Last weekend, the NY Times editorialized to demand that President Elect Joe Biden’s new Secretary of Education promptly “clear the wreckage” from Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education. The newspaper is correct to criticize Betsy DeVos’s abandonment of the department’s mission of protecting the civil rights of America’s public school students. And the editorial writers deserve praise for condemning DeVos’s dogged support for for-profit colleges and trade schools at the expense of indebted student borrowers.
But pretty quickly the Times editorial board steps into the old trap of endorsing federally mandated high stakes standardized testing and the collection of big data at the expense of the children and teachers who are struggling to make it through this school year being shunted back and forth from on-line schooling to in-person school and then back on-line as the COVID-19 numbers rise and fall. The editorial board has slipped into the No Child Left Behind mindset that values data over the lived experience of students and teachers:
“Mr. Cardona would need to pay close attention to how districts plan to deal with learning loss that many children will suffer while the schools are closed. Fall testing data analyzed by the nonprofit research organization NWEA suggests that setbacks have been less severe than were feared with students showing continued academic progress in reading and only modest setbacks in math. However, given a shortage of testing data for Black, Hispanic and poor children, it could well be that these groups have fared worse in the pandemic than their white or more affluent peers. The country needs specific information on how these subgroups are doing so that it can allocate educational resources strategically.”
That is, of course, what No Child Left Behind and its massive state-by-state testing regime was supposed to be about, except that nobody ever “allocated educational resources strategically” once we had all the big data. President Elect Joe Biden has explained that across the United States: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.” Despite wide agreement that twenty years of data-driven school accountability failed to drive investment into the poorest schools, the narrative has been deeply embedded into the conventional wisdom.
It will be up to our new Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to decide whether to cancel this spring’s federally mandated standardized tests in language arts and math for a second year. Betsy DeVos, to her credit, let the states and the nation’s public schools off the hook last year due to the chaos of the pandemic.
Last week the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized the past two decades of mandated standardized testing and the choice which now faces Education Secretary Cardona: “The annual spring testing regime—complete with sometimes extensive test preparation in class and even testing ‘pep rallies’—has become a flash point in the two-decade-old school reform movement that has centered on using standardized tests to hold schools and teachers accountable. First, under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and now under its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, public schools are required to give most students tests each year in math and English language arts and to use the results in accountability formulas. Districts evaluate teachers and states evaluate schools and districts—at least in part—on test scores.”
Strauss continues: “Supporters say that (the tests) are important to determine whether students are making progress and that two straight years of having no data from these tests would stunt student academic progress because teachers would not have critical information on how well their students are doing. Critics say that the results have no value to teachers because the scores come after the school year has ended and that they are not allowed to see test questions or know which ones their students get wrong. There are also concerns that some tests used for accountability purposes are not well-aligned to what students learn in school—and that the results only show what is already known: students from poor families do worse than students from families with more resources.”
Criticizing the NY Times editorial, Diane Ravitch elaborates as she suggests that Dr. Cardona should cancel the mandated state tests for a second year: “The results will be useless. The teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions, never allowed to discuss them, and never allowed to learn how individual students performed on specific questions. The results will be reported 4-6 months after students take the test. The students will have a new teacher. The students will get a score, but no one will get any information about what students do or don’t know… Anyone who thinks that it is necessary or fair to give standardized tests this spring is out of touch with the realities of schooling. More important than test scores right now is the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff.”
Writing for Education Week last month, Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of research and evaluation methodology at the University of Colorado School of Education cautions that, Testing Students This Spring Would Be a Mistake. Like many experts, Shepard worries about the use of standardized tests for high stakes accountability: “Even under normal circumstances, high-stakes testing has negative consequences. State assessment programs co-opt valuable instructional time, both for week-long test administration and for test preparation. Accountability pressures often distort curriculum, emphasizing test-like worksheets and focusing only on tested subjects. Recent studies of data-driven decision making warn us that test-score interpretations can lead to deficit narratives—blaming children and their families—instead of prompting instructional improvements… Most significantly, teachers report that they and their students experience high degrees of anxiety, even shame, when test scores are publicly reported… Clearly it would be unfair to hold schools and teachers accountable for outcomes when students’ learning opportunities have varied because of computer and internet access, home learning circumstances, and absences related to sickness or family disruption. Testing this year is counterproductive because it potentially demoralizes students and teachers without addressing the grave problems exacerbated by the pandemic.”
In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, a profound and thorough exploration of the past two decades of the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their schools and their teachers, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz concisely explains why the federal use of widespread standardized testing to drive teachers’ evaluations, school closures, the firing of school principals, state takeovers of schools, and the turnover of public schools to private operators has not only left us with a succession of dangerous policies, but also undermined the validity of the tests themselves as states manipulated their scoring to avoid sanctions. Further the attachment of high stakes undermined the education process in the schools where children were farthest behind—schools where teachers were forced to teach to the test or fall back on deadly drilling.
Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)