This, the second in my series of education problems and eventually, solutions, deals with mandatory, high stakes testing. By way of definition, such things are generally tests that are mandated by federal or state law, and that carry substantial penalties for failure. In the real world, they commonly manifest themselves as tests every student in a given state takes on the same day(s) each year, mostly in English, math, science and social studies. Such tests are also very, very expensive. For example, Texas recently announced that it would spend just under a half billion dollars to buy its new “end of course” mandatory, high stakes tests for the next five years. This does not include the many millions that will be spent internally for the administration and implementation of the testing: it’s just the purchase price of the tests. Even in a state the size of Texas, a half billion dollars—that’s nearly 500 million—is still quite a bit of money, particularly if it’s unnecessarily spent.
Let’s first examine why these tests exist: it’s George W. Bush’s fault. This time, it actually is. When he became Governor of Texas, he discovered that by and large, Hispanic kids didn’t do as well as other kids in Texas schools. His attempt to help these kids was good hearted, but ill-considered. Unfortunately, as with Texas, so goes much of the rest of the nation, at least where education is concerned.
Why was this unfortunate? Because Mr. Bush knew little about education, but quite a bit about business, so he imposed the business model on education. In essence, he treated kids as toasters. In business, if a product is faulty, a smart businessman imposes quality controls and determines where in the design, manufacturing or marketing processes things went wrong, fixes the problems, and happy toasters once again roll off the assembly line and into homes everywhere. But in education, toasters don’t have to show up. They can refuse to be assembled—in part or whole—and they can even jump off the assembly line and run out of the factory.
In essence, Mr. Bush started the modern “accountability” movement, yet education is fully accountable and always has been. The means to hold every individual working in every American school district fully accountable for their behavior and performance are in place. It is unquestionably true that some teachers perform poorly, some schools perform poorly, some school districts perform poorly and some school board members are corrupt. In some communities, such as Detroit, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles—to name just a few—corruption is rampant and students are often uniformly deprived of any real educational opportunity. But the solution for these very real problems is, most emphatically, not tests. Mandatory, high stakes tests cannot fire incompetent teachers, incompetent administrators, or vote corrupt school board members out of office. They can’t encourage students to attend school or work harder or more effectively. In fact, they warp the priorities and practices of schools and displace real education.
If I’m right, why would anyone impose such an ineffective burden on schools? Consider the business model. If we accept the premise that all schools—or even most—are underperforming or failing we have to try to figure out why this is so. We need the holy grail of bureaucrats and politicians: data. To produce data, we need a data generation instrument, hence, a test. But some of those being tested might not do the test at all, so we’ll make it mandatory by law. But even so, some kids taking the tests won’t take them seriously, so we’ll deny them graduation from high school unless they pass the tests. But realistically, one test score on one test on one day really doesn’t tell us anything about the individual that took the test other than their performance on that test on that day. What if they were sick, distracted by family problems, or just had a bad day? We’ll give them multiple opportunities to pass the test. But what if the test is badly written or doesn’t really reveal the information we hope it will reveal? We’ll pretend the test is perfect—after all, it will be written by experts—so it will be perfect, at least until the next “perfect” tests comes along to replace the previously perfect tests.
Here are just some of the problems such testing causes:
(1) To address the very real concerns of teachers about the validity of such tests, millions will be spent on seminars during which teachers will be given the illusion of participation in the test writing and validation process.
A number of years ago, I was afforded the opportunity to participate in such a seminar. On the taxpayer’s dime, I was housed and fed at an expensive hotel in the state capital for three days while a group of teachers like me from around the state were asked our opinions on a variety of sample questions that would ostensibly be used in future perfect, high stakes tests. At least they were honest. Up front they told us that they would listen to us, but didn’t have to do anything we suggested. And so they launched into the questions and several of my colleagues earnestly asked questions and suggested revisions, and each time, the state educrats and the company (test maker) representative, told them they could not change questions because it would require changing all similar questions on all tests. After 45 minutes of this, I raised my hand, pointed out what they had been doing, and asked:
“Since you’re not really listening to us and you’re under no obligation to make any changes based on our concerns, why are we here?”
Many of my colleagues shook their heads in agreement and the educrats and the company rep. became red-faced and began sputtering. Thereafter, they produced a very effective illusion of listening to us and writing down our suggestions. I have not been invited to attend any similar seminars and I somehow doubt that any of our concerns were actually transferred into better questions. I’m sure you’re as shocked as I am about that.
(2) Because the educratic mindset requires uniformity (which is often mistakenly conflated with equality or fairness), every student will be forced to take the tests without exception. So what’s wrong with that? Special ed. kids.
I know several special ed. teachers (I know, I may not be using the current, politically correct term. Deal with it.) forced to administer tests to kids that can’t read, write, or even comprehend the material. In some cases, they are given specially written, easier versions of the tests, in others, no accommodations are allowed. It matters not. Imagine the spectacle of teachers trying to administer tests to children whose mental processes are on the level of an 18 month old baby, who can’t control their bowels or bladder or feed themselves. Yet this occurs across the nation in the name of accountability.
