These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Looking for the Forest through the Trees

By Sari Levy

No one wants to be asked to defend testing. In Boulder, where I live, anti-testing fervor is almost as strong as the pro-organic-gardening-fervor. To prove their point, 84% of students at Boulder Valley High opted out of the last fall’s science and social studies testing.

We are a small but typical cluster of middle or upper income public school devotees.* And my friends and neighbors are saying enough testing, thank you. Some are mildly annoyed and some are downright angry, but the frustration is palpable. Higher standards (Common Core) are about to tell them that even though they thought Ava or Carter was a girl/boy-genius, s/he is actually below grade level on international benchmarks. That’s probably not going to sit well and may make them even less keen on testing.

As the NYT’s Motoko Rich put it a couple of weeks ago: “After more than a decade, the proliferation of tests, along with punishments for schools that failed to improve their scores, has angered parents and teachers. It has also set off protests and boycotts of testing.”

There are two things I want to say about this. First, the bit about the punishments for schools that failed to improve is that they are more myth than reality. Sandy Kress, who gets a lot of credit for writing NCLB, defended the requirements of the law at a meeting last week. “What was the horrible putative thing behind NCLB?” he rhetorically asked a room full of journalists, “That schools were required to get better.” Most struggling schools have been given lots of extra resources (through SIG) and several years to improve. A very, very small percentage of schools have been closed or restructured. Subsequently, a very small number of teachers who taught in those schools were not hired by the replacement school or another school. I will withhold further opinions on the point of tests as punishments for schools except to say that there is a great deal of evidence to show that testing indirectly benefited tens of thousands of poor students

The other thing I want to say is this: parents whose kids are in schools that will never suffer consequences of accountability are only going to put up with so much testing for the benefit of other peoples’ kids. The proliferation of tests has angered parents and teachers.

To be sure, there have been some benefits of testing for kids in suburbia.

For one, high performing non traditional schools have been given oxygen in large part because testing exposes how well students there do compared to kids at more traditional schools.

One could also argue that middle and upper income public school goers will potentially benefit if teacher evaluations are ever meaningfully linked to testing. We’ve all had terrible teachers. Test results—particularly those that show the value-add of a specific teacher in terms of growth their students show— could help to cull some of the worst teachers from the pool. As importantly, tests could help identify teachers that are doing the best job so we can better share practices and approaches from classrooms, schools, and districts.

But these benefits and potential benefits have not been enough to sell many parents on the amount of testing in schools. Even Kress has suggested that we test too much. “If you spend all your time weighing your pig, when it comes time to sell the pig, you’re going to find out you haven’t spent enough time feeding the pig.” He has rightly pointed out that the district have layered lots of tests on top of state mandated ones, and the result has been – well – a lot of pig weighing. I worry that people are getting so tired of testing that the debate has become about whether to test at all. Compromises have become about testing frequency. Few, it seems, are having genuine dialogue about the purpose and goals of assessments – or about better ways to weigh the pig. Here ideas I’ve heard that are being thrown around:

  1. Sample. NAEP uses random sampling. Opponents of this method worry about sampling errors (gaming), the methodology (how do you sample when every widget is a very different human being), and the fact that we would get school and district and maybe classroom data, but not growth data on every individual student. My opinion is that state tests (which are summative) are not used in a meaningful way to impact individual students. Rather, the tests are useful in determining how schools or districts as a whole are doing, and for those purposes, I am not convinced we need annual information on every individual student. If parents or students want the data, they could opt in to an assessment that gives them data on how their child is doing.
  2. Let schools off the hook now and again. If we stop pretending state tests are about individual students, but are rather about identifying patterns at school and district levels, why not let a school off the hook if they consistently perform well? Maybe they administer tests every three years? A+ publicly supports annual testing in absence of a better, fair way to hold schools accountable. But that doesn’t mean we think it’s the only way.
  3. Actual high stakes testing. The stakes of our tests are infinitesimal compared to those in India, China, Japan and most of Europe (including many countries that we pale in comparison to in terms of innovative education systems and performance). In the U.S. tests are more or less a data gathering exercise. What if we had tests that had actual consequences? What if a student could not matriculate to sixth grade until they passed the 5th grade? What if they could not graduate high school until they met international 12thgrade standards? We could test less frequently, yet our system would have to make radical changes to adjust to new demands. Furthermore, teachers might not feel that they were solely responsible for the success of students because much of the onus would be on the student to learn the material to pass exams.

These are just ideas and perhaps they are flawed. However, I raise them here because it is clear that we must find better, more streamlined ways of testing if we are to maintain support from parents, teachers and students. We need to find testing solutions that provide information we need and pushes our education system to meet the standards necessary for success in our increasingly flat world. Throwing out testing will mean sticking our heads back in the sand about whether we’re meeting international standards. Yet, continuing to dig our heels in on current methods and frequency of testing may mean losing public confidence. Surely, there is room for change, room for dialogue, and a solution that will make most people happy.

*Note: I don’t have kids myself.