On Having One's Cake and Eating it Too, Part I

Someone smarter than me... I believe it was Mitch Hedberg or maybe Louis C.K., once quipped about how dumb the saying “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” is. The punchline goes “of course I want to eat  my cake--that’s the whole freaking point of cake! Why would you ever have cake if you weren’t planning to eat it.” This post is my attempt to have my cake and eat it too, or more precisely, it’s my attempt to thread the needle between the seemingly ever expanding standardized testing regime (which I sometimes resent) and the reactionary, often angry, anti-testing movement (which I find well-intentioned, yet often very problematic).

This is my view from the cheap seats of the “testing battle” (I hate using war metaphors in public education debates, but in this case I think it’s actually appropriate). It will probably end up unfolding over multiple posts, but any issue this important is worth deliberating, rather than sloganeering over.

I read a lot of education reporting and I often find myself nodding along with much of the anti-testing argument. But then suddenly, someone goes too far and I find myself uncomfortable with their rhetoric and the unintended consequences of their proposals. I believe there is too much standardized testing in our schools. Especially, in the spring time (a.k.a. testing season) testing is all consuming. It eats up valuable instructional time, is often redundant and produces little to no useful data for practitioners in the classroom. My wife, a sophomore English and junior AP Language teacher, has spent 30 class periods over the last 6 weeks proctoring SBA exams (both math and ELA) rather than teaching in her classroom. Many of her students have missed dozens more hours retaking/making up Algebra/Geometry & Biology EOCs [(End of Course Exams) more on the Biology EOC in a later post]. I find the case of her juniors in AP Language to be especially egregious: the vast majority of them passed the HSPE (the ELA graduation requirement) as sophomores. However, they were required to stop their preparation for their upcoming AP Language exam (a test for college credit), to take a pilot of 11th grade SBA exam. That is simply silly.

However, even given all of the preceeding, I support the annual testing of students using standardized tests to provide “apples to apples” data within schools and across systems about how students, especially, students of color and students in poverty are (or in far too many cases, are not) progressing.

Having my cake: NCLB is a poorly written law that has created havoc within public education and created punitive systems that stigmatize, rather than help schools, educators and students--especially those in high poverty communities.

Eating it too: testing as mandated by NCLB shines a bright light on the gaps that exists between various populations in our public school system. It has especially highlighted how poorly black students are being served by the system and we simply can’t go backward on that.

Testing tells us obvious things: a lot kids in Issaquah, whose parents work in IT, are really good at math, but it can also show us less obvious things, like that Mrs. Y really does an amazing job helping students “meet standard” in math while Mr. Z’s students, although all earning good grades, don’t really progress relative to the standards.

There are many educators out there who pride themselves on being “anti-testing”. They wear buttons, it’s in their social media bios, they make shirts, lots and lots of shirts. I do not count myself among their ranks. Far too often the unstated premise of their proclamations comes across (to me) as “because of circumstances outside of my control, poverty, instability, lack of home support, etc., my students can’t do it.” I simply and wholeheartedly reject that. The challenge before us is to acknowledge our students face obstacles and then to help them to best deal with those obstacles and progress despite adversity. Or as it was recently put in the Washington Post: The challenge is to educate kids despite poverty, rather than lament factors teachers don’t control.” I see too much of the latter, rather than the former in the current testing debate.

Keeping an Eye on Those Pesky Unintended Consequences

People who seek the abolition of standardized testing, knowingly or not, seek the abolition of system-wide data. Some educators talk about ZIP Code determinism. But if you really believe student outcomes are immutable and predetermined by geography, why do you even bother rolling out bed in the morning? I am not naive about class: obviously the children of lawyers and programmers are going to have a leg up on my students when it comes to testing and life outcomes, but that makes it all the more important that I help my students prepare to take the assessments (where the deck is already stacked against them), rather than buying into the “poor kids can’t fallacy.”

The removal of standardized testing, as some educators are calling for, would result in the removal of system-wide data on our progress in closing the Achievement/Opportunity (whatever we're calling it now) Gap. We can’t go backward in that fight. In the year 2015, we need more data on how students are progressing not less. Put differently, my issue isn’t with the existence of testing--it is with the quantity, usefulness, amount of building/system-wide energy testing consumes and the way testing warps the school calendar/pace of instruction in the spring.

We live in an era of data: I’m typing this while wearing a FitBit that tells me how many steps I have taken today (12,233, sadly down from 17,533 on Friday). I know my phone currently has 48% battery life and has been discharging since 2:07 p.m. I know my weight is currently 192.6 lbs, down from an all time high of 204 lbs (NYE 2013) and up from a recent low of 183 lbs (post-China July 2014). Among my friends, I can compare my steps, weight, active minutes and battery life to others through common measures.

In the same way that I track all of the above, I welcome insights into how my students perform relative to other students in the building and relative to other students in the district and state. If I am being 100% honest, the current system doesn’t quite provide me with what I want data wise, but removing it will take me further from that ideal, not closer.

I am frustrated (beyond description sometimes) with the testing calendar, but we need to take shears to it (a line-up if you will), not a hatchet.


Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia