Testing: Eating Cake, Threading Needles and Other Tortured Metaphors, Part III

When I wrote Part I, I had no idea that it would be as widely read as it was. It was popular on FB, tweeted nearly a hundred times and spawned very thoughtful response pieces from two other ed blogs. The vast majority of the responses were positive or proposed thoughtful questions and angles that I had not considered or had ignored. Sure, there were reactionary chirps from some, but overall the feedback was supportive of if not my viewpoint, at least my willingness to wade into the tricky ed policy waters. But of all the responses I received, the most important (to me) came from a coworker at Lincoln.

We are setting students up for failure if we ask them to sit for 3+ hours taking a high stakes test which they haven’t received content for.  When students ask me about the SBAC I am honest with them and say it’s an unfair assessment.  For my juniors in pre-calculus they have a leg up on the juniors in second year algebra – who by the way are not “behind” in math.  Juniors, who for whatever reason are a level or more behind in math, shouldn’t be slapped in the face with a high stakes test, especially since they have their senior year to earn their three years math credit (another graduation requirement).  It’s funny that teaching is all about differentiated instruction, but we use standardized tests.  The least we can do is differentiate the tests to meet students at the content they are learning.  

One of the biggest problems in education policy discourse is a deepening polarization; it mirrors the trench warfare that has made our Congress, and increasingly state governments, such a mess. People identify with their factions rather than policies or ideas and instead of working to build consensus, they moralize endlessly, prattling on about the corruption of the other side. Reformers blame teachers for social conditions that are beyond their control and stigmatize entire communities with wrongheaded “A-F grading schemes” and labels like "Failing School." Meanwhile, within the teaching profession grows a bitter, concerningly nihilistic, hell no, rump faction that resembles House Republican Caucus in their demeanor and intransigence.

One of the most damaging consequences of polarization is that the polarized see compromise and sometimes even a willingness to discuss matters with the other side as a capitulation or betrayal. Vitriol and condescension will fire up a crowd, but they won't help Maria learn to read, write or calculate. It's really the hidden shame of our profession. I've often thought to myself that if “Mr. X” was as good at teaching, pre-service teacher prep or supporting great teaching as they are at demonizing, sloganeering and heckling, then we'd have the solutions to what ails us in K-12 and a school system worth of our students potential.

Clarifying the Issues at Hand: It is within this context that I have spent the last month or so trying to thread the policy needle and propose a sensible solution to the issues of collecting student performance data and growing opposition to standardized testing. For those just joining the conversation, I see the problem as two fold:

Problem 1. Standardized testing is damaging the academic experience of many students: the current testing regimen is punitive to teachers & students and drastically disrupts the school calendar & student learning. Testing costs far more than it should (especially in a period of alleged austerity) and provides teachers with little to no actual useful information to improve their practice. Many teachers have been saying this for years and the "Opt-Out" movement is the natural (and arguably inevitable) consequence of long-ignored frustration within the profession.

Problem 2. Data on academic progress is a civil rights issue: This framing was absent in Part I, or at least not fully formulated. In the interim, I have become acquainted with the writing of @CitizenStewart and his perspective on testing data and its importance particularly to the Black Community. The following passage from his post entitled The Civil Wrongs Movement encapsulates the issue clearly:

Testing students each year helps education leaders monitor progress districts and schools make toward getting student groups (especially marginalized students) to meeting standards year over year. Teachers get a steady feedback loop from other data streams, including many they devise themselves, throughout the year to inform their teaching…. Our historic fight for advancements in jobs, housing, education, and justice systems has always been bolstered by using data, exposing racialized gaps, and forcing government and society to change the negative numbers by executing affirmative interventions. That is traditionally how we’ve won.

Communities that send their children to learn under the tutelage of professionals in publicly funded schools are owed some sort of data and feedback on how both their children and the system overall is progressing. And although many teachers argue differently, "Tammy got a C+ in math" isn't good enough of an indicator for many of them. Much like how the #BlackLivesMatter movement is demanding more data on how officers in various municipalities are serving or not serving the community, the NAACP, UNCF, Urban League, National Council of La Raza, and numerous other legacy civil rights organizations demand and deserve data on academic progress in closing the achievement gap and test scores are the crude proxy that we have. The test is an imperfect, a sometimes cruel approximation of student understanding, but having statewide poetry slams, science fairs or seminars on the merits of Federalism, Separation of Powers and Checks & Balances isn’t practical.

One of the most frequently raised arguments against testing that I come across is that testing is not an accurate measure of "the whole child," or their “real worth.” I agree, but no one (no one worth listening to anyway) is arguing that it is. Testing is a crude approximation: there are many people who received excellent scores on the Bar Exam who I wouldn't want to represent me in court; there are people with marginal MCAT scores that save lives in communities all around the world and there are students with off the chart SAT scores that bomb out of college every year. Much like how my FitBit (the analogy from Part I) uses an accelerometer (not a pedometer) to approximate my steps, testing gives an approximation (for the public) of how schools are progressing. To put the crudeness of testing in context: every year I have students who deeply understand and can reason, write and critically discuss issues about government authority, surveillance and problems within our democratic institutions, but who fail the AP Exam. But, I’ve never had a student who didn't perform well for me or a student who never passed my projects “magically” pass the exam. The test imperfectly reflects what’s happening in my room.

And Finally Solutions (note: these ideas are based on the context here in Washington State. My state is the context I know the best. It is very likely there may be bells that can’t be unrung where you are).

No test scores in teaching evals. Standardized test scores, especially those using voodoo proprietary formulas, should not be a factor in calculating teaching evaluations. This week I was in Fort Scott, Kansas and I heard horror stories about evaluations for PE teachers being tied to schoolwide 4th grade reading scores (ahem, Florida). Standardized test scores can/should be used as indicators of successes or concerns (verification or yellow caution lights, if you will), but not the end-all and be-all, and certainly not 30%-50% or any predetermined portion of a teaching evaluation.

In practical terms, for example, if as part of the narrative about my teaching, my evaluator includes anecdotes about how my students perform on AP my exams (improving, but plenty of room for growth) or if data shows that students in “Mrs. V’s” class are outperforming other teachers in the building 3:1 (and apples to apples comparison can be made between their rooms) this can lead to helpful conversations and more intentional planning of PD. But saying, "Hey, Mr. J only 72% of your students passed the [insert state test] last year, but your expected pass rate based on [insert name of some model] was 84%, so this year you can only be designated as proficient, rather than distinguished,” (as many states do) is rubbish.

Eliminate redundant exams and shorten existing ones. The testing calendar is out of control; it is demoralizing to students (and teachers) and eats up valuable instructional time. We need to eliminate redundancy and reduce the number of exams that students are asked to take, especially the number required for high school graduation.

This week the Washington State Legislature is debating what to do with the 2,000+ seniors who have met all the other graduation requirements: credits, math EOC exams, HSPE/SBAC/CoE (math & ELA), 13th year plans, but have not passed the Bio EOC and therefore can’t get their diplomas. I really don’t have a strong opinion either way about what the state should do. But I will say that every legislator who voted for the Bio EOC to be a graduation requirement owes the public an explanation of why withholding diplomas from otherwise worthy students is of some societal benefit. Students in Washington are required to pass more exams to graduate than students in any other state. Someone has to be number one, but I wish it was someone else.

Similarly, I was floored this year when I found out that students who have taken both the Algebra and Geometry EOCs here in Washington (only one of which is a requirement to graduate) were still asked to take the math SBAC. Additionally, in Tacoma, all seniors took the SAT and all juniors the PSAT. If those same students chose to go to one of our local community colleges they were then asked to take either the Accuplacer or a Compass Placement exam. Madness. That's six different measurements (and over 20 hours testing) of basically the same thing.

