In the first four articles in this series–available here, here, here and here-I explored many issues relating to mandatory, high stakes testing. However, I’ve yet to address one important issue: what are mandatory, high stakes tests replacing? If these tests are so important and necessary that states are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, deny high school graduation to otherwise qualified kids, and displace 40% and more of a school year to drill for those tests, then what they’re replacing must be truly terrible and the tests absolutely brilliant and indispensable. But these tests are a recent innovation. If what they’re replacing is so horrible, if the need for the tests was so great, how is it no one recognized the horror for decades, even centuries?
Reader omegapaladin, in response to the third article in the original series updated by this series, wrote:
Well, what about having local school boards set up tests that are high stakes for the students as well? Students take an exam that demonstrates competence in basic math, history, English, and science, just to show that they have earned their diploma. The local school district controls the content, and it would be modified or eliminated for special needs students.
While this is not good for school comparison, the school would have to make a sample exam available for parents to see what the minimum requirements for graduation are.
Omegapaladin raises interesting questions and appears to assume that this testing concept–a few tests that will determine not only whether a student graduates from high school, but will effect schools, teacher, principals and more–is irreplaceable, and if the current testing regime is ended, something similar must take its place. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual point of view. Advocates of expensive and time-consuming testing have been successful in convincing many people that the tests from which they profit handsomely are somehow vital, the inevitable product of decades of careful, professional and absolutely necessary “reform.” Surely something like those tests must be in place or education is somehow incompetent. Without them, how can we know if our schools are doing what they should? How can we have–accountability? Aren’t “reform” and “progress” always good things?
Let’s return to 1972, the year I graduated from high school without the benefit of a single mandatory, high stakes test. Amazingly, I didn’t notice how utterly lost I was without mandatory, high stakes testing, nor did my teachers who felt quite comfortable substituting 12 years of my academic performance for a single data point. Equally amazingly, they didn’t even notice they didn’t have that single data point. They were content with the results of hundreds, even thousands of tests, essays, and myriad other assignments over 12 years. And non-elite, non-experts that they were, they actually believed that the tests and assignments they wrote were competent! Most amazingly, their tests and assignments didn’t cost billions of inflation-adjusted dollars. They, and the public, actually believed the salaries they received included writing and administering tests and assignments without the involvement of insanely high-priced elite experts and educrats. Can you imagine how backward we were?!
The nearest thing to high stakes tests back then were the SAT and ACT tests, which were an option taken only by the college bound. A substantial portion, usually a majority, of kids did not plan to attend college, and therefore had no reason to take the SAT or ACT. But now, President Obama wants everyone to attend college on the public dime, and even Ivy League institutions like Harvard and Yale have remedial programs, for they are not only accepting, but recruiting people who in years past would never have been considered competent to attend and succeed in college. As a result, huge numbers of people take out ruinous college loans and drop out of school a short time later, taking into a life without any meaningful job training or skills a debt they may never pay off. Ironically, colleges whine about the poor quality of the students they actively recruit, students any competent high school teacher could–and does–tell them are not ready for college. But that’s another article for another time.
Prior to the 1990s when George W. Bush, with the best intentions, instituted testing in Texas, American education had somehow managed to do without those tests for more than two centuries, and without them, had built the most technologically advanced, industrial, prosperous society in history. Most of the world’s greatest technical universities were on American soil, and most citizens–regardless of whether they ever went to college–were able to work in solid, productive careers and provide a pleasingly middle class lifestyle for their families. Clearly, without mandatory high stakes testing, our schools did extraordinarily well.
Then came the urgent moral imperative that schools were somehow unaccountable. Accompanying that misperception was a perfect storm of politically correct lunacy that has, in real terms, nearly paralyzed education. If every child must be above average so that all can pass the tests, then no child must ever drop out of school, and all must remain there regardless of how disruptive they are and of how little actual learning they attempt. If everyone is above average, no one can fail, and no one can be held back a grade; there is no need. Alas, this is all smoke and mirrors. Everyone cannot be above average, and so, to maintain the illusion, grade inflation and similar deceptions took hold and still determine grading policies.
For a decade or so, many states either demanded, or allowed, schools to give a minimum grade of 50%. In other words, any student, regardless if they missed 80% of a class and did only 5% of the work, would never score less than 50% on their report card. This was done with good intentions, based on the premise that when a student fell behind, if he or she fell too far behind, they’d never be able to catch up. With a baseline grade of 50%, they’d have a much better chance.
