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Over-testing & the “Accountability” Dodge

Our current teach-to-the-test pathology is strong evidence of how the system has failed in deeper, fundamental ways. However, President Bush’s No Child Left Untested debacle is a program that benefits nobody except his friends in the educational publishing industry. It’s bad for teachers and worse for students, who wind up graduating with no critical thinking skills, no ability to solve problems or unravel novel challenges, and an abject lack of skills necessary to succeed in college and the professional world that awaits them when their formal schooling ends. In essence, they learn to take multiple choice tests, a talent that’s of zero value in the real world.

However, we continue to insist on more and more testing so as to assure “accountability,” a cynical, silly misappellation that aggressively refuses to acknowledge the real problems facing our schools. In short, when your teachers are a) drawn from a pool of what’s available at bargain basement wage scale, b) underresourced, c) saddled with obscene amounts of mind-numbing clerical work, d) placed into overcrowded classrooms that are little more than warehouses, e) forced to teach 21st Century students with a 19th Century educational model, and f) afforded no effective means of addressing disruptive (and often dangerous) students, it is patently stupid to suggest that “accountability” is even possible, and even more ludicrous to suggest that standardized testing (leading to the threat of school closings) will somehow improve education.

The fact that there are people who think this way in positions of authority is perhaps all the evidence we’d ever need to prove that massive, systematic reform is needed.

When talented teachers are provided the ample resources and effective support, accountability isn’t going to be a problem. When learning organizations are tailored to 21st Century skills, tools, requirements and dynamics, we can reasonably expect the failings that “necessitated” over-testing to disappear.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have standards, appropriate measures for evaluation (for students, teachers, administrators and facilities) and processes for assuring the highest functioning of the system (and yes, that includes removing sub-par educators). However, our focus must be on curing the disease, not profiteering off the symptoms.


1. Jacob Russell - January 6, 2007

>… forced to teach 21st Century students with a 19th Century educational model

Would that this part were so… at least for arts and letters.

The problem is far more than structural. The model is subordinate to the desired goal, and there is the heart of the matter. We are struggling to define what we mean by education, or rather, those of us who are still bothering, are fighting to hold on something that is more than–or at least other than–Vocational Training.

The “Business Model” of education. Better: the Business Model of “education.” Student’s as consumers. The University: supplier by demand.

What we need to resist these essentially anti-education concepts (“accountability”–as currently used), is resort of a robust foundational definition and philosophy of education, one that does not pit the old humanist ideals of education of character, citizenship, aesthetic discrimination against a totalizing utilitarian model (which is as much a threat to the teaching of science as it is to the humanities.

2. drslammy - January 6, 2007

Ah – well struck, Jacob. There are competing models at work. When I talk about the 19th Century model, I’m pointing to structural issues, as you note, but we do have the “corporate” model that seems to be everydamnedbody’s solution to whatever they think the problem is.

The model that this initiative is evolving will account for our vocational needs, yes, but will also stress the humanities, the arts, the sciences, and really important stuff like history, civics, etc. A strong core foundation, leading to an effective understanding of where particular students need to eventually focus, etc.

I hope that forthcoming planks, as well as revisions of the ones already posted, will sort some of this out in ways that make better sense than I know the first drafts do. As I’ve noted, I’ll be relying on a growing network of smart people to help in this process. You’re invited.

3. Tina - January 6, 2007

Standardized testing for students has even trickled down to the Head Start/preschool level. Every 4-year-old in a HS program is required to take a National Reporting System test twice a year to “document progress.” All that teachers end up doing is teaching to the test… so sure, the child may be able to point to a picture of “nostril,” but then the child goes off to kindergarten not knowing any writing skills or social skills (which obviously this type of test doesn’t and cannot possibly measure).

The only reason standardized testing exists is because Americans like to put numbers on things (e.g. “45% of third-graders were at or above national levels”, etc.) and also, it’s setting up poor schools to do even worse so their funding can be yanked.

4. Kathleen - January 6, 2007

I agree that students are over tested, but tests do mean something in the real world. For example, the MCAT and LSAT play a major role in deciding Med or Law school admissions.

5. drslammy - January 6, 2007

True. And let’s be clear – I am not opposed to tests. As a prof I gave quite a few of them and consider them a fair measure of certain kinds of performance.

The issue is with over-testing and using standardized testing as a substitute for effective education. All this produces is teach-to-the-test classrooms, and while the MedCAT might be useful for helping determine admissions, nobody in their right mind would argue that it’s a sufficient skill for being a good physician.

Good doctors can think critically and solve problems that don’t neatly conform to textbook cases. THAT’S what we’re losing.

6. angliss - January 7, 2007

Let’s look at this from a slightly different angle – standards. After all, the point of standardized testing is to verify that the students meet a certain set of standards. So, if we choose to reject standardized testing en toto, then we are similarly rejecting the entire notion of educational standards. And I’m not willing to go that far just yet.

