The testing two-step

The testing two-step

By Dale Chu

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to sit in on a discussion regarding the strengths and weaknesses of today’s state testing systems. Held under the auspices of the PIE Network, the panel—thoughtfully moderated by Future Ed’s Tom Toch—paired two state-level reform advocates, New Mexico Kids CAN’s Amanda Aragon and Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education’s Dana Rickman, with two authors of recently published analyses, Bellwether Education Partners’ Bonnie O’Keefe and Future Ed’s Lynn Olson (Olson was recently interviewed here at Testing 1-2-3).

The conversation provided a wide scan of the assessment-related challenges states are currently wrestling with, and illustrated the multi-dimensional layers and tensions inherent in the current testing debate. Notably among these is the huge disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Case in point: Amid the hype and din that our students are “overtired of being overtested” or that they are “more than a test score,” the knee-jerk outrage misses the fact that locally developed tests at the school and district level demand far more time than what state tests typically require.

Which means that more often than not, states’ reaction to the current testing blowback is heavier on style than on substance. Rather than addressing some of the legitimate grievances out there (e.g., how assessment affects instruction), too many have elected to perform a Texas two-step (the panel took place in Austin) that involves (1) switching test vendors and (2) nominally reducing test administration time. If Shakespeare was still alive, he might have borrowed a line from Macbeth to describe the current state of play:

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But this dance is no laughing matter to teachers, parents, and students, who are left holding the bag on the resulting incoherence and fragmentation. New Mexico’s Aragon said as much in lamenting the frustration of educators across the Land of Enchantment, who are anything but enchanted as politics trump reasoned policy. Moreover, what’s gone lost is a sense of proper perspective. As Future Ed’s Toch noted, it’s ironic that the United States invests $10K annually per student to make sure he/she is educated, and only $34 per student, a relative drop in the bucket, to understand if he/she is being well-educated.

The remainder of the discussion quickly engaged audience members, as topics rapidly shifted from the federal demonstration pilot and its limitations to the role of teacher evaluation and the decline in the use of assessments as an evaluation measure. Georgia’s Rickman aptly observed that the inscrutability of school report cards to anyone without a degree in psychometrics—coupled with the delay between test administration and the receipt of test results by students and families—further complicates the politics involved, and makes buy-in exceedingly difficult to obtain.

With time winding down, Toch surveyed the panelists to identify their testing non-negotiables. Three emerged: (1) annual testing, (2) student group data, and (3) growth data. The exercise helped to surface the tension between today’s noble effort to make state tests more instructionally relevant and the implications this might have for accountability systems. O’Keefe warned participants to beware the potential of a “bait and switch” where states promise a “better” test, but lose the ability to obtain student group data in the process. Hers is a warning worth heeding.

Finally, there might be something to learn from Advanced Placement in the midst of the brouhaha. Which is to say that teachers and principals are the most trusted messengers on testing (or just about anything else in education). If they don’t understand or aren’t bought in, the cracks we’re seeing now presage even more trouble ahead.

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