(3) The public is tricked into thinking that the test scores actually mean something. Does the fact that Smithville Central High School’s English average is 96% compared with Jonestown George Washington High School’s 91% tell anyone anything meaningful? In truth, the primary lesson to be learned is that the Smithville HS might put more time and energy into increasing test scores, and its teachers might be a bit more proficient at teaching their students how to pass the test. It could also mean that by chance, the composition of the student body was particularly favorable for high scores on that test that particular year, or a variety of other factors having little to do with actual, lasting education may play a part, including dumb luck.
(4) The tests, and the ratings that inevitably accompany them, change the focus of schools from a broadly based, competent education to the single-minded pursuit of high test scores. Some schools—particularly in the elementary grades—focus on little else all year (the tests tend to occur near the end of the Spring semester), neglecting all else in favor of drilling relentlessly for the tests. This produces high test scores and high “accountability” ratings, but of necessity takes time away from actual learning.
Remember that learning is a process, a process that takes practice and time. One doesn’t merely download information for later retrieval, one must earn knowledge and ability, and this takes time. This is why good teachers are so jealous of every minute of class time. Drilling for tests is the lowest level of intellectual activity and tends not to be lasting, yet it is the be all and end all of “accountability,” because tests produce the data educrats and politicians need, love and manipulate.
(5) The Lake Woebegon Syndrome becomes set in concrete. In Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Woebegon, all the children are above average. This is of course, impossible, but once “accountability” is set into motion, the impossible is the only goal, as in No Child Left Behind’s (also a George W. Bush project) mandate that all children in America will read on grade level by 2014. Any competent teacher could explain in seconds why this is lunacy (see #2 above). The primary problem is that in order for every child to be able to pass any given test, the general level of difficulty and accomplishment for that test must be—in truth, not some educrat’s imagination of the real world–somewhat below average—a real, rational average.
This means that only kids with the least academic ability will be truly challenged by such tests. Average kids will actually be bored by the constant repetition and drills, and above average and excellent kids will be bored and annoyed to distraction. The educational needs of all of the kids therefore remain unserved, or underserved at the least.
But don’t below average kids have to work harder? Yes, but only on the very narrow, mostly useless project of learning how to pass a very specific, once in a lifetime test. It would be as though a carpenter was taught only to pound nails and cut boards with a handsaw. He would be quite proficient at those two narrow tasks, but in deep trouble in everything else, all of the most important concepts and tasks he really needed to know to be a fully functioning carpenter.
I know what you’re thinking: why don’t we just make the tests harder, require real academic rigor? Because most of the population just isn’t up to real academic rigor. We accept in a second the reality that not every kid is competent to be on the varsity basketball or football teams, but recoil at the idea that the same reality applies to academics. Some even want to do away with honors classes because some kids not up to that level of work find their self-esteem bruised by the existence of such classes. Making the tests harder would greatly lower passing rates, and suddenly Smithville High School’s English average would drop to 74%. Does this mean that the teachers that produced 96% results suddenly became incompetent? Is Smithville suddenly a bad school because their accountability ratings dropped? Are Smithville students being denied a proper education? Of course not, but if test scores are all that really matter, what other conclusion is possible?
It’s very simple: if my task as a teacher is only to produce high scores on specific tests, I need not be very competent, intelligent or capable. Ruthless and relentless drilling will do the trick, so it is hardly surprising that high test scores are the result. Accountability is a self-fulfilling prophecy and a circular argument: what matters are high test scores. We drill our students on the materials necessary to produce high test scores. Our students attain high test scores. We are an excellent school. Why are we an excellent school? Why, because high test scores are all that matter, and we drill our students…
But can your students write well, reason well, do research and construct logical arguments? Do they know history (other than that required by the test), science and math? Are they well rounded kids interested in learning and building bigger, better brains, or are they skilled in cramming—for an entire year—to pass a single test? Every precious minute of every school year spent in test preparation is a minute lost to real, competent, lasting learning. It’s that simple, and that tragic.
Competent teachers hate high stakes tests not because they are in any way more difficult for them—quite the opposite. Supervising drilling for tests takes little intellect or effort. They oppose them because they produce nothing useful for them or students, and they take an inordinate—in some cases near total—amount of scarce and precious instructional time. Any good teacher knows, within the first few weeks of school, more about the intellect and academic abilities of their students than the scores on 100 of these tests can possibly reveal. Every year they watch students who will barely graduate from high school due to laziness—kids who can barely write an error-free simple sentence–pass the tests, and honor students in the top academic ranks fail.
So if the tests are not useful pedagogically and academically, if they provide no truly useful information for students, parents or the public, if they waste enormous amounts of scarce time, depriving kids of a proper, effective education, and if they cost huge amounts of money, money we no longer have (and should have never spent regardless), why do we continue to employ them?
They are a perpetual employment project for countless educrats, bureaucrats, test makers and their lobbyists, and of course, they and the data they create are an enormous shoe with which politicians can pound tabletops while dramatically declaring they are doing something about education. Indeed—tragically–they are.
NEXT TUESDAY: End of course exams—and the magic curriculum—are coming to a school near you, and when they do, actual education is leaving town.