EdWeek Series Beyond Rhetoric: If Not a Bunch of Tests… Then What Instead?

I am currently writing for the EdWeek column K-12 Schools Beyond the Rhetoric with Jack Schneider. We are covering a bevy of important topics in education policy such as Teach For America, Charters, Vouchers, High-stakes testing, and Standards. I first excerpted some of our conversation about charters schools in the post Is the Impact of Charters Schools on Achievement a Big Lie? Today, I want to introduce excerpts from our conversation about high-stakes testing and potential alternative ways of seeing assessment. As I stated previously, EdWeek has placed our conversation behind a paywall. Since EdWeek has not compensated me for contributing in any way, in my view, I still own my work. So below I will include only my own language. I don’t believe I have the right to include Jack’s questions/probes, so you will have to guess what Jack asked me between questions or subscribe to EdWeek. Sorry. 😦

We began the conversation on the “role of testing in K-12 education” in Is Testing Designed to Promote Inequality? on 9/30/14


Heilig: Before we discuss this, I think it is important to contextualize the test debate. As the nursery for No Child Left Behind, Texas has never seen a test it didn’t like. But in the last few years things got out of hand and the state was requiring that students take 15 exams to graduate from high school. In the last legislative session, politicians finally got the message from parent organizations like TAMSA and reduced the number of tests required for graduation to five Pearson-produced STAAR exams. Notably, five Pearson exams to graduate is still more tests than the previous Pearson TAKS testing regime.

An interesting addendum to the high-stakes testing conversation was recently introduced into the public discourse by Jason Stanford in the Texas Observer. Stanford detailed the research and public legislative testimony of Dr. Walter Stroup, whose work suggests that about 70% of the eventual outcome for a student on any Pearson test in Texas was easily predictable before a student even sat to take an exam. There were apparent repercussions for Dr. Stroup at the University of Texas College of Education, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Pearson and where some prominent faculty and leaders are involved with the corporation via consulting and publishing deals.

The tentacles of foundations and corporations into our college and universities and their influence on education “reform,” “research,” and the public discourse are an issue we must grapple with as a society. So before we move on to alternatives, I think it is important that we as a society ruminate on the power and quality dynamics that are readily apparent in the high-stakes testing debate.

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Heilig: I actually think that tests are succeeding at what they were designed to do, which is to sort members of society. High-stakes exams were not designed to identify achievement gaps; they were designed to create the gaps.

There is a line of thinking that high-stakes exams will create equity in K-12 education. And politicians have been telling us this for decades. Yet here we are in 2014, and all students are not 100% proficient as promised by NCLB a decade ago. Tests function as they were originally designed—to sort.

If you don’t pass high-stakes exams in Texas, or anywhere else, and can’t graduate from high school, you are most likely resigned to a lifetime in the bottom rungs of the labor market. High-stakes testing does not create equality; the tests function for the purpose they were originally createdstratification. Or in the words of NCLB: “Far Below Basic,” “Below Basic,” “Basic,” “Proficient,” and “Advanced.”


We continued the conversation on EdWeek about the “uses and abuses of standardized tests” in Why Are We Using Standardized Tests? on 10/2/14


Heilig: We need a paradigm shift from our current conception of assessment. For example, a large state like Texas spends half a billion dollars for students to sit for a set of Pearson exams that ultimately provide information at 10,000 feet. If you ask teachers how valuable these particular assessments are to curriculum and pedagogy, they will usually tell you not much. These expensive high-stakes assessments may get one or two glances at the start or end of a school year from educators because the information is not-specific enough and already dated when it arrives.

Instead, we should focus on formative and summative assessments that occur on the local level and provide the information for data-inspired instruction. For example, performance-based assessments are a more appropriate form of summative assessments being implemented by a consortium of New York Schools.

As Monty Neill wrote in the Washington Post, performance-based assessments can include both written and oral components. The typical components of performance-based assessments are analytic essays, a social studies research paper, a science experiment, and an applied mathematics problem.

Performance-based assessments essentially model how the real world works, as individuals are typically judged on the outcomes of integrated multi-faceted work products, rather than choosing from a set of multiple choice answers.



Heilig: It’s also worth noting that we have leaned too heavily on high-stakes assessment as the lynchpin of accountability, teacher evaluation, and our general societal evaluation of school performance. We need to think more broadly in terms of multiple measures of data to evaluate our schools rather than the Pearson paradigm—a very narrow view from two miles above the earth.


We concluded our discussion by testing and accountability by asking the question “Should the community have input in what they are held accountable for in educational outcomes?” in Should Communities Determine Their Own Accountability Measures? on 10/3/14.


Heilig: I think accountability should include local and community-based processes. The Texas model that birthed NCLB has an intense focus on top-down goal setting and measurement. I first proposed a new bottom-up form of accountability called Community-Based Accountability (CBA) in 2012. A workgroup at the University of Texas at Austin then designed several policy briefs that outlined how strategic plans developed at the local-level could serve as alternatives to top-down, one-size-fits-all policy.

