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Dumping the evidence–remind me again why anti-testing is “progressive”?

From npr.org and cartoonist LA Johnson

Well, this isn’t subtle.

“Opt-out activists are targeting more than just the tests themselves. As an assistant principal in New York explained to me in October, “The whole school reform machine falls down without the data.” Beyond wasting instructional time, standardized assessments serve to legitimize school closures, runaway charter expansion, and drastically narrowed curricula” —from Alternet’s “7 Big Public Education Stories of 2014”

Indeed, the school reform movement DOES fall down without the data. So do the movements around climate change, civil rights, public health, banking reform, industrial safety, economic justice and more.

So it’s odd for a progressive outfit like Alternet (which is run by the former publisher of Mother Jones) and others to be cheering on the loss of data when it comes to the systematic failure of children of color in our traditional public schools.

Data is evidence. And as the powerful know, if you can dump or discredit it, you can block most arguments for changing the status quo.

Take the oil industry.  For 20 or more years, Big Oil and its conservative allies have blocked action on climate change by insisting humans beings aren’t responsible; the science is in dispute and hence, why worry?

Or take the issue of police shootings.  In the wake of the recent national protests, many people are asking why there is no national data base on how many people are shot by police officers every year.  Police unions and conservative allies argue that the data is difficult to collect and not necessarily helpful since every shooting is different.

But I think the answer is pretty obvious: the numbers will be damning. And the data is a powerful argument for change.

Which is why, starting in the 1990s. the National Rifle Association blocked most federal research into gun violence and deaths. The NRA argued the data would be used to for a “political” agenda to destroy public education as we know it the Second Amendment.

“For policy to be effective, it needs to be based on evidence,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, who had his Center for Disease Control financing cut in 1996. “The National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress have largely succeeded in choking off the development of evidence upon which that policy could be based.”

These tactics, according to Mother Jones have:

“kept meaningful data on gun violence out of the hands of lawmakers who could use it to help pass sensible reform legislation. Until (this ends), the NRA can rest easy and ask: where’s your proof?”

Which is what I think the teachers’ unions are trying to do with test data and the issue of student achievement. By trying to shut down this data, the union is following the NRA’s reactionary, anti-science, anti-transparency playbook, which tends to be blithely racist to boot.

None of this sounds particularly “progressive” to me. So I think activists on the left should think twice before signing on to this effort.

Historically, teachers have never had a problem with  so-called “high-stakes” or “high-stress” testing. Hell, this is the profession that invented the dreaded Final Exam and surprise pop-quiz. Standardized testing is also hardly new.The SAT exams were introduced in 1926. The Iowa Basic Skills Test, which even I, as an ancient crone, took way in my elementary days, was first administered in 1935.

So why this new hysteria and backlash about standardized testing?

I think there are three main causes.

1) Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, schools had to test annually in grades 3-8 and then report the results demographically — frankly, it was one of the few good things to come out of that law. The resulting data showed stark, systematic gaps between white kids and children of color that couldn’t be dismissed simply by income levels.

Yes, these gaps have been with us forever. But the data exposed it and made it hard to deny

Do I think the schools are solely to blame for this gap? No. Do I think the schools need to adapt to our 21st century and students? Yes. Because this is what institutional racism looks like, folks: starkly different outcomes for different groups.  The data is staring at us and it’s not pretty.

2) As our ability to track and analyze this data has grown, many districts  started noticing that different teachers consistently had very different results.

In Minneapolis, this data showed that the district’s top-performing teachers were achieving a year and a half’s worth of growth, year after year. Meanwhile students placed with low-performing teachers achieved six months of growth. And these teachers could be right across the hall from each other.

This data made it harder for the teachers’ union to claim that no one could really tell who was a good teacher or not—it was all so subjective and personality-driven, which is why seniority had to be the top criteria in almost all staffing decisions, etc.

3) In the last seven or so years, more and more states have required that teachers be evaluated IN PART  by the progress their students make on these annual exams. (Nationally, it’s between 25-50 percent. In Minnesota, it’s 35 percent.)

And ding, ding, ding, this is when the organized backlash against “high-stakes” “high-stress” testing seems to truly have started. Because #3 is challenging the old teaching paradigm, namely that It’s My Job To Teach and Their Job to Learn.

As the old saying goes, heresy is truth pushed to a logical extreme. Yes, kids have some responsibility for their own learning. But the old paradigm put it all on the children, which was very convenient for the adults, especially for white middle-class adults in settings where low-income children of color were failing en masse.

