If you don’t count undeserving people in high places or a burgeoning education reform industry of paid tweeters, bloggers and think tank thinkers, high stakes testing, known ironically as accountability, is currently among the most unaccountable of unaccountable things in American education today. It is unaccountable in the very thing that it purports to account for: the measurement and evaluation of learning, teachers and schools. It does none of these things well.
The most obvious reason for this is that staked testing shifts the priority from what will help a child to what will help the adults that teach her. High stakes advocates will argue that a high stake is the best way to insure that adult and child concerns are identical. But, in practice, this turns out to be untrue. A high stake explicitly reduces the child to evidence of adult performance. Students aren’t first; scores are first.
It’s a simple arithmetic. Most skills in the Common Core (or local variant) are untested; a teacher is valued through skills that are tested. Therefore, tested skills are more important than untested skills regardless of their value to the student. A stake advocate may argue (disingenuously) that a good teacher will always prioritize the student’s need, and that may be true… but only if those needs are not in conflict with the goals established for them by the state. That would be silly.. possibly even insubordinate. A lesson that prioritizes untested skills and opportunities is of low priority interest to administrators and a risk for a teacher whose goal must be to prove her value each year. The best advice to is to remove untested content in order to produce better scores. Test advocates will argue… “oh, but there is all that other criteria that counts in teacher evaluation”, but this too is an invalid argument. Regardless of the quality of other measures, the ultimate measure of the school is in its scores. If test scores are high, the teacher has met the criteria that measures the district, school and principal.
If this sounds like a corruption of mission, it is, and there is loads of evidence that a high stake corrupts the mission of schools …whether through carrot and stick incentives which encourage unethical behavior (Washington DC and Atlanta), through the demoralizing impact of indiscriminate goal setting or through the valuing of students by their scores. This last is especially true for those schools that pick, choose and remove students at will. For such schools, a child who is unlikely or unable to meet a given criteria, or who develops or produces later than the mean, is a risk for all the adults working there. In essence, the state has defined every child as an added measure in support of the teacher, the school or the franchise.
The outcome of such an accounting is reduction of enrichment, decrease in exposure to untested content areas, ruthless competition for students who meet measurement criteria and decay of transferable skills. High needs populations are the most likely to be reduced. A stakes advocate may argue that literacy is more important than these other skills. (Michelle Rhee didn’t give a crap) But, what about when the reduction results in an inability to transfer skills even among students who may produce high scores on the 3-8 tests? High profile charter provider Success Academy produces extremely high scores on the 3-8 State tests yet demonstrates little ability to get high achieving students into selective high schools and doesn’t even publish its regents pass rate. In their literature, Success Academy boasts that their kids do better on the state tests than children in Scarsdale and Bronxville (two very affluent suburbs of NYC) and that they are reversing the achievement gap. Yet, in 2016, after years of no students at all, only six of their students did well enough on entrance exams to test into selective high schools.
How is it that these eye popping scores on state tests did not transfer to other measures? Unsurprisingly, preparing kids to ace one test does not build transferable skills. Performance on high stakes tests in 3-8 does not correlate to student performance later on or elsewhere. Students who take the 3-8 state tests are engaged not for themselves but for the limited and temporary success of the adults that teach them, and all schools that engage in staked testing (both public and charter) are explicitly instructing adults to view students as products of their performance.
Each year, a different set of adults will be required to use them similarly.. as data points of adult value. As long as this continues to be the case, students will sift through the school as on an assembly line. Reward or reprieve comes to the successful adult from the focused screwing in of the one screw. In this way, schools are commodified and annual scores become the real products of the efficient factory. This is the business model applied to education.