A bottom-up approach would enable local communities to focus on a set of multiple measures in addition to, or instead of, standardized high-stakes testing. A new form of bottom-up accountability would allow for communities to drive a locally-based approach that focuses on a set of measures of educational quality for short-term and long-term community-based goals. The role of the state and federal government would be to calculate baselines, growth, and yearly ratings for a set of goals that communities selected in a democratic process.

There are already examples of policymakers considering local approaches for accountability. The first evidence of a shift was in Texas, where the High Performance Coalition (HPC) of 20 districts empowered by Texas Senate Bill 1557 sought to adopt a Community-Based Accountability and Assessment plan in 2012. Michael Williams, Texas Education Agency Commissioner, eventually rejected the HPC plan. While Texas, the birthplace of NCLB-style accountability, was the first to dabble with locally-determined accountability, the California Legislature recently codified a locally based accountability approach for school finance for the entire state.


Heilig: I agree that community leaders may not actually render the will of the people in a district. I attended a lecture by Dolores Huerta here at California State University Sacramento a few weeks ago. And she noted that Los Angeles has decided that the district will spend millions of their new local funds on more police in schools. When a district decides that they should make new investments in police, rather than college counselors, I consider that malpractice.

The larger issue is whether we trust democracy as a process; should the community have input in what they are held accountable for? In the current top-down context, local communities have no say. To use Deb Meier’s words, “What amazing lack of faith we have in the idea of democracy—even when it comes to ‘raising’ our children.” She argues that we can have honest, no-stakes assessments, that inform parents and the public, coupled with regulations pertaining to civil rights, health and safety and equity.

That said, I do agree that a menu of choices should be in play, and some components could be required—including desegregation of data by race, gender, etc. Those important components could easily be kept in a new bottom-up form of accountability.


Next time here on Cloaking Inequity I will talk to myself some more and excerpt our discussion about Teach For America from the Beyond the Rhetoric Edweek series.

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  • Hurrah. Glad you are doing this. I’ll spread the word.


  • Without a commensurate “paradigm shift” among parents, students, and communiies–especially communities of color–I believe “we” might simply allow test makers to gain legitimacy about their tests when “bottom up” accountability systems like you suggest end up with similar methods for determining if students are educated, never mind be “ready” for college or the world of work. Remember that the parents and communities remain victims of historically inadequate education. Especially in Texas, parents and communities are likely only to see “accountability” as based on taking tests in one form or another. Simply to focus on “bottom up accountability” based on very limited understanding among the population in general about education and the even more sophisticated issue of “assessment”, I am loathe to see any real progress, especially in Texas. Educators–teachers and teacher educators–need to provide much more direct leadership here. “Criterion-referenced”, “norm-referenced” assessment is fairly much the only form of accountabilty most people know. How people learn and how to determine what has been learned is really (at least currently) the purview of educators. We need to own up to the responsibility and STOP ceding the high ground about what constitutes “accountability” either to corporate raiders of education or to poorly prepared communities. We are a conduit for a much better idea about teaching and learning and we should not shirk that responsibility under some mistaken idea that democracy is simply possible devoid of context, preparation, and education.

    In my view, we need to adopt two basic principes: 1) that teachers should teach what they know and love and 2) that students should be assessed according to that which they have been exposed by teachers in classrooms including all the necessary advancements of connecting with communities, social issues, and relevant material to achieve success at what they have been taught.

    I realize that some may believe condensing the issue of educational assessment into two essntial principles is simplistic, but in reality every other “factor” either supports or detracts from these two. Just as when a teacher teaches what she loves requires she and her students to teach and learn all the necessary components required to accomplish a teaching/learning objective, so, too, with these principles. Most curriculum is connected; teaching one’s favorite piece of literature requires the teacher to present, provide ways for students to read, write, analyze, and give their opinions and requires students read, write, analyze, and learn to ask questions. In doing so, literacy is demonstrated, expanded and improved. Every other area of subject matter has similar connections.

    Pellegrino (cf. 2009, http://www.k12center.org/rsc/pdf/PellegrinoPresenterSession1.pdf) once projected an assessment model–a triangle–that situated assessment as a three-factor base of the “theory of knowledge” (cognition) that informed the nature of a required assessment (obserrvation) and both of which should inform the nature of the results (interpretation); the fact that he made this argument in support of the failed notion of “race to the top” only demonstrates how educators can fall short of their own expectations despite kernels of “truth”. You just finished responding to Jack Schneider about how state assessments are in fact designed to create not remove educational disparities among children and youth. At the very least, a different form of promoting learning–what should be the actual goal of educational assessment–needs to be provided if we are ever a) to help chidren and youth succeed in what we currently only speak eupemistically an education and b) create a society where democracy can be a reality and not simply become a marketing campaign for the Pearsons of the world. Of course, I am not suggesting that people “learn” before we can exercise democracy. Rather, I am saying that educators need to educate and as members of our communities we should not shirk our responsibility to lead where we can provide veritable leadership for the mistake idea that we don’t really count in the process of educational liberation.


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