Gouverneur Morris, one of the founding fathers and a signer of the Constitution, once said that he was “constitutionally among the happiest of men.” I’m glad to say that I’m in his company. I love my job, and rise each morning happy and smiling, ready to enjoy the day and my students. Indeed, I rise a bit more slowly, and have to sort out the joints until they all start working in unison, but I rise happy and smiling.
But as with all jobs, there are frustrations. Some of the worst revolve around the intended and unintended consequences of mandatory, high stakes testing. I refer, of course, to those tests imposed by the state, which all students must pass merely to graduate from high school. Fail one by a single question or point and 12 years of effort, accomplishment, and academic achievement count for nothing.
In Texas, the pendulum swung back toward the side of rationality just a little this year. The educrats and their political enablers overplayed their hand, mandating no less than 15 separate tests kids would have to pass to graduate. I’m not kidding: fifteen tests. It would have taken about three weeks merely to administer them, and that would have been only the tip of the lost class time iceberg. That was finally too much, and realizing that their phony-baloney political and bureaucratic rear ends were in danger of having to find honest work outside of the no-accomplishment zone of government, hastily scaled things back to a mere five tests.
However, an entire class of kids ended up having to take the magical, new English tests–there were two–and because the state refused to give us any real idea of their content and we couldn’t teach the kids what to expect, many failed. So what will the educrats do? Despite paying big bucks for an entirely new test this year that combines both of the old tests, they’re making the kids that failed take another version–which also cost the taxpayers big bucks–of the old test, the test format that will never again be used, rather than simply taking the new test. To educrats, that makes all kinds of sense. Why not pay for another test in a format that will never again be used? If you’re in government you have unlimited money to spend because it’s not yours, and what’s the point of having power if you can’t make people do things that don’t make sense?
That brings me to the topic of this short article. I hope to provide a little insight into what teachers and students have to endure for the production of data–which allows the awarding of contracts and political favors and the accumulation of power–by which educrats and politicians live. But first, allow me to digress a bit.
A number of years ago, I was invited by the state education bureaucracy to attend a test question vetting conference. And so I found myself sitting with about 20 other English teachers from around the state in a room in a rather comfy downtown hotel in Austin. Leading this exercise in frustration and futility was a representative of Pearson, the London-based company that makes billions selling high-stakes tests and all manner of other educational wares to schools, and several educrats of the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
We were to review and discuss questions that Pearson would use on future tests. In other words, we were serving as unpaid labor for a multi-billion dollar multinational company, and the taxpayers were paying for our room and board as we worked. Why? So that the TEA and their political enablers could claim that teachers from across the state were solidly behind their efforts and had a say in the tests. It took about 40 minutes for me to learn that was a lie on a par with “if you like your policy, you can keep your policy.”
The first day, they laid out the ground rules: they’d listen to us, but had no obligation to change anything in any way. Even so, they passed out questions and a number of my colleagues, obviously taking their roles very seriously–apparently they’d never been so close to educrats before–expended considerable mental energy in making suggestions. I watched with amusement as the educrats and Pearson rep, to earnest suggestion after suggestion, explained that they couldn’t make the changes being suggested because they’d have to change all similar questions on tests, or because it would be too difficult to make changes, etc.
Finally, I politely raised my hand, was acknowledged, and said: “You’ve turned down every suggestion we’ve made and explained, from the first that you have no obligation to take any of our suggestions. You’ve made it clear that you’re not going to do anything about anything we’ve suggested. With that in mind, why are we here?”
A number of my colleagues began to nod furiously and mutter ominously. The Pearson Rep and educrats became red-faced, began to splutter and fume, engaged in much harrumphing, but said nothing of substance. However, after the first break–which I suspect came rather more quickly than they’d planned–they’d obviously changed tactics and made quite a show of pretending to write down and seriously appreciate the changes my colleagues suggested. I elected not to play the game and provided no more of my valuable insights. Amazingly, I haven’t been invited back. I guess I just don’t work and play well with educrats.
Return with me now to the present. One of the foreseeable consequences of mandatory testing is “benchmark” testing imposed by school districts. Panicked about test scores, administrators demand that schools give tests–“benchmark” tests (the term, by the way, has fallen out of favor with some, who now call them “common assessments”)–that are essentially shorter versions of the formal state tests. Actually, they’re what we think the tests might be, because the state imposes secrecy rules on their tests that would make military units in charge of the security of nuclear weapons look lackadaisical. I’m sure at least a part of their desire for security is they don’t want teachers and parents to get a good look at the tests.
There are many companies, including Pearson, that publish materials purporting to be just like the real thing, so kids can be prepared. The “benchmark” tests we use are usually from those materials, as was one we recently gave our students. To our horror, we discovered that there were certain questions failed by virtually every student. Why? Read on.
First, the kids read a story, and a rather poor one, about a cowboy who had been injured on the job and lost his mojo. It was only when he was, without thinking, forced to ride a dangerous, unbroken horse to save his barrel-racing girlfriend on a runaway horse, that he recovered his mojo and the respect of his fellow cowpokes.
Here’s one of the questions:
Based on the information in the selection, the reader can infer that–
A. most of the ranch workers have suffered an injury while working there.
B. most of the people living and working on the ranch are men.
C. the annual ranch rodeo is always held on a Saturday.
D. the majority of the horses on the ranch are strawberry roans.
The correct answer is “B.” Only a very few kids choose that answer. Those that did were either lucky, or test-wise kids who could figure out which answer an educrat would want, rather than which answer made the most sense given the text.
Most did not choose the “correct” answer because it had nothing to do with the substance of the story. True, there are several male characters and only one female character, but gender played no role in the plot and there was not even a glancing mention of gender, its significance, or anything relating to it in the story. The kids, reasonably enough, thought they should be looking for answers that actually related to the plot. They could have easily inferred that there would be cow patties on the ranch, or that there were likely pickup trucks about, and those inferences would have been as based in the text as the “correct” answer. The story did mention that the rodeo was held on Saturday, which is the answer most chose, because it actually had some relation to the story.
The point is simple: tests that are supposed to reveal the accumulated knowledge and ability of students often do anything but. I’m not suggesting that they’re completely incompetent, or even mostly incompetent. They are, however, sufficiently incompetent to actually cause kids that don’t deserve to fail to fail.
When the future of an actual human being is hanging on a single test, we are better served by judging that future by virtue of 12 years of demonstrated achievement and the combined knowledge of their teachers rather than a score on a single test taken on one day.
Notice I’m not talking about the huge sums of taxpayer money that are spent on those tests that produce a single score, the huge number of hours taken from actual learning necessary to teach the tricks and do the testing necessary to be prepared for the tests. I’m not talking about the books we don’t have time to read and discuss and the writing we don’t have time to do, and the abilities kids will never develop in favor of learning to take and pass a very specific kind of test that will be of no use to them in college or in the real world.
It’s a matter of understanding human nature, and of priorities. I’d rather have the time for more writing and another play or two by Shakespeare. How about you, gentle readers?