Remove Stakes From Standardized Testing to Strengthen Education

At the end of another spring testing season, the slimy feeling it leaves would be a terrible thing to waste. While the latest bubble-in testing scandals are fresh in our minds, we should redouble efforts to end our educational civil war. Think of how the divisiveness would decrease if we borrowed from the Bill of Rights and adopted a code of ethics with #1 being, "No stakes shall be attached to standardized tests without the consent of the student or educator."

High-quality standardized assessments, such as AP and SAT tests, would not be threatened. Charters could test to their hearts' delight. Testing could be used for its proper purpose as a diagnostic assessment. It would provide evidence to inform instruction and policy. The ethical code would simply disarm "reformers" who want to use bubble-in testing to destroy "the status quo," and prevent the imposition of educational malpractice on schools and students who don't want rote instruction and nonstop test prep. So, let's inventory some of the battles that would become less divisive if high-stakes testing mandates were off the table.

Extended learning time. There is agreement that high-challenge students need more time in class, but those extra hours must be engaging and holistic, and they are extremely expensive. On the other hand, districts routinely flush 1/4th of the school year down the toilet in order to do high-security bubbling. As the Gates Foundation's Bill Tucker explains in "Grand Test Auto: The End of Testing," "Every year at a given time, regular instruction stops. Teachers enter something called 'test prep' mode; it lasts for weeks leading up to the big assessment. ... Learning stops, evaluation begins."

Some "reformers," as in Chicago, may see the lengthening of the school day as a way to divide and conquer, perhaps by provoking a strike. But most reformers could put pencil to paper, and calculate the total costs of wasting so much of our students' spirit on one of the many possible systems of accountability. Moreover, how many reformers, who actually work in schools, have been so efficient in using 3/4ths of the school year (or less) that they would not welcome the opportunity to teach for a full year? After all, teaching effectively is so fulfilling, how many successful educators like to stop instruction around spring break?

Value-added evaluations. The embarrassed reactions of many reformers to the release of New York City teachers' test scores shows that many accountability hawks recognize that they went down the wrong path when they experimented with using test score growth for evaluations.

Even Eric Hanushek's dissenting opinion seemed to indicate that that educational arguments for test-driven evaluations have lost their credibility. Hanushek wrote that, "Nobody would ever advocate personnel decisions through public posting of evaluations in the newspaper." He argued that "the issue raised by the release of value-added information is simply how quickly and how assuredly we get to a more rational system of evaluations." Hanushek correctly described value-added as a part of "the intense, broader battle underway all throughout the nation."

I agree with Hanushek that the most cost effective way of improving dysfunctional schools is the removal of the lowest performing 5 to 10% of teachers, but I see no need for doing so based on primitive test data being run through questionable statistical models. Even the second-to-the-worst way of removing ineffective teachers, by merely empowering principals to do so, would not be nearly as destructive. Under such a primitive system, injustices would result as a lot of egos were exercised and a lot of scores were settled, but those abuses would not be an existential threat to public education. The eccentricities of administrators who would abuse their power would not be a systematic threat to the abilities of the remaining teachers to teach in an engaging manner. And, if we got off the standardized test pipe, the obvious next step would be to train principals and peer evaluators to properly evaluate instruction.

In other words, my prime complaint against value-added evaluations is that it damages students by encouraging educational malpractice. Teachers do not need more rights than other workers. We should not accept a system, however, that denies us the dignity that other Americans take for granted. Any way you cut it, firing teachers based on an estimate of their effectiveness means that teachers who commit to the schools where it is harder to raise test scores are subject to collective punishment. The idea of firing good teachers, claiming that they are "ineffective," because they teach in ineffective schools, is reprehensible.

Charter Schools. I do not see charters as an existential threat to public schooling, although the proliferation of charter management systems could be. So, let's have a real competition before society gives up on public education and adopts franchises by default. Few parents choose charters based on test results. Parents do not want to send their kids to dangerous and chaotic schools. Had test scores not become the coin of the realm, competition could have made charters and neighborhood schools better by identifying safe, orderly, and respectful learning environments as the key to improved outcomes. If neighborhood schools were freed from standardized command and control, charters that still pushed test prep would have made their choice and parents would make theirs. If neighborhood schools were no longer hog-tied by testing, we could keep score by documenting the quality of their learning cultures. Schools could compete by offering opportunities to help students have happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.

Technology. High-stakes testing gave new life to the old Model T assembly line version of education. It has delayed and/or perverted the potential of technology. So-called online "credit recovery" programs are the best example. The value of online tutorials will remain under-utilized as long as their prime purpose is jacking up bogus accountability metrics. As long as educators are preoccupied with protecting their jobs by juking standardized test scores, we will be unable to develop a broader collective vision for education. The first step away from the factory-model classroom and its rigidities awaits the end of our electronic worksheet mentality.

Having loved my public schooling in the 1960s, I am continually dismayed that high-stakes standardized testing still exists. Who would have thunk it? We have always had teachers who were throwbacks to the 19th century who assigned three pages from the textbook and had students answer the questions at the end. But that was seen as weak instruction. Now, worksheet-driven rote instruction is virtually mandated as a "best practice." We are better than that, and we know it. It is time to move onto the 21st century and the first step is to cut the anchor that keeps us mired in a punitive and narrow survival mode.