Teachers, Testing and Why We Might Just Chill

You hear it all the time: What we need is teachers at the policy table. They would make the right decisions about things that would truly revive and strengthen public education.

Well, maybe.

Managing and monitoring the behavior and learning of 30 8-year olds or 150 teenagers, making 1500 fine-grained instructional decisions a day, means there isn’t much time for negotiation, nuance, what-ifs and taking everyone’s opinion into consideration. Teachers are also excellent crap-detectors, having had so much practice. Teachers cut to the chase.

No so with most policy-makers.

In a just and fair world—not the polarized and partisan world we live in—legislators are elected to craft policy that sees all sides: Business and the national economy. The environment. The needs of the rural west and the urban east. The well-being of The People. The most equitable way to educate all children.

It is worth remembering that No Child Left Behind–the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in its 2001 incarnation—was a product of bipartisan legislators who really thought they were injecting admirable goals and equity, not to mention accountability, into the venerable ESEA, now 55 years old.

Who do you suppose wrote the following statement?

It is clear that the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year so that states can respond to the unique circumstances they are facing; keep students, staff, and their families safe; and maintain their immediate focus on supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development.

 Sounds good, right? Actually, it is the opening salvo in a letter from the federal Department of Education, letting states know that they will still be expected to give mandated federal tests this year, although significant flexibility in all aspects of testing has been granted.

Tests can be given in the spring, summer or fall, or all three, in the same district but to different populations. States or districts may choose which tests to give, and make them shorter. Tests may be given remotely. And districts are not required to test 95% of their students to make their results ‘count.’ They must still find ways to share their data with parents and the federal government.

Now—let me say, as a teacher, that I strongly believe that all mandated testing should have been waived this spring, due to the pandemic. The data generated from these tests will be garbage.

But I can understand why the Department did what it did.

First, if testing were waived for the spring testing window, it does not magically go away. It’s still there, on the books. And come fall, when—God willing, as Joe Biden might say—the large majority of public school students will be returning to face to face learning, parents (sensible, caring, good-citizen parents) are going to be asking: How is my child doing? Is he behind?

And I can see teachers everywhere saying: Don’t worry. I’ll figure it out. I’ll meet your child where he is. I’ll work to fill in any gaps that I see.

I believe those teachers. And I know they will use assessments. Not high-stakes, punitive, we-must-compare kinds of standardized tests—but they will certainly be assessing students, to inform their instruction.

I also know that over the past 20 years or so, parents (and many teachers) have begun to believe that test scores are real, that they’re the best, most reliable data we have to tell us what our children know and can do. That’s not true, but—hey, listen to any journalist or newscaster talk about the ‘learning loss’ crisis.  We have our work cut out for us.

I recently shared a letter I wrote to as-yet-unconfirmed Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, urging him to suspend testing, and drew a number of irritated responses from teachers, saying they wanted standardized testing data this spring. Some, to prove that their newly honed online instructional efforts had been effective. Others, to show that students in poverty were not learning as much online—to compare this year’s students to previous classes.

I believe all stakeholders—students and parents, teachers and school leaders, and especially business and government officials are going to need to be weaned off their faith in and reliance on standardized testing data, and moved toward assessment literacy for educators and trust in public education for the rest. We aren’t getting either of those things overnight.

We currently have billions of dollars’ worth of testing infrastructure: laws, test producers, researchers, technological investments, grant-funded non-profits, right down to part-time, hired-on-Craig’s List scorers. We need a plan to improve assessment models and report results to parents and states–because we DO still need assessments. What we don’t need is harmful, disconnected standardized tests and terrible uses of the data they generate.

And we’re not going to get rid of accountability overnight, either. David Labaree says:

The urge for accountability is not unreasonable.  Education should be accountable.  It’s a public institution that needs to be effective at meeting the goals society sets for it, and such determinations can’t just be left to the preferences of teachers or parents or students or administrators.  In addition, it’s not ok that many students don’t succeed in school and that their social origins are key determinants of their success or failure.  Schooling whose outcomes simply reproduce its inputs is not good schooling.  These equity concerns are visible in the names of the two key US laws governing accountability – No Child Left Behind and its 2013 successor, Every Student Succeeds Act.

The problems with accountability lie in the way it is implemented.  The accountability movement in the US and in the world of school reform has relied on a method that defines school success through a small number of metrics – scores in tests that measure comprehension of the formal curriculum.

After 20 years of dispiriting federal policy-making in education, we may have a window for significant change, but we are entering that window through the context of a pandemic.

The first set of policy alterations—flexibility and options around testing–is pretty weak sauce, but it does reflect change. What would happen if all states and districts were permitted to choose their own tests, give them at times they deemed useful, eliminate all punitive uses of test data and no longer be required to test 95% of their students? If that became a permanent (legislatively sanctioned) set of changes, would that be progress?

