Education Reform and Testing
The New York Times published an editorial that defended student testing and made controversial statements, such as the following:
Groups that dislike standardized tests — and teacher accountability systems based on them — are blaming both for the cheating problem. But that’s like blaming the biopsy that turns up evidence of serious disease.
Yearly testing, required by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, is the cornerstone of the school reform effort. It allows districts to know which reforms are working and which are not. And it is the only way to ensure that poor and minority children are being taught to meet the same standards as their affluent and white counterparts.
To most people, this is a reasonable position. We spend a lot of money in this country educating students and we want to see that it is spent well, i.e. that it’s improving our substandard scores. However, some of the readers of the NYT disagree quite strongly. From the letters page:
Testing is fine as long as it has no high-stakes results; test scores along with other information help us know what reforms are working, as the editorial points out. But once these tests are linked to high-stakes consequences, like teacher pay, tenure or the closing of schools, the results are no longer dependable for diagnostic purposes, either for schools or individual students.
This phenomenon has more recently been borne out by the rapid state test score inflation that has occurred throughout the nation since No Child Left Behind was instituted, with the results on state exams increasingly diverging from the more reliable results of the no-stakes national exams, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Not surprisingly, the writer is the executive director of a group called “Class Size Matters”. Notice how she appears to be reasonable in the beginning (“Testing is fine as long as…”) but backtracks immediately by saying there must be nothing at stake. Given the name of the group she represents, this is not surprising. Judging from the name, she probably wants class sizes to go down, i.e. hire more teachers. But, what if hiring more teachers does nothing measurable to improve student performance? It’s easy to see why she opposes testing, because if hiring more teachers ends up wasting money, the reasonable thing to do would be to get rid of the additional teachers and use that money for something that does improve student performance. Of course, she would never allow that to happen.
Another writer has this to say:
Although the intense pressures on teachers don’t justify cheating, they certainly make it understandable. What would you do if your professional life and livelihood depended on students’ test scores, and the little demons wouldn’t come to school regularly, do their homework or even pay attention in class?
The only moral course of action left in these twisted times of test scores as king is nonviolent resistance on a grand scale: the faculties of entire schools and districts should teach what is best for their students and not waste time on test prep; refuse merit pay; let parents know that tests are not the true measure of their children’s knowledge; and stand together against all unfair dismissals of their colleagues.
Of course, the only moral course in response to her “nonviolent resistance” is to hold per capita pupil spending and teacher pay constant until she and her colleagues change their minds. Her dislike of testing is a little baffling, if you remove the self interest of the educators themselves. What is “the true measure of their children’s knowledge”? Is it quantifiable or can it be defined? If not, how is someone supposed to manage it? For that matter, why do teachers give tests at all? Teachers are presumably OK with giving their own tests; why not a test that is independently created and graded?
This is all very disheartening. As I’ve said in the past, education reform won’t mean anything until the system is uprooted and the likes of these are ignored.