Testing, the Problem Not the Solution

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Imagine a world where being a runner is held in high regard, well above students’ aptitude in reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.

Teacher A at XYZ Elementary School takes her third-grade class out to the school track, lining them up to run the 100-meter dash to set a baseline of data for determining the fastest runners in the class.

Across town at ABC Elementary School, Teacher Z ushers her third-graders to the high school to establish her baseline data, sending off these children on 2 laps of the 5K cross country trails.

Mid-year, Student J transfers from XYZ Elementary School, where J had placed 1st in the initial 100-meter dash, to ABC Elementary School just in time for the year-end 10K to assign final grades.

J had excelled all year in the 40-yard dash, but floundered at the 10K, not able to finish the run and receiving an I for third grade, thus was retained.

In this brief allegory, we should confront the realities about high-stakes testing that are often muted by our blind faith in the perennial existence of tests such as IQ testing, state standards-based testing, and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT:

  • Regardless of standards, curriculum, textbooks, or even what teachers teach in the classroom, as Gerald Bracey has warned: What you test is what you get (WYTIWYG).
  • The testing format and context (see above the 100-meter dash v. a 10K) have a significant impact on the outcomes; in the thought experiment, which student is labeled a “fast runner” changes because of the type of test, not necessarily the abilities or even effort by the teachers and the students.
  • Pre- and post-testing are not as effective or fair as we tend to assume—notably since the real world includes a great deal of transient students. (Caution: A universal set of standards, curriculum, and tests may solve this problem, but cannot address the first two bullets above.)
  • What is tested and how are always political decisions by some authority in power. This confirms that all testing is political and that no testing is objective or neutral.
  • Testing is always reductive (giving evaluative power to a limited but claimed representative set of acts over behaviors that require more time and greater nuance) and serves mostly goals of efficiency, not goals of authenticity.

Now let’s turn to the soap opera that is education reform, fatally committed to the accountability paradigm (ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests—all promised to be better than those before, even as those before were declared the best ever)

First, let’s visit Chicago, PARCC pushback prompts Illinois to remake controversial test for 3rd-8th graders:

Math and reading exams known as PARCC spawned angst and outright rebellion when the tests launched in 2015, ushering in a new era of state testing in Illinois public schools.

But that new era appears to be short-lived, with this spring’s PARCC exams possibly the last for the state’s third- to eighth-grade students, educators say.

Here is yet one more brick removed from the crumbling wall of Common Core—a standards revolution that guaranteed world-class standards and tests that would usher in a new era of education reform across the U.S.

Next, and related, while the Common Core wall crumbles, and the concurrent rush to hold teachers accountable for student test scores on those Common Core tests flounders, one of the primary advocates and funders of the Common Core disaster has been Bill Gates and his foundation.

Interesting to note, then, that once again, as Nancy Flanagan details, Gates has changed his tune in the wake of his most recent promises failing:

Looks like Bill Gates, having totally solved the common standards problem, mastered the vexing “teacher evaluation using student test data” challenge, and designed right-sized schools, is now moving deeper into the heart of what has traditionally been teachers’ core professional work. Curriculum, that is.

“Our goal is to work with the field to make sure that five years from now, teachers at every level in secondary school have high-quality aligned curriculum in English, math, and science,” Bill Gates said in a speech last fall, describing curriculum as “an area where we feel like we’ve underinvested.”

And third, even internationally, the default urge in education reform is not only new testing, but more: Setting more exams to combat stress among school students is utterly absurd.

As I warned three years ago, Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different.

In fact, educators for well over three decades have warned that accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing has never been the appropriate reform mechanism for the core problems facing universal public education: crippling inequity in both the lives and formal education of the most vulnerable students.

Tests, then, are the problem and not the solution.

Tests are a distraction, keeping our gaze on students and teachers and away from the inherent inequity of the tests themselves—instruments of those in power who decide what matters and how by what is tested and how.

In education, the problem has never been about the quality of tests (or standards, or curriculum, or textbooks) but about the presence of those tests and the power they wield.

We remain trapped in refusing to learn the bitter lessons from chasing better tests.


See Also

Thinking about Tests and Testing: A Short Primer in “Assessment Literacy,” Gerald Bracey

Seventeen reasons why football is better than high school, Herb Childress

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