Thursday, April 12, 2018

Why Are We Still Testing

It's the season of testing again, a season that has no come so many times that lots of folks don't even question it any more? But it's a question that needs to be asked about the Big Standardized Test-- why, exactly, are we still doing this? We've had a variety of answers over the years-- let's see how they hold up.

The Bathroom Scales

Take the test! It's just like weighing yourself on the bathroom scales! Early on many reformsters suggested that weighing the pig would make it gain weight, but that's stupid. So we weigh the school-- then what? That "then what" is a huge part of the problem, but the other part of the problem is trying to use the read-out on the bathroom scales to determine how tall, how healthy, and how well-adjusted the weigh-ee is. This was always a really dumb analogy.

Compare and Contrast

The BS Tests would let us compare a rural school in Idaho with an urban school in Michigan. It would let us compare every third grader to every other third grader. This is no longer possible-- different states have different sets of standards, and there are a wide variety of BS Tests being given, so we're back to comparing apples to watermelons.

Evaluating Educators
By soaking BS Test results in magical VAM sauce, we were supposed to get data that would let us tell the difference between good teachers and bad teachers. To begin with, that assumes that your definition of "good teacher" is "one who gts students to score well on a single math and reading test," which is not very helpful in sorting out, say, science or music teachers. And that's before we get to the insanity of using BS Test scores to "evaluate" teachers who have never even met the students whose scores are being used. Plus, VAM has problems. So many problems that there's a long list of folks who don't think it should be used for this purpose.

Informing Staffing Decisions

It was a fond dream that test-based evaluation would lead to evaluation based hiring, firing and compensation policies. This balloon never lifted off the ground, perhaps because the teacher pipeline has dried up so badly that schools are in no hurry to inflict a staffing shortage on themselves, and because some states are already paying teachers so little that they don't need a ginned-up excuse to pay teachers even less. Also, as noted, test-based evaluation of teachers doesn't work. If you're a principal, who are you going to believe-- test data, or your own eyes, ears, and brain?

Scaling Excellence

The failed evaluation piece means that another dream is also dead. That's the dream in which BS Test results are used to identify super-duper teachers, who are then tasked with spreading their super-duper teacherly wisdom to other less super-duper teachers. In fact, states were supposed to have a plan for moving good teachers to low-achieving schools, but that never happened because it turns out rendering educators is illegal in the US.

Helping Schools in Trouble

The BS Tests were going to help us identify schools that were "troubled" or "failing" or "sucky." One might argue that we can already find these schools without any trouble, but I suppose a case can be made that numbers you can wave at politicians might give some heft to that identification. The problem here is what hasn't happened. "Look, this school is clearly having trouble, so let's get them additional resources and help," said no legislature ever. Instead, the low-achievement label is used to justify targeting that school for destruction. Low scores can be used to justify the launch of charter businesses, or even the gentrification of entire sectors of a community. Low-scoring schools are not targeted for assistance; they are targeted for dismantling.

Address Inequity

We would find where non-wealthy non-white student populations were being ill-served. Anyone who can't figure that out without the BS Test is a dope. And as with the last point, the problem has been that the data hasn't so much been used to find schools that need help as it has been used to find schools that are vulnerable and ready to be turned into somebody's business opportunity. Instead of focusing our will to address educational inequity, test-based accountability has highlighted our lack of will (and wasted the good intentions of some folks).

Informing Instruction

Teachers were going to get their data spreadsheets and figure out, with laser-like precision, how they needed to change their instruction. But right off the bat it became clear that data about students in your class would only arrive long after the students had departed for their next classroom. Then the security issue reared its stupid head-- I can see student scores, but I am forbidden to see the test itself. (For that matter, students who are so inclined are unable to see their specific results to ask "What exactly did I get wrong here?") This means I can tell that Pat only got an okayish score, based on some questions that might have asked about something about reading that Pat apparently answered incorrectly. How can that inform my instruction? It can't. It doesn't. The BS Tests "inform instruction" mostly by encouraging teachers to spend more time on test prep. That's not a good thing.

Letting Parents Know How Their Children Are Doing

Under this theory, parents have no idea how their children are doing in school until the BS Test results appear. Assuming for the moment that the parents are that disconnected, the information provided is minimal, scoring a few categories on a 1-3 or 1-4 scale. A BS Test provides very non-granular data, less nuanced than a report card-- and based on just one test. There is nothing for parents to learn here.