Policy shifts are often predicated by small changes that snowball. One opportunity I would see right now is for the parent-led opt-out movement. Schools can’t claim that parents exercising their right to take children out of testing threatens their 95% compliance level.  Suppose parents got organized and a significant percentage said—nope, not testing MY kid this year?  Would that not be evidence—data, if you will—that a lot of parents simply don’t think standardized tests are useful?

Here’s what we don’t need right now:

  • Ad hominem attacks (Biden lied! He wants testing. At least Betsy DeVos suspended testing!)
  • Holding out for a no tests, ever again, policy in the second month of a new administration

I feel like we (millions of educators) have been screaming about the folly of mandated standardized testing for two decades with no positive action. We might actually have a window to shift entrenched policies now, in the next four years.

But because it didn’t happen right away, we now have people screaming at the very folks who might be able to help.  By all means, keep writing letters, keep sharing your stories. But don’t give up the faith, yet.
UPDATE: The billions and orgs already invested in pro-testing? They are happy that tests will go on, but unhappy about locally chosen or designed tests and the relaxation of the requirement that 95% must be tested.

7 Comments

  1. THIS. IS.SPOT.ON!
    The real problem has to do with the post NCLB testing fiasco tri-fecta:
    1) Really BAD (Common Core) STANDARDS, esp. ELA.
    2) Really BAD (Common Core) TESTS, esp. ELA
    3) Really BAD POLICY: Misuse of test scores to threaten and punish schools and teachers

    We should be advocating for objective, age appropriate standards and grade span testing in basic skills.

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    1. Thanks for expressing your comment in the way you did. I am SO tired of hearing ‘Teachers don’t want their work to be measured!’ and ‘Don’t all kids need high standards?’

      Yes, kids need to be pushed to accomplished the next level, to be moved forward. And teaching is among the most ‘measured’ work on the planet. Public education should be held accountable–but to the specific communities being served. Arne Duncan was flat-out wrong when he said we all need the same goalposts. A quality public school education will be tailored for the children being served. When the standards are not relevant and the testing is incompetent, even damaging, then those tests and the data they generate are harmful.

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  2. What kids at the federally tested grades (3 to 8) really needed were “stretched” standards. A challenge at the high end in order to earn high scores – yet a reasonable passing score at the low end that gave more credit for basic skills. Instead CC standards and companion (PARCC, SBAC) tests tilted the playing field for high achievers only. Many average and struggling students (including virtually all IEP students) were unfairly labeled as math and ELA failures thanks to age inappropriate CC standards and the arbitrary cut scores used to produce faux rigor and artificially inflated failure rates.

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  3. Whether you are for or against standardized testing, the fact remains that the school ratings on all the real estate search portals are significantly influenced by test scores. But research has shown that parent income accounts for 70-80% of a school’s overall test score.The result is that the school ratings are heavily biased towards schools in wealthy areas, while schools in lower income areas get lower ratings. Parents are being steered to privileged areas and away from socio-economically diverse schools and schools in low income areas. School districts also use test scores to rate their own schools, falling into the same trap of favoring wealthy schools. If standardized tests are going be used to measure the quality of instruction, then they have to be analyzed in the context of parent income. When analyzed in this way, literally thousands of urban schools in the US are revealed as high quality institutions, while at the same, thousands of schools in wealthy areas are dethroned.

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    1. I know and understand all the things you’re saying–and it would be lovely, wouldn’t it, to dismantle the testing/accountability machine in one fell swoop? Indexing test scores to parent income and education is a way of showing that raw testing data doesn’t reveal what most people think it does. But the real goal, I think, is understanding the purposes and models of assessment.

      Because everyone who lives in the U.S. has experienced testing in schools (garden-variety testing, not norm-referenced standardized testing), there is a sense that tests reliably and accurately tell us what children have learned, that in fact they’re the best way to know what kids have learned, and that’s a misconception. There are plenty of ways to assess learning–better ways than testing–and our ultimate goal ought to be assessment literacy, if not expertise, for parents, students and teachers.

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  4. Our ultimate goal is to create a more meaningful learning assessment for schools in the US. We view our current algorithm as the first step in the right direction. If we can dismantle the biased school ratings that plague all the real estate search engines, then we can go to work incorporating new and better metrics, and slowly dilute the reliance on test scores. But we need to get the attention of the search engines first. It’s a legal gray area for search engines to display school ratings at all, but that gray area will be more black and white when there is a clear alternative; because then they will be choosing discriminatory ratings over more equitable and fair ratings. 100 retweets on our recent pinned post would probably get their attention.

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