Saturday, November 19, 2022

A Moonshot For The Big Standardized Test

In the Washington Post, a new call for an education moon shot as a way to recover from the after-effects of the pandemic learning interruption.

The authors list gives us a hint at where this headed, and it's not the moon. There's Dan Goldhaber, vice-president of AIR (a test manufacturing outfit) and director of the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), from which vantage he has pitched research supporting the idea that it would be great to jam a bunch of students in a room with one teacher (and back in the day, he used to argue for VAM, too). There's Thomas Kane, the economist who is somehow a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has carried water for Bill Gates, pushed high stakes testing, and helped Eric Hanushek promote the idea that your Kindergarten experience at age 5 determines your wealth at age 55. Round this out with Andrew McEachin and Emily Morton of NWEA, the test manufacturing company that has been pushing Learning Loss and themselves as the antidote to same. 

Just for the record, this is not the first call for a moonshot. The Fordham Institute and the Center for American Progress previously announced a "Moonshot for Kids," an "open competition meant to elicit and highlight breakthrough ideas that could best leverage a major public or private research and development investment of $1 billion or more to improve outcomes for school-age kids" (albeit with an image of a launching spoace shuttle, a vehicle that does not go to the moon). However, that announcement came on March 17, 2019, just days before the coronavirus upended everything. Nevertheless, I fell that the four writers of the WaPo piece at the very least owe Mike Petrelli some sort of royalty payment for the whole "moonshot" thing.

Goldhaber et al open with the Big Pitch:

American students have experienced a historic decline in academic achievement. The only possible response — the only rational response — is a historic collective investment in children and young adults.

Yeah, the reason that sort of investment would be historic is the same reason that unicorns pooping rainbows in the middle of Wall Street would be historic. And then there's this:

The results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveal plummeting test scores nationwide, setting students back to where they were two decades ago.

This is a classic in a genre that likes to reduce students to an amorphous blob of data-generating abstractions, because here's the thing--if we set the actual live human students who took these tests back "to where they were two decades ago," they would all be unformed, unborn, not yet even twinkles in their parents' eyes. 

Goldhaber et al correctly note that the pandemic exacerbated the gap in test scores between haves and have-nots, and that ought to be a call to action except that, of course, the basic inequity should have been a call to action in the first place, but we've been taking the Big Standardized Tests for a couple of decades thereby attaching a numbered score to the inequity that people already knew was there, and somehow it has never led to states giving those schools more resources or support. "There's a big bear in the neighbors' house," has never prompted the authorities to send help (other than offers like "Well, we could arrange for one member of the family to move to a nice charter house across the street" or "Okay, let's demolish the house with the bear and the people in it"). So I'm not sure why "Okay, there's a bear in the neighbors' house and it's even bigger than we thought" would change anything.

These losses won’t be fixed by few hours of tutoring or a helpful computer program.

Well, they got that right, anyway. And they also score with the observation that the first step is "to more clearly define the task in front of educators and families." And then it goes south.

States need to help everyone see the loss in terms of what it’s going to take to get students back on track. Telling educators that proficiency rates have declined isn’t enough. Explaining that students lost several months or a year of math instruction provides a more solid basis for planning an ambitious recovery agenda.

This is the opposite of clearly defining the task. Because "proficiency rates" is just a snappy term for "test scores." And if your takeaway from all this disruption of school is that our most pressing need is to get test scores back up, then you have lost the plot (or spent too much time in the testing industrial complex). And the reference to months or a year of lost instruction is just to set up the use, again, of one of the more egregious falsehoods pushed by testocrats.

Research suggests that districts might be able to get a year’s worth of additional growth by providing students with three hours of tutoring, with three or fewer students per teacher — each week.

There is no such thing as learning measured in years, months, days or minutes. The time units of learning is a made-up sexy way to talk about--again--drops in test scores. It's a conversion made up to turn slices of standard deviation into units of time. It's a way to distract from the suggestion that of all the things you could worry about when it comes to the education, the thing you should worry most about is their score on the Big Standardized Test. Any time someone starts talking about days, weeks, months of learning, your bullshit detector should start clanging like a Don't Fear The Reaper cowbell.

