I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Why Scrapping School Testing This Year Is a Good Idea

During yesterday's (insane) news conference, Donald Tump made some news on the K-12 education front:
It’s official: U.S. students won't have to take annual state tests this year.
The Education Department will waive federal requirements for state testing for K-12 students, due to unprecedented school shutdowns to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Friday.
Normally, federal law requires schools to administer exams in English and math to students in third through eighth grade, and once in high school. The results are used to examine how students are progressing and how well schools are performing.
Students usually take state tests in the spring – and school closures are likely to continue through the testing window.

Now, I've got some serious reservations about giving the SecEd broad powers -- especially when that SecEd is Betsy DeVos, who has repeatedly shown she is not up to the job. But the crisis we're now facing has obviously created a huge problem for the nation's K-12 schools, and we ought to be looking at whether current federal policies are helping or hurting. That starts, to my mind, with canceling our regular springtime battery of state tests.

It's useful to step back and think about why annual testing was implemented in the first place. No Child Left Behind, George W. Bush's signature education law, was designed under the premise that testing would hold schools accountable for educating students. If a school was not showing, through test outcomes, that its students were learning, it would face consequences that included closure.

The problems with NCLB have been well documented over the years. Making schools the unit of accountability -- as opposed to districts or states -- assumes that schools alone can change their policies and practices and improve student outcomes. On its face, that just isn't true: if a school doesn't have the resources it needs to educate its students, for example, it can't unilaterally change its condition.

In addition, holding schools accountable for the academic progress of their "subgroups" when many schools, due to class and race segregation, don't even have the same subgroups also makes little sense. And using standardized tests in two subjects (math and English Language Arts) to measure student achievement was always going to be troublesome, given the nature of the tests themselves and the pressures they put on schools to narrow the curriculum and "teach to the tests."

NCLB has been revised over the years, but the testing provisions have remained. In my opinion, there is a place for testing in our schools. The problem with federal policy was never the tests themselves*, but how we use them, and the extent to which we administer them.

The truth is that many of the school funding lawsuits that have led to meaningful reform could not have occurred if we didn't have some evidence that disadvantaged students were being denied equal educational opportunities compared to their more advantaged peers. This alone is reason enough for the nation to continue to administer tests, even if we should decouple school- and classroom-level consequences from them and administer them less frequently.

But tests are only able to provide meaningful information to policymakers if they are administered in ways that yield valid outcomes. And there's just no way we can do that now.

Start with the obvious: a "standardized" test has to be administered in a standard way. If some students receive the test in different platforms, or in different environments, the test is no longer standardized. Of course, there were already huge differences between students in these factors... but Covid-19 has made things far worse. There's just no way to even come close to standardizing the conditions for testing in the current environment. Will the students be at home, in school but "social distancing," in regular school, somewhere else... we just can't say.

Next, we have always had big differences in students' opportunity to learn -- but now the differences are greater than ever. Again, there are huge variations among students in their access to qualified educators, high-quality facilities, adequate instructional materials, well-designed curricula, and so on. The best use of test results was to make the case that the variation in these things was creating unequal educational opportunities, and that public policy should focus on getting resources where they were needed the most.

But in a quarantine, we now have to add all sorts of other inequalities into the mix: access to broadband, parents who have the ability to oversee students' instruction, schools' ability to implement distance learning, etc. Why implement these tests when inequities within the same classroom -- let alone between schools -- have grown so large?

Which gets to the best reason to cancel the tests: we aren't going to learn anything new from them, so why burden students, families, and staff with them during a crisis? As Rick Hess (yes, we do occasionally agree) puts it:
The best reason to scratch the tests? Complying with federal guidelines regarding mandated assessments is the very last thing educational leaders should be thinking about right now. They should be focused on the safety of students, educators, and communities; developing alternative instruction; supporting parents; feeding and aiding kids in need; and thinking about what it'll take to reopen schools.
Testing is going to be a big burden in the middle of a pandemic; focusing on it takes away from focus on things like student well-being. That trade off could conceivably be worth it if we were going to gain new knowledge...

But we aren't going to learn anything from this round of testing we didn't already know: primarily, that students in disadvantage and with learning needs will score lower, on average, than other students. Why, then, would we shift the focus away from meeting students' and families' needs and towards a test that isn't going to give us any new information?

Again: I think there's a place for standardized testing -- even if we're currently using test results in irresponsible and invalid ways. But there's no good reason to administer tests this year. Just scrap it.

* To be clear: that doesn't mean these tests haven't had their own problems -- many times, they've been crappy.

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