The “Test and Punish” Trap

An old theme of education debates has grown increasingly incessant in recent months, most recently in a resolution at the annual AFT convention: Rather than a “test-and-punish” approach to education reform, we need “support and improve” approach that shifts focus from testing, labeling, and punishing  schools and educators to providing them with support to improve.

This argument seems designed to infuriate supporters of standards-based reform. The primary cause of this fury is inaccuracy: As the New America Foundation’s Anne Hyslop eloquently noted in a recent column,

the “punish” part of “test-and-punish” doesn’t exist. At least not right now. Thanks to the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers, there don’t have to be stakes, for anyone, on upcoming state tests. None.”

Yet for all of the explanations that NCLB hasn’t resulted in large scale “punishment” of educators and schools; that NCLB includes no financial penalties for low-performing schools but in fact gives them additional money; that the number of teachers who’ve lost their jobs as a result of NCLB ranges from precious few to nil—I can’t help but thinking of this paragraph from Nixonland:

“Nixon himself had voted exactly as [liberal Congressman] Marcantonio had in the triple digits himself. Douglas tried to point this out. It didn’t matter. The explanations were complicated. The smear was simple.….This was not the time for nuance.” (emphasis and link added)

Supporters of standards-based reform can argue until they’re blue in the face that the “punish” aspect of “test-and-punish” is largely a myth. But they can’t win the argument when a significant subject of the audience believes that “testing” inherently means “punishment.” In the screwed up dynamics of our current education reform debate, the very act of trying to objectively measure student learning is seen as penalizing students and teachers.

This has created a major liability for proponents of standards-based reform. Yet it also demonstrates the bankruptcy of arguments for “support and improve” as an alternative to “test and punish.”

Proponents of “support and improve” may claim that they are simply calling for fairer ways of measuring school performance, for increased support for educators, and for more comprehensive responses to the range of challenges that face children living in poverty. Yet the subtext of their rhetoric, and the underlying sentiment within their base of support, is that objectively measuring school performance constitutes punishing educators.

And this is dangerous.

The belief that it is possible to objectively measure the results of actions, to make judgments, and to adjust future behavior based on that measurement, is the foundation of modern scientific progress. To be sure, education is far more complex than many areas of human endeavor and inquiry. Yet when we mistake this complexity for immeasurability, we are in trouble.

Whatever the faults—and they are real—of current systems of standards and assessment, they provide a common frame of reference for understanding what it happening in education, and useful tools for improvement. Commonly understood, objective measures allow us to identify gaps and areas in need of improvement, to make informed decisions about where and how to focus our efforts, to gauge progress over time, and to identify successful models from which to learn.

Without some objective measures to frame our understanding, and provide a common ground for discussion and action, we are left with the subjective forces of emotion, sentiment, and affinity to guide our judgments and decisions.  This why the narrative of “test and punish” has gained the force of fact despite the objective reality that few educators or schools have actually been “punished” under current accountability regimes. When subjective perception and experience become the sole arbiter of truth, the objective reality of punishment (or lack thereof) matters less than individuals’ subjective perceptions that they are being persecuted.  Until supporters of standards-based accountability fully confront this narrative—not just by noting the lack of punishment, but by engaging the emotional realities at play and offering viable counter-narratives—they will be on the losing end of this debate.

–Sara Mead

15 Replies to “The “Test and Punish” Trap”

  1. The problem with your logic is that it is divorced from reality.
    Real world, test and punish is rampant.
    Perhaps you and supporters should ask themselves how they could have been so wrong on the eve of NCLB, and that will help you understand why you are missing the far more destructive test and punish reality of today. You all don’t realize that the feces rolls downhill. Test and punish at the top, and it will flow down on teachers and students.

  2. Sara,

    Great piece. I think that you are spot on about K-12 testing. As I was reading I couldn’t help but think about the perception of AP exams in contrast to NCLB testing. Even with their flaws, these tests are often lauded rigorous tests that help determine if a student is prepared for college. However, at the end of the day it is still a test that assesses a student on a single day with a “punishment” (if you don’t pass, you don’t credit).

    My sense is that the more positive perception of AP tests is partly due to inertia – they’ve simply been around for so long and many parents are familiar with them. I also think that because AP exams were implemented in a time with very little accountability for educational outcomes they were more accepted. I think if AP exams were introduced they would face many of the same criticisms that NCLB tests face.

  3. Punishing educators based on the scores their students get on standardized tests is very common. Michelle Rhee famously punished a principal for low test scores by firing him on national television.

    Both Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers require states to to punish teachers whose students get low scores on standardized tests by giving them low performance ratings. These job ratings are usually linked to further punishment in the form of diminished pay and a loss of job security.

