Testing…Testing…

One of the things I like most about Bellwether is that learning is a byproduct of what we do here, so you’re always learning (by the way, we’re hiring). For a client project I just revisited Theda Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy. It’s about cross class civic organizations in America. Or, more precisely, how they have evolved from that. For our part of the world the PTA plays a role in Skocpol’s account. If you are concerned about some of the issues Michael Lind raised in The New Class War, then recommend. The tensions both books point up seem inescapable in our sector.

Once upon a time we looked to standardized tests as one way to address some of these issues of class and class mobility. The SAT was supposed to help create a genuine meritocracy and in K-12 tests were intended, since the 1990s, to create accountably for educating all students, especially those historically underserved. I’d recommend Nicholas Lemman’s Big Test and Malcom Gladwell’s article about Stanley Kaplan for some of the higher ed history. But, the reality is no one has ever been satisfied. In K-12 testing has been both complicated from a psychometric standpoint and tortured from a political one.

Checker Finn wrote recently about our need for a Space X kind of moment on K-12 testing and highlighted other calls for the same. I’m going to click on any education article with Space X in the headline (and perhaps it’s a sign we’ve moved on from “Sputnik moments,”) But this, too, seems awfully complicated.

I’ve long thought that part of the lack of testing innovation is a capital markets problem. It’s not a great market, contrary to popular belief and a lot of wild rhetoric. States, meanwhile, are at once easy marks, they’re required by federal law to do testing but also tough customers because meeting their varied specs is close to impossible. Depending how you read it the collapse of Imbellus is either an indication capital is not a problem, they raised a good bit, or an indication how difficult the market is from an innovation standpoint.

The federal effort in this area sort of makes the case for the latter. If we’re being honest no investor would have gone anywhere near either PARCC or Smarter Balanced, the two testing consortia that came of the Obama-era Race to the Top initiatives. For starters, it was impossible to tell who was in charge and any investor would have balked at the governance approach. One result, the test widely considered higher quality, PARCC*, was politically problematic. Yet some of the smaller federally funded testing initiatives have borne more fruit. Bonnie O’Keefe and I looked at that a few years ago.

The holy grail, it seems to me, remains K-12 tests that can yield good information for parents, teachers, and in aggregate for policymakers, about what students know and are able to do but is embedded in the day-to-day of schools in ways that make it less visible and intrusive.** In other words, teachers and students aren’t even aware assessment is happening because it’s not intrusive or very regular and rather is just part of the cadence. At any scale that’s obviously a tech enabled solution and there are some efforts to move that way now. But Elon Musk didn’t get rich tilting at just any windmill. Cars and space are lucrative.

So, we’re going to have to figure out how to get the incentives right in K-12 to move past where we are now or just making tests a little less awful by moving them online. And at some level the political problem remains the K-12 sector’s allergy to accountability, no test is going to address that. Some of the problem is politics not craft. Those though do seem like big worthy challenges in a field looking for directions to go.

*Past BW client. But don’t take my word for it, people associated with SBAC say the same thing privately.

**Everyone wants an end to “testing season.” I remember talking to a building leader while students were literally packed in a gym doing a stupid pep rally around the upcoming state test, and this person remarked about how the kids seemed really concerned about the upcoming test. No shit, really? Why is that do you think?

Music: In My Room covered. 

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