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Why The Test Debate Is About Politics, Not Education

Here’s how ridiculous the nation’s obsession with standardized testing has gotten: Last week Education Week reporter Catherine Gewertz came across a news item about a school in Florida that “forbid the flushing of toilets during testing … to cut down on the distraction.” (emphasis original)

As she quoted from her news source, the school administrators feared, “The whooshing water sounds from classroom bathrooms … might disturb test-taking classmates and send their focus, and their scores, spiraling down the drain.”

Before you dismiss that as just one “over the top” anecdote, consider that the big new assessment fad sweeping the nation is to demand testing of our youngest students, the earlier the better. In Maryland, for instance, as a different article in Education Week reported, a “kindergarten readiness assessment” to see if little kids are “ready” for kindergarten has teachers worried. The exam on “language, literacy, math, science, social studies, and physical well-being” took the students “at least one hour, and sometimes more than double that.” This is not unusual, as the reporter explained, because “at least 25 states mandate a kindergarten readiness assessment and this is likely to rise.”

It’s true that many educators have used some form of “school readiness” assessments on little kids for years. But those primarily consisted of very small tasks and brief observations. Nothing like what we’re seeing now, and, as the reporter noted, ” kindergarten teachers across the country are raising … objections.”

We all know the reason for this. Although educators administer the tests, testo-crats took over education policy with the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2002, so now, what happens in the classroom is not nearly as important as what spits out of an algorithm designed by some wonk working in a cubicle in L’Enfant Plaza.

Back when NCLB was conceived, conservatives wanted the testing because they weren’t going to give away tax money without some very heavy strings, more like shackles this time, attached. Liberals wanted it so they could make state governments do what too many of them have loathed to do throughout our history: Provide an equitable education to all students, regardless of their race, income level, language, or ability level.

By 2014, all students were to be scoring at the proficient level on standardized tests, an impossible goal that no other nation in the world – except Lake Wobegone – has ever accomplished.

When US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took over in 2009 and saw the 50-car pile that was going to happen down the road, he designed all sorts of clever workarounds to NCLB that would – wait for it – put even more emphasis on the tests and tie them to all sorts of high-stakes decisions affecting teachers, principals, and schools.

Now, conservative governors are complaining that all the testing is administratively and financially untenable, and left-leaning parents, educators, and public school advocates are incensed at how testing has subverted the purpose and goals of education. Now a full-blown test rebellion is underway.

Policy leaders in Washington, DC have finally gotten wind of this situation and have sprung into action.

How is the debate going? See if this makes sense to you:

Conservatives want to let states have potentially more options for wasting taxpayer money on wayward attempts in “accountability,” and liberals are insisting on continuing measures that have been mostly bad for the education of black and brown students.

Huh?

A closer look reveals that Republicans led by Minnesota’s John Kline in the House and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander in the Senate are resolved to remake NCLB, something that has been tried off and on in Congress since 2007. Kline has announced intentions to “dismantle NCLB,” and now Alexander has a draft proposal that includes, as Education Week’s, Lauren Camera and Alyson Klein break down, that would let states determine how federal money is spent on testing.

Secretary Duncan and Washington Senator Patty Murray are countering that states must continue to test every kid in grades three through eight and once in high school to, in Murray’s words, “allow parents, civil rights groups and policymakers the ability to see how students are doing.” Their views are backed by civil rights advocates, who, as The Washington Post reported, maintain that the federal government must continue to require states to perform annual assessments in reading and math.

What’s so unfortunate about either of these views is that neither would directly address the matter at hand.

Policies the Republicans are advancing would let states, on the one hand, continue current practices or potentially create new assessments that have nothing to do with the original intent of the Elementary and Secondary Act, which NCLB renamed, which was to enforce on states their responsibilities to provide equitable education.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders and their civil rights supporters insist on a policy that has done nothing to advance ESEA’s original intent either. As Valerie Strauss explains at The Washington Post

We have had 13 years of federally mandated annual testing, and achievement gaps are still gaping. As education historian and activist Diane Ravitch noted on her blog, tests don’t help close achievement gaps; they only measure them. What standardized tests measure accurately is family income; look at SAT  and other scores to see how closely they are linked to wealth and poverty. Standardized tests benefit students from privileged families, not children from low-income and minority families or children with disabilities.

In other words, while the arguments on both sides continue to vie back and forth over issues of how many tests should be given and how frequently, what’s completely lost in the debate is the more important issue of how tests are used.

