It’s Not Standardized Tests That Educators Hate, It’s Accountability

Education Week likes to frustrate me in the morning. Reading their article today about the retreat of the anti-testing suburban opt-out movement, I should have been happy, but a few word-bytes in it are restating flimsy complaints about the testing of public school students and that put vinegar in my coffee.

I despise vinegar.

There was the superintendent in Bedford, New Hampshire, who said: “I would love to get away from this obsession with standardized testing.” The problem he says is how being “locked in” to doing annual assessments makes it difficult for his district to “try new forms of instruction.”


Because he says, it takes time to “prepare students for statewide tests.”

There was also the superintendent from Ohio who added that the annual tests “don’t give us much meaningful information.”

Of course, there was a quote from FairTest, the anti-testing group that might as well rename itself Teachers Union Grantee.

This word “obsession” that anti-testing folks use trivializes the importance of giving parents and the public a way to trust and verify their schools are making forward progress. That word evokes a sense of unjustified mania and discounts the valid reasons many American populations might want to see actual numbers in addition to the happy talk about schools.

Is expecting schools to do a summative test annually so the public and lawmakers have some sense of school performance and progress so unreasonable that it rises to the level of “obsession”?

Only if you have no interest in knowing who and where education is failing.

I understand that it’s not the actual testing part that causes strife, but what people do with the test results. In my view, a big value of test scores is to give third-party verification and to shine a light on schools that are working so parents can make informed choices. The response from educators and school leaders to that might say test scores give a false sense of how good a school is, and, instead, give a clearer picture of which students are in a school and the education levels of their parents.

Fair enough, but I disagree and find the idea that poor kids with parents who aren’t white and college-educated ensure a school cannot have passing test scores insulting, racist, classist, and in breach of anything approximating progressivism.

I see how educators in failing schools (or those without an earthly clue on how to educate poor, nonwhite children) might construct for themselves a rationale different than mine.

It’s one colossal reason why I distrust the middle-class white education system so much that I want annual numbers to keep them honest so long as the participation of our kids is compulsory and funded mostly in one limited system.

You demand my kids. I require your receipts. Any other arrangement is war.

Another problem for anti-testing mavens is that test scores are used to justify interventions that people within the education establishment hate, including changes to staffing, curriculum, school models, and the governance of schools.

Let me take another shot at that point: Bad test scores mean people get fired (in theory), contracts get cut, and schools closed are replaced with other schools if test scores suck too long. At least that’s the fear anti-testing folks want to be stoked.

If all that happens, unions shrink.

There is good research that prescriptions from the upper government do not produce the desired effect we want (or at least there is some conventional wisdom that research says that). I won’t haggle with those findings.

However, I will push back on the self-satisfying critiques (if only we had a hundred gazillion billion dollars to buy violins for everyone, achievement would improve) that stop responsible intervention and lead to institutional paralysis.

When things aren’t working for students, parents should expect action, not endless worshiping of the problem.

The buck should stop with the people who demand we put all our bucks in their schools.

The most hostility to testing really comes from one specific intervention: the evaluation of teachers. Tying a teacher’s standing to the test scores of her students is objectionable beyond the point of return for educators and their unions.

Teachers and their unions were not anti-testing when those results were used to sort students into easy-to-teach islands where teachers with the most seniority could teach high-performing kids. That was back in the good old days before there were intrusive expectations that the other kids would do well too.

All that changed with test-based accountability which turned the heat up on equity, and in some cases overcooked the goose.

The other issues raised by anti-testers are false flags. They are tactical and duplicitous word-salads meant to create enough confusion to dismantle the state testing “regimes.”

What are those other issues?

Testing makes teachers teach to the test.

Nope, sorry, if you’re teaching to the test you’re doing it wrong. You should be teaching above the test. Teaching to the standard is more like it (and yes dammit there should be standards to teach to).

Testing makes teachers narrow their curriculum.

Nah. That happens when teachers feel they can’t overcome supposed deficiencies in students so they decide instead to shoot for the minimum level of proficiency.

Testing doesn’t give teachers information they can use.

Really? Which tests?

The weekly formative tests that they do, the end of unit tests that they do; their quizzes; their district-created tests that they help create; or, just the annual tests that are meant to be benchmarks for people outside of schools that hold schools, their staff, and their leaders to account?

It’s the last one.

The only tests teachers and their defenders dislike are the ones that create external accountability, because, in their minds, their expertise and experience are above accountability even when their results suck eggs.

Al Shanker, the father of modern teacher unionism, was more moderate than today’s unions, teachers, and supporters when it came to testing. He said:

There are those who take extreme views…the National Education Association, which has taken the position that standardized tests—those which are given to a large number of children and often serve as the basis for comparison among them—should be abandoned and never used again. The arguments are that students who do poorly on these tests suffer great anguish, that the tests are inaccurate in measuring achievement, that they may be culturally biased because typical questions may be more closely related to the experiences of the white majority than to minority groups. Moreover, according to those who favor this view, standardized test results are subject to great abuse and frequently misinterpreted by the public.

Shanker’s summation of the NEA’s “extreme” anti-testing position is still their position today. Personally, I couldn’t care less about what Shanker thought. He’s not my educational ancestor. But, if we judge theologies by the rules of their own sacred texts, then anti-testing positions of teachers and their unions fail.

I’ll let you decide if that’s formative or summative.

The original post can be found at CitizenStewart.Rocks.


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