Monday, May 16, 2016

Teaching To the Test Is Not Okay

Last week US News, a reliably reformy news outlet, gave some space to Michael Hansen of Brookings Institution, a reliable outlet for bone-headed education analysis, and he used that space to declare that Teaching To the Test Is Okay, thereby preserving Brookings' record of  getting almost everything about education dead wrong. But stick around, because this article has one of the best closing lines ever.

Hansen starts out by stating the problem in terms that set the stage for the answer Hanson likes. Since No Child Left Behind kicked off the "springtime ritual" (well, that sounds pleasant, like a Maypole or Senior Prom) Hanson notes that "many have wrung their hands" (rhetoric only slightly less dismissive than "clutched their pearls") about testing crowding out other instruction. And he formulates the questions by aiming straight at teachers. How do teachers respond to these conflicting goals? "Are they teaching to the test to the detriment of authentic instruction? And how do their choices affect our kids?"

Got it? If testing is crowding out authentic instruction, that's because of teacher choices. It's on us, colleagues, and not on policies that link the futures of our schools schools, our students, and our careers to the test results.

Hansen calls these "important questions" and ties them to the rise of the opt-out movement. Then this

And perhaps to counter the narrative that teachers may be at fault and to protest the encroachment of test-driven evaluation on teachers' autonomy, teacher unions have also joined in condemning policy's overemphasis on standardized tests. 

Got it? We teachers oppose the Big Standardized Tests because we're hiding our own blame for the narrowing of education and to keep our crowns of mighty power in our classrooms. Couldn't possibly be because as  education professionals, we can see and understand that the tests are bad policy and bad tests, bringing no educational benefits and in many cases plenty of damage to our students. No-- there's no chance that teacher and teacher union objections to the tests are grounded in legitimate problems.

Hansen believes, in fact, that the parent and teacher objections are rooted in a false perception about the effects of testing on teaching. Here comes his explanation.

First, he thinks we should "actually embrace teaching to the test from a policy perspective," which I guess is one more way of dismissing the teaching perspective. He points out that a "classic economics paper likens test-based accountability for teachers (and their students) to speed traps monitoring drivers" because random arrests encourage everyone to drive slower and "curbing individual teachers' autonomy for the good of all students in the system is, in fact, an important and intended function of tests." I am not going to pay $42 to read all of this 2006 classic from Edward P. Lazear, but the abstract doesn't make any more sense than Hanson's synopsis. At a minimum, we're suggesting yet another purpose for the omni-purposefuil BS Tests, that purpose being To Scare Teachers Into Behaving. Other than that, Lazear just seems to have hit upon a senseless analogy.

Second, Hansen says something that's sort of correct--  "concerns about nefarious teaching to the test should be inversely related to the quality of tests." Teaching to the test, he acknowledges, would be a problem if you were teaching to crappy tests that were aligned to crappy standards. But he would like you to know the great good news-- the Common Core aligned assessments are super-duper awesome, as recently demonstrated by this totally-legit researchish paper from the Fordham. You can follow this link for my explanation of why this study is exceptionally unconvincing. Bottom line-- as "proof" that we don't worry about teaching being driven by a bad test, he offers a single piece of reformster-financed PR, and no explanation of why so many, many, many, many, MANY people who have seen the tests have declared them terrible.

Third, Hansen thinks that teachers aren't moved to teach to the test much, anyway. He notes that pay for performance incentives don't seem to have much effect on teacher behavior, or at least that's how some folks interpret some researchy-type stuff.

It's not clear why teachers are so unresponsive, but their small responses to individual bonuses implies they are unlikely coerced by even weaker distinctions in the specifics of tests.

Sure. It's also possible that when you offer teachers just a few bucks to commit educational malpractice, they balk.

Hansen has done an artful job of dancing around several points here.

First, by laying all the blame for narrowing of curriculum at the teachers' feet, he has avoided having to discuss the ways that teaching to the test is promoted by policy and edict at the district level. When the superintendent says, "We will buy these test prep materials and you will teach from them according to the following schedule," that's testing driving the school bus. When the school policy becomes that all students who are on the bubble will be pulled from any and all non-tested subjects so that they can sit in extra math and reading classes all day, that's the testing cart before the education horse. When school districts reorganize their building structure so that high-scoring sixth graders can go under the same roof as low-scoring eighth graders in order to raise building scores, that's the testing tail wagging the teaching dog.

Second, he never really explains what he thinks test prep might be. This is a bad place to get vague, because many people assume that test prep is simply plain old drill and kill-- keep drilling the times table and then spit them out on the test. But modern test prep is much more insidious. Students who are going to take a Common Core aligned BS Test of reading must learn to understand that for every piece of reading, there is only one correct way to understand it. They must learn that their own opinions and ideas are never important, and that their job is to figure out what the faceless test manufacturer wants them to say. Test prep means learning how to think like that faceless test manufacturer, to anticipate his tricks and slippery answer designed to fool them into saying something else. This is not only not authentic reading instruction, but it creates a warped and just-plain-wrong picture of what reading is even about, what purpose it serves. Test prep for the BS Tests is not simply drill and kill-- it is learning to hold onto a messed up counterproductive toxic view of the whole academic discipline.

