Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Challenging Andy Smarick's Defense of Standardized Testing

It looks like the test and punish crowd is beginning to get worried about all the backlash against high-stakes testing. Lately, I noticed a little spittle forming at the corners of the mouths of the test them to death champions such as those at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Jumping into the fray this past week was one of my reformy favorites and New Jersey's own, Andy Smarick. Smarick brought his own special take on public education to New Jersey as a Deputy Commisioner of Education for a few years, where one of my esteemed colleagues called him "a nice kid who knows nothing about education." Jersey Jazzman has a detailed look at Andy's bona fides here. He is currently a Partner with Bellwether Education, serving on the Orwellian sounding "Bellwether Thought Leadership" committee.

Smarick has decided to bring his "thought leadership" to us all in a recent article in Fordham's Flypaper blog. He worries that recent back peddling on testing by luminaries like Bill Clinton, Bush Era Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, and even Fordham's own "Checker" Finn will lead to a compromise where yearly testing of students is repealed. Heaven forbid, cries Andy. He then offers a point by point rationale for testing kids every year.

I'd like to take a look at Smarick's standardized testing "benefits" a little more closely to see if they hold up. Here is Smarick's list and my commentary.

1. Yearly testing makes it clear that every student matters.

      No, Andy. The only thing yearly testing makes clear is that the education reformers' agenda matters above all. The only reason to give a standardized test every year is to advance the agenda of using test scores to evaluate teachers. If it were truly about the kids, we would stop testing so much and give more time to teaching from a broader, richer curriculum.

2. Yearly testing makes clear that the standards associated with every tested grade and subject matter.

      No, Andy. What would make clear that every standard matters would be a process where teachers were included in the standards formation and delivery. Yearly testing perpetuates the top-down, teacher be damned approach to the Common Core. By testing every year, education reformers seek to force a test driven curriculum on teachers who had little or no voice in the creation of those standards. 

3. Yearly testing forces us to continuously track students, preventing our claiming surprise when scores are below expectations.

      So, if I understand this one correctly, Andy, we need to test kids every year to prove that our tests are showing that a student is under-performing on tests, so that we can redouble our efforts to make sure kids perform better on tests. Or is it that we need to test every year so that we can gather a database of kids scores over time to use in efforts to close schools and fire teachers?

4. Yearly testing gives us information needed to tailor interventions to the grades, subjects, and students in need.

      No, Andy. Actually the information provided by standardized tests does not tell us much about the child as a learner or about how to help that child. Standardized tests may tell us about some broad student strengths and weaknesses, but teachers get much richer and much more actionable information from their own authentic assessments in class. If you want to spend some of that testing money on helping teachers develop classroom based authentic assessments, I am with you.

5. Yearly testing gives families the information needed to make the case for necessary changes.

     So, Andy, we can use standardized tests as a weapon to back up "parent trigger" legislation to close down local neighborhood schools and replace them with privately run charter schools of no better, and often worse, quality. In other words we need standardized tests, once again, to advance the reformer agenda. Of course, we could use the money spent on testing to make sure the existing school has the resources it needs to be successful, but that doesn't fit the agenda.

6. Yearly testing enables us to calculate student achievement growth, so schools and educators get credit for progress.

      How thoughtful of you, Andy. Thanks, but no thanks. I will be happy to celebrate progress in many ways with the students. One way I would get a chance to celebrate, every year, is if we tested only in 4th, 8th grade and 11th grade. That way, my schools and my teachers all get to celebrate, but my kids don't get their brains knocked out by too many tests.

7. It forces us to admit that achievement gaps exist, persist, and grow over time.

      I will tell you what, Andy, I will give you this one. I will admit, lo and behold, that achievement gaps exist, persist and grow. I don't need a test to tell me that. I will also insist, however, that no amount of testing will change this fact. If we want to do more than track the persistence of achievement gaps, we know that we must first address the opportunity gap that is perpetuated by persistent inequity in this country.

8. It prevents schools from "hiding" less effective educators and programs in untested grades.

     So, Andy, we must subject kids to test after test so that schools will be forced to spread their less effective teachers around? It seems a little odd to punish children for the perceived misdeeds of the adults around them. Also, do you imagine that principals and all other teachers don't know and understand that a child's performance on a fourth grade test is the result of the teaching of every teacher that child has ever had? This sounds like just another way to push the test the kids and punish the teachers reform agenda.

Based on Smarick's list of benefits, I would have to conclude that standardized tests are vital to the advancement of the corporate education reform agenda, but not especially useful to students, parents and teachers. Used judiciously, periodic standardized testing can give schools some useful programmatic information. About three times in a student's career seems right. Schools, teachers and children would be better off by far, if the rest of our assessment energies were directed at authentic assessments conducted in the classroom, which yield information that can be acted on immediately.