Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Who Has Been Saved?

The supporters of high stakes testing are pushing back.

Peter Cunningham, at the Website Which Shall Not Be Linked, takes a swipe at John Oliver's piece (which he describes as "tedious") and suggests that teachers unions and middle-class white folks are involved in a clear conspiracy to keep poor minority folks trapped and beaten down (I'm not sure how his rhetoric fits into the quest for "better conversations")

Meanwhile, a coalition of civil rights groups has released a statement of support for the testing regimen, ending with this line:

But we cannot fix what we cannot measure.  And abolishing the tests or sabotaging the validity of their results only makes it harder to identify and fix the deep-seated problems in our schools.

There's much to discuss, but I want to ask just one question.

Who has been saved?

We have had this regimen of testing, this revenue-generating stream of dis-aggregated data collection for over a decade. For over ten years we have been collecting test scores so that, having measured, we can then fix. So again I ask.

Who has been saved?

Where is the urban school system where the state has said, "Damn-- this school is in trouble. Get some resources and help and support in there stat. Divert tax dollars and raise more. Hire the best educational experts to help." And then, having sent the educational marines, the state could then watch their efforts pay off and declare, "Thank God for the test results. We have saved this school system."

Where is that school? Who has been saved?

Now, we've identified plenty of "failing systems." But from New Orleans to Newark, from Detroit to Little Rock to Holyoke, the response has not been to help the school or community. The response has been to cancel democracy, shut down the duly-elected school board, and effectively silence the parents, students and taxpayers of the community. Then, once governance of the school system has been stripped from the community and handed over to other interests, the schools have not been repaired, but replaced. Charter operators have been handed the keys to the candy store and allowed to reap profits while "rescuing" some small percentage of the students while leaving the rest to stew in public schools that now have-- well, not MORE resources than before their problems were "discovered," but LESS.

The community members are disenfranchised. The public schools are stripped of resources, not assisted. And some students (only those found worthy) are allowed to "escape" to charters that may not be in their community, may not be doing anything different than the public school except carefully skimming students, may be rolling back the clock on segregation, may not even be getting results any better than the public school.

Who has been saved? What has been fixed?

Cunningham's piece also runs the litany of problems in failing schools. Low graduation rates. Achievement (aka test score) gaps. Low-income students with low college completion rates. These are just a few of the absolutely true, absolutely critical issues that we need to be addressing. Cunningham does not explain how taking a standardized test will help.

Here's a suggestion. Speak honestly.

If your argument for the tests is, "We need to find and label the schools that must be closed. We must find the communities that are not fit to have a voice in their own governance so that we can take democracy away from them because their test scores suck and that is why they can't have nice things--" Even if what you should really be saying is, "Look, we're not going to try to save all the kids; some just aren't worth it. We'll save a select few and dump the rest like ballast on an over-burdened balloon--" If that's the true purpose of the Big Standardized Test, then just say so. Let's have an honest conversation about that. Let's talk about what the BS Test can actually tell us. Let's talk about what the "data" from the test can tell us, and what we can do about it.

Because this story about how the tests are like a big diagnostic medical test and the doctors are just waiting to whisk the worst patients to an operating room where they will receive the best care that modern science and top dollar can buy-- well, that story is getting old. We have been doing this for over a decade, and we keep watching patients get whisked away to that magical operating room, and yet not one of them has emerged alive and healthy. Most have not emerged at all. And in the meantime, more patients keep showing up, suffering from diseases spawned by inequity and injustice.

Maybe test results could be used to fix education. I tend to doubt it, but let's say it's possible. That's not how the data has been used for the past decade-plus.

If you are going to insist on this story of how we need the data in order to save students or schools or communities, then, please, answer just one question.

Who has been saved?

Read the NPE statement on testing, test-resistance, and inequity.


  1. You go, Peter! And thanks for the link to the NPE statement.

  2. One of your best. And that's saying a lot.

  3. Thank you for a great post, Peter. I agree with Dienne. This is one of your best posts - one of the best posts anywhere ever on this topic - and I would like to hear the answers to the questions you posed... anyone have the answers? Anyone???

    I didn't think so.

  4. Great post on an crucial issue. NPE's statement, written by Jesse Hagopian, is outstanding.
    The real problem is racism in US social institutions. Schools are just one such US institution. But if we use test data to close schools or fire teachers, will this somehow eliminate racism in education? How?

  5. Peter -
    I like your angry voice. This piece and Nick Kistof's travellers balls are real reflections of authentic teachers' experiences. Thanks!

  6. We already have national data which tracks and disaggregated students' scores. It's called the NAEP, and it's been around for decades.

  7. All Peter Cunningham has to do to get the data is turn to the results of the OECD PISA test and I'm not talking about the average ranking. That is misleading as hell.

    What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?

    Because in every country, students at the bottom of the social class distribution perform worse than students higher in that distribution, U.S. average performance appears to be relatively low partly because we have so many more test takers from the bottom of the social class distribution.

    A sampling error in the U.S. administration of the most recent international (PISA) test resulted in students from the most disadvantaged schools being over-represented in the overall U.S. test-taker sample. This error further depressed the reported average U.S. test score.


    Here's what I want to say to Peter Cunningham's face: "Hey, you idiot, you fool, its the poverty and no test score is going to solve poverty---ever!"

  8. Here is a candidate: Boys.

    The research indicates that boys perform much better on standardized test than teacher assigned grades. This may explain why the vast majority of students at great public universities are female (60% female, 40% male at UNC Chapel Hill, for example) and national figures showing 140 women graduating from college for every 100 men.

    Standardized exams give an alternative measure of academic achievement. Perhaps exams are biased against female student, or perhaps teacher assigned grades are biased against (especially black) male students. Standardized tests have enabled us to ask the question.

    A link to the working paper (the published version is no doubt behind a paywall): http://people.terry.uga.edu/cornwl/research/cmvp.genderdiffs.pdf

    1. Welcome back, TE. But, you're kidding right? It's boys most of all who have been harmed by the testing juggernaut. It's boys who suffer most when "extras" like PE and recess are eliminated in favor of test prep. It's boys who suffer most when kids are expected to remain sitting and listening quietly and paying attention to hour after hour of test prep. It's boys who suffer most from a system designed to instill quiet, passivity and conformity.

    2. The working paper doesn't indicate anything other than there are situations where classroom grades and standardized test scores don't match. That is not "proof" that the standardized test scores are more accurate.

    3. Peter,

      I am not claiming that either measure is more accurate. The paper shows that classroom grades and standardized test scores give systematically different views of the level of academic achievement of boys and girls. You could argue that the problem is that standardized tests give a false assessment of girls academic achievement just as easily as arguing that classroom grades give a false assessment of boys academic achievement. The only way to discover a problem with one measure of academic achievement is to have another, independent, measure of academic achievement and compare the two.

  9. Dienne,

    Thanks for the welcome.

    Test prep is a choice that districts/schools/teachers make. If the posters on Dr. Ravitch's blog are correct and the teacher his only a tiny influence on test scores, test prep has a tiny influence on test scores and should be abandoned even if the tests remain.

    Standardized tests provide a measure of academic achievement that is independent of teacher assigned grades, and can be useful to any population of students for whom the assigned grades might reflect something other than academic achievement. Indeed, having an alternative measure of academic achievement is the only thing that allows us to discover flaws with using teacher assigned grades as the sole measure of academic achievement.

    1. Your assumption, again, is that standardized tests represent some sort of unbiased thoroughly-fair measure. I know of no reason at all to believe that that's true.

    2. Peter,

      See my response above. I do not claim that standardized tests are THE correct measure, just that they are A measure. Boys do better using the standardized test measure, and thus it seems like boys are a possible answer to your original question about who has been saved by standardized testing.

    3. How does testing them "save" them? What does it do for them? The question was if standardized tests can improve teaching and learning.

    4. Rebecca,

      It gives a reason to ask why boys as a group receive lower grades than would be predicted by their test scores. Without some alternative to teach assigned grades, we would never know to ask the question.

  10. Thank you for writing this. I teach English II at one of the largest schools in Tennessee. It is incredibly stressful. If my kids don't score well, then the school doesn't score well. If the school doesn't score well, then the district doesn't score well.