Can We Stop Using Tests To Drive Education Reform?

Jeff Bryant

“Stop using tests to try to drive education reform.”

That’s the conclusion from a recent in-depth report examining the pros and cons of new education standards called the Common Core and the standardized tests that accompany the new achievement targets.

The report, “Questioning The Common Core Tests,” from American Radio Works, a project of American Public Media, examined the rollout of the new standards, particularly in the state of New York, where that rollout has been accompanied by huge controversies over dramatic increases in the failure rates on new state tests.

The reporter, Emily Hanford, casts the new standards as mostly a good thing. She quoted a “a mom and a former math teacher” who claims the standards have led to changes in her children’s school that encourage them to “think more.” And Hanford spoke with Carol Burris, an award-winning principal from a high school on Long Island, New York, who “would like to see students at all schools in the United States get the kind of education that’s laid out in the Common Core standards.”

But Hanford balanced sunny views of the Common Core with the reality of the increased standardized testing that tends to accompany the new standards wherever they go. Indeed, increased testing is now at the heart of “reform” policies being implemented in every school, with new tests now being rolled out even in kindergarten and pre-school, and to children who have severe disabilities.

“Testing is sucking the joy out of learning,” the New York mom Hanford interviewed declared. “She’s upset about all the class time taken up by the tests. Students in New York sit for up to nine hours of Common Core testing, at the end of the school year, plus interim assessments and practice tests.”

Another parent complained, “The curriculum has been taken over by ‘constant’ test prep.“ Another said, “The kids hear all day long and all year long, ‘Do it this way so it’ll be right on the test’ … The kids are getting a sense that it’s all about this looming test.”

Principal Burris, Hanford summarized, doesn’t believe any potential good coming from new standards “will happen as long as there are high-stakes tests attached.”

Given the context Hanford’s report established – with the new standards seemingly a potentially beneficial ends being undone by a stifling, narrow-minded means – it’s hard not to reach the same thought she ended with, paraphrasing Burris, that the best idea may be to “stop using tests to try to drive education reform.”

That conclusion is in fact rapidly becoming the center of the debate over education policy across the country, not just in New York and not just in regards to the rollout of Common Core.

Test Rebellion Grows, Spreads

Indeed, reports about widespread protests against standardized tests are now routine.

Most prominent among them was the recent headline in The New York Times: “States Listen As Parents Give Rampant Testing An F.” The article told of a recent parent meeting in a Florida high school auditorium in which parents “railed at a system that they said was overrun by new tests coming from all levels – district, state and federal. Some wept as they described teenagers who take Xanax to cope with test stress, children who refuse to go to school and teachers who retire rather than promote a culture that seems to value testing over learning.”

The reporter, Lizette Alvarez, noted Florida schools this year will “dedicate on average 60 to 80 days out of the 180-day school year to standardized testing. In a few districts, tests were scheduled to be given every day to at least some students.”

The overemphasis on testing, Alvarez found, has led to parents and educators across the state “rebelling.”

Florida, even more than New York, has been a “model” of “education reform” other state leaders have been urged to follow – implementing the Common Core and other “innovations.” But the changes have brought about the increased emphasis on testing. In response to that emphasis, parents and educator in Florida, like those in New York, are joining what amounts to “a national protest,” in Alvarez’s words, against all the testing requirements that invariably accompany the reforms.

As proof of the national scope of the uprising, the Times reporter pointed to the organization Fair Test, the National Center on Fair and Open Testing, which keeps a running tally of test-related news and commentary on its website. Anyone scanning the weekly accounts will quickly learn that the vehement outrage over increased standardized testing has spread to every state and is continuing to increase in intensity.

Last month FairTest released a detailed report on the testing resistance and reform movement. The report found, “In the spring of 2014, an estimated 60,000 parents refused the tests in New York (5 percent of the state’s students in grades 3-8), more than 1,000 opted out in Chicago, and across Colorado more than 1,400 boycotted. Parents and students opted out in many other states. Meanwhile, people organized to roll back testing in more than half the states, using public forums, social and traditional media campaigns, rallies, petitions and legislative efforts, as well as boycotts. This represents a major expansion from spring 2013; for example, there were 10 times as many refusers in New York this year compared with last.”

Roots Of Test Mania

Where did all the testing come from?

As the Times reporter Hanford noted, “Common Core does not require states to test students, but the No Child Left Behind Act does. That law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, says that in order to get certain kinds of federal education funding, states must test their students every year in grades three through eight and once in high school. The law requires states to publish test results. When the law went into effect, it mandated that by 2014, every student would have to score ‘proficient’ on those tests. States that failed to reach this goal could lose federal funding.”

