Monday, May 25, 2015

The Testing Circus: Whose Fault Is It?

Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, a reformster-filled thinky tank, took to the pages of US News last week to address the Testing Circus and shift the blame for it explain its origins.

The ridiculous pep rallies? The matching t-shirts? The general Test Prep Squeezing Out Actual Education? That's all the fault of the local districts. In fact, Rotherham notes, "a cynic might think it's a deliberate effort to sour parents on the tests." Yes, that's it-- the schools are just making all this up in an attempt to make the public think testing is stupid.

Reformsters have been doing this a lot-- trying to shift the blame for testing frenzy from the policy makers and the reformsters pushing testing policies onto the local teachers and districts. In a video that I cannot, for some reason, link, John White, education boss of Louisiana, argues that it's local tests from teachers and school districts that are muddying the testing water, and so every single test deployed in a classroom ought to come under the control and direction of the state. Or we could go back to Arne Duncan et al suggesting that we need to trim back "unnecessary" tests, which turns out to mean tests developed on the local level.

It is hard to see this working. Can we really mollify Mrs. McGrumpymom by saying, "We know that your child really hated the PARCC and found the whole experience stressful and useless, so we're going to have her teacher stop giving those weekly spelling quizzes. All better, right?"

As with Arne Duncan, who continually seems just oh so mystified about how schools could possibly have gotten so worked up over testing, the reformster mystery here is this: do they really not understand what they've done, or do they understand and are just unleashing the lamest PR campaign ever?

Rotherham blames the Testing Circus on three factors.

First, he thinks it's a matter of capacity. But his explanation suggests that he simply doesn't understand the problem.

What elementary schools are asked to do is daunting though not unreasonable. Getting students to a specific degree of literacy and numeracy is challenging but it can be done. 

Bzzzzrtt!! Wrong. Elementary schools were not asked to get students to a specific degree of literacy and numeracy. They were commanded (do it, or else) to raise test scores, and that is what they have devoted themselves to. Achieving a specific degree of literacy and numeracy might help with that goal, but only if the test is a good and valid measure, and that topic is open to debate. On top of achieving the specific degree etc, students have to actually care about the test to the point that they try. Test advocates love to assume this as a given, and they are fools to do so. If I walk into your workplace and assign you a difficult task that seems unrelated to your actual job and which will have no effect on your rating or performance review, exactly how hard will you try?

It is not the reading and numeracy level that is the goal. It is the test score. Test advocates can pretend those are the same thing, but they are not. Schools can hang tough and refuse to start with pep rallies for the tests-- or they can recognize that the nine-year-olds who will decide their fate will do a better job if someone convinces them to try.

Second, new tests. Rotherham repeats a version of a new talking point that makes no sense. The new tests are causing turmoil, stress, and  even low scores. These tests are more challenging because they test awesome things like critical thinking and consequently, they are impervious to Test Prep. However, students will do better as everyone gets used to the test. So, the new tests have nothing to do with Test Prep, but students will do better as they are better Prepared for the Test.

Third, new technology. One point for Rotherham, who pretty much admits that making everybody take the test on computer was a bad idea. But I'm going to take the point back because he does not acknowledge that the decision to do so was not a local or classroom foul-up, but a mandate pushed from the highest level of reformsterdom.

Rotherham is correct to argue that some schools have gone berserk on the Testing Circus and some have quietly avoided it. He would like to use this to assert that the Testing Circus is not inevitable, and there I don't think he has a point.

Some states have put more weight on the Big Standardized Test than others. On the local level, some superintendents and principals have gone whole hog on testing and some have done their best to tell teachers, "Just do your job and let the chips fall where they may.'

But Rotherham et al cannot ignore that some pretty big chips are falling. New York teachers are looking at fifty percent of their professional rating coming from test scores, and they are not alone. Nor did states decide to roll test scores into teacher evaluations on a whim-- that 's a federal mandate of Race to the Top and/or NCLB waivers. And all of us the teacher biz can hear the hounds in the not-very-great-distance calling for those same teacher ratings to be used to decide pay and job security.

Nor can Rotherham ignore that some states are invoking considerable punishment for low test scores, using low scores as an excuse to declare that a school is "failing" and must be turned around, replaced, bulldozed, or handed over to charter operators.

Reformsters seem to want the following message to come from somewhere:

"Hey, public schools and public school teachers-- your entire professional future and career rests on the results of these BS Tests. But please don't put a lot of emphasis on the tests. Your entire future is riding on these results, but whatever you do-- don't do everything you can possibly think of to get test scores up."

I have no way of knowing whether Rotherham, Duncan, et al are disingenuous, clueless, or big fat fibbers trying to paper over the bullet wound of BS Testing with the bandaid of PR. But the answer to the question "Who caused this testing circus" is as easy to figure out as it ever was.

Reformy policymakers and politicians and bureaucrats declared that test scores would be hugely important, and ever since, educators have weighed self-preservation against educational malpractice and tried to make choices they could both live with and which would allow them to have a career. And reformsters, who knew all along that the test would be their instrument to drive instruction, have pretended to be surprised testing has driven instruction and pep rallies and shirts. They said, "Get high test scores, or else," and a huge number of schools said, "Yessir!" and pitched some tents and hired some acrobats and lion tamers. Oddly enough, the clowns were already in place.


  1. Rotherman had a column in U. S. News and World Report on April 7, 2015 where he tried to coopt the Opt Out movement for corporate education reform.
    "Is Corporate Education Reform trying to Coopt the Opt Out movement?"

    1. The etymology of the word "bellwether" is quite interesting.