Protests Against Testing Grow but We’re Not There Yet

Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, warns that we have a ways to go before the tide of standardized testing will significantly ebb.  Valerie Strauss reprinted Welner’s comments on Sunday in her column at the Washington Post.

Welner would like to see what seems to be an escalating protest movement—against too much testing of the wrong kind—against filling the school day and school year with endless standardized tests—against evaluating teachers and rating them and ranking them according to their students’ standardized test scores—successfully turn the tide.

He strongly opposes the demands being made by the U.S. Department of Education to evaluate teachers by students’ scores: “If politicians are to hold teachers and principals accountable for students’ test scores, they must have comprehensive data sets that allow for the possibility of following small differences in those scores over time.  A large and convincing body of authoritative evidence suggests this is a fool’s errand—that attempts to somehow attribute these small differences to teachers and principals run into insurmountable validity hurdles.  This is true even when the test focuses on the teacher’s subject—e.g., scores from reading comprehension tests used to evaluate a language arts teacher.  It’s even more true when students’ test scores are attributed to teachers who don’t teach the subject of those tests or to teachers who are measured on students they never taught.”

Welner would like to believe the opt-out protests that keep growing among parents and even boards of education mean that a change is going to come, but he worries:  “In short, we’ve seen dissatisfaction with the status quo of education reform, and we’ve seen acknowledgement of that dissatisfaction.  But what we’ve not seen is a widespread, deeper rethinking of school improvement or an embrace of an alternative…. It’s highly unlikely that the nation will move away from the status quo until it has a different pathway forward.” “Reforms like test-based accountability give us the feeling of doing something—of demanding excellence—without providing the capacity to achieve our goals.”

Welner defines what real reform would have to include: “We must… accept the reality that real reform requires much more than we as a society have been willing to do.  It requires demanding more of students and teachers but also of lawmakers and taxpayers.  It requires a sustained commitment to ensuring rich opportunities to learn, particularly for students with fewer resources and opportunities outside of the school.”

Such reform will necessarily require more taxes, greater expenditures on the public schools in impoverished communities, smaller classes, more counselors, and so on—the really expensive investments our society has until now refused to undertake.  We will also need to confront segregation by economics and race that has now been solidifying for years across America’s metropolitan areas.  Protests like opting out of testing can be an important first step, but such protests are only the preface to deeper changes that must follow.