Standardized testing can be an amazing tool when used correctly. When used right, standardized tests can track an individual student’s performance from year to year. When aggregated intelligently, the collected performance of all of a teacher’s students can provide a gauge of that teacher’s ability to teach. But the tests need to be intelligently written (not 100% mulitple choice, for example) and graded in a timely enough fashion that teachers get useful feedback and are able to improve thier teaching.

One thing that I think is a good idea, though, is denying graduation to those students who lack a minimum set of basic skills. And those basic skills can be most effectively tested using standardized tests.

7. drslammy - January 7, 2007

Hey, nobody here is saying get rid of all standardized testing. It’s a tool that has its place. But that place isn’t at the center of the universe. When it happens with such frequency that specific prepping for the test drives the curriculum and all classroom activities, you’re in trouble.

The trick, then, is to find the proper balance and use. And as I suggest, obsession with measurement is a result of a failing system. When kids are clearly learning and performing, you hear a lot less concern over quantifying everything that happens.

8. sirpaulsbuddy - January 9, 2007

Let me comment on two issues raised here – standardized testing and the structure of education.

On standardized testing, let me cite Stephen J. Gould, who notes that the most basic of “standardized” measurements, intelligence tests, are guilty of three sins – first, such tests REIFY the abstract idea that is “intelligence” and make it into a “thing,” something concrete that can be measured like a chunk of meteorite; second, the insistence on “ranking” of performance ( a business first applied at Cambridge University near the end of the 18th century and that then spread like a pandemic across the world) based on some “measureable” CRITERION; third, by reifying and ranking, we make the ranking number of an abstract (and subjective) idea, “intelligence,” into a a falsely “objective” “measurement” that takes on validity.

The structure of education is all about convenience – convenience for the centralized bureauocracies that rule educational systems at every level – as Neil Postman points out, for example, college courses are set up for a certain number of sessions during a certain number of weeks for a certain amount of time each week to allow the administration of each college to determine faculty work loads and assign facility use.

So testing and system structure are designed for the convenience of the bureaucracy that DocSlammy rails about here…and no amount of arguing about the usefulness of EOG tests and “progress measures” will convince me, a lifelong educator at the high school, college and university levels, that adding MORE tests or even CONTINUING with the current battery of tests is a course we should continue.

All “accountability” is is a buzzword to promote a system of the same kind of useless measuring I talked about above. It’s an intellectually bankrupt response to a complex and almost overwhelming cultural shift that is occurring.

9. drslammy - January 9, 2007

Re Angliss’ note on standardized testing above:

You sum it up nicely here: “Standardized testing can be an amazing tool when used correctly.” Specifically, “when used correctly.” That’s the problem – as sirpaulsbuddy explains in the comment above, the issue is that it’s being used for all kinds of purposes that have nothing to do with its proper function.

I’m no enemy of testing. Hard testing. And standardized tests have their place. But not as the raison d’etre of every freakin’ day, which is how it is in a lot of places.

10. drslammy - January 9, 2007

Re: sirpaulsbuddy’s post above:

And it’s getting worse, not better. On at least a couple occasions in the past two years I’ve seen chatter about extending No Child Left Untested into the college ranks. As you can well explain, Rubric-Mania is already out of hand (as is some simply pathological activity masquerading under the guise of accreditation), and Bush’s folks are thinking up new ways of making it worse.

There were a number of reasons I left teaching, and the accreditation process I got to participate in was one of them. I saw an attempt – a powerful one, backed by armies of administrators and probably educational publishing companies – ramping up what I can only describe as a campaign of neo-Fordism.

Wanted no part of it. And the more a reality it becomes, the worse teacher quality is going to get.

11. Cat - January 15, 2007

I have many concerns about NCLB and testing–too many to cover in one post (especially since it’s the end of the semester and I have grading to do).

I’ll stick with one for now: NCLB is part of a movement among conservatives, dating to the 1960s and 1970s, to discredit public education. They attacked curricula for being anti-American and anti-Traditional Values; teaching strategies for being brain-washing and encouraging criticism; and teachers for being Lazy, Greedy, and Stupid. The movement became mainstream and now politicians of all political persuasions feel free to use public education as a whipping boy–which is why NCLB had such bipartisan support.

In some places, schools that have not met their AYP targets are now being “restructured.” Charter schools are multiplying like guppies as “alternatives” to “failing public schools.” Charters are being funded largely with money drawn from the already strapped public schools.

I’ll leave you with this conundrum which has been a burr under my saddle since the inception of NCLB. Under NCLB, ALL students must be tested to judge a school’s AYP. Under old systems, students with diagnosed learning disabilities or conditions were exempt. The rationale for including them is that, otherwise, they will be swept under the rug. I had one student (as an example–there were many like her) in a 9th grade Geography class with a 1st Grade math ability and 3rd Grade reading ability. There is NO WAY she would ever pass a 10th Grade proficiency test, much less a 12th grade test–not if it’s really a 10th grade test. So, my school’s grade would be lower because of the presence of such special needs students and I might not be able to show sufficientty AYP improvement. So what’s my motivation for retaining and educating (at their level) students who cannot make me look good? No one has come up with a good answer to that question.

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