Can we be clear? When the sole responsibility for test outcomes was on the children, there was little to no organized test resistance. But as soon as some of the responsibility shifted to the adults, oh my God!  Let the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. Oh, the inhumanity! Oh, the stress of “high-stakes”! Oh, the loss of childhood! Oh, the corporate conspiracy of Pearson! And so forth.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the anti-test movement. Some districts test too much. Endless rote test prep is dumb. Art, music and gym are all crucial and belong in the curriculum.

But the organized movement to dump standardized testing and replace it with projects or individual teacher’s tests, also strikes me as blatant attempt to dump the evidence.

One more thing…..this is a mostly white, Crunchy Mama, privileged-driven argument that overlaps a bit with the anti-vaccination rhetoric. Like the anti-vaccinators, Opt-Out parents seem confident that their children are not in danger. And if parents are confident their kid is brilliant and on-track to college, it’s easy to dismiss standardized tests as a drag on Little Dylan’s creativity.

But if these same parents find out Little Dylan can’t read in 4th grade or is three years behind in math, even though the teacher keeps showing them his wonderful art work…..well, that’s when I suspect standardized testing becomes more important as does the location of the nearest Kumon math school. Etc.

Check your privilege, people. Just sayin’.

——Lynnell Mickelsen

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17 thoughts on “Dumping the evidence–remind me again why anti-testing is “progressive”?

    Blaire says: February 17, 2015 at 11:19 pm

    You like data. Me too. I don’t mind the tests for the most part but what I really do mind is the number of days in grades 3-8 devoted to planning to test. It is mind boggling how many days are spent prepping kids for test taking/scheduling tests with inadequate facilities/ etc.

    Please post the referenced study in Minneapolis that shows teachers achieving different rates of growth in their students. I have heard lots about it but would love to see the data myself. Do we attribute yearly growth to teachers or students? One year my daughter jumped 3 years in growth in math – that sounded good – only to fall the same amount the next year. Bad test day? Bad teacher? Bad set up?

    And can you also post the study that details who makes up the “anti-testing” group? Again, I’m new to the discussion but does everyone opposed to testing fit into the narrow definition you’ve provided here?

    I’ve heard from many parents who just want to see better testing, less testing, less “teaching to the test”, less overlapping tests, less cost, etc. I don’t hear from parents that they don’t want teachers held accountable for their teaching but rather they don’t want so many school days of their children devoted to that particular goal. In a state with less than the national average of teaching days, testing days and planning to test days, are significant. Are we sacrificing learning for testing? Can we do better?

    (My kids – by the way – vaxxed to the hilt.)

    Reply
      Lynnell Mickelsen says: February 19, 2015 at 9:53 am

      Hi Blaire:

      Great thoughtful comment and questions.

      1) RE: days spent taking tests and/or prepping for tests.

      For the record, I didn’t think my kids spent an excessive time taking standardized tests when they were in the system. I’ve also learned to question the various accounts of days spent testing. In some tallies, a one or two-hour test is counted as an entire day of testing. I would prefer to count it simply as one or two hours. And then there’s the whole definition “test prep.” So I’ve found it hard to get an accurate count of how much time it’s actually taking.

      How many days/hours a year are your kids spending taking standardized tests?

      2) I’m in agreement with parents who want better testing, less “teaching to the test” and less overlapping tests. I also do NOT want to see art, music and gym curtailed to get better results in reading and math.

      3) As for the cost of the tests, the American Federation of Teachers estimates the testings costs are between $50-100 a year per kid (http://bitly.com/1HZrR9t), which frankly is not a whole lot. I’ve heard testing opponents say that if we stopped testing kids, we could afford more art, music, gym and field-trips. Unfortunately, $50-100 per kid does not buy these things.

      4) RE: the studies showing that different teachers have different rates of growth.

      Minneapolis keeps that data, but doesn’t release it. So I’m repeating what I’ve been told in various briefings or by school board members who sat through those briefings. But I’m glad you asked—I’d like to see more specific data too. I understand why the district wouldn’t want to release individual teacher data, but I’d like to know what percentage of Minneapolis teachers are getting high growth versus medium growth vs. low growth in the areas that are being tested. I’ll try to get that data and let you know or post it when I do.

      5) As far as who makes up the anti-testing groups—-it’s varied, of course. I’m writing more about the organized movements as opposed to individual parents. Off the top of my head, the oldest group is Fair Test (http://www.fairtest.org/) which was founded in 1985–they oppose standardized testing for college admission too.

