Blind Football Faith in Comparative Testing

To all the parents and policymakers out there who are anxious about the USA’s performance on recent PISA tests, I’ll quote Wisconsin’s St. Aaron Rogers: R-E-L-A-X. As progressive-ed guru Alfie Kohn, Curmudgucrat Peter Greene and  Yong Zhao of the University of Kansas all pointed out recently, there are plenty of reasons for calm. History tells us, though, that Americans won’t listen. Why not? The answer comes back to St. Aaron and Americans’ shared vision of what proper schooling should look like.

You probably heard the kerfuffle about the most recent international PISA scores. American kids as a whole did only okay. Most worrisome, rich kids improved while poor kids did worse. About 20% of American high-schoolers can read only at a fourth-grade level.

Time to panic? Not really.

As Alfie Kohn put it,

for whatever these comparisons (and the exams that drive them) are worth, U.S. students actually do reasonably well, contrary to popular belief. But it makes no more sense to talk about the “quality of American schools” than it does to talk about the quality of American air. An aggregate statistic is meaningless because test scores are largely a function of socioeconomic status. Our wealthier students perform very well when compared to other countries; our poorer students do not. And we have a lot more poor children than other industrialized nations do.

Peter Greene agreed. As he asked in Forbes Magazine,

PISA coverage tends to overlook one major question—why should anyone care about these scores? Where is the research showing a connection between PISA scores and a nation’s economic, political, or global success?

In the Washington Post, Yong Zhao offered three big reasons why these PISA scores should not be used as evidence of anything other than PISA performance itself:

First, there is no evidence to justify, let alone prove, the claim that PISA indeed measures skills that are essential for life in modern economies. Second, the claim is an imposition of a monolithic and West-centric view of societies on the rest of the world. Third, the claim distorts the purpose of education.

All solid reasons for calm. Yet it doesn’t take much savoir-faire to know that pundits won’t be calm. Anyone with a complaint about our current system of schooling will use these scores to warn that the sky is indeed falling and we need to invest in ______ [insert flavor-of-the-day reform/tech here].

We have to ask: Why won’t Americans heed the advice of these ed experts? Why won’t we simply ignore the results of a fairly meaningless test?

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, there is plenty of culture-war disagreement about what and how schools should be teaching. But there is widespread agreement about one thing. Throughout the twentieth century and into our twenty-first, everyone has largely agreed that one of the primary purposes of schooling is to fill kids with facts.

Although I agree with Yong Zhao that this is a “distorted and narrow definition of the purpose of schooling,” it is one that has persisted largely unquestioned throughout the history of education. Consider just a few pieces of historical evidence from our leading ed historians. (And one from me.)

testing wars in the public schoolsExhibit A: As William J. Reese demonstrated in his 2013 book The Testing Wars, back in the mid-1800s Boston reformers effected a sweeping revolution in schooling. How did they do it? By appealing to the public’s intuition that a standardized test would be a useful way—maybe the ONLY useful way—to evaluate teaching and learning.

Exhibit B: Twenty-plus years ago, Stanford’s David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued that high-stakes standardized tests often formed an unshakeable pillar of the “grammar of schooling.” As they put it, there is a tension between “Americans’ intense faith in education—almost a secular religion—and the gradualness of changes in educational practices.” One reason for that tension is that reformers have never been able to convince Americans that tests don’t matter, that learning could go on without ever-increasing SAT scores.

tyack cuban tinkering

Exhibit C: As I argued in The Other School Reformers, conservatives have had a lot of success in their arguments for more traditional classrooms. They have relied, historically, on both explicitly conservative arguments and on assumptions shared by people who are not particularly conservative. For example, they have often won political contests by insisting that only their preferred reforms could keep kids safe in school. That’s not a particularly conservative idea, but rather an assumption shared by most people. Similarly, conservatives have won by painting progressive reforms as an abandonment of traditional ideas of testing. Real schools, conservatives have insisted, are places that young people go to acquire knowledge they did not have before. And tests are the proper way to measure that process. This vision of the proper purpose of schooling may be “narrow and distorted,” but it is also extremely common, so common that most Americans don’t question it.

And that brings us back to St. Aaron. One way to understand Americans’ reluctance to relax about PISA scores might be familiar to lots of parents. We might want our kids to play sports just to have fun, get some exercise, and make friends. In most cases, however, those youth sports are also fiercely competitive.

If you wonder why it is so difficult for Americans to relax about PISA scores, just go to any youth soccer, football, or basketball tournament. Ask any parent in attendance if they know what the score is. Of any game. I’ll bet dollars to donuts no one will give you the answer that Alfie Kohn, or Peter Greene, or Yong Zhao, or I prefer. They won’t say, “Who knows? It’s only a game.” They won’t say, “We’re only here to promote social bonding among youth.” They won’t say, “We don’t keep score, because that would be a meaningless way to put unnecessary competitive pressure on our kids.”

No. Go to any game anywhere. Try to explain to the person sitting next to you why you don’t care about the score. Even if you’re Aaron Rodgers, you will get nothing but mean looks and sullen silence. And that’s why PISA scores will continue to matter. Despite experts’ best efforts, most Americans still view test scores as a fair measure of educational quality. And most Americans will want to win.