Monday, February 8, 2016

CAP: The Promise of Testing

CAP is back with another one of its "reports." This one took four whole authors to produce, and it's entitled "Praise Joyous ESSA and Let a Thousand Tests Bloom." Ha! Kidding. The actual report is "Implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act: Toward a Coherent, Aligned Assessment System."

The report is sixty-some pages of highly-polished CAP-flavored reformster baloney, and I've read it so you don't have to, but be warned-- this journey will be neither short nor sweet. But we have to take it in one shot, so you can see the entirety of it, because there are large swaths of their argument that you probably agree with.

Who is CAP, again?

The Center for American Progress is billed as a left-leaning thinky tank, but it has also served as a holding tank for Clintonian beltway denizens. It was formed by John Podesta and run by him between his gigs as Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, and has provided food and shelter to many Clinton staffers who didn't want to have to leave DC while waiting for their next shot at the Big Show.

CAP loves the whole privatizing charterfying profiteering common core cheering reformster agenda. In fact, CAP's deep and abiding love for the Common Core has burned brighter than a thousand stars and longer than even Jeb! Bush's willingness to keep saying that name. CAP has stymied me, taxing my ability to invent new versions of the headline "CAP says something stupid in support of Common Core" (see here, here, here, and here).

If the last fifteen years have seen the building of a revolving door, education-industrial complex on par with the military and food industries, then CAP is right in the center of that culture. They have never met an ed reform idea they didn't like or promote, and they are not afraid to manufacture slick, baloney-stuffed "reports" to push the corporate agenda.

So that's who produced this big chunk of goofiness.


Like many other advocacy groups, CAP sees a golden opportunity in ESSA, and that golden opportunity is all about the testing.

States and districts must work together to seize this opportunity to design coherent, aligned assessment systems that are based on rigorous standards. These systems need to include the smart and strategic use of formative and interim tests that provide real-time feedback to inform instruction, as well as high-quality summative tests that measure critical thinking skills and student mastery of standards.

So how can states build on the research base and knowledge regarding high-quality assessments in order to design systems that do not just meet the requirements of federal law but actually drive student learning to a higher level—especially for students from marginalized communities?

And later, CAP says that this report "outlines a vision and provides specific recommendations to help federal, state and local leaders realize the promise of tests." The promise of tests? Not students, not education, not learning, not empowering communities to help their children grow into their best selves. Nope. The promise of tests. So, as is too often the case, we've skipped right the question of "should we" and will proceed directly to "how," setting out once again to do a better job of more precisely hitting the absolutely wrong target. Yay.

History Lesson from Alternate Universe

CAP will now set the stage by hanging a backdrop of Things That Are Not True.

High-quality assessments play a critical role in student learning and school improvement. No, not really. Well, maybe, in the sense that "critical" is a pretty vague word.

High-quality tests can also show how well states, districts, and schools are doing in meeting the educational needs of all students. No. At least, not any allegedly high quality tests that currently exist.

CAP is willing to acknowledge that testing is "driving the agenda" and that's Not Good. They even acknowledge that despite their "research" showing that tests only take up 2% of school time, lots of folks have noticed that standardized testing has become the focus of too many schools.

CAP wants you to know that the ESSA has many cool, shiny features. It requires states to use broader measures and afford flexibility. CAP thinks ESSA might lead to less teacher evaluation emphasis on testing, maybe. There is money available for tweaking testing, including $$ for "innovation."

There's more history, like a history of tests. CAP equates the Socratic method with testing. They also cite the establishment of the Chinese testing that helped kick off centuries of conformity and non-innovation (read Yong Zhao's Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon). We work our way through the present, skipping the parts where tests were useful for eugenics and Keeping the Lessers in Their Place.

Then we insert the usual Story of Accountability, beginning in 1983 Nation at Risk, which I always think is a bold choice since Nation at Risk predicted that the country would have collapsed by now, so maybe it's not such a great authority.

Then we move on to the "promise of the Common Core State Standards," and as usual, CAP is shameless in its willingness to recycle old baloney like "the Common Core Standards are comparable to the academic standards in the highest performing nations in the world" (this leads us, by a circuitous route, back to some Fordham Core promotional work) and in reference to the Core testing, "like the Common Core, these tests are more rigorous and of higher quality than what many previous states had before." It's a big word salad with baloney on top. CAP also lauds the imaginary "shifts in learning" which are supported by a footnote to the Common Core website, so you know it must be true.

The state of testing

CAP explains the three types of test (formative, interim and summative) and notes that federally mandated tests are summative, and are "used to give students, parents and educators a detailed picture of student progress toward meeting state standards over the past school year" and I wonder, do they giggle when they write this, or have they smacked themselves the brain with the PR sledgehammer so many times that they just don't feel it any more? The current Big Standardized Tests of course don't provide a detailed picture of anything at all.

CAP also wants us to know about high-quality tests, which "measure critical thinking and problem-solving skills" and why don't we also say that they measure the number of unicorns grazing in the fields of rainbow cauliflower growing behind the school, because they do both equally well. But CAP wants us to know that "good assessments are also field tested and evaluated by experts," so suddenly many of the BS Tests aren't looking too good.

CAP acknowledges the anti-test movement, but goes on to say that despite the backlash, national polling data shows that people really love the tests. Why, polls by Education Next and Education Post both found signs of the testing love! This is as surprising as a poll commissioned by the National Mustard Manufacturers that discovers a wide-spread love for mustard-- Post and Next are both unabashedly advocate, push for, and profit from the testing, reform and privatization industry. CAP also takes us on a tour of the many states that have tried to tweak the testing biz one way or another, and I would take you through those, but we still have pages and pages to go, my friends.


CAP takes this moment to share their methodology, which appears to be that they held some focus groups, talked to some people, and checked in with some parents, some rich and some poor, according to CAP. How these people were either located or selected is a mystery--they could have been random strangers from the street or CAP family members. They also made sure to talk to some other thinky tank pro-reform profiteering groups like Achieve, the Education Trust, and the College Board. They describe their sample as a "wide variety of stakeholders and experts," and we will just have to take their word for it.

What did they find out? 

So what are some of things discovered in this vaguely defined researchy sort of activity?

Parents want better tests.

Here we see a return of the classic "just misunderstood" story line; the value of tests needs to be "made more evident" to parents. The report quotes one parent as "not against standardized testing, because there is a need to understand on a national level whether our children are being educated and where different districts need to have extra resources and the like." Which is a great quote, and might be a useful purpose for testing, except that it doesn't work that way under current reformster programs. Instead of, "Hey, this school is clearly underfunded and undersupported," we hear cries of, "Hey, this school has low scores. We must rescue students from it with charters and maybe close it, too."

And while parents in the focus group seem to see global and large-scale uses for testing, they aren't getting much use out of them for their own children.

Teachers do not get the time and support they need

This section is shockingly frank, reporting teachers who got PD about the PARCC when it wasn't completed, and teachers who report essentially being told to get those test scores up, never mind the regular instruction. Shocking, huh? I wonder what created that sort of atmosphere. We will all just numbly skip over the issue of whether these reformsters ever listen to a single word that teachers say, because remember-- when you want to creatively disrupt and make over an entire field, it's important to disregard any noise fomr the trained, experienced practitioners in that field.

Communications to stakeholders is weak 

Yes, it's the PR. Common Core and BS Tests are just misunderstood. If only people could be re-educated about the tests. Maybe at a nice camp somewhere. (Bonus sidebar lauds the PARCC for their clear and colorful report card, which uses nice graphics to tell parents far less useful information than could be gleaned from a five-minute phone call to your child's teacher.)

Fun sidenote: several parents reported that they got the most useful information about testing from the John Oliver show segment on tests. That was probably not the kind of info that CAP wanted to have spread.

The Test lacks value for individual students

And that, boys and girls, is how a bureaucrat translates "The students sense that the BS Tests are a bunch of time-wasting bullshit with no connection to their actual lives." In fact, some parents and teachers said they had the impression that BS Test scores aren't even used to influence instruction. It's true. Instruction is also not very influenced by reading the warts of a grey toad under a full moon.

End-of-year summatives are not aligned to instruction

Well, no, they aren't. And as long as your plan is built around a large-scale, one-size-fits-all BS test, they never will be.

Too much test prep is occuring

Well, duh. The BS Tests have high stakes. And while CAP wants to pretend that new BS Tests are just so high quality and awesome that test prep is a waste of everyone's time score-wise, most everybody's experience is the opposite. The most authentic assessment matches the instruction and the actual task being learned. Since reformsters have fixed it so that teachers cannot change the assessment, the only way to make the BS Tests a more authentic assessment is to change what we teach. As long as schools are locked into a statewide high stakes BS Test beyond their control, there will be test prep, and lots of it.

CAP found that test prep was more prevalent among the poorer students. Again, duh. Lower socio-economic status correlates pretty directly to standardized test results. Lower SES students are the ones who need the most extra help to get up to speed on the twisty mindset needed to play the "What does the test writer want me to say here" game.

Weak logistics and testing windows and nutsy bolty things

If the test must be given on a computer and there are only thirty computers in the building, there's a problem. I'm inclined to think the problem is that you are requiring the students to take the test on a computer. Also, CAP has concerns about timing of test results and test taking allowing for accurate measures and useful feedback. I'm prepared to reassure CAP that no matter when or how my students take the BS Test, it will not provide an accurate measure or useful feedback, so y'all can just relax.

So what does CAP think we should do about all this?

So here's what CAP thinks the state, district and school authorities can do "to improve the quality of assessments, address concerns about overtesting, and make assessments more valuable for students, parents, and teachers." And if you've been reading carefully, you can guess where this is going.

Here's what states should do

Develop rules for "robust" testing. Okay, CAP says "principles," but they mean rules. Write some state-level rules about what ever test should look like. Yessirree, what I need in my classroom is some suit from the state capital to tell me how to create an assessment.

Conduct alignment pogroms. Okay, maybe that's not the word they used. But they suggest that states check all up and down the school systems and make sure that every single teacher is fully aligned to the standards (including curriculum and homework). Because thanks to the Ed-Secretary-neutering powers of ESSA, reformsters can now shoot for total instructional control of every school district without raising the Federal Overreach Alarm. Oh, and the alignment should run K-16, so don't think you're getting off so easy, Dr. College Professor.

Since districts may not have the time and resources to make sure that every single solitary assessment is aligned and high quality, states should be ready to lend a hand. Give them some money. Create all the tests and assignments for them, or, you know, just hire some willing corporation to so it.

Demand a quick turnaround on test results. Because that creates more "buy-in" at the local level. Also "a quick turnaround also creates more value, and educators and families can use the assessment results more readily in their decision-making." Oh, yeah-- everyone is just waiting on pins and needles so they can make decisions about Young Chris's future. But about that...

Increase the value of tests for parents, teachers and students. How could we do that? By making better tests! Ha! Just kidding. By offering rewards, like college credits for good performance. Or awards and prizes for high scores. Like stickers and ribbons? Yes, that will make the BS Tests so much more valuable.

Jump on the innovative assessment development grant-band wagon. And here comes the punchline:

If states move forward with performance-based or competency-based assessments, they should consider carefully whether their districts and educators have the capacity and time to create high-quality, valid, reliable, and comparable performance assessments. Instead of looking to dramatically change the content of assessments, states should consider how they can dramatically change the delivery of assessments. States should explore moving away from a single end-of-year test and toward the use of shorter, more frequent interim assessments that measure student learning throughout the year and can be combined into a single summative determination. 

Yes, all-testing, all the time. It solves all of our problems-- with one perfectly aligned system that constantly logs and records and data-crunches every canned assignment and delivers the assessments seamlessly through the computer, we can plug students in and monitor every educational step of every educational day.

Finally, states should step up their communication game with better, prettier and more explainier printouts from the uber-aligned 360 degree teaching machine system, so that parents will understand just how much their elder sibling loves them.

What should local districts do? 

Bend over and kiss their autonomy goodbye? Ha! Just kidding. CAP would never say that out loud.