Unfortunately, this idea–as so much of what passes for education policy these days, ignores human nature. Any student who cares so little they fall behind to the degree that they’re anywhere near 50% is hardly going to be motivated to come from behind to success. In fact, many kids would game the system, calculating that they would only have to do a small portion of the work in class in order to eventually pass with just above 70%. Why put out consistent effort when one can game the system and do almost nothing for much of the year? And since schools must waste months drilling for the mandatory tests, no sweat! Put out the minimal effort necessary to pass those and you’re golden.
Many schools allow grade averaging. If a student earns only 60% in English the first six weeks, they need only a 75% average for the remaining two six weeks to barely pass the semester. And if a student earns 85% the first semester, he needs to earn only 55% the second to pass the year with a minimum of 70%. And again, they know they’ll be mercilessly drilled for the mandatory tests, so all they have to do is pay enough attention to that drilling to pass and they have no worries. They can breeze through high school on minimal effort, learning little or nothing, and the best intentions have made that lack of industry possible. When human beings know they don’t have to give consistent effort to everything they do, a great many will take advantage.
“Learning little or nothing.” That’s the point. If kids don’t do all of the assignments, if they don’t apply consistent effort, they don’t build growth and ability. Mandatory, high stakes tests measure almost exclusively the ability of teachers to teach kids how to pass those specific tests and the ability of kids to cram–for a few months once in their lives–that information.
Testing proponents will, of course, shower us with statistics and data and studies supposedly proving that their tests are not only indispensable, but flawless examples of the test-maker’s art (that’s apparently why they have to completely revamp them from time to time). At worst, they are cynical, manipulative liars making obscene profits on the misery of children and at the expense of their educations. At best, they are well-intentioned true believers that know far less about education and human nature than they believe.
In Texas, for example, the traditional political revolving door spins merrily. Large numbers of state educrats working for the Texas Education Agency leave state employ after years of laboring in support of mandatory, high stakes tests, to take substantially higher paying jobs for Pearson laboring in support of mandatory, high stakes tests, and working with new TEA educrats doing the same thing. Knowing human nature, you don’t suppose there is a financial incentive involved? You don’t suppose the shining vision of doing what’s best for the children might become a little–blurred by all that green getting in the way?
The problem is: school is not about cramming a given body of knowledge into one’s brain such that it can be regurgitated back on a test which reflects one’s fitness for high school graduation. School is an opportunity to build bigger, better brains, neural connections and skills that make one a functional, capable adult. That’s why the process takes a minimum of 12 years and why no single test, or group of tests, means anything significant.
If I were required, next week, to take a math test that would determine my continuing employment, I’d probably be out of a job. Indeed, I aced all my college math requirements, but that was due to my scholarly ability. I know how to study and take tests, but when I view an equation, I do not see the inherent beauty and order of the universe. Given sufficient time and an understanding of what would be demanded of me, I could prepare for and pass such a test, but I lack the current skills and specific knowledge necessary. Would the public be well served by firing me because I’m not current on a specific body of knowledge and a skill set that has nothing to do with my occupation and job performance? Would this be accountability? Yet this is precisely what we do to children.
Consider too that I graduated from college Magna Cum Laude in the 1980s in only 2.5 years. I was on the Dean’s List every semester. However, I was forced to take the National Teacher Examinations that were then all the rage. I passed, but scored more highly on the math section than the English section. Did I harbor some hidden genius for math, and had I been successfully fooling all of my English professors for years, or could it be possible—just barely possible—that the tests were less than accurately predictive of my actual knowledge and abilities? I only know that the math genius reflected in that test score was absolutely not lasting.
In the past, kids could fail the occasional course and still graduate from high school, because we understood that not everyone will excel at everything. Not everyone is above average–it’s impossible, and it’s OK. A great many people who cannot do algebra or calculus have contributed mightily to society and lived enormously productive lives. There is, without a doubt, value in doing math and all of the other subjects we require, for they all, in unique ways, build bigger, better brains, but there is no sense in requiring everyone to be above average in every subject, and less than no sense in denying them graduation from high school for failing to do the impossible. A great many people develop intellectual, scholarly abilities and interests later in life impossible for the developing teenaged brain.
In English, we work on varying schedules. If all tenth grade students are required to complete a research paper, and to read Of Mice and Men and Fahrenheit 451, for example, we have a problem. We can’t afford enough copies of the books for everyone to do them at the same time, and we don’t have sufficient computer resources to allow everyone to do research papers simultaneously, so we have to stagger those studies between classes. This means that we can’t do the same tests at the same times. And in many cases, the kinds of testing we’re talking about are completely inappropriate.
