June 6, 2020

Will we pass the test on accountability in education?

Let’s be clear on something: I fear my government. I am a student of history and observant of its many lessons, and the best I can say about American democracy is trust, but verify.

Our civil rights require maintenance. It requires faithful and dedicated people who study, research, and unearth the numbers beneath systems of law, education, and commerce to illustrate systemic inequities. We get that information from hard fought demands for government accountability through audits, reporting, and testing.

There is no place more important for this focus than public education, the system we all invest in to develop our children so they grow up intellectually capable of reversing centuries of racial and economic injustice.

Which is why I distrust the earsplitting movement against standardized testing in public schools. As school boards, unionists, and privileged parents drive an effort to reduce accountability, we should stay mindful that their success would mean erasing the data used to understand educational disparities. That any group would be so shortsighted as to ignore that implication should cast doubt on their commitment to social progress in this country.

Why now?

Educational testing isn’t new. Why is it suddenly more controversial than ever? After 150 years of assessing students why do we hear so much about it now? Why is nearly every progressive media entity running with a consistent anti-testing narrative. And, why are right-wing organizations that would normally be all about government accountability suddenly associating accountability with “government overreach”?

From the left there is an argument that we have far more tests than ever and the frequency is killing education. Advocates would have us all believe our children do nothing each day but take tests. That assessment falls short of the truth depending on where you live. The federal government mandates one test, once per year, 8 times in a 12 year school career. Depending on where you live the leaders of your locally controlled schools may have added many or few other tests to your child’s agenda.

Conservatives are starting to argue that Common Core State Standards are the educational equivalent of “Obamacare,” and for that reason testing aligned with those standards are heretical.

Nouveau hippies akin to those who believe vaccination causes autism on the left, and right-wing birthers who believe our President is a Kenyan, are locking arms to free themselves from the tyranny of civil rights.

To be fair, it isn’t all fanatics in this tiring testing debate. On the same day the Nation posted an article by Harvard Professor Lani Guinier denouncing SAT tests in her article “Standardized Tests Are Weakening Our Democracy“, Jeff Guo penned a contrasting article for the Washington Post titled “For black students, SAT scores matter a lot more.

There is a reasonable debate for smart people to have about testing.

But we aren’t having that smart discussion. We are trading emotions and fears based upon wild conspiracy theories. That takes attention away from the educational issues that harm students: inferior schools with poor instruction, misaligned curriculum, and low standards. No one who believes #blacklivesmatter can allow that situation to continue killing us.

If I’m honest there is only one reason we are even indulging in an anti-testing discussion: in the last decade No Child Left Behind not only disaggregated data by race, but created an expectation that marginalized subgroups of kids do well on tests along with their white peers.

School reformers added to the ante by demanding students test scores be included in teacher evaluations, thus tying a teacher’s livelihood to the performance of her students on standardized tests.

That’s when things got real.

Suddenly teachers (and their supporters on the left and right) were expected to succeed with children they privately considered incapable of learning. Their worth as professionals was tied to the proficiency of their students in reading and math. Many of these teachers have simmered in angst about all this attention on the “achievement gap” and they see it as an undertaking that rests unfairly on their shoulders. Testing, because it yields the data for hard driving school reformers, is the capital of educators’ discontent.

But changes are afoot. Now Republican leaders in congress seek to do away with testing and return to the free for all of states’ rights (e.g. the right to educate kids, or not). Guess who loves that? On the left teachers’ union leaders see an opportunity to relieve their members from the fear and embarrassment that comes with being identified as “ineffective.” In their mind there should be no stakes for continuing generations of miseducating children of color. It’s a job and it should pay whether or not the job gets done.

What are the alternatives to standardized testing?

As a parent I wonder how I will stay on top of how my kids are doing if testing is eliminated. Currently their teachers give us testing results and use that information to help us understand how our kids are situated among all students, what to be concerned about, and where to intervene.

So what then if testing goes away?

Anya Kamenetz, author of “The Test: why our schools are obsessed with tests but you don’t have to be,” helps us imagine a world without standardized tests. She offers several proposals to replace these beastly psychometric instruments – and people seem to be listening to her.

Instead of testing every student maybe we can test just a sampling of students. It would cut the number of students subjected to time-stealing testing. But it has problems. Imagine you have 10 women in a room and you want to determine which one is pregnant. All 10 pee in a bucket which triggers a result indicating someone in the room is pregnant without saying which one.

Today’s testing tells you if your wife is pregnant. Sampling tells you somebody’s wife is pregnant. I’ll let you decide which level of information is best for your family’s needs.

There is “stealth assessment” which is basically computerized testing that takes place as students are doing school work using educational software. That sounds fancy but it isn’t remarkably different from the computerized, standardized testing we have now.

The big-data approach marries many pieces of student information including discipline records, graduation rates, and college persistence results to tell the story of student outcomes using multiple measures rather than single one-day proficiency tests. Good luck getting that by the student privacy activists. It is no less complicated or rife with political issues than our current testing scheme.

How about “grit” testing? Assessing students for social emotional factors like “perseverance and curiosity” has been shown to predict success in life (by whom I’m not sure, but it’s all the rage since Paul Tough wrote a bestseller about it).

That’s great except for the fact that factors like grit are not without controversy and they smack of hipster academia. My practical side reminds me that the people in my community mostly like to have grit, perseverance, and curiosity are inmates in state penitentiaries who made it there by having exactly those qualities.

What about gamified assessments? Our highly digital kids intuitively navigate apps on multiple platforms in search of games that are entertaining for hours. They might be enthralled by learning games that are loaded with school curriculum. Still, this qualifies as standardized testing in my mind. And can you imagine the implementation problems? Schools districts are not known for their technological giftedness.

Finally, there are formative reports and demonstrations students can do followed by high stakes high school exit exams and college entrance exams. I struggle with how placing one high stakes, life changing examination at the end of a school career where a student could have fallen behind at many points is more helpful than having multiple points of assessment to understand if a child is on-track or not.

In the stealthy movement to kill student testing I want to know how have parents of America’s most vulnerable children been engaged in this conversation, especially since it threatens to end their means of understanding how their children are doing in school?

Remembering why we test

The reason we test students is commingled in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Holding government – especially states – accountable for results is part of the “war on poverty.” The idea was to make sure that the billions of dollars in additional funding going to schools actually leveled the field for poor kids and kids of color. Everyone expected states would attempt to game the system. No reasonable person believed there would be perfect compliance with civil rights mandates.

Annual student assessments, disaggregated by race and socioeconomic status, is the way we monitor to ensure states are not falling into predictable patterns of neglect (taking the money while still ignoring the needs of children who generate it).

Advocates on the right have never been fans of government monitoring for civil rights purposes, so eliminating testing serves their purpose to let states off the hook for pursuing racial justice and equitable student outcomes.

Left-leaning teachers and their unions are human with self-interests too. They need jobs and to eat. Expecting them to succeed with kids they believe are too defective to learn is a threat to their livelihood. Ditching testing helps them remain employed and unaccountable for results.

And for the privileged parents who know their students are proficient so don’t want to be bogged down in schools that focus too much on getting students to proficiency, killing the tests offers hope that they can return public education back to the glory days when it was all about their kids. As our nation browns expect this group of parents to become more of a problem.

I’m realistic about these players. None of them are allies in the quest for social justice in America. The formative years our kids spend in school works well for their kids and against ours. It’s a tough battle to have, one that positions us awkwardly against friends at times.

We must be clear that black and brown students are not served by turning the clocks back to times when school districts could ignore their lack of academic progress.

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