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

I feel obligated to begin with a few disclaimers:  

  • If you belong solidly in either of the camps in the “education warz” or think that I should, you are going to be disappointed by this post and should probably hit “ctrl + w” right now. It’s for the best and I won’t be offended at all.  
  • My last post produced a lot of really thoughtful responses across several platforms (here in the comments, on other blogs, on Twitter, on FB and in the form of a two page letter from a colleague). I love the idea of this space being a place of dialogue and welcome your responses, even especially if you disagree.  

My last post was me thinking through a topic that I think is deadly serious. When I sat down to write, much like I do now, I didn’t (and don’t now) have a destination in mind. This is literally me publicly thinking through what I think is the most important issue facing our society. I believe that schools far too frequently under-serve people who share my background (urban, male, and of color). I believe this practice drives incarceration, poverty, and shorter-than-average life expectancy. I am a teacher and I know from personal experience, both biographical (my life) and occupational (my students’ lives), the liberating power of effective schools and teachers.  Of course there are sociological and historical factors that greatly complicate public education, but again, I must make it clear that I wholeheartedly reject the geographical determinism and “poor kids can’t” thinking, whether explicit (rare) or implied (far more common).  

The more I ponder the controversies we face in public education, the more convinced I am that if you aren’t changing your mind regularly or at least modifying your stances on these issues, you aren’t really thinking--you’re simply an ideologue. And I believe that we (you and I, dear reader ) are best served ignoring ideologues, especially when they spew bile.   

The Internet is a Beautiful Hive Brain 

I was so struck by the thoughtful responses my last post provoked that I want to highlight and address a few of them here.  

I believe the inherent conflict that I addressed in Part I is recaptured well here, in a post by Peter Greene on his blog CURMUDGUCATION. Peter is firmly in the anti-testing camp, but acknowledges the importance of providing the public with information on the K-12 system’s progress on improving academic performance for poor students (I’d add students of color, as well). 

I appreciate Bowling's thoughtful approach to the questions. And we folks on the pro public ed side of the reformy debates would do well to remember that we still need answers to the question of how the needs of poor students can best be met [Bowling Note: I dislike the unstated premise of his use of the phrase “pro public ed side”; the insinuation that people who hold different positions aren’t supportive of public ed is problematic.] Bowling is concerned that removing the current system leaves us with nothing to act on; I believe it is providing us nothing to act on now, and wasting our time and resources to boot. How to thread the needle and still get to eat our cake is a problem that still needs to be solved.  

Next, from Todd Hausman (in the comments). Todd is the former Director of Teacher Leadership for Teachers United and is the kind of person who, even when I disagree with him, I admire the thoughtfulness of his arguments. Todd highlights the SBAC’s failure in one of its most important stated goals:  

One of the virtues of Smarter Balanced was supposed to be the ability to compare performance across states. But 21 states are SBAC members, while 12 others are members of PARCC. Two states (Kansas and Alaska) are using the KITE assessments, developed at the University of Kansas. The remaining 17 are either constructing their own Common Core aligned tests or, in the case of states that didn't adopt CCSS, using tests that measure other standards. This diversity almost certainly makes national comparisons impossible, making the vision of "common measurement" nothing more than a mirage. 

Lastly, I want to cite one of my former students, now at university, who has been lurking on the blog since its inception and surfaced in the comments of Part I: 

From a student's perspective who has been through multiple tests, EOC exams, and the switch between the WASL to the HSPE, it was anything but easy. Yes some testing can help in the big scheme of things (showing where the achievement gap is currently at), however, it never really shows what the students know…. I get into political talks with my English Professor at CWU but no one would know that based on my scores on tests. I excel in mathematics and enjoy being challenged by the Z-Score cut off & could teach it to someone else but based on testing, no one would know that. Testing, sure it may be good but in the greater picture of things, it is not an accurate measurement.  

The preceding should give us pause.   

Moving toward a Solution 

This year my students in AP Government learned the word bromide (noun, a trite and unoriginal idea or remark, typically intended to soothe or placate)to describe public policy that is overly simplistic and doesn’t really address the complex problems it purports to. Standardized testing is problematic in our system; however, calls for its abolition are a bromide. I believe I have made the case for the need for testing (or at least I am convinced of its need). However, as I think I have also made clear, the current testing cocktail here in Washington State--SBAC, EOCs, NAEP, AP / IB, Compass / ACCUPLACER, SRI, MAP, ASVAB, SAT / ACT, etc.--is still not giving us what we are searching for and the answer certainly can’t be more tests.    

Last night my spouse and I were discussing the question “what do you want to be known for?” My response was that I wanted to be known for the caliber of my instruction and generally having a solutions oriented disposition. In that vein, in response to Part I, I was challenged by several people to provide solutions to the two-part paradox I presented: 

  • We in K-12 owe the public, especially communities of color, system-wide data on how we’re progressing at closing the achievement/opportunity gap. 
  • The current standardized testing regime is expensive, full of redundancy, and often a distraction from actual teaching and learning. 

I am still not sure I am ready to roll out my proposed solution(s); I have some thoughts, but I have always been more interested in the thoughts of others than my own (I sometimes bore myself to sleep). Consequently, on Sunday afternoon I posted the following on Twitter:  

@nate_bowlingScience educators: if you were told "there MUST BE a Bio EOC Exam" & also told "YOU can create it" what kind of assessment would you design? 

I now want open that conversation up to all readers. Operating under the premise that we need some sort of standardized measures of student learning (for all the previously discussed reasons), what would you create? What would you want? What would you jettison?   

I encourage you to share your responses to help me shape Part III; I promise, there will finally be answers. 

Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia