Testing my patience

PBS is out with a truly awful report on testing/opt out/Common Core. You can watch it here and read one takedown here.

I’m not going to do a full takedown, but I’ll highlight a few points that weren’t made by Will Ragland.

  1. Hagopian says testing is a multi-billion dollar industry. That’s true but overwrought and misleading. We have 50 million kids in school–spend $20 a kid per year and you’re at a billion. Yes, we spend billions on evaluating how well kids are learning. That’s far less than 1% of our total education dollars, in order to offer some evaluation of how our system is doing. Seems like a perfectly reasonable amount to me (if anything, it’s too little, and our limited spending on assessment has resulted in some of the poor quality tests we’ve seen over the years). Saving that <<1% wouldn’t really do anything to reduce class sizes or boost teacher salaries or whatever else Hagopian would like us to do, even if we cut testing expenses to 0.
  2. There’s an almost farcically absurd analogy that testing proponents think a kid with hypothermia just needs to have his temperature taken over and over again, whereas teachers just know to wrap the kid in the blanket. First of all, given horrendous outcomes for many kids, it seems like at least a handful of educators (or perhaps more accurately, the system as a whole) has neglected their blanketing duties more often than we’d care to note. Second, these test data are used in dozens of ways to help support and improve schools, especially in states that have waivers (which, admittedly, Washington is not one).
  3. Complaining about a test-and-punish philosophy in Washington State is pretty laughable, since there’s no exit exam for kids [CORRECTION: there appears to be some new exit exam requirements being rolled out in the state, though students did not opt out of these exams; apologies that I did not catch these earlier; I was referring to old data], no high-stakes teacher evaluation, and less accountability for schools than there was during the NCLB era (though parents did get a letter about their school’s performance …). Who, exactly, is being punished, and how?
  4. Finally, the report lumps together Common Core with all kinds of things that are not related to Common Core, such as the 100+ standardized test argument and the MAP test. Common Core says literally nothing at all about testing, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with a district-level benchmark test.

It shouldn’t be asking that much for a respected news organization to get very basic details about major education policies that have existed for 4+ year correct. Instead, we get misleading, unbalanced nonsense that will contribute to the tremendous levels of misinformation we see among voters about education policy.

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Some quick thoughts on opt out

In general, I have not opined much on the subject of “opt out,” for a number of reasons. First, there’s little/no good data or research on the topic, so my opinions can’t be as informed as I would typically like them to be. Second, I don’t know that I have much to add on the issue (and yet I’m about to give my two cents). Third, it’s a trend that actively worries me as someone who believes research clearly shows that tests and accountability have been beneficial overall. I don’t really see much policymakers can do to stop this trend short of requiring public school students to test [1].

Despite my best efforts to avoid the subject, over on Twitter, former MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr asked me what I think of this EdWeek commentary on opt out. Here are some excerpts of their argument and my reactions.

First, the title is “Test-taking ‘compliance’ does not ensure equity.” Probably the authors did not write this title, but it’s a very weak straw man. I know of few/any folks who believe that test-taking compliance ensures equity. I certainly don’t believe that. I do believe having good data can help equity, but it certainly doesn’t ensure it.

Some parents have elected to opt their children out of the annual tests as a message of protest, signaling that a test score is not enough to ensure excellence and equity in the education of their children. Parents, they insist, have a right to demand an enriched curriculum that includes the arts, civics, and lab sciences, and high-quality schools in their neighborhoods.

I don’t have good evidence on this (I don’t think anyone yet does, but hopefully several savvy doctoral students are work on this topic), but my very strong sense is that the folks opting out of tests are not typically doing it as an equity protest. Everything I’ve seen and heard so far says this is largely, but not exclusively, a white, upper-middle class, suburban/rural phenomenon [EDITED TO ADD: Matt Chingos has done a preliminary analysis of this issue and largely agrees with this characterization: http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2015/06/18-chalkboard-who-opts-out-chingos%5D. My conversations with educators in California, for instance, suggest that the high rates of opt-