Politics Of Testing

So there is now some back and forth about the recent Maryland test scores that is reminiscent of the back and forth about the New York test scores (speaking of which, they’re still arguing about New York City down below).    Again, transparency would really help here.

But this raises a bigger question: Let’s assume for a moment that Maryland, New York state, and a host of other places have all gamed their scores.  And let’s assume that states regularly try to game the system to make themselves look better.   Can someone explain exactly how a national, federal, or “American” in the new parlance, test will be any different?  If indeed there is a political pathology out there to make schools look better, regardless of whether they are better, a proposition that seems pretty spot on to me, then how are the politics somehow so radically different at the national level?  National test proponents have never really answered this question except to point to the NAEP.  But, the NAEP is a no-stakes test right now so it really doesn’t make the point.

11 Responses to “Politics Of Testing”

  1. Robert Pondiscio Says:

    Maybe I’m dense, it’s Monday, and the coffee hasn’t kicked in, but isn’t this obvious? Self-assessment is non-assessment. If you put the people with the most at stake in charge of creating and administering the assessment, you get a race to the bottom. So you have to take the ability to create that assessment and put it in third-party hands. The mere existance of a single standard instead of 50 should ensure better data. Wasn’t that precisely your point about NCLB when you wrote that “any reasonable accountability system is going to identify a lot of schools as needing to do better”?

    Also, the fact that NAEP is “no stakes” is a strength not a weakness. A test that kids and teachers don’t spend months practicing for is likely to yield better data than one which is endlessly gamed.

  2. john thompson Says:

    Gaming the system will always be with us. I wouldn’t call it pathology – if for no other reason that the demonization of our opponents/colleaugues is counter-productive.

    I agree with Robert that the low stakes of NAEP is a strenght. But I don’t see how his appeal for national standards would have benefits in the foreseeable future for poor states and districts. Did you see the Washington Post account of the last minute efforts of a superintendent to make payroll? More and more schools in this climate will be depending on the kindness of strangers, or like in that story a personal relationship with a banker, to muddle though. I’m willing to support National Standards, but we shouldn’t delude ourself about its practical potential over the next decades or generations. (I think the strongest argument for national standards is that we need to start now in order to have an aspirational goal, and down the road there is no telling what benefits could accrue. Its like building the railroads or cable infrasturucture, someday it will provide a foundation.)

    So why not take advantage of accountability systems that exist? The National Board process has a system for the use of “evidence.” Numbers alone are not evidence. Numbers tied to an arguemnt are. It is modeled on the judicial system’s use of evidence, though obviously not as detailed. Data used in a rifle-shot manner to document/illustrate behavior can be a powerful accountability tool. Those tools are useless under NCLB today, but they could be essential in creating an accountable Marshall Plan for training teachers and principals. They could be essential in ending drive-by evaluations through the Toledo Plan or other plans that could efficently remove the 10% of our most ineffective educators.

    You and Kevin Carey are absolutely right in asserting that it is not hard to identify failing schools and teachers. So let’s light some candles and not curse the darkness of humans’ behavior. Its not hard to identify people and schools that don’t belong in education, so let’s concentrate on fair and sustainable approachs to documenting educational ineffectiveness so that we can efficiently act.

  3. John Says:

    I believe I’ve heard Checker Finn say that NAEP should stay as it is to serve as an “external audit,” while a separate national test would be created for accountability purposes. I’d also argue that the temptation to water down a national test would be less because the people who could suffer politically (i.e. governors/mayors/state departments of education) by weak scores are farther away from the creation of that test.

  4. Rebecca Damas Says:

    There must be national standards, and by extension national tests, for the data to mean anything or to be of any use. Comparisons of NAEP scores and state scores show just how easy some states’ tests are. That said, as long as there is only one influential metric of accountability, it will be subject to corruption, something known as Campbell’s law. I often wonder if we can’t simply rely on the multiple sets of data we already collect to evaluate schools: uniformly calculated graduation rates, SAT and ACT scores and participation rates, AP and IB participation rates and scores, college attendance rates, and college completion rates. It’s not as if the data that has resulted from NCLB has revealed anything new to us. We have known for a long time which schools, districts and states are effective at educating their students and which aren’t.