The day that several states adopted the PARCC and others adopted the SBAC the dream of a national test died. The SBAC can be shortened for Washington (and if not shortened, a teacher at my school suggested moving it to Saturday). Math EOC scores can be accepted in lieu of math SBAC scores. Community colleges can accept "Demonstrated Proficiency" on any of the other exams as metric for placement, rather than Compass and Accuplacer scores. None of this is rocket science, it just takes communication and intentional collaboration between K-12 and higher ed.

I mean come on, the test to determine whether you are proficient at any single grade level should not be longer than a Bar Exam. We can create assessments, linked to the CCSS, NGSS, (insert your own SS) that indicate where a student is on a continuum from way below grade level to somewhere quite above grade level. These assessments don’t have to be insanely expensive, overly complicated and should be able to be completed in one or two class periods, rather than the five days (2xs) it took to administer each SBAC (math and ELA), at many schools this year.

Empower teachers by shifting power from testing companies to educators. Teachers are demoralized. If you were paying careful attention in the last paragraph, you may have noticed the term “WE” was used in talking about the creation of the exams. Currently, my FB timeline has several different articles slamming the “$18 an hour wedding planners and other under-employed people” who are scoring the SBAC exam. Critics of testing have rightfully cited the exorbitant costs associated with the corporate testing. People within the K-12 system simply have lost faith in ETS, Pearson and the assorted conglomerates that create and profit from all the testing. I am an unapologetic believer in teacher-led policy and teacher-generated solutions and in this case, I believe we are the cure to what ails us.

If tomorrow I was given the power, I’d commission a group of teacher leaders to create the exams for my state. I would shift the duty of designing state exams from unknown figures at various testing companies to noted and notable educators. My state Board of Ed would create commissions of highly regarded, highly experienced, AND ethnically diverse classroom teachers to write exams for the state and like the College Board does with the AP Exams, they would hire and compensate other highly regarded content area teachers to score them. Writing and scoring common assessments is one of the more valuable PD experiences teachers can have. It is a much better use of taxpayer dollars to release teachers from their classrooms (or create TOSA, Teacher on Special Assignment positions) to create exams aligned with the CCSS (or whatever standards) than to pay undisclosed billions of dollars to McTest and ExamKing.  

Here’s the Catch--There’s Always a Catch or a FewI really get both sides of this. I am a good tester and deep down in my heart, I think as an AP teacher I have grown fond of having a national exam/universal final to have my students shoot for at the end of the year. At the same time, I care way more about the projects my students create and the service learning they do. Those tasks are much better indicators of what they know, what they can do and how amazing they are as people.

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive policy document--most of it was written while sitting in the Kansas City Airport, waiting to go home after a weeklong fellowship. This conversation isn’t over and yes and there are numerous things I am leaving out, but I believe that these three steps: reducing stakes for teachers, reducing redundancy for students and empowering teachers rather than testing companies, would help resolve many of the issues around testing, while providing the community with the data they deserve.

I should have said this earlier, probably in paragraph one of Part I, but this is really a high school and middle school conversation I am having. I’ve heard nightmare stories about testing in elementary schools: “it takes up so much time,” “kids have no idea what the overly complicated directions mean and I am unable to help,” “the kids started crying in the testing room or at home.” I don’t pretend to know much about the K-5 testing landscape and would love to be pointed in the direction of a teacher blogger who does.

There are some people who after reading all three parts think I’ve gone soft, one way or the other. The hardcore reformers who are have invested political capital and millions of dollars in the current assessments won’t like much of what they’ve read. Hardcore testing abolitionists stopped reading five paragraphs ago. I am okay with both of those outcomes.

If you’ve made it this far and especially if you’ve read and provided feedback to all three of these posts (one person called Part II “that filler episode of Game of Thrones that always comes halfway through the season,” sorry about that), I appreciate your patience and willingness to engage with me in this dialogue.

I am sure there will be more to this conversation, but that’s all for now.




Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia