Why Progressives Should Care About The Backlash On Standardized Testing

Jeff Bryant

Last week, celebrated statistics guru Nate Silver laid a bugger on advocates for test-driven education, the current policy fad that enamors Republicans and Democrats alike who fancy themselves as “education reformers.”

In an online conversation at the aggregator site Reddit, the man known for being the “Lord and God of Algorithms” was asked, “What are your thoughts on data-driven metrics for teacher evaluation? Do you think a system that accurately reflects teacher value could ever be created, or will it always be plagued by perverse incentives (teaching to the test, neglecting certain types of students, etc)?”

Silver replied, “There are certainly cases where applying objective measures badly is worse than not applying them at all, and education may well be one of those.”

Silver explained that it would take “a book- or thesis-length treatment to really evaluate properly”

Of course, our current crop of leaders in Washington, DC and state capitals are not about to wait for “a book- or thesis-length treatment.” Because they are imbued with the “fierce urgency of now” for “education reform,” they want a formula instead.

But schoolteachers, principals, and parents on the ground have long understood that enforcing education practices on the basis of government mandated metrics is a losing proposition for children. Now they’re speaking out.

What’s Brewing In Seattle?

Since the creation of No Child Left Behind, the imposed metrics driving education policy have been student scores on standardized tests. Schools not making Acceptable Yearly Progress on raising test score results for specific populations of students have been subjected to all kinds of punitive actions, which include being shut down or turned over to a private management firm.

The Obama administration has intensified the situation. Its grant programs –including Race to the Top – and NCLB Waivers all require schools to base teacher and principal evaluations, as well as school rating systems, on student test scores, to a great deal of extent.

The intent of these policies was to impose “measured progress.” But lots of educators, parents, and public school activists don’t see it that way.

Recently, teachers at a Seattle high school refused to give the district-required MAP tests to students, saying the tests are bad and waste time and resources. Amazingly, people rushed to the schoolteachers’ support.

One of the teachers opting out of the test, Jesse Hagopian, reports at the online magazine TruthOut, “Thousands of people from around the country have signed on to a petition supporting the Garfield teachers. The school’s PTSA and student body organization  have stood behind the teachers. Other schools in the district are starting to line up behind Garfield, too, starting with Ballard High.”

More recently, the Seattle Education Association called for an elimination of the testing regime, calling for funding of the tests “to go to classroom and student needs first.”

At the online news outlet Nation of Change, Hagopian explains the teachers’ rationale:

“To use this (the test) as a tool to evaluate our teaching makes no sense . . . “They’re setting us up for failure. And Garfield High School is not a failure. We’re the home of (former students) Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee and Quincy Jones . . . No one cares how Jimi Hendrix scored on a high school math test. And no one should.”

This isn’t happening in just Seattle.

Testing Backlash Grows, Strengthens

Reporting from her blog at The Washington Post, education journalist Valerie Strauss traced the arc of growing unrest over metric-driven education policy:

“Parents have started to opt out of having their children take the exams; school boards have approved resolutions calling for an end to test-based accountability systems; thousands of people have signed a national resolution protesting high-stakes tests; superintendents have spoken out, and so have teachers. It has been building momentum in the last year, since Robert Scott, then the commissioner of education in Texas, said publicly that the mentality that standardized testing is the ‘end-all, be-all’ is a ‘perversion’ of what a quality education should be.”

Also at Strauss’ blog, Lisa Guisbond, a policy analyst for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, reviewed how Scott’s outcry evolved into a meme traveling to other states, including Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Virginia.

Both Democrats and Republicans are taking action. California’s school chief Tom Torlakson, a Democrat, recently proposed reducing the number of standardized tests that students must take. And the Republican dominated House of the Texas legislature has zeroed-out the state’s budget for standardized testing.

What People Are Upset About

A big problem with test-obsession is that basing education policies primarily on test scores has no basis in research, and evaluating teachers by students’ test scores – sometimes, unbelievably, students they don’t even teach – is a particularly bad idea.

As the Liz Dwyer at the website good.is recently explained, “individuals and organizations have laid out the case against the practice pretty thoroughly.”

Dwyer quotes a letter written by the National Research Council to the Obama administration “warning them against including the policy in their Race to the Top reform agenda,” noting that “research does not support the practice.” She also quotes Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute, who wrote that “holding teacher accountable for growth in the test scores (called value-added) of their students is more harmful than helpful to children’s educations.

The practice, Rothstein wrote, “creates rational incentives for teachers and schools to narrow the curriculum to tested subjects, and to tested areas within those subjects. Students lose instruction in history, the sciences, the arts, music, and physical education, and teachers focus less on development of children’s non-cognitive behaviors—cooperative activities, character, social skills—that are among the most important aims of a solid education.”

A Teacher’s-Eye View

Classroom teacher and prolific blogger Kenneth Bernstein recently described exactly how the “rational incentive” Rothstein pointed to works in the classroom. In a post titled “Warnings from the Trenches,” at the website for the American Association of University Professors, Bernstein warned university faculty to expect high school graduates to be “unprepared for higher education.” The reason? Test-driven “reforms” stemming from NCLB and Race to the Top.