Third, teaching to the test isn't just about narrowing curriculum and instruction-- it is about preparing students to complete just one task, and only that task. At the end of the day, BS Tests show one thing-- how well the students can do at taking the BS Test. All other tasks, all other educational outcomes fade into unimportance, and we are teaching students to do just one thing. And since the students who will do that thing well on their own are the well-to-do ones (because that's the other thing BS Tests do-- reconfirm socio-economic standing), that means the students who need to devote more time to learning that one task are also the ones who would most benefit from learning many other things. Getting a good score on a BS Test is not a useful life skill. It will not increase your class mobility. But it will suck up all the time you could be using to get a real education, to learn more than how to do just that one thing. Because when you prepare a child to take a BS Test, that is all you are preparing her to do.

Hansen notes that sometimes bubble kids may get extra resources at the expense of lower (aka "no chance") students, but he does not follow this issue to the necessary of question of whether or not the BS Tests what it says it tests, nor the question of where the performance floors and ceilings are on these tests.

And he notes that there have been well-publicized (and well-hidden) cases of cheating, but he thinks the magic of technology will totally wipe this problem out. Is there anyone who would like to sell this guy a bridge?

In the end, he calls objections to teaching to the test "hysteria" and not a real danger. And here comes his best reassurance, the last line of the piece:

This is not to say caution is not warranted, but the notion that standardized tests in general are corrupting our public schools does not square with what I know about the teaching profession.

Got it? You can just take his word for it, because he just knows how it is out there in the teaching trenches. How does he know? Well, as the bio with the article notes, he was trained as a labor economist. And as his Brookings bio notes, before he came to Brookings (apparently a year ago), he worked for American Institutes for Research-- the company that produces the SBA.

Yes-- disclosed nowhere in the US News article is the little detail that the article is written by someone who worked in the very industry that the article lauds.

It could very well be true that the notion that standardized tests in general are corrupting our public schools does not square with what Hansen knows about the teaching profession. Unfortunately, that tells us a lot more about what Hansen knows about the teaching profession than it does about the dangers of teaching to the test.


  1. The middle school that my son attends is in test-prep mode. All the classes are now reviewing/prepping for the end-of-grade exams. The entire school is focused on these tests, and the teachers did not choose this. The admin and the district have made these choices. To blame the teachers for this is, in my opinion, scapegoating, and scapegoating is generally a cowardly act.

    Testing and test preparation have definitely crowded-out other disciplines. At this middle school, there are only six real periods, and the seventh period is devoted to something called "mastery." But mastery is really just about testing strategies, etc.

    So, instead of more art, drama, foreign language, typing, journalism, shop class, etc., my son has to sit and learn how to fill in bubble tests. Beyond stupid.

    1. Eric,

      I appreciate you post on Dr. Ravitch's blog about remedial education. I do not teach at UNC Chapel Hill. My university admits any student with a 2.0 average over a set of academic courses, a tightening of admissions from the beginning of my career when my state flagship university admitted ANY student with a high school diploma. My university has found it necessary to create the largest high school mathematics program in the state to address student's shortcomings in mathematics. Even after passing that course and at least one additional mathematics class, the least capable of my students still have trouble with fractions and basic algebra.

    2. Eric, walk into the school's office and complain. Organize parents. Attend the schools parent meeting and demand change. Parents have the most power in all of this. It is beyond stupid and children are suffering because of this "accountability" movement.

    3. The math deficiencies you are seeing are a direct result of 15 years of only teaching to the math test. Not even teaching for memory, which would have helped most math students with the skills they are struggling with. And forget about teaching math understanding through application - that ship sailed when the NCLB came into port.

    4. NY Teacher,

      In my state standardized exams have no consequences for teachers or students. Never have. That can not be the explanation.

    5. TE, that doesn't mean that administrators in search of school funding - to which test scores have been tied in one way or another since NCLB - or of scores that make their schools look good (we've been house-hunting and there are almost always links to the local schools that include test scores; people pay attention to those things) - aren't pushing for those scores to go up. Teaching to the test can still happen without direct consequences for teachers that you know of. "Get those test scores up or next year you're teaching the remedial classes" is still a consequence.

    6. Crunchy,

      In my mostly rural state school district boundaries are in farmer's fields. You can choose a district by choosing a house, but unless you are wishing to live in a very rural area, you have to choose a house in the next nearest town. In many places in my state, that town could be 50 to 100 miles away.

      Interesting that you see being assigned to teach the most challenging students in a school as an effective threat to a teacher. As long as that is true, there is little hope for the students in those remedial classes.

  2. How do we stop this madness! Please. Now!!

  3. Why is it always economists that think they have the right to opine about education and that people should listen to them, when they obviously have no idea what they're talking about?

    1. The funny (not ha-ha) thing is they can't even get their own discipline right.

  4. The economists feel that they have a right to opine about education because, since its inception during the Industrial Age, the purpose of compulsory public education was to create worker bees for the economy. Has that changed? Not according to the mission statement of the U.S. Department of Education. While the mission statements of learner-centered schools center around the education of the "whole child" and the development of unique strengths and abilities of individuals, Ed's mission remains "to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness." In other words, we need more worker bees, but this time they have to grow the economy by "competing" for bucks with other job seekers around the world. But wait! This isn't an either-or dichotomy. Would helping individuals develop their fullest potential--not just mental, but creative, social, emotional, and physical--be BAD for the economy? Especially at a time when he haven't a clue what tomorrow's economy will look like?