Political strategist and education policy critic Jason Stanford nut-shelled it on his personal blog, stating, “Let’s assume that standardized tests are effective diagnostic tools. Let’s assume that the test scores we’ve been getting since No Child Left Behind and now with Common Core are producing useful, actionable information … What do we do with that? What is the point of this data? … Remember, the thermometer doesn’t cook the meat.”

As Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker writes on his personal blog, School Finance 101, “Missed in most of the conversation are the valid, relevant uses of student assessments, and the different uses, and approaches to using testing, measurement, large and small scale assessment in our schooling system.”

As Baker explains, if we’re going to use tests for diagnostic and instructional purposes, then the current format of standardized exams being given periodically is horrible. If we’re going to use tests for system monitoring, then we should be using a “sampling method” rather than testing every student, and we should understand the results do not provide actionable data. The question of whether testing is a means for achieving more equitable outcomes in education all “depends on how that testing is used.”

Tests do uncover disparities in our education system, as the National Assessment of Education Progress has revealed for many years long before NCLB.  Gerwerz, again, at Education Week, notes about NAEP, “When I look at it, I see the absence of nearly every single trigger point in today’s testing debates. Every kid required to sit for hours and hours of tests? Nope. Here we have only two hours of testing, given to a sample of the school’s students. Weeks of test prep? Nope. Students tied in knots over potentially bad test scores? Nope.”

Further, as Baker concludes in a subsequent post, if the federal government really wanted to do something about inequities in our education system, it would develop policies that gave states more incentive to correct what’s really causing inequities: the ways “in which our schools are organized and segregated.”

Why isn’t anyone talking about this? Because the discussion over testing, at least how it’s being carried out in Washington, DC, isn’t really about education. It’s about power politics. Seen in this frame, it’s really hard to believe the Democrats are going to win.

In a really helpful retrospective on the politics of NCLB revision. Education Week’s Alyson Klein explains, the policy trend over the years has been heading “further and further away from the idea of a strong federal role in accountability that was at the center of the original No Child Left Behind Act.”

The reality is Democrats are caught on a slippery slope. As Republicans continue to present alternatives to the untenable situation posed by the current testocracy, Democrats aren’t going to get footholds simply by saying the tests will get better (in fact, they won’t as new, harder exams being rolled out this year will cause even more negative consequences.)

Anyone who has been paying attention saw this coming a long time ago. When Democrats bowed toward the Beltway deity of bipartisanship and rationalized their support for Republican plans for education “accountability” by saying they were doing it for civil rights reasons – regardless of the lack of research or other evidence to support that rationale – they essentially took on a sure failure their opponents would eventually hang around their necks.

If Democrats want to gain any footing on the sloping ground they find themselves on, they need to move from a conversation on testing that’s all about how many and how often to upping the stakes in a conversation about the purpose.

  • Dorothy A. Erdman says:

    To begin with, testing is done at the wrong time of the year—- in the spring. The results are not received until school is just about out, and rarely are they looked at in the fall to determine the needs of the student.

    Let’s test at the beginning of school and get the results by October 1st. Then let’s use these tests to determine where each child needs to get extra help, if needed, to make adequate progress for that school year. Those who need extra help can get that help from a variety of sources that may be available. Every child has the opportunity to make positive progress at a pace that is realistic.

    January 16, 2015 at 7:39 pm
  • Tim-10-bet says:

    I would add test again in the late spring to see where kids ended up and have the teachers use that data during the summer to prepare for their next class.

    Reading between the lines, until we change the way we do this thing called “school” we will continue getting the same results. Issued like the definition of insanity to me. Good article. Thank you!

    January 16, 2015 at 8:44 pm
  • David Greene says:

    Each day I open links to articles about a growing movement to do away with Common Core, APPR, TFA, Standardized Testing and the privatizing of education. I know and have worked with so many of the groups and individuals pushing for the removal of top down corporate education reform, what I called Profit Led Fed Ed.

    Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Anthony Cody, Mark Naison are but some of the individuals. The Badass Teachers (BATS) and its affiliates, Save Our Schools (SOS) and its affiliates, New York Collective of Radical Educators (NyCORE), United Opt Out, and its affiliates, New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) and so many other groups have joined together to fight NCLB, RTTT, and their outcomes. One thing they have in common…progressive child and community centered education. Without going out a limb, I would feel safe to say many are Democrats or progressives.

