Thursday, June 4, 2015

Threading the Testing Needle

At A Teacher's Evolving Mind, teacher Nate Bowling thoughtfully turns over the education issues. In his post, "On Having One's Cake and Eating It Too, Part I" he makes a valiant attempt to thread the needle between the pro-test and anti-test factions of the education world. I don't think he quite succeeds, but his conversation with himself is worth the read.

Who is this guy?

On his website, the Washington state educator neatly sums up one of the central challenges of the current ed reform landscape:

Teachers of color face a dilemma: we know--more than anyone, the urgent need for change--we get that the status-quo screws our kids. But at the same time we also see a reform movement that "has all the answers" and doesn't want or value our experience and insights from working with marginalized communities.

Bowling is a founding member of Teachers United (recipient of many Gates $$), flies the #educolor flag (a mark of one of the most valuable networks of educators of color, including many strong public ed advocates), and won the Milken Educator Award (from the foundation set up by former junk bond king, convicted felon, and current reformster Michael Milken ). Yes, he's in a video accepting a big check from Milken while Sen. Patty Murray looks on proudly (well, as evangelist D. L. Moody supposedly said upon being challenged about accepting the "devil's money" from a reprobate, "The devil's had it long enough. It's time to give it to God.")

In other words, this appears to be a man who is comfortable not simply handing his brain over to any particular faction in the edu-debates.

Threading the needle

I should probably have picked another image, as this will result in threading the needle through the cake which Bowling is contemplating both having and eating. His starting point is recognizing that he sees merit on both sides.

He believes that there is too much testing, and as any working teacher can, he provides concrete examples of how ridiculous the testing takeover of school function can become. But he also believes in the need for annual testing of all children.

Having my cake: NCLB is a poorly written law that has created havoc within public education and created punitive systems that stigmatize, rather than help schools, educators and students--especially those in high poverty communities.
Eating it too: testing as mandated by NCLB shines a bright light on the gaps that exists between various populations in our public school system. It has especially highlighted how poorly black students are being served by the system and we simply can’t go backward on that.

But he then moves on to make, if not a straw man, a man wearing a thick straw suit.

There are many educators out there who pride themselves on being “anti-testing”. They wear buttons, it’s in their social media bios, they make shirts, lots and lots of shirts. I do not count myself among their ranks. Far too often the unstated premise of their proclamations comes across (to me) as “because of circumstances outside of my control, poverty, instability, lack of home support, etc., my students can’t do it.”

I don't know if I would proudly claim "anti-testing" as part of my basic identity, and I always keep my sloganeering and my fashion sense (such as it is) separate. But I'm definitely anti-standardized test, and I do not match his straw bedecked man in (at least) two respects:

1) My primary opposition to the Big Standardized Test is that it is not just a huge sucker of time and money, but a huge sucker of time and money that gives nothing back in return. The BS Tests are lousy, yielding no data except data telling us how well students do on the tests. As many researchers have shown, we could save all the money and time and simply assign schools scores based on socio-economic and demographic factors and be almost as accurate as the BS Tests. The tests don't provide teachers or parents with useful, actionable information about my students. It's not that the tests or unfair or that circumstances outside of anyone's control means some students can't do it-- it's that the IT is not anything worth doing.

2) Since the BS Tests don't really measure real educational achievement, to help any students do "it" (get a good score), we have to take time and resources away from providing a real education. That means the worse students do on the test, the more likely it is to lead to their getting less quality education, not more. And there is not a speck of data to suggest that having super PARCC scores opens doors for anybody, anywhere.

More disagreements

My disagreement with Bowling can fit into this Complete The Sentence puzzle' From Bowling's piece--

I am not naive about class: obviously the children of lawyers and programmers are going to have a leg up on my students when it comes to testing and life outcomes, but that makes it all the more important that I help my student...

I would finish this sentence any number of ways: ...become excellent readers.  ...develop excellent writing skills.  ...learn to be excellent collaborators. ...learn to leverage all available resources to their greatest advantage. ...learn how to play The School Game as smoothly as possible. ...learn how to be awesome with a level of confidence that makes them believe they can conquer the world. ...become fluent and confident and unapologetic in expressing their unique personal voices.

Bowling finishes it ...prepare to take the assessments.  He offers that as an alternative to accepting the narrative of "poor kids can't," and I won't pretend for a moment that such a narrative doesn't exist out there. But "think poor kids must fail" or "get ready to take a standardized test" are not the only two options. They can't be, because they both suck mightily. 
Bowling says that we need system-wide data to close "the Achievement/Opportunity (whatever we're calling it now) Gap." But there's a reason that terminology is unclear-- because we don't want to call the gap what it is, which is a test score gap. And closing the test score gap is no more a useful gap to focus on than the pants pockets gap or the good haircut gap. 

Bowling also says that he only objects to the way that testing has warped and twisted schooling, but that's inevitable. For the tests to generate data, students and teachers must be forced to take them seriously, which means high stakes (particularly for those folks who want the data specifically in order to close schools and fire teachers), and high stakes mean intense focus and that means twisting and warping.

Bowling ends with examples of the data collection all around us-- fitbits (me too, but Bowling is a more determined walker than I) and battery charge readouts and weight. But those data are actual numbers corresponding to real things. My fitbit doesn't try to tell me how much I've walked today by counting the hairs on my wrist; it also doesn't use my step count to deduce my height, weight, blood pressure and show size. It only measures what it measures. And BS Tests only measure how many times the student selected a response that the test manufacturer wanted her to. That's supposed to be a proxy of achievement; I don't believe it's anything remotely like an accurate proxy.

Bottom Line 

I appreciate Bowling's thoughtful approach to the questions. And we folks on the pro public ed side of the reformy debates would do well to remember that we still need answers to the question of how the needs of poor students can best be met. Bowling is concerned that removing the current system leaves us with nothing to act on; I believe it is providing us nothing to act on now, and wasting our time and resources to boot. How to thread the needle and still get to eat our cake is a problem that still needs to be solved.

You can find Bowling's next post in this series here.

1 comment:

  1. The one thing everybody ought to agree on is that tests should not be used in any way to evaluate individual teachers, since it's clear they are not a valid indicator of the effectiveness of the individual teacher; and since it's systematically unfair to use them this way, doing so will only drive teachers and prospective teachers away from the system, and especially from the schools that need them the most. That much should be clear.

    After that we can debate whether or not testing has any intrinsic value; if so, what kind of action should be indicated from the scores; and whether using the scores to punish schools will produce useful results or be counterproductive.