments are probably the best they've ever been. The problem is a system that favors a largely automated accounting of a narrow slice of students' capacity and then attaches huge consequences to that limited information.

 The paper goes on the list some of the undesirable side effects of that "singular focus," including (and I'll paraphrase) sucking the fun out of school, turning teaching into clerical gruntwork, giving up on an actual well-rounded education, and tossing out non-academic skills related to becoming a decent human being.

Tests, they caution, can be useful when used properly and for their intended purposes.

The problem is not in the measurements; it is in the fetishizing of those measurements. It is the belief that measurements will magically drive improvements in teaching and learning.

NEPC next turns to the Equity Argument for Test-Based Reform. They note the real reasons, including historic neglect of some groups, for people to find this argument compelling.

...we do not see any reason to believe that a test-focused ESEA in 2015 would yield any greater focus on opportunities to learn than did a test-focused ESEA in 2002.

The writers note that the achievement gaps were well-known and documented via NAEP  results before NCLB was ever hatched. Test-based attempts to close the achievement gap have never worked. And the NAEP provides all the measurement we'll ever need.

The secret? Poverty. The original ESEA language called for an additional 40% of a state's spending for each child living in poverty. This would be one of those parts of the law that nobody has ever come close to following. Meanwhile, poverty is making a mess, inevitably leading to larger opportunity gaps and achievement gaps. "Testing will document this, but it will do nothing to change it."

What about universal accountability?

NCLB and similar policies have done a disservice to the word "accountability." Our nation and our nation's education system need accountability, but it must be fair and it must be universal. Holding teachers accountable but excusing policymakers who fail to provide necessary supports is as harmful and illogical as holding students accountable but excusing poor teaching. Today's demoralized teaching force has been given too much responsibility for outcomes and too little control over these outcomes.

And then they wind to a close, which like the rest of the paper is thoroughly quoteworthy. Let's use this line:

The way forward is not to tinker further with failed test-based accountability mechanisms; it is to learn from the best of our knowledge.

The NEPC has an open letter to Congress with this report attached for any researchers and professors to sign; so far almost 1,500 names are attached. If you are a researcher or college prof, you should sign it. If you are a person who cares about public education, you should read the entire document. If there is an app that allows us to give something a standing ovation on the internet, this paper deserves it.


  1. This former public school teacher is standing and clapping.

  2. Some good news! Or at least a good opinion, well-stated by NEPC.

  3. "Fetishizing of those measurements"- well said!

  4. Wow - this is great! Did you send it to Diane Ravitch yet?

  5. I've written to my representative and senators.