Unmask the Lies

Of course, guys like Arne Duncan were sure that once the BS Test revealed the Truth-- that US schools are super-stinky-- folks like the fabled suburban white moms would have to face the Truth that their children were actually doing terribly. And then we tried talking about the honesty gap. Basically, a whole bunch of folks started with the premise that schools and the teachers who work in them largely suck and the BS Test would be a tool for revealing the Awful Truth (for some folks, you can also insert a screed about a vast union scam and conspiracy here). Somehow, that never happened. It's almost as if the vast majority of teachers don't actually suck.

Redefine What It Means To Be Educated

I don't know that this was a very widespread goal, but it was certainly near and dear to the hearts of guys like David Coleman, who had a good idea of what he did and didn't approve of in education, and dreamed of using standards hard-wired to high-stakes tests to force people to see things his way. Very few hearts and minds have been won at this point.

As a Backdoor Method of Imposing State and Federal Amateur Top-Down Control of Curriculum in Local Schools

Okay, this goal has kind of worked out. Many school districts have redesigned their curriculum to "align" with the BS Test (not the standards, but the "anchor" standards, or standards that will be tested). Heck, some school districts have restructured the district itself to accommodate the test (what's the best to handle the fact that 8th graders tend to do poorly on these tests? either fold them into your high school, or lower your "middle school" years so that they include elementary tests.) Test-centered curriculum affects students scheduling, with students who come up short on the practice tests may find they have to schedule around double math or double reading (no art, music, or history for you, kid). Within math and English classes, teachers are directed to use "data" from practice tests to "inform" their instruction, which fo course necessitates dropping content that is not On The Test.

So yes-- this particular goal of the BS Test is being achieved. It's just a very bad thing.

Bonus Paranoid Goal

You may believe that one of the goals of the testing regime is to destabilize, dismantle, and destroy public schools. I think some reformsters really thought this was going to help, and you can spot them because they are acknowledging that they failed. I think other reformsters weren't necessarily scheming, but when this came down the pike, they smelled an opportunity. And some reformsters absolutely want to see public education dismantled and the pieces sold off. BS Tests have been a useful tool in selling the narrative that public schools are "failing," that students are "trapped" in terrible public schools. In fact, BS Testing has been a kind of two-fer, because if you want to claim that public schools are failing, you can argue that they are now tied up in testing and following stupid government rules. Hey-- it's even a three-fer, because reformsters who want to move on to the Next Big Thing can say, "Yes, this test-centered reform is awful-- what we really need is Personalized Competency Based Learning Education Stuff!"

But How Else Will We Know How Schools Are Doing?

It's a fake question, because it assumes that BS Tests are now telling us how schools are doing, and they aren't. Nobody's definition of a Good School is "one in which students score well on a once-a-year math and reading test." There are so many things that matter in deciding if a school is a good one or not, and the vast majority (perhaps all) of them are not measured by the BS Tests.

So, Back To The Main Question

The Big Standardized Test was launched into schools with big goals, big plans, big dreams-- and none of them have come true. We've been doing this for oh so many years now, and if we were going to reap benefits, we would be awash in those benefits right now. We are not. Not by the measure of the supposedly "gold standard" NAEP test, not by college success, not by an economic and cultural renaissance caused by an influx of super5-educated young people.

Some of the goals associated with the test were not worthwhile goals to begin with. Some of the results have proven to be hugely undesirable. I don't believe that anyone associated with test-centered accountability said, "Oh, and let's try to make young children really stressed out to the point that they are crying and pulling hair-- that would be cool!" And yet, here we are.

Here we are spending a buttload of tax money on a product that has not delivered on any of its promises-- a buttload of money that could be spent to make schools better. Here we are shortening the school year so that even less instruction can take place.

Here we are continuing with the testing regimen even though, after two decades, we don't have a shred of evidence that it is doing any good, and a ton of evidence that it is doing harm.

So why are we still doing this?

Inertia? Affection for the status quo (which test-centered schooling now is)? Corporate lobbying to keep the tax dollars flowing? Policy leaders unwilling to confess they screwed up? Because legislators understand education as well as they understand the internet?

I don't know the answer. But I do know what we should do next.


Just stop.

Cancel the BS Tests. Throw them out. Have an honest conversation about which of the above goals are worth pursuing and how best to pursue them. That will take time; it won't be easy. Maybe there will be a place for the right tests, used correctly, in the future. Maybe. But what we have now continues to do serious damage to US public education. It's costing us so much, both in terms of money and human toll and opportunity costs, and it is giving us nothing in return

Stop. Stop the testing. Stop it completely. Stop it now.

Just stop.


  1. Because capitalism? There are billions of dollars in standardized testing, and testing corporations have powerful lobbies. Why kill that gravy train?

  2. Other countries manage testing without many of these issues. It's not even an issue in many of them.

    The US tests are done on the cheap, for the wrong reasons. But that the US chooses to test badly does not mean testing is all bad.