Then the emphasis on testing increased dramatically when new requirements for teacher and principal evaluations rolled out under the Obama administration. “Evaluating teachers by test scores is not part of Common Core,” Hanford explained again, “but it’s been linked to it because of money the Obama administration gave to states as part of its Race to the Top grant program. To be eligible for that program, states had to adopt Common Core (or similarly rigorous standards and assessments), and they had to put into place teacher evaluation systems that use student test score growth as a ‘significant’ part of both teacher and school principal evaluations.”

Actually, it’s difficult to find any aspect of the agenda known as “education reform” that is not inextricably linked to test scores.

Scores on international tests have been used to condemn the American public education system. Test scores are frequently given as chief rationale for state takeovers of local school districts and for closing neighborhood schools. And test scores are now the principal means of determining nearly every value proposition for education – whether to include art and music in the curriculum, choose charter schools over public ones, add extended hours or new technologies.

As I explained some time ago, education reform advocates took their lessons from financial markets that learned how to “flip” the value of a commodity with unclear quantitative value – whether it was the number of hits on a website or the unsecured value of a mortgage debt – into a specific value in the form of a security to buy and sell on Wall Street.

By decreeing that student scores on standardized tests would define the “output” schools would be accountable for, reformers – either unwittingly or intentionally (does it matter?) – turned student learning – and by extension, the students themselves – into a commodity that could be speculated on in the context of all sorts of “reform” schemes – from starting charter schools to lowering teacher salaries to closing schools.

Now the true costs of this mindset – that it might be corrupting, even inhumane – are becoming clear to people who are most affected by the policy.

Leaders Are Starting To Hear, But Do They Listen?

Politicians and public officials are starting to hear the growing chorus against testing.

Recently in Ohio, district superintendents in the northeast corner of the state condemned what they called “test mania,” calling the state’s new exam schedule – doubling test time to 10 hours per student – an “abomination.”

As the FairTest report cited above noted in its executive summary, “School boards are also resisting test overkill. In Texas, 85 percent of districts passed a resolution condemning testing for ‘strangling’ education. That set the stage for a 2013 parent-led legislative campaign that rolled back the number of graduation tests from 15 to 5. In New York, about 20 districts refused to administer tests used for the sole purpose of trying out items for the next year’s state exams. Parents prodded the districts and provided legal backing. This fall, the Lee County, Florida, school board voted to opt out of all state-mandated standardized tests. Though it later retreated, that school board and others across the state, together with parent and teacher allies, are pursuing strategies to slash state test requirements, making it easier for districts to reduce their own testing mandates.”

In August, Education Secretary Arne Duncan added to the chorus when he wrote in a blog post that “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” Recently, 11 civil rights groups that constitute the Advancement Project told Duncan to drop the K-12 test-based accountability system.

Then in October, leaders of state and large-city school districts announced “a joint effort to evaluate and improve the quality and quantity of student assessments in public schools across the nation.”

Back to the question, “Can we stop using tests to drive education reform?”

Answering that question will take more than new policy; it will take a new mindset.

As Hanford noted in her Times article, “New York State Education Commissioner John King believes tests are necessary to get teachers to start teaching the Common Core. ‘People do what’s measured,’ he said at an education policy breakfast at NYU in the Fall of 2012. ‘And measuring the Common Core has to be a part of how we insure successful implementation.’”

This is not only an extraordinarily narrow-minded view of human nature; it’s also bad for education. The notion that something as complex as a school system, overseeing something as ill-defined as “learning,” can be evaluated and governed by specific and isolated “data outputs,” has always been a really bad way of thinking about public policy. In fact, there’s lots of evidence teachers will try new ideas when they’re not being measured.

Changing this mindset will be harder than changing the policy. As teacher and Education Week contributor Peter Greene wrote on his popular blog site, when Secretary Duncan criticized the over-reliance on high stakes testing in our schools, he was essentially correct. “It’s just that his words have nothing to do with the policies pursued by his Department of Education … Duncan does not welcome an examination of the way in which standardized testing is driving actual education out of classrooms across America.”

What Greene, principal Burris and others foresee, unfortunately, is rather than a complete change in mindset, is instead just a change in jargon in how supporters of reform express their policy proposals.

So we’ve yet to hear a coherent answer to, “Can we stop using tests to drive education reform?” But any legitimate notion of “reform” will have to come up with one.

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