Multiple choice or true/false tests relating to literature can deal with only low-level issues such as who did what or said what. To truly measure understanding and accomplishment requires writing, and substantial writing at that. It is very time consuming to produce and to grade, and if I want my students to truly learn, I must spend considerable time prior to that assignment discussing the issues raised by the literature, and after the assignment, writing many comments back to them about not only their writing, but their thinking. They get none of this with mandatory, high stakes testing which must focus on very short reading assignments and single page essays, all of which can be easily and quickly graded by minimally trained, seasonal graders. The only feedback students receive from this process is a single score.
It is only when students have the opportunity to act out Julius Caesar that they truly understand the English of the late 1500s and what motivates Shakespeare’s characters. Speaking the lines aloud is an enormous aid in understanding, and so is movement and body language. Only then can they apply the timeless lessons of Shakespeare to their own lives. Only then can they appreciate why Shakespeare will always be read and performed as long as human beings live. All too often, mandatory, high stakes testing eliminates the time necessary for Shakespeare and most other literature.
The single score I receive from the state tells me nothing at all meaningful or valuable about my students. By the time I receive those grades at the end of the year, I’ve already graded some 140 assignments, an average of 4-5 a week. I’ve graded everything from weekly vocabulary assignments, to major writing projects, to research papers, to movie and literature and music critiques, to poetry and short stories and acting and speaking and much, much more. I’ve talked, repeatedly, with each student about what they need to do, individually, to improve. And for most, I’ve seen real improvement. We keep all of their work, from the entire year, in a portfolio in the classroom, and we can see, paper by paper, assignment by assignment, a year of improvement. Their parents can see it, and my supervisors can see it. That’s real accountability.
This is old-fashioned education. Teaching as it once was and as it must be. My kids hate the tests. They know how worthless they are. But because I ask them to do their best, and because we all know we have to deal with them, most of them do as much as necessary to pass. And we pretend the scores mean something, and I lament, each and every year, the increasing loss of class time, and real learning and development. And my kids never know what they’ve lost, what they never had a chance to learn, but I know, and I dare not tell them. I don’t have the heart.
Do we need these tests or anything like them? No; we never did. Any competent school is already doing far more, and far more advanced, learning than any high stakes test can ever measure, and savings hundreds of millions in the process. Whatever problems a given school or school district might have can be solved in those communities, as long as parents and taxpayers are paying attention. Mandatory, high stakes testing and all of the bureaucracy and waste of time and money that accompany it, cannot solve a single problem any school has. The data it produces is useful only to educrats and politicians, and then, only in maintaining and increasing their budgets and power.
Above all, the older model of education truly recognizes the individuality, if you will, the diversity, of every student. In the same way that I know not every student will be able to high jump 6’, I know that not every student will excel at writing poetry, or at acting, or at algebra. I don’t have to pretend they’re all above average. We all have the liberty to consider them as whole human beings, and to say: “considering all of the work Johnny has done over 12 years, its quality and his accomplishment, Johnny has earned graduation from high school. Yeah he didn’t do well in Algebra, but Johnny doesn’t want to be an engineer, accountant or scientist. He’ll be just fine.” And because I actually have the proof of all of that accomplishment, because I can speak, if need be, with people who have known and worked with Johnny for 12 years, we’re far more likely to be right than an educrat in a state education bureaucracy looking at a few test scores. That’s real accountability.
So no, we don’t need any kind of mandatory, state or federal testing. We did very, very well long before there was a federal Department of Education (established during the Carter Administration in 1979 as a sop to teacher’s unions), and long before the massive state education bureaucracies were established. We’re already doing more, more appropriate, more productive and predictive, and more meaningful testing on a daily and weekly basis, and it costs a tiny fraction of what we’re paying to a handful of companies, the largest of which (Pearson) isn’t an American company at all.
Do you want accountability? Quit paying hundreds of millions to companies to produce and grade a few tests. We’ve already hired well-qualified teachers who do it better and far, far more cheaply. You’re determined to spend tax dollars? Fine. Buy every teacher two four drawer filing cabinets with appropriate hanging files, manila folders and folder labels so they can keep portfolios of every student’s work, not only for those students, but for their parents and for the principals that supervise the teachers. And if the parents and principals can’t be bothered to stop by a few times a year to see how those kids and teachers are actually doing, what they’re really producing and how they’re improving, whose fault is that? True accountability is relatively inexpensive, but it does take a bit of interest and effort, interest and effort that produces far more information than a few test scores.
Mandatory, high stakes testing takes no individual interest or effort, only unlimited taxpayer dollars. Which do we owe our kids? Which truly builds bigger, better brains? Which truly builds America?