    After all the US also has terrible gun laws and police training and that doesn't mean we should get rid of gun laws and police training.

    Getting rid of testing allows the zealots to argue anything they want, with no counter evidence. They can say results are going down, and how would we dispute that? That's not helpful.

    Good tests, across more disciplines, with no VAM nonsense, and no funding held to it would have some uses -- which is why most countries do it that way.

  3. I posted about opting out on my FB page yesterday. This was an actual comment from someone:
    "I will not get into the validity of the test or if they may or may not be biased. Those are matters of opinion which cannot possibly be proven without a doubt. I guess my thought is that tests are a benchmark and show your knowledge in a particular subject. It is also, in my opinion, a reflection of the teacher. Could it be that some teachers do not want the testing out of fear of reflection on said teacher? As far as making kids stressed or anxious? Kids need to be put under fire from time to time. I hope this test makes my child a little stressed or anxious. In ten years he will be an adult, in the workforce. Most likely his employer couldn't care less if a task makes him stressed or anxious. He will be expected to complete the task regardless. When we have kids thinking they can "opt out", where does it end. I guess even if I thought the tests were silly and did not accomplish anything, I would still want my kid to complete them. School is a process and for me, when you enter into a process, you complete the process."
    So there are parents out there who think like this.

    1. That is an awful thing for a parent to say. Childhood is sacred. A parent who wants their child stressed and anxious?....this is exactly why the suicide rate of teens in increasing every single year.

    2. In 6 years he will have a drivers license. Better put him behind the wheel now. At some point he’ll have to pay his own rent. Better start charging him now. In a few years he will learn where babies come from. Better start talking about safe sex now. Right? Cuz there is absolutely no validity to the idea that what will be required as an adult may not be relevant at 10.

    3. When I want my children to learn that sometimes they have to carry out tasks whether they want to or not, I make them wash the dishes or mow the lawn. I don't ask taxpayers to fund a billion-dollar industry to teach them this fairly simple lesson for me. Talk about government waste!

  4. Dear Mr. Greene and Commentors:

    Well, Hello out there! I’m going to respond to all three commentors. It’s not just other countries, Chester Drawers. We used to have tests like that. I know that because I’m old enough to be a retired teacher but when I got out of college I took a job administering what was called “The Ohio Test.” It was a well regarded instrument for measuring what students knew. I would be called by the test company and given an assignment to go administer the test at a school at a certain date and time. The school would have received the tests in the mail. The principal usually escorted me to the room and prepared the students so they were always on their best behavior. The students knew that everyone-the teacher, the principal, their parents-everyone expected them to make their best effort. It was very different from today.

    If you Google “Ohio Test”, all you will get are stories about the Ohio’s version of what Mr. Greene calls the BS test. Before this, however the type of tests I administered was a test that a District would order, and pay for, to see if their students were on track with their education, and if they weren’t, try to figure out where the problem was and fix it. This was not a blame game. If the problem was an inexperienced teacher, they gave that teacher a Mentor. They didn’t close the school and give a businessman the money to open a private school, either. They hoped to discover how to give the students the help they needed as easily and as cheaply as they could.

    This also answers the person who wrote to Amy Moore, who thinks somehow it is OK to spend public money on school tests that do not accomplish anything. We used to have tests that provided the people who paid for them with useful information. If that parent wants to spend his/her own money on something that is useless, Hey, free country, etc. but in this situation, are spending MY money, and a lot of other folks’ money and we say, Hey, burden YOUR child with stress on YOUR OWN dime!

    And of course, why don’t we just go back to that testing model? For the answer to that, we can look at 47th Problem of Elucid. Some people say it began with Reagan, some say with Clinton. Somewhere along the way, some time ago, some crafty business folks decided that it was worth trying to divert some of the vast river of money that went to public education into their own pocket, because, YES! Capitalism!

    Stopping it? Hard problem. These people now are like in the old days when the horse suddenly knew the barn and a bag of oats was a short gallop away, and that horse has got the bit between his teeth.

    Well, maybe it has to get really bad before it can get better. Thanks!


  5. Didn't Shirley Jackson forewarn us about this way back in 1948.

  6. Following years of snafus with tests not being delivered on time, wrong tests being delivered and results failing to arrive until the following school year, Tennessee has a long list of districts who have stated, pre-testing, that the results will not count for grades. The kids will still take them. The state will still pay for them. But going in, folks already assume some kind of snafu will occur to render them useless. Genius.

  7. Yes,do away with the test PERIOD . Less home work,let the work be done in school where is should stay,OR CUT IT IN HALF !
    Children need to distress after school not spend there entire time AFTER SCHOOL DOING HOMEWORK !