Monday, June 1, 2020

FL: Philanthropy Backs Testing

Has there ever been a time when it was more obvious that the Big Standardized Test is waste of time and money? Do you hear anybody out on the street over the last week declaring, "What we need is some standardized testing to show systemic racism, because otherwise, how will we know?" But education amateurs still believe in testing's magic power, and nowhere is the Cult of Testing more firmly entrenched than in Florida.

So here comes Bill Hoffman in the Tampa Bay Times to explain "Why we still need standardized testing."

This guy.
Who is this guy? Hoffman is the head honcho of the Florida Philanthropic Network, and, of course, has no actual background in education. He graduated from the University of South Florida in 1976 with a bachelors in Marine Biology, then got himself a Master in the same. He rose through the ranks at Associated Marine Institutes, Inc, a "$65M international non-profit education and juvenile justice organization." In 2002 he landed in the Hillsborough Education Foundation, another one of those business-and-philanthropy self-appointed school oversight groups. He was there until 2011, and if Hillsborough rings a bell, that may because it was the site of one of the Gates Foundation experiments in teacher evaluation (from which Gates ultimately pulled out, leaving his tab unpaid and the district with issues). Hillsborough entered that Gates adventure in 2009.

Hoffman moved on to the National School Foundation Association, "the industry's primary thought leader, convener, and advocate." By "industry" they apparently mean the "education foundation" industry. NSFA started a Education Foundation Leader Certification Program at National University, and Hoffman teaches a couple of courses part time for that. Also in 2011 he set up Bill Hoffman and Associates, LLC, a consulting firm, because of course he did. They offer "national level independent sector expertise" in "educational engagement strategies," among other organization things.

The Florida Philanthropic Network that Hoffman CEOs has an "education affinity group," which includes an assortment of Florida community foundations, plus, of course, the Gates foundation, Gulf Power Company, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo. Gates also funds the organization, along with the Helios Education Foundation, which is all about getting students ready for college in Arizona and Florida, and there's more to them and, as usual, we could just follow these strings all day. But let's get back to Bill Hoffman and his op-ed.

Hoffman opens by saying, yes, canceling the BS Test was the right call this year, and everybody deserves kudos for dealing with the pandemic mess this year, especially parents of young children.

But what he really wants to talk about is why we shouldn't dump testing entirely. Not all of his arguments are exactly cogent:

While in the current situation it is not appropriate to expect the same level of preparation or performance on year-end testing, that doesn’t diminish testing’s value. For those who say we did without testing in this situation so we don’t need to have tests in the future, I’d point to the fact that we are doing without a lot of societal “institutions” (such as going to restaurants, sporting events, concerts, parks, etc.). That doesn’t mean we should eliminate them in the future.

First of all, the disruption of the year absolutely reduced the test's value-- reduced it all the way to zero, which is why it was canceled. Second, a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves. Restaurants are going to open, so we should start testing again? A standardized test is just like a concert?

The education funders of the Florida Philanthropic Network have held as one of their key tenets (and areas of support) assuring that our students going through the Florida K-12 system are prepared to be successful in their post-secondary education and careers. There are many moving parts to make this happen: rigorous and challenging standards, excellent teaching, supportive administrators, engaged parents, and grade-appropriate curricular materials to name a few of the most critical. But even with all these pieces in place there is no assurance students are growing academically. How can you tell if you don’t measure it?

The thing is-- there's no evidence that the BS Tests measure any of this. There isn't an iota of evidence that raising your test score raises your prospects in life. And while I understand the desire for some concrete measure of how students are advancing, that's just not how humaning works. Do you want to know if a person is becoming more responsible? Do you want to know if your partner loves you more today than yesterday? You can create proxies for the things you want to measure, but you cannot directly measure what is going on in a human heart and mind. Your proxies will always be imperfect, and sometimes they will be wildly imperfect. A standardized reading and math test as a proxy for intellectual and personal growth is hopelessly, wildly, completely imperfect.

Research done by TNTP, the New York-based The New Teacher Project, that was released as the report, “The Opportunity Myth” shows that students live up to the expectations set for them by their teachers.

Nope. "The Opportunity Myth" barely qualifies as research, and what it pretends to prove is a whole bunch of other things. But you're right-- teacher expectations matter, which is why it's important that teachers hold expectations that are higher and more valuable than "get a good score on this single standardized test."

But Hoffman has fully signed on for the expectation baloney train, claiming that students who are, for instance, reading below grade level are doing so because their teachers aren't expecting more. I wonder if, in Hoffman's work career, he ever fired someone. If so, why didn't he just expect harder for that person, so they would do better work? And if he would say that firing underperformers is how one maintains high expectations in a workplace, I would remind him that teachers cannot fire students.

Hoffman thinks that these low expectations are why students struggle when they get to college. This talking point, a golden oldie, always puzzles me. If students are struggling when they get to college, can't the college professors get them past it by having high expectations? Why is the assumption that college students come with limitations that professors must work with and acknowledge, but from K-12 teachers should just expect harder and thereby magically erase any struggles or limitations that those students work with.

Look. Expectations are powerful and hugely important in a classroom. One of the trickiest arts of teaching is to calibrate expectations with the strengths and weaknesses of the individual students-- otherwise you reap either boredom or frustration. The best teachers have hundreds of "expectation" tools in their kit, and you never stop learning more about how to know which one to use with which student under which circumstances.

But the Big Standardized Test is a lousy tool for raising and maintaining expectations-- senseless; designed with the test manufacturers and data gurus in mind, not students or teachers; narrow; poorly written; and with its validity still unproven.

Hoffman has one last line that is, in its way, incisive:

[W]e won’t know they’re performing unless there are clear and challenging standards coupled with a standard means to measure the students’ growth.

But that's the challenge. Knowledge is not a performance. Learning is not a performance. Understanding is not a performance. Education is not a performance. And when you demand that someone perform for you in order to "prove" that they are educated, you run the risk of teaching them to perform rather than to know, to fake it rather than to make it. You invoke Campbell's Law. You get junk.

Hoffman's desire to have students learn at their best possible level is totally on point. But like too many education amateurs, he assumes that a standardized test is a magical device that can do all the things he dreams of, instead of recognizing it as a product that is being sold with neither guarantee nor proof of quality.

1 comment:

  1. Good points, Curmudgeon.
    By the way, much longitudinal research has shown that high test scorers don't thrive in college courses beyond their first freshman semester, probably because we require you to understand & THINK in most college courses. Not the same as regurgitating low level factoids as in multiple choice standardized test questions
    Pete Farruggio
    Associate Professor Bilingual Education (retired)
    Univ of Texas Rio Grande Valley