As society continues to debate the policy of publicly flogging teachers and schools with the scores of their children (starting at the age of five), and as parents consider whether or not to allow the state to so use their children, let us consider some of the things that The Test tests best.
It tests the relationship of the student to the teacher. Let’s start with the children. A 10 year old asserts in class that if he isn’t moved into a preferred seat, he’ll fail the test on purpose so that the teacher loses her job. A 12 year old says that he doesn’t have to do well on the test because it evaluates the teacher not him. A little girl cries on the morning of the test because she’s afraid if she fails her test, her teacher will be fired. In America, children are put in an inappropriately adult position of perceiving themselves as having ability or responsibility to make or break the adult in front of them. That should raise an eyebrow somewhere.
It tests the relationship of the teacher to the material. Any idea that will not be evaluated by the state test is an idea at risk of being dumped. Any reformer who argues otherwise, should have a talk with David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core. He clearly understood that the higher the stake the more it can reliably be expected to determine what will be taught. As he noted in an interview with Education Next, “I think it’s fair to say that when one assesses something, particularly in a high stakes way, one should ethically have the obligation that [it] is worth practicing a hundred times. There are enormous consequences to choosing to assess something.” In simple terms: high stakes results in test prep. A narrow test equally narrows curriculum. High stakes determine the focus of curriculum, decide which standards actually matter and reduces instruction accordingly. ESSA may limit the federal government’s power to determine curriculum, but if it doesn’t limit the stakes of tests, test makers will decide what is taught more effectively than any state or federally mandated curriculum ever could. Don’t think that matters much? Ask an AP teacher in Colorado or a science teacher in Texas.
It tests the relationship of all stakeholders to assessment. The use of testing for predatory purposes creates the need to check under the hood on every test. Stakes that are this high (careers, property values, community control of your schools) require a closer look. This release item from 2014 7th grade ELA shows us explicitly why we need to check under the hood. In this case, a thoughtful and capable student is punished by the state for close reading and attention to detail on this question. These kinds of overly interpretive flawed questions are common. Now attach a stake. Lower scores = lower standing in the stack ranking of kids. That’s impact on a child. If the question also happened to cause students to get one more question wrong this year than last, their teacher is rated ineffective. (not meeting growth can be determined by a single additional wrong answer from one year to the next.) That’s impact on a teacher. Magnify this by what reformers refer to as the aspirational bar, in practice this is the use of texts that are as many as four years above grade level and question stems that are so convoluted and complex that understanding the question is the real test. This manufactures failure in order to create crisis. Add in life and community altering stakes to that aspirational bar and you have a predatory test that is more successful as a crowbar for taking schools over than it is as an achievement tool for raising the bar. Either way, it’s been a good deal for the reformer: if the school meets the bar (however they have to do that) it’s a policy win. If the school doesn’t meet it, it’s an infrastructure win. Start selling shares. Except.. that only works in the short run.
It tests the relationship of stakeholders to policy makers. In the long run, even a policy maker has to pony up. Turns out, you can’t just threaten schools into meeting untested aspirations. (Go figure, mission focused reformers.) And, after nearly 20 years of testocracy and rule by an elite in-group of reform supermen (a term used without the slightest bit of irony or sense of history), there’s been no change at all to the achievement gap. The NAEP, which provides probably the most reliable comparative measures of performance in this country, has returned a decline in achievement since RTTT. Apparently, the colossi aren’t getting it done.
The best the reform lobby has to offer is a tweak, a pivot, a reframe, a bizarre appeasement, a weak link to more reputable movements, the appearance of progress on a failed policy. But the mojo is gone. Years of beginner miscalculation, changed rules, fluctuating stakes, and resistance has take its toll. Their mixed messages are frankly the butt of jokes. Which is it, thoughtful reformers… a 2% cap on class time spent on testing or untimed tests? Take all night. Which is it, change agents? State tests are too unreliable to have stakes for kids but they’re credible enough for a high as it gets stake for educators, schools and communities? Which is it? Test anxiety is an adult invention, or let’s have stack ranking for everybody? Harsh to say, but their mess of arrows pointing in every direction has done nothing for their reputation or the reputation of assessment. It is no wonder that parents continue to #optout in large numbers despite threats from the state.
It tests the relationship of stakeholders to learning. When schools become theaters of the absurd, upended by constant policy shifts and laughable fixes, children (especially in the middle grades) are left to draw their own conclusions. What would you think about learning or assessment or school if you were forced into days weeks and even years of deadly dull test prep, on and off line.. what if your curriculum was streamlined and designed to look just like the test in class after class, month after month, year after year… what if each year you were asked to take a test over several long boring days that looked like a longer version of so many other days… and you knew all the while that the test doesn’t pertain to you… neither the test nor any of the things leading up to it? What else might you be doing in school that doesn’t pertain to you? Well.. you could have a disruptive test prep rally to try to bump kids up into taking it seriously anyway. But, one way or an other, an adolescent learning that adults don’t know everything anyway is likely to interpret this nonsensical policy by the shortest route possible: all the emperors are naked. School is a place to be grimly endured, where you mostly will do things that don’t matter and where none of it really pertains to you.
It tests the public will. Hopefully this is a test we can meet. High stakes tests are a Trojan Horse. The question is how can we inform the public and if informed, can parents stop it at the gate? We know several things: Assessment is keyed to an aspirational experiment and tested on an entire generation without their consent. We know that these tests are used to malign educators, close schools, impact home values, and erode local control. We know that that public education in the 3-8 years has ramped up in anxiety for all stakeholders, that rich offerings are reduced for poor performers, that funds that could lower class size or provide resources are diverted to pay for testing. We know that student standing may rest on a single badly written question. We know that kids are learning early and often that nothing they do in school counts for them and that nothing has value. We learn that the fundamental relationship between the child and the teacher is warped by a stake mismatch. There’s a problem alright, and it’s with the test and with its stake.