Get rid of redundant tests, preferably not the ones that are created by favored vendors.

"Build local capacity to support teachers' understanding of assessment design and administration." God, sometimes I think these guys are morons, and sometimes I think they are evil geniuses. Doesn't "support" sound so much nicer than "re-educate" or "properly indoctrinate." Because I have my own pretty well-developed understanding of assessment design and administration, but if they knew it, I don't think CAP would support it.

"Create coherent systems of high-quality formative and interim assessments that are aligned with state standards." Buy your entire assessment system from a single vendor. One size will fit all.

"Better communicate with parents about tests. To build trust, districts should be more transparent around assessments. This includes posting testing calendars online, releasing sample items, and doing more to communicate about the assessments." You know what's an excellent way to build trust? Behave in a trustworthy manner. Just saying. Also, this is not transparency. Transparency would include things like, say, releasing all the test items so students and parents could see exactly where Young Pat was marked right or wrong.

Tackle logistics. Remember how hard it is for schools to test many students on few computers? Districts should tackle that. It's not clear if that should be, like, a clean ankle grab tackle or districts can go ahead an clothesline that logistic. But CAP does have concrete examples, like "Plan well in advance" with the goal of "minimizing disruption." Thanks, CAP. I bet no district leaders ever thought of planning in advance. I can't believe you gave dynamite advice like that away for free.

What should schools do?

Make testing less torturous. Let students go pee.

Hold an explain-the-test social night. Have principals announce open-office hours so that any parent can stop by at any time to chat about the tests, because I'm sure the principal's day is pretty wide open and flexible.

Tell teachers things so that when parents ask questions, the teachers know the answers.

Oh, and stop unnecessary test prep. Just keep the necessary test prep, which is as much as you need to keep your numbers up. But thanks for the tip-- lots of teachers were in their classroom saying, "This test prep is a total waste of time, but I'm going to do it anyway just for shits and giggles, because I certainly didn't have it in my mind to teach my students useful things."

I am pretty sure that the further from broad policy strokes and the closer to actual classroom issues they get, the dumber CAP becomes.

How about the feds?

Use Title I as a means of threatening states that don't do all the jobs we gave them above. Help all the states that want to build the next generation all-day all-testing regimes. Spread best practices about assessment, because man, if there's anything we have learned over the past fifteen years, it's that when you want good solid answers about how to teach and assess your students, the federal government is the place to turn.

And the final recommendation?

If you are still reading, God bless you, but we needed to travel this twisty road in one go to see where it led.

It is the reformsters oldest and most favorite trick-- X is a clear and present problem, therefore you must accept Y as a solution, and I am going to sell X so well that you will forget to notice that I never explain how Y is any sort of solution.

Overtesting is a problem. Bad testing is a problem. Testing that yields up no useful results is a problem. Bad testing as an annual exercise in time-wasting futility is a problem. Testing driving instruction is a problem. CAP has given more ground on these issues than ever, but it appears to be a ju-jitsu move in hopes of converting all that anti-testing energy into support for Performance Based Education.

Don't like testing? Well, the solution is more testing. All the time. In a one-size-fits-all canned package of an education program. And here's the final huge irony. This is CAP wrapping up with a description of the long-term goal

system leaders should develop a robust, coherent, and aligned system of standards and assessments that measures student progress toward meeting challenging state standards. This exam system should be deeply grounded in the standards as assessed by an end-of-year summative test. Formative and interim assessments administered throughout the year will routinely—at natural transition points in the instructional program, such as the end of a unit—assess student understanding and progress and provide the results to teachers, parents, and students in close to real time. This system will enable everyone involved in a student’s education to make adjustments where needed in order to support learning so that no student slips through the cracks.

You know who does this sort of thing well already? Good, trained, professional classroom teachers. We assess daily, wrap those results back into our plans for the next day, and adjust our instruction to the needs and issues of individual students. We don't give pointless tests that are redundant or disconnected. We wrap larger and more formal assessments in with the informal assessments and we do it while maintaining instruction and looking after our students as if they were actual live human beings. And we do it all in  timely manner. Of course, we don't do the things that CAP considers most critical.

For this assessment system to be as useful as possible, alignment is key. All assessments—formative, interim, and summative—must align with academic standards. 

At the end of the day, CAP loves testing very much. But the thing they love even more is broadly adopted, all-knowing, all-controlling standards. One size fits all, selected by some Wiser Higher Authority who somehow knows what all human beings must know, and unhindered by those damn classroom teachers and their professional judgment, and all of it giving up a wondrous river of data, a nectar far more valuable than the vulnerable little humans from whom it was squeezed. Jam the standards in and drag the data out. That's CAP's coherent, aligned future.


  1. I hate the tests. The EOG (end of grade) tests in North Carolina are useless. They have wasted weeks and weeks of instructional time for my children every year. The test preparation for these tests lasts weeks. These are grade level tests. My children are above grade level. So, they learn nothing from the test preparation. They learn nothing form taking the tests. They also learn nothing that last two weeks of school after passing the tests. What a huge waste of time. I hate these tests!

  2. Eric,

    Perhaps your children could skip a grade or two? Tracking by age is the standard in public schools, but it is also possible for students to change tracks.

  3. Not generally allowed in North Carolina. Also, not always a good idea depending upon the emotional maturity levels of the children and so many other factors.

    Wouldn't a better solution simply be to get rid of these stupid tests that serve no purpose? That seems like a much better solution to the problem. I did not take these types of end of grade tests in my K-8 education, and my K-8 public education was just fine. We even got the opportunity to act in plays and go on many field trips. My children did worksheets and filled in bubbles on tests. How stupid is that?

    1. Eric,

      I am not sure why you focus on exams. If your children are above grade level, every day in the classroom they will learn little. Isn't that a waste of the whole year, not just weeks?

      It is certainly not a uniformly good thing to change age based tracks, but little in life is uniformly good or bad. My middle child went from fifth to seventh grade and started taking college classes as a 15 year old high school junior. That was the only way to keep him intellectually interested in school.

  4. Why are you assuming that the rest of the course outside of the test prep and the exams is grade level? It is not. But the state exams are all at grade level. So, during the year my children were learning new and interesting material until that all ceased for test prep and exams. Skipping grades would not have been good for my children and many others. The systematic solution is to get rid of these tests. They are detrimental to education. This is why I focus on the tests. Also I care about more than just my children.

  5. So the entire class is above grade level? It would seem that the class is mislabeled as a grade below the actual class.

    If all the students in the class are above grade level, it would seem that no test preparation is required. If the arguments given elsewhere are correct that teachers have no real impact on exam scores, test prep is totally useless and should be discontinued. It seems to me that it is the test prep that is taking up the time, not really the tests themselves.

    1. (1) There is no such thing as an entire class "at grade level" in all subjects. "Grade level" is arbitrary and approximate. You teach the students where they are.
      (2) When schools (and/or teachers) are "graded" by the stupid test, schools feel obliged to spend time on test prep, to try to get any advantage they can, since part of taking tests is understanding what kind of answers and format the stupid test-makers expect. If the stupid "high stakes" were not attached to the stupid test, it wouldn't matter and they wouldn't feel obliged to do test prep. (Tests in general are not necessarily stupid, but tests prepared by people other than the teacher, especially by people who are not educators, usually necessarily are.)

    2. Rebecca,

      1) I agree. Eric is concerned that his children are learning nothing during the weeks in which they are preparing for at grade level exams. I am wondering why the months that are spent on at grade level work during the school year are not a greater concern for him.

      2) Schools and teachers do not feel obliged to do a whole host of other things that have no impact on exam results (having students sleep with the textbook under their pillows, for example), so why do they feel obliged to do test prep when they "know" that teachers do not really have any influence on test scores?

    3. (1) As usual, your biases seem to impede your reading comprehension skills. Eric clearly states that the rest of the year the students are learning "new and interesting material."

      (2) It doesn't matter whether or not teachers have any influence on test scores. Per the state, the test scores impact the school's state rating. Test prep does influence test scores because of knowing what kind of answers the test authors want and what format they want them in, which have nothing to do with real-world learning.