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 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.
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 created: stratification. 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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