Waving the White Flag on High-Stakes Testing

No surprise to see Senator Warren come out strong against it. But even some of the most dedicated high-stakes-testers have now issued a new “hypothesis” about the real relationship between testing and student achievement. Seems like we have turned yet another corner on yet another school-reform panacea. What have we learned?

warren on pbs

Senator Warren: Testing is not the answer…

First things first: Just like the new partisan split about charter schools, we are seeing a new era of “second thoughts” about the value of high-stakes testing. Politicians such as Elizabeth Warren are now firmly against it. As Senator Warren told the National Education Association,

Education is what goes on in the classroom; what a teacher has said is the goal. And when a kid gets there, it is a teacher who knows it. We do not need high-stakes testing.

Similarly, formerly enthusiastic billionaires have noticed that their earlier school-reform focus was far too simplistic. As Nick Hanauer finally noticed recently,

We have confused a symptom—educational inequality—with the underlying disease: economic inequality. Schooling may boost the prospects of individual workers, but it doesn’t change the core problem, which is that the bottom 90 percent is divvying up a shrinking share of the national wealth.

Now testing mavens such as Michael Petrilli are getting on board. As Petrilli admitted recently, it seems possible that high-stakes testing did not actually improve things for students. Rather, any gains students made in schools might have been due largely to

prevailing economic conditions at the time of a cohort of children’s birth (or shortly thereafter).

In other words, ambitious politicians, policy wonks, and philanthropists have finally admitted that their feverish promises did not bear fruit. Their plans to solve social problems by ramming through school reforms have proven—once again—overly simplistic and wildly exaggerated.

petrilli graph

Hmmm…what’s the connection?

Can we blame them? In a word, yes. As teachers such as Peter Greene have pointed out, there has never been a lack of evidence available to the testers. As Greene put it,

We told these folks, over and over and over and over and over. “Don’t use poverty as an excuse,” they said. “Just have higher expectations,” they said. “Better scores on standardized tests will end poverty,” they said. Also, “Better scores will save your job and your school.”

Even if the starry-eyed testers didn’t want to listen to teachers, they might have read a book. After all, historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued long ago that school reforms are worthy goals, but they tend to make the same mistakes over and over again.

As I’m finding out in my current research, too, this story is the oldest one out there. Back in the early 1800s, the first generation of urban school reformers in the United States found it out the hard way. They thought they had found a silver-bullet reform, one that would eliminate poverty in one generation. A new “system,” they believed, would enable a single teacher to teach a thousand low-income students efficiently and economically.

Guess what? It didn’t work. And ever since then, the story has repeated itself over and over.

It seems obvious, then, that there isn’t a good excuse for the latest generation of arrogant school reformers not to see it coming. For centuries, outside reformers have been telling themselves that they had discovered a new system, a new program, a new algorithm that would fix social inequality without upsetting social hierarchies.

tyack cuban tinkering

….makes it hard to plead ignorance.

It’s just not that simple. We know what works: Schools that are well-connected to the communities they serve, with adequate resources to know every student and provide incremental improvements for every student. We need enthusiastic, invested teachers, parents, and students. We need schools that treat families as community members, not customers or clients or guinea pigs.

Should schools always be “reforming”?—changing the way we do things for the better? Of course! But too often, outside “reformers” assume that they have found a single, simple improvement that will revolutionize school and society without demanding a significant investment.

So maybe it’s worth reprinting the list of reminders for school reformers. It’s not new and it’s not original. It has been around for two hundred years now. Yet we never seem to be able to profit from its hard-won lessons. So here it is: For those who think that charter schools, Teach For America, new union leadership, improved teacher pay, or high-stakes testing will provide a cheap shortcut to the hard work of school and social improvement, here are a few reminders from the past two centuries of school-reform plans:

  • Teachers are often part of the problem, but they are always most of the solution.
  • One change to schools will—by itself—never heal social issues such as poverty and inequality.
  • Any school reform that promises big results without big investments will probably disappoint.
  • Low-income families deserve a high-quality education, not a “chance” for a high-quality education.
  • And maybe the hardest one of all for ed-reform newbies to accept: Schools alone can’t fix society; schools are society.
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2 Comments

  1. Holding The Line In Florida

     /  July 12, 2019

    Great read and really one of those “I am Shocked!” moments. There is one big fly in the ointment however. Money. As long as the current philosophy (i.e. School Choice) is in place and the powers that be (both Republican and Democrat) see how they can milk the system for their personal enrichment, nothing will happen to restore sanity to our system.

    Reply
  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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