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The Solution to a Bad Guy With a Test Is a Good Guy With a Test

Arne Duncan demonstrates a breathtaking lack of awareness about the effects of Race to the Top (RTTT). Far from being chastened by what is going on in schools around the country, the Secretary is doubling down on his test-driven offensive. A look at some of the things he said is eye opening.
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On April 30, Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, gave what was billed as a Special Invited Address, at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA) in San Francisco. This conference, attended by thousands of higher ed scholars in education departments, is for many, the high water mark of academe. Focused research and investigation from all over the world is shared and critically examined.

What we heard was breathtaking in its lack of awareness about the effects of Race to the Top (RTTT). Far from being chastened by what is going on in schools around the country, the Secretary doubled-down on his test-driven offensive. A look at some of the things he said is eye opening.

"We need you, the researchers, to answer the question, 'Which approach works better - this one or that one' and then we need to move forward by your answer."

This is a disingenuous invitation at best. The research community has been telling the administration for years that high stakes testing is an invalid, unreliable and unstable measure of both student and teacher performance. We have not seen any effect on policy from our clarion call for dumping this metric as central to change in our schools.

"Researchers are also familiar with Campbell's Law, which is often cited in debates over standardized testing and accountability. It holds that 'the more any quantitative social indicator 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.'"

This is a staggeringly unaware reference. Many of us use Campell's Law in our research and writings -- for the very purpose of demonstrating how policies such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and RTTT have corrupted the dynamics inside schools. The pressures to perform on tests that can make or break a school year for a student or destroy a teacher's career are enormous in the current policy context. We use Campbell as leverage in our attempts to stop the testing madness. We were dumbfounded that the Secretary used Campbell in a speech that defended high stakes testing regimes. And the absurdities continued.

"State assessments in mathematics and English often fail to capture the full spectrum of what students know and can do. Students, parents, and educators know there is much more to a sound education than picking the right answer on a multiple choice question . . . And today's assessments certainly don't measure qualities of great teaching that we know make a difference - things like classroom management, teamwork, collaboration, and individualized instruction. They don't measure the invaluable ability to inspire a love of learning."

If we hadn't been in the room to see and hear these remarks ourselves, we would not have believed that they came from the Secretary. Does he not know that psychometricians working for the federal and state education agencies have insisted that more objective test questions - i.e., multiple choice questions - be used on exams because they are supposedly more "reliable" indicators? Is he unaware that the RTTT system rewards/punishes the individual teacher and discourages time and energy devoted to collaboration and teamwork? Does he not realize that the high stakes testing juggernaut has sucked the oxygen out of the classroom leaving little time for "the love of learning?" And if that weren't bizarre enough, he bemoans the culture of schools today, a culture that is driven by RTTT mandates.

"Some schools have an almost obsessive culture around testing, and that hurts their most vulnerable learners and narrows the curriculum. It's heartbreaking to hear a child identify himself as 'below basic' or 'I'm a one out of four.' "

This observation sounds more like the Secretary is talking to a clergyman in the confessional booth than to a group of educational researchers who have been studying the destruction of children's self-concept as learners by the very policy that his office developed and promotes.

In an obvious reference to the major cheating scandals that have erupted in various parts of the country, the Secretary had this to say:

"There is no excuse for school administrators and teachers tampering with student tests to boost test scores. It is morally indefensible - and it is most damaging to the very students who most desperately need the help of their teachers and school leaders. But I reject the idea that the system makes people cheat. In all but a tiny minority of cases, teachers want their children to genuinely learn and grow - not achieve phony gains to make themselves or their schools look good."

With this pronouncement we see the utter disregard for the intelligence of the audience that day. Just moments before, the Secretary cited a law of social dynamics that warns of the dangers of certain types of social indicators being used for decision-making. He then indicts those who have been corrupted by the very law his administration created. This is beyond any reasonable person's ability to swallow. It is a new level of twisted logic - and a dangerous one as well. If the focus is on the "cheaters" then the focus is off the policy. It is a most insidious political gambit that the Secretary is taking in hopes that the noise around high stakes testing will diminish in the din created by the cheating scandals.

Race to the Top, with its federal dollars as leverage, has wrought untold misery on schools across the country. This fact escapes the officials in Washington as their rhetoric clearly demonstrates. The new twist - making the cheaters the issue - is a dangerous shift that we all should be wary of as we go forward. Those of us who can see through this charade need to reach out to one another through any medium we can. I say we party like its 1984 - hyper vigilant for doublespeak. Our children deserve no less.

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