Bernstein’s first complaint is that because only two subjects – math and reading– are being tested, “anything not being tested was given short shrift.”

Bernstein also explained how test-driven school practices are dumbing down students’ writing skills. Because the tests are made up of multiple-choice items – which, he notes “are cheaper to develop, administer, and score” – the tests don’t demand “higher-level thinking” or even “proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure.”

Even in more advanced courses such as AP, which Bernstein taught in addition to his regular classes, basing student performance solely or even substantially on mass-produced tests – in this case, AP exams and ostensibly “more rigorous” than state tests – enforces an inferior level of education. Because the exams are constructed with questions graded by a rubric that is, according to Bernstein, “concerned primarily with content and, to a lesser degree, argument,” with “no consideration of grammar or rhetoric,” or fundamentals of good composition such as “a clear topic sentence and a proper conclusion,” students get no credit for the quality of their writing.

“If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing,” Bernstein concluded. “My students did well on those questions because we practiced bad writing.”

Bernstein and his colleagues are exhorted by reform enthusiasts like Education Secretary Arne Duncan to not to “teach to the test” and still strive for learning goals that include higher-order skills. But “high schools are forced to focus on preparing students for tests,” Bernstein maintained, “and that leads to a narrowing of what we can accomplish in our classrooms.”

Is Resistance Futile?

The resistance to the test-driven approaches to education is getting some left-leaning people worried. At Slate.com, Matt Yglesias fretted that “backing off” from test-driven education “sounds like a mistake.” He pointed to Texas, where much of the test backlash is taking place, as an example of the state where the “testing craze . . . seems to be working out well.” (emphasis original)

His evidence was more test data (what else), in this case, the most recent (presumably) results from the main National Assessment of Education Progress. Texas’ NAEP scores show that African-American and Latino students perform better than the national average on the 8th grade and math. With this statistic only, he declared, “Those are pretty good results!” because Texas “is unusually stingy of its funding of public schools.”

Setting aside the unsurprising conclusion that the state that “led the way in the testing craze” (his words) might perform better than average on standardized tests, the greater reality is that the test-driven policies mandated by NCLB have produced meager gains in achievement on the NAEP after so many years of intense concentration on reading and mathematics required by the law. In fact, the largest gains in the NAEP occurred before metric-driven education became the law of the land.

When “Reform” Is Really Old School

Contrary to what testing acolytes would have you believe, trusting the magic of metrics to guide education is really not something new. In a series of thoughtful posts at his website, educator Larry Cuban declared, “It’s time to question the rationale of a business model applied to education.” Cuban explained that using data in education decision making is not something new and sourced the practice back to the “scientific management movement” that started over a century ago.

Educators have used data “for decades,” Cuban recounted, to make all kinds of decisions. But “just like facts from the past do not speak for themselves and historians have to interpret those facts, neither do numbers speak for themselves.”

Instead of going by-the-numbers alone, data like test scores need to fit into “existing models” or “algorithms” that determine whether the numbers really explain something valid.

The “policy by algorithm,” as Jeff Henig, a contributor to the blog series, put it, has become “in vogue” in all sorts of policy arenas, especially education, a pursuit that can often defy clarity.

But “policy by algorithm” has a dark downside. “When data are thin, algorithms theory-bare and untested, and results tied to laws that enshrine automatic rewards and penalties,” Henig explained, the algorithm can become indifferent to “the specific processes that link interventions to outcomes.” In order to compensate for the problem, algorithms have to change. And whereas Google can make 500 changes a year to its algorithm, we certainly can’t expect that from national education policy.

What education policy by algorithm is leading to, Cuban predicted in a third post, is quite probably similar to what happened to the collapse of the housing market in 2008, when “all the finely-crafted algorithms available to hedge fund CEOs, investment bankers, and Federal Reserve officials” were no help in predicting an economic fiasco.

What’s needed, Cuban concluded, is much more transparency and straightforward communication about the nature of education models and much more reliance on the good judgments of professional educators and parents.

There are reasons progressives should care about this.

Wasn’t Education “Reform” Supposed To Be Progressive?

NCLB was originally sold to us as “progressive” legislation. Miraculously, now NCLB Waivers are being touted as “progressive” too.

Armed with the reams of testing data unleashed by metrics-driven school reform, progressives everywhere were going to have the information they needed to hold schools “accountable” for educating children, especially the least served.

Yet what we are seeing instead is a form of education that actually threatens students’ civil rights. Writing at the blogsite Daily Kos, education professor Sherman Dorn explained what test-driven education is resulting in:

“When schools with low academic achievement receive test-prep booklets, the cost of those purchases is stolen from instructional materials for the general curriculum. When children with low academic performance find their classroom time occupied by activities that mirror multiple-choice test formats, that is a denial of access to a broad curriculum. When teachers, aides, school counselors, and others spend hours in early spring drilling students on test-taking techniques, that is time that children are not reading, are not learning about math and science and history, and are not experiencing or creating art or music.”

Does that sound progressive to you?

 

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