  4. For me, this piece is a jaw-dropper. Occasionally I get lulled into thinking that there may be a middle ground between the reformers and the rest of us, but then I read something like this and realize how far we are apart. Perhaps one of the factors accounting for this difference is how teacher professionalism and autonomy are viewed. In my city the schools that do poorly on AYP are required to adopt a wide range of programs without any teacher input. The programs are often scripted, often inappropriate for the population, often lacking research support. One example would be requiring ninth grade language arts teachers to use a reading program intended for third graders. Now, one could say, “Well, that’s not the fault of the tests, that’s the fault of the administrators,” but the administrators do it because of the tests. The school is failing so the teachers must be incompetent. I can’t count how many times people have said to me, “I used to love teaching and now I can hardly make myself go through door.” Reformers often undervalue the importance of treating teachers like professionals.

  5. August: “Professionals” don’t have unions. I completely agree that teachers need to be treated with more respect, and, in cases where it is warranted, be paid more. But one of the hallmarks of “professionalism” is that you are held accountable for your performance. If I fail to perform as expected as a lawyer or a doctor, I get fired. If I perform in an exemplary manner, I (can) be rewarded. Teachers cannot reasonably expect to be treated like professionals as long as they insist on hiding behind a union who fights tooth and nail against accountability and differentiation. You cannot have your cake and eat it too.

  6. Eton,
    Who says professionals don’t have unions?
    Is that a law carved in stone up in Heaven? Have you seen that commandment?

  7. The “punish” part of the testing and accountability system in some states is hardly limited to the federal component. From students who are unable to be promoted or graduate to informal (and increasingly formal) evaluation of teachers and administrators to the social/peer costs of being a school or district with low scores, the consequences are far from minimal.

    One may have a fruitful discussion about whether those consequences are deserved. But to ignore them seems to deny reality.

  8. Here are some links that Sara Mead and her “wonkish” readers may find useful. Mind you, these links give information about a public school system in just one major American city. I’m sure “test and punish” is “largely a myth” in Philadelphia, and Detroit and Los Angeles and New York and Cleveland and the state of Florida, just as it is “largely a myth” in Chicago.

    The first two links detail the 104 Chicago Public Schools that were closed or “repurposed” during the NCLB/RttT era of 2002-2012.

    Note that the reason stated for many of the closures is “poor performance,” and for many others it is “low enrollment”–though a little investigating for those with inquisitive minds will unearth how the CPS board can create “low enrollment” schools via the kind of “test and punish” policies that “wonks” like Sara Mead and Annie Hyslop assure us “[don’t] exist.”

    What a jokefest.

    This final link includes info about 49 schools that the CPS board voted to close at a 2013 meeting after the above list of 104 school closures was published.

  9. Actually sitting in a NYS Focus District training session right this minute – talk about test and punish – we are living August’s contention that certain kids are failing therefore the entire district is failing and all the admins and tchrs are incompetent. We have amazing things going on in our district but because of the fact that we’re low socioeconomic and rural and take more time to reach standards with our students, we must not know what we’re doing so state ed people must know more than we do and thus tell us how we must do things in order to be considered “effective”….

  10. Eton,
    Nope. You have opinions on unions, accountability, differientiation etc. There is an overwhelming body of evidence against those opinions, but that’s not the point. The point is reformers want to dump those opinions on our schools. Unions are necessary to promote reality-based solutions and protect kids and teachers against those opinions you call reform

  11. The stronger the profession (e.g. medicine, law) the stronger their associations (American Medical Association, American Bar Association). Teaching is still evolving as a profession but in time the National Education Association will be as strong as the other organizations. People who know their history understand that legislators have only allowed teachers to bargain for money and benefits (hence the term “union”) but in the future it will morph into a much more powerful organization that will allow teachers to control who enters and remains in the profession, just as doctors and lawyers do now.

    Never underestimate the political power of schoolteachers. Stand by as they prevent Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie from reaching the presidency. They’re likely sorry already that they trashed the people who teach and PROTECT the nation’s children.

    Americans are not stupid.

  12. A comment i wrote with links to substantiate my claims has been “awaiting moderation” for almost a full day so I’ll summarize without the links: Between 2002-2012, 104 Chicago Public Schools were closed or “repurposed.” Many were closed due to “poor performance”–which is, of course, code for “low standardized test scores.” Others were closed due to “low enrollment,” but a little research can show how some low enrollment CPS schools have lost students because their low test scores have prompted the board to invest in other schools and ignore the needs of certain “low performing” schools so as to make those “low enrollment” schools easier to close.

    Then in 2013, the unelected CPS school board announced that they would be closing 49 more schools.

    The management of the Chicago Public School system in the era of NCLB and RttT stands as at least one example of how “test and punish” is not merely a myth, no matter what “wonks” like Ms. Mead and Ms. Hyslop contend.

    And closing schools is only the most extreme type of punishment. The types of soul-crushing, morale-sapping “professional development” and school improvement plans mentioned by Pat and August above are a more subtle but more pervasive outgrowth of the “test and punish” approach.

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