On Standardized Testing

My friend and colleague Jen Whetham sent me a note recently, along with a link to a segment from John Oliver’s HBO series, Last Week Tonight, with these comments:

“So my feelings about this piece are complex.  Clearly, John Oliver is brilliant—particularly the repetition of “here comes the monkey.”  And it’s poignant . . . the section about the testing booklets coming with instructions about what to do if a student vomits on them makes my heart hurt, as does the young woman who cries during the testimony of her experience.  And, of course, Nathan Hale’s [High school, in Seattle] juniors are mentioned, as is the search for graders on Craig’s List.

I feel like a lot of folks will watch this (and probably send it to me) and consider it the last word on SmarterBalanced and as further evidence to conflate their opposition to standardized testing in general (as well as the concerns about the overuse of testing . . . and testing driving instruction, as opposed to a more reciprocal/aligned relationship)—as opposed to using it as a springboard for a deeper, richer conversation…”

My first reaction is that it’s important to keep in mind that our longstanding American obsession with standardized testing may have accelerated under President Bush and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 but has been around since the early 1900’s. The obsession and resulting paranoia on the part of educators is an easy target for a comic, and of course he’s going mostly for laughs–that’s his job, after all. It’s all just critique by anecdote, and there are plenty of examples of silly behavior on the part of school administrators at all levels, or at least behavior that’s easy enough to portray as silly when it’s taken completely out of context. ​That said, there’s not really all that much I’d argue with in the substance underlying what Oliver presents. As a society we ARE too obsessed with tests, we put too much stock in the results, we DO often use the results in inappropriate ways, and we seem to think that we can measure our way to improvement, as if somehow an inevitably imprecise understanding of something as complex as student learning will magically lead to improved results. 

A few additional observations worth mentioning:

1) Besides the brief jokey references to the “opt out” business, the piece really had nothing to say about the new Common Core assessments, Smarter Balanced or PARCC, and nothing at all to do with the substance or format of either assessment; 

2) Oliver frames the argument at the beginning and the end with a reference to the poor performance–and persistent achievement gaps–by US students on TIMSS and PISA, which are (yes, you guessed it!) standardized tests, so apparently “international” standardized tests are inherently good and worth paying attention to, others inherently bad and terribly harmful to kids and other living things;

3) Not that I would necessarily expect a comic to do so, but as with most critiques like this, there were no alternatives proposed or answers given–if these particular assessments aren’t useful as a broad educational measuring stick, what should policymakers and the public use instead? 

4)  The deeper issue is that collectively as a society we seem to not trust teachers or teacher grades, at least in general, so these tests become an “objective” way of understanding what learning has occurred and how the system is doing. (In a recent hearing about the bill that references our transition courses as a senior-year alternative for students who don’t meet standard on the 11th grade Smarter Balanced, the League of Education Voters testified against the bill because the courses couldn’t possibly be as “rigorous” as the “objective” test results. (The fact that “objectivity” doesn’t really exist in any of these tests is a nuance completely lost on most people, sadly…)

5) The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights recently released a statement opposing the anti-testing efforts springing up around the country, reflecting that in communities of color there’s a general understanding that the intent, at least, of these efforts is to address equity issues. I was particular struck by this point:

“When parents ‘opt out’ of tests—even when out of protest for legitimate concerns—they’re not only making a choice for their own child, they’re inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child.”

 I’ve wondered if there’s any evidence of a connection between the parents having their students refuse to take these tests and those parents refusing to get their children vaccinated, and this quote suggests the underlying parallel: vaccination is as much about “herd immunity” as it is about individual vaccination, and opting out of the tests has a corrosive impact on the school community as a whole–it’s not just an individual choice, principled or not​. For many parents in affluent white communities, of course, education is a “zero sum game,” so any efforts to address equity means, or at least could mean, less resources for their own high-achieving kids). I’ve also gotten several inquiries from parents and schools in response to our efforts here to use the Smarter Balanced assessment suggesting that there’s a general perception that these assessments are “harder” than previous assessments and they worry that if their kid takes it it will affect college admissions somehow.  

It would be great if we could find a civil way to have the broader conversation about the common good that we should be having here instead of railing about the tests as if the issues around standardized testing were new, and portraying them to be much more consequential than the actual evidence suggests (see this posting from The Hechinger Report, for instance). But if we’re going to do that, let’s at least make sure we ground the conversation in evidence, not cherry-picked anecdotes, and let’s not leave it to satirists, even brilliant ones, to lead the debate…

 

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