But Goldhaber et al are going to suggest that a summer school session might yield an academic quarters worth of learning. Or maybe give students an extra period of algebra. Which are exactly the kind of solutions you come up with if you start with the premise that nothing is more important than raising those test scores. And not, say, deciding that your band and chorus need extra periods to help build the ensemble skills that have suffered from the long break. 

The writers also discuss the issues of staffing; in short, the school is probably going to have to staff all this stuff by mobilizing "local undergraduate students, parents, and other community members to provide tutoring." And be up front about the sacrifices necessary

Schools and education leaders should also be frank about what this effort requires from families. Expanding learning opportunities, such as after-school programs or Saturday academies, will require students and families to sacrifice time they might ordinarily spend on extracurriculars, family responsibilities, or even vacations. Year-round school will require broader adjustments to family routines — though it might be a benefit for parents scrambling for summer child care.

To get consensus (aka buy in) from parents, the school will have to be "crystal clear about where individual children stand." And I would love to sit in on the meeting in which Principal McData explains to Mr. and Mrs. Parentsalot that little Sam and Pat should have summer vacation taken away from them until they get that score on the annual test back up, because policy leaders are unhappy with the data. 

The writers also try to sell the idea that parents are largely deluded in thinking that their children are up to speed, which does not "line up with what we know about where students are academically today." But that's just another cover for "test score." (Reformsters really need to decide whether parents are the ones who know their children best or parents don't have a damn clue.) 

Look. This piece touts the value of transparency, but it also uses a trick known as the used car lot world as "assume the sale." That's when the salesman starts talking as if your decision to buy the car is already a done deal, and you're just haggling over details.

In this case, testocrats start the conversation on the premise that, hey, we all agree that nothing is more important than getting those annual test scores on a single badly-designed math and reading test. We skip right over the long long list of educational items that suffered during the pandemic and just quietly move test scores to the top of the list without any discussion about what priorities should be. For that matter, we also skip over the discussion that had already been raging for a few decades before COVID, the discussion about whether tests tests are valid, whether they're a good proxy for educational achievement at all, whther test scores tell teachers anything they don't already know, whether they are serving as a massive example of Campbell's Law as they warp education all out of shape, whether education would not be better off if we scrapped the whole BS Test business.

Testocrats are nervous. During the pandemic, testing was suspended, and parents and teachers did not collapse, wailing, "How shall I ever know how these children are doing??" Not a teacher in the country said, "Man, I wish test prep and administration was sucking up more of my time." 

I won't pretend to know how many testocrats have been swimming too long in their own koolaid and how many are just cynically opportunistic. Either way, they need a moonshot not to rescue children, but to rescue their own industry. In the meantime, schools and parents should be having a conversation about what students need without jumping to the assumption that nothing could be more important than getting those test scores back up.


  1. NAEP Panic Syndrome will do more harm than good. Do students really need an extra serving of anxiety served up by clueless adults?

    The real panic should be over developmentally inappropriate practices, standards, and standardized tests. You want to see real "learning loss"? Just listen to these Moonshot Morons as they have completely forgotten all we know about human brain development and cognitive learning theory. The fact is that kids and young adolescents across the K to 12 (yes 12) spectrum, and have always been, and always will be (with few exceptions) novice, concrete learners. And that's if they are motivated enough to stay serious and focused in their classes. Ask any teacher about 30 second learning loss. Ha!

  2. And let's not forget the defacto "learning loss" imposed by the now 20 year push to make test scores in TWO subjects the holy grail of K to 8 education and the unprecedented expansion of the null curriculum that this obsession produced. Not only did it place non-tested subjects (ie. everything else) on the far back burner, but the relatively few, Common Core standards that were actually tested, further constrained what was taught and most importantly, what was left out. The outrage over this is nowhere to be found because the sorry truth is that none of this has ever been about improving what and how kids learn - just an assault by edu-vultures drooling over a 600 billion dollar pie.