Teacher in a Strange Land: Teachers, Testing and Why We Might Just Chill
You hear it all the time: What we need is teachers at the policy table. They would make the right decisions about things that would truly revive and strengthen public education.
Managing and monitoring the behavior and learning of 30 8-year olds or 150 teenagers, making 1500 fine-grained instructional decisions a day, means there isn’t much time for negotiation, nuance, what-ifs and taking everyone’s opinion into consideration. Teachers are also excellent crap-detectors, having had so much practice. Teachers cut to the chase.
No so with most policy-makers.
In a just and fair world—not the polarized and partisan world we live in—legislators are elected to craft policy that sees all sides: Business and the national economy. The environment. The needs of the rural west and the urban east. The well-being of The People. The most equitable way to educate all children.
It is worth remembering that No Child Left Behind–the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in its 2001 incarnation—was a product of bipartisan legislators who really thought they were injecting admirable goals and equity, not to mention accountability, into the venerable ESEA, now 55 years old.
It is clear that the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year so that states can respond to the unique circumstances they are facing; keep students, staff, and their families safe; and maintain their immediate focus on supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development.
Sounds good, right? Actually, it is the opening salvo in a letter from the federal Department of Education, letting states know that they will still be expected to give mandated federal tests this year, although significant flexibility in all aspects of testing has been granted.
Tests can be given in the spring, summer or fall, or all three, in the same district but to different populations. States or districts may choose which tests to give, and make them shorter. Tests may be given remotely. And districts are not required to test 95% of their students to make their results ‘count.’ They must still find ways to share their data with parents and the federal government.
Now—let me say, as a teacher, that I strongly believe that all mandated testing should have been waived this spring, due to the pandemic. The data generated from these tests will be garbage.
But I can understand why the Department did what it did.
First, if testing were waived for the spring testing window, it does not magically go away. It’s still there, on the books. And come fall, when—God willing, as Joe Biden might say—the large majority of public school students will be returning to face to face learning, parents (sensible, caring, good-citizen parents) are going to be asking: How is my child doing? Is he behind?
And I can see teachers everywhere saying: Don’t worry. I’ll figure it out. I’ll meet your child where he is. I’ll work to fill in any gaps that I see.
I believe those teachers. And I know they will use assessments. Not high-stakes, punitive, we-must-compare kinds of standardized tests—but they will certainly be assessing students, to inform their instruction.
I also know that over the past 20 years or so, parents (and many teachers) have begun to believe that test scores are real, that they’re the best, most reliable data we have to tell us what our children know and can do. That’s not true, but—hey, listen to any journalist or newscaster talk about the ‘learning loss’ crisis. We have our work cut out for us.
I recently shared a letter I wrote to as-yet-unconfirmed Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, urging him to suspend testing, and drew a number of irritated responses from teachers, saying they wanted standardized testing data this spring. Some, to prove that their newly honed online instructional efforts had been effective. Others, to show that students in poverty were not learning as much online—to compare this year’s students to previous classes.
I believe all stakeholders—students and parents, teachers and school leaders, and especially business and government officials are going to need to be weaned off their faith in and reliance on standardized testing data, and moved toward assessment literacy for educators and trust in public education for the rest. We aren’t getting either of those things overnight.
We currently have billions of dollars’ worth of testing infrastructure: laws, test producers, researchers, technological investments, grant-funded non-profits, right down to part-time, hired-on-Craig’s List scorers. We need a plan to improve assessment models and report results to parents and states–because we DO still need assessments. What we don’t need is harmful, disconnected standardized tests and terrible uses of the data they generate.
And we’re not going to get rid of accountability overnight, either. David Labaree says:
The urge for accountability is not unreasonable. Education should be accountable. It’s a public institution that needs to be effective at meeting the goals society sets for it, and such determinations can’t just be left to the preferences of teachers or parents or students or administrators. In addition, it’s not ok that many students don’t succeed in school and that their social origins are key determinants of their success or failure. Schooling whose outcomes simply reproduce its inputs is not good schooling. These equity concerns are visible in the names of the two key US laws governing accountability – No Child Left Behind and its 2013 successor, Every Student Succeeds Act.
The problems with accountability lie in the way it is implemented. The accountability movement in the US and in the world of school reform has relied on a method that defines school success through a small number of metrics – scores in tests that measure comprehension of the formal curriculum.
After 20 years of dispiriting federal policy-making in education, we may have a window for significant change, but we are entering that window through the context of a pandemic.
The first set of policy alterations—flexibility and options around testing–is pretty weak sauce, but it does reflect change. What would happen if all states and districts were permitted to choose their own tests, give them at times they deemed useful, eliminate all punitive uses of test data and no longer be required to test 95% of their students? If that became a permanent (legislatively sanctioned) set of changes, would that be progress?
Policy shifts are often predicated by small changes that snowball. One opportunity I would see right now is for the parent-led opt-out movement. Schools can’t claim that parents exercising their right to take children out of testing threatens their 95% compliance level. Suppose parents got organized and a significant percentage said—nope, not testing MY kid this year? Would that not be evidence—data, if you will—that a lot of parents simply don’t think standardized tests are useful?
Here’s what we don’t need right now:
- Ad hominem attacks (Biden lied! He wants testing. At least Betsy DeVos suspended testing!)
- Holding out for a no tests, ever again, policy in the second month of a new administration
I feel like we (millions of educators) have been screaming about the folly of mandated standardized testing for two decades with no positive action. We might actually have a window to shift entrenched policies now, in the next four years.
But because it didn’t happen right away, we now have people screaming at the very folks who might be able to help. By all means, keep writing letters, keep sharing your stories. But don’t give up the faith, yet.
UPDATE: The billions and orgs already invested in pro-testing? They are happy that tests will go on, but unhappy about locally chosen or designed tests and the relaxation of the requirement that 95% must be tested.
March 30, 2021