Wednesday, May 6, 2020

High Stakes Testing Is A Huge Threat To Post-Covid Education

High stakes testing and the relentless use of Big Standardized Test score as a proxy for everything we want from an education system--well, it has always caused problems.

It has led to a terrible narrowing of education (if that class isn't On The Test, then why bother supporting it or even offering it). It has provided a large-scale demonstration of Campbell's Law, in which a measurement is mistaken for the thing itself, thereby distorting the thing itself and the measurement. It has allowed all manner of education amateur to speak with authority about education because, after all, they have "hard data" and a bunch of numbers . And so important people have been able to act as if they really know things, when in fact they haven't had a clue. It has allowed folks to pretend they Know Things, when in fact they don't know anything at all. And for certain folks intent on privatizing education, high stakes testing has provided a way to "prove" that public schools are failing and should be replaced with privately owned and operated education flavored businesses.
Yeah, gonna need a better foundation than that

The widespread test fetish has drawn time and attention and resources from aspects of education that actually matter. Journalists and fonts of education wisdom keep talking about "student achievement" and "teacher effectiveness" and what they actually mean is "the scores on a single not-very-well-designed math and reading test." The disruptors and edu-wonks and self-appointed edu-leaders have honed an educational focus that is all hat, while ignoring the cattle completely.

The focus on high stakes testing has done considerable damage to education in this country. It is poised to do even more.

Andrew Cuomo is assembling a panel of well-connected education amateurs like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt. Cuomo long argued for teacher evaluation to be based on test scores, while Gates promoted and boosted the Common Core, with its emphasis on high-stakes testing as a means of measuring which standards students had achieved. This collection of test fetishests is going to reimagine education for New York.

And here are some academic edu-wonks in EdWeek explaining how to shed a few hundred-thousand veteran teachers, recycling the popular disruptor argument that old teachers are dead weight on the system (and they're the most expensive, but they try not to say that part out loud). Their "bad news" is that layoffs can lower test scores, which they treat as a synonym for "negatively affect students." And their plan is to revive the argument for finding ways to hang on to the "most effective" teachers, which means "teachers whose students get the highest scores on the high stakes test." (See everyone who ever cited a faux paper called "The Widget Effect" for more examples of this argument.)

These days, everyone and his rich dilettante aunt wants to "redesign education." And I am actually 100% okay with the idea of revisiting our institutions on a regular basis (like, even more often than "every time a pandemic makes us hit pause"). 

But if you want to redesign education, then you need to start with a discussion about what you think public education is for. And the disruptors are hustling us right past that question, having already plugged in their answer--

It's for generating high scores on the Big Standardized Test.

Now, some of them may be so ignorant about education that they sincerely  believe that the BS Test is a good target to aim for. Others unquestionably subscribe to this idea because it suits their other purposes. But either way, it's a terrible foundation for a nation's education system.

No need for courses that don't affect test scores. Hire and fire and pay teachers based on their test score results, no matter how that disrupts the system and the lives of the students. Should we gather students together in a building with live human teachers, or do we just need to plunk them down in front of a screen-- well, which one gets the best test scores. And if it's a mix, just how far can we cut back on those (expensive) human teachers without hurting test scores? Can we standardize all the "high quality curriculum"  as a way of getting better test scores? And let's consider all the social-emotional stuff only insofar as "research" shows it affects test scores.

Funny thing. The pandemic pause is offering some reformsters a chance to strip everything away from education that isn't directly tied to testing, even as sheltering at home is convincing millions of families that what they miss and value most from school is every that isn't directly tied to testing. Reformsters are salivating at the chance to drastically reduce the role of teachers in education even as, in the real world, Jimmy Fallon is going viral with a song that opens "Teachers should be paid a billion dollars."

If we reimagine education as an institution built on a foundation of Getting High Scores On High Stakes Tests, we'll end up with a tiny, cramped, meagre, sad shadow of the actual education system that would serve students and society. Of course, when I say "we," that's not quite accurate, because the wealthy will never settle for a system like that.

Every time the idea of reimagining education comes up, we need to ask the same question-- what will the point, the goal, the mission of public education be? It can't be "to get high test scores." That shouldn't even make the list. It's not good enough. It has never been good enough.

And now, for your Teacher Appreciation Week enjoyment...

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