  5. john thompson Says:

    I’d be thrilled to concede the point on National Standards, if we could take a realistic approach to test-based accountability and Cambell’s Law.

  6. Patricia Tomlinson Says:

    As a National Board Certified Teacher, I actually do support an independent national test as well as national standards. I am a bit concerned to still see how we, as individual states, continue to be unwilling to accept education as a national issue rather than a local issue as far as standards are concerned. I think if we go the national route with testing then all school districts must participate which does not happen with the NAEP. That of course does lead to money issues. What is happening today with No Child Left Behind has led to this rampant fear surrounding test results.
    Look, I know there are supposedly many “ineffective” teachers out there who are not qualified for the jobs they do. However, I’ve been teaching since 1976 with many different types of teaching experiences, and I’ve not encountered large numbers of teachers who need to be shown the door. There are those who simply are not prepared well enough for the reality of the classroom. That falls upon teacher education programs and lack of mentoring for new teachers. There are many people who look through windows of classrooms and see what they see, but do not actually come inside on a regular basis to really see what they see.

  7. Dana Says:

    Patricia,

    Thanks for your response to this topic. I am a second year teacher and I feel the same way you do. I always wondered why all states do not give the same test. It would create a base for America and not just compare states who are not teaching the same thing. Why is education a national issue when it come to NCLB, but not when we need to see results across states.
    I see in my school at least that the mass majority of teachers are there for students to learn and get their best from school. There are a few whose joy for education has dwindled, but deep down it is still there. Thank you!

  8. Patricia Tomlinson Says:

    Thanks, Dana for your reply.
    I agree with you there are those who have lost the joy for teaching in the current teaching environment. About two years ago I left a school where the joy was just squashed by administrative personnel who were determined to treat their most experienced and successful teachers in most disrespectful ways. Administrators who had no experience teaching children how to read or develop beginning math skills I knew I could no longer remain in that environment. Several of my peers also left and a few sadly left the profession. These were teachers who were dedicated and highly qualified. I ended up in a school district where teachers are respected and administrators are very supportive. I am a lucky teacher.
    I know it is hard to stomach, but education is a political issue which I feel has led to much of the angst that school districts are going through during these times. Many of our representatives have begun their careers as school board members. One was even a president. (Jimmy Carter)

  9. Rebecca Damas Says:

    Hi Patricia,
    If NAEP tests were to replace state tests, I imagine that it would be much cheaper overall to administer the number of tests that are currently administered by states. It would cost the federal government a lot more, but individual states would save millions of dollars each. Pearson, Harcourt, ETS, etc. have reaped great profits by developing and scoring state tests, and I’m willing to bet that their lobbyists are a greater impediment to national standards and national tests than ideological differences about local control of curriculum. I would love to see a constitutional amendment that would make the setting of standards and the testing of educational achievement and a federal responsibility.

  10. Rebecca Damas Says:

    Hi Patricia,
    If NAEP tests were to replace state tests, I imagine that it would be much cheaper overall to administer the number of tests that are currently administered by states. It would cost the federal government a lot more, but individual states would save millions of dollars each. Pearson, Harcourt, ETS, etc. have reaped great profits by developing and scoring state tests, and I’m willing to bet that their lobbyists are a greater impediment to national standards and national tests than ideological differences about local control of curriculum. I would love to see a constitutional amendment that would make the setting of standards and the testing of educational achievement a federal responsibility.

  11. Patricia Tomlinson Says:

    Hi, Rebecca,
    Your comments make a great deal of sense regarding the power of lobbyists. I didn’t even consider that when thinking about this issue.

    Thanks for your input!

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