    However when I read about the political leaders are in this endeavor I am usually stunned. Rand Paul and Scott Walker have now joined the anti Common Core fight. They now join the likes of conservatives like Lindsay Graham, Charles Grassley, and Mark Rubio. The Republican National Committee, Glen Beck, and even the Heritage Foundation are all in this fight. The states who have dropped or propose dropping out of Common Core and testing like Oklahoma, South and North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana are all Republican and mostly conservative.

    The state leading the Common Core APPR charge is New York; with its high profile Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo. The biggest “pusher” of the Common Core et al drugs is our federal Democratic DOE under the control of a “liberal” Democratic president.

    When did this happen? When did progressive education become a reason to vote for a conservative Republican? What do progressive educators do when it is time to vote?

    If they are one-issue voters do they vote for a Walker or Paul, or in NYS did they vote for conservative republican Astorino? Maybe they get lucky and have alternative candidates like Zephyr Teachout or Howie Hawkins and lose? If they have concerns about other progressive ideals like gun control and women’s rights do they turn their backs on education?

    Obviously this is a very complex issue. I was determined to keep this comment short.

    Free speech has become a corporate battle cry. States Rights now include education as well as anti voting rights procedures.

    Red is Blue. Blue is Red. Have I gone down Wonderland’s Rabbit Hole? What a conundrum!

    https://dcgmentor.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/the-red-and-blue-conundrum/

    January 16, 2015 at 9:38 pm
    • Jen says:

      The sad reality for myself, is yes, there came a point when the vote was between myself and things I believed in personally or for those who I felt would protect my children, and our collective foundation of Freedom as a nation from invasive control, knowing that comes at a different cost. It is an incredibly sad state of affairs to be in such a state when you really understand why and how it was done. They got sold, plain and simple. None of this will” help” anyone and the only “equity” that is born from it is in more equitable failure using an invalid instrument to “prove” the false failure and all that is applied after said failure to remove Freedom even further. Bottom line for me, if its between me and my kids, I vote for them, since they have no voice in any of this while they are left to suffer its consequences. If Congress doesn’t do what it was elected to do this session, all that new found red will disappear down your rabbit hole once more.

      January 17, 2015 at 11:23 pm
  • Tricia O'Hara says:

    You nailed it again, Jeff.

    January 17, 2015 at 1:24 am
  • Isabel Laird says:

    Funding for schools must be based on graduated income tax from all and returned to public schools based on student numbers. While we use property tax for school funding we continue to perpetuate disparity in education. The most important test in school should be the professional assessment of teachers for one another. Yes, Yes do mumble about politics and popularity contests but think about lifting the skills of your peers. Teach each other. State funded universities should be required to provide free bi-annual seminars on most updated teaching methods. Education in life skills, including parenting, should be required for graduation from high school. We need to stop looking at failing schools and start looking at schools doing well. Yes, even schools in other countries. If parents and teachers do not work together we will see the complete destruction of public schools and we will give a big fat money pot to the outsourcers. American public schools are not perfect but they are still ours. Work together. Believe in each other. The alternative is a national school curriculum designed to provide dumb fodder for low wage jobs. Join together and build an unstoppable public school coalition. You can do it. I have faith in you.

    January 17, 2015 at 10:36 pm
  • Mary says:

    I’ll tell you what noise I find “distracting” during our yearly high stakes testing binges, at the high school I teach in, students vomiting in the hallway trashcans from stress and anxiety from taking the tests.

    January 17, 2015 at 11:04 pm
  • Elizabeth Rubenstein says:

    Children are neither standard, nor common.

    The only ones who benefit from standardized tests are the publishing companies that create them.

    January 17, 2015 at 11:52 pm
  • Alessandro Quevedo says:

    Do I think these tests are reliable tools, age and skill level appropriate? Please, just read some of the items in these farses called standarized reading tests. Misleading questions, mediocre or even wrong answers to choose from, passages to wich most students cannot relate to. Please read some of the items in the so called Math tests. Tons of irrelevant information, confusing questions, more confusing answers. And, on top, racing against time. For what I see, a student able to score high in any of these marathons, has to be a pasive automat who does not question anything much, who does not think much. Mediocre tests aim to glorify mediocrity and punish those who think out of the box. Inappropriate or misleading questions aim to prove what a failure an 8 year old is so some people can sell more remedial programs, close schools, punish low income students, help perpetuate the social differences, get their historical priviledges.

    January 20, 2015 at 5:29 am

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