      Most of the others started after the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, like the Opportunity to Learn campaign or locally in the Twin Cities, The Coalition for Quality Public Schools.

      All three of these groups receive significant funding from the teachers’ unions who ramped up the anti-testing rhetoric after schools and teachers were asked to take some responsibility for the testing results. In fact, it’s hard to find organized testing opponents who are not directly or indirectly funded by the union, although I’m sure there must be some. The anti-testing campaigns in Boston, Chicago and Seattle were mostly led by the teacher’s unions.

      6) If you want to go really deep in the weeds, here’s a chart that shows how various groups are lining up in terms of testing requirements in Congress this year. http://edexcellence.net/articles/esea-testing-proposals-in-one-picture.

      7) When I observed the Minneapolis teacher-contract negotiations in 2013, various members of the teachers’ negotiating team were opposing even the district-and-teacher-designed brief benchmark tests at the end of various units in reading and math. The teachers objected because they were being asked to track the results in a computer that could be viewed and tracked by the district. I get it, but it struck me as a desire to go back to the good old days in the 1970s when each teacher was the ruler of their room. But there were problems with that system too.

      Reply
    MIriam says: February 23, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    My boys will spend 75-90 minutes per day on testing, for twelve days. That’s on top of other standardized tests they’ve taken this year

    I like measuring things, but it’s too much. And having seen the questions, I’m not impressed with the PARCC test’s ability to measure anything worth measuring (reading, math, reasoning).

    I’m Ohio, I like lots of your ideas. I’m an independent voter, but I’m refusing to let my kids take PARCC. I guess this is where we disagree.

    Reply
    Doug Wells says: February 23, 2015 at 11:03 pm

    Thank you so much – excellent and thoughtful piece

    Reply
    Nycdoenuts says: February 24, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    Great points and that is the strategy from many activists. 2 quick thoughts: Data can still be collected under the ‘better tests’ approach. Written essays along the Core can and are quantified and the data can still be used as it currently is (although there is clearly much to debate about what a better test is. Some think more, lesser weighted tests are better. Others think, if I may quote myself, yuk!)

    But tests themselves can happen too often and actually get in the way. I know it is a refrain from my side of the fence, but there is also much truth in it. By in large, I think that when as many groups and parents are complaining about excessive tests as are now, then that may be a pretty clear indication that testing has become too large a part of the process. Some curtailing, I think (and I hope the answer lies in more authentic assessments but fewer of them), needs to be on the horizon. The partisans don’t like to hear this, but under the current system, I think some standardized testing is probably a good thing.

    Reply
      Lynnell Mickelsen says: February 25, 2015 at 11:34 am

      Thanks, Nycdoenuts. I agree! I think standardized tests for reading comprehension can be especially problematic. I’m happy to test more wisely and well. But we need some of it.

      Reply
    Michael Robbins says: February 25, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    Thoughtful post, Lynnell. I’ve shared it with many folks.

    I think there are some things we can do to help shift the conversation on testing – some of those here: http://spanlearning.com/7-principles-to-shift-the-pendulum-on-testing/

    Would be interested in your thoughts on this.

    Reply
      Lynnell Mickelsen says: March 9, 2015 at 11:55 am

      I love these seven principles, Michael!! I copied them below so other folks could see them too.

      7 Principles to Shift the Pendulum on Testing:

      1) Clearly explain the value of each test to students and parents before it is administered.
      2) Provide test results to students and parents in a timely manner and in a way that they can understand.
      3) Provide ongoing support to students and parents to help them use test results to advance future learning.
      4) Provide opportunities to students and their parents to contribute information to student records that goes beyond test results, including information on student interests, goals, accomplishments, social and emotional learning, and learning that happens during out-of-school time.
      5) Use testing and data to expand opportunities and raise expectations for students, not to limit opportunities or lower expectations.
      6) Provide ways for students and their parents to securely store, access, and share their education data with other schools, organizations, and individuals.
      7) Engage students and their parents in ongoing conversations and decision-making about testing and data use.

      Reply

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    Bill says: February 27, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    All this testing should go away. I say this as a parent AND teacher.
    The only tests that ever mattered to me as a parent were the ones my children took from each of ther subject area teahers and the ACT.
    They were/are a vaste waste of money (I think we are close to 3 billion dollars per year nationally).
    As far as the achievement gap and the attitude that all the responsibility for learning should be on the teacher…. yes, it has become ridiculous.
    The biggest downfall of our system is when teachers became responsible for student’s learning rather than their teaching.
    Less and less and less onus on the student has lead to this.
    Seriously, if the achievement gap was legitimate, ALL kids of color would fail and ALL white kids would succeed.
    Algebra II is just that, it has no racial component, no social agenda. If we change, dumb it down, it becomes nothing.
    An analogy to an extreme… I want to be your heart surgeon, I know nothing about the human heart, systems, biology, etc. Are you going to hand me the scalpel?
    It IS economics and a society that says educaton is not of value unless it leads directly to a return on investment. We simply do not value an educated person as just that.

    Reply
    Amnet says: March 2, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    While you make some points, here’s what I don’t understand. We’ve gotten the data, we know where the learning gap lies and we know what it tells us. It tells us that where there is money, scores are high and where there is poverty, scores are low. Why aren’t we focusing on the real issue of poverty and inequalities in our schools. How can we blame teachers and schools when so many states can’t even fully fund these same schools?

    My other issue, specifically with PARCC, corporate profits. How can we trust any company who has this type of monopoly over our education. In NJ, our teachers are evaluated by a pearson run program, we paid pearson for creating the test, for the test itself, for the training on proctoring the test, for the materials to prepare for the test, for the access to these results (ability to pinpoint by looking at each problem), and then, after THEY set the cut score, we get to pay them for all the remediation materials. Does no one see a problem with that?

    Reply
      Bill says: March 3, 2015 at 9:11 pm

      Bingo Amnet!
      The reality is that it will likely never change at this point as corporations have finally gotten their hooks in. For the longest time they (corporate America) saw this money and there was no way to get at it. We valued our public schools and a liberal arts, public school education. Well, with NCLB and the testing racket our souls were sold and we did it willingly.

      Reply

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    Beth says: March 8, 2015 at 9:27 am

    Check your privilege? Wow, Lynell. You may have been a public school parent, but I’m going to guess that you have never had to watch a child with special needs or an English language learner struggle for hours on end with one of these tests. I’m guessing you’ve never experienced what it’s like for students, parents and teachers of a school without funding for books or basic supplies to be “held accountable” by testing data. As a parent and teacher in the Philadelphia School District, where our kids have been deprived of things like art, music and cultural experienced and replaced by endless test prep, I can only guess that you just lack a depth of understanding with regards to the opt out movement. Check your privilege, indeed.

    Reply

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    Robert says: May 17, 2015 at 8:04 am

    This article has some good stuff in it. I certainly agree that an objective measure of the progress of the students can be a helpful. However, I believe that the decision to test or not-to-test should not be decided on the national level. This is an issue that should be addressed at the state/local level.

    Alternet’s distaste for the evaluation data gives us some insight into their mindset. If they really believed that the achievement gap could be closed, they would want the data to show how the gap is closing.

    If we really want to help, we need to identify the major contributor to the achievement gap and then take action to correct.

    Many reformers, progressives and such are waking up to the realization of the extreme difficulty of closing the achievement gap. Many sites that I look have all sorts of ideas for closing the gap. These are typically such things as:
    • Redistribution of wealth
    • Modern schools
    • Better teachers
    • Desegregation of the schools
    • High expectations or low expectations
    • More lenient or, conversely, stricter codes of conduct for our schools
    • Preschool, which would include prekindergarten programs and even earlier intervention
    • Summer programs
    • Longer or shorter school days
    • Better home environments

    These programs seem to have a few common features:
    • They have a core of enthusiastic supporters.
    • Many of these supporters eventually lose their enthusiasm as they realize is gap is almost impossible to close.
    • They are often expensive (and not just monetarily).
    • They are based on the assumption that the gap is caused by the environment. Thus, a sufficiently good environment can fix most of our social problems.
    • They do not close the gap.

    Once we accept that “fixing” the environment is not going to close the achievement gap, a reasonable approach is to take a look at the non-environmental factors. This is not meant to blame the student. We should not blame the student if he or she cannot learn as well as other students. This would be like our blaming pygmies because they are short. And, we are not playing some sort of blame game; instead, we want to take a realistic look at the gap and its cause.

    A few additional points:
    • The federal government should never have gotten involved in education.
    • The NCLB school evaluations are a mistake. NCLB is based on the unrealistic assumption that virtually all children are equally capable of learning. Believing this implies that it is O.K. to blame the teacher, the school, the parents or the students, or any other part of the environment.
    • This brings us to the advantage of school choice. Under school choice, the students and their parents would decide which school they wanted their children to attend. However, school choice will not close the achievement gap. It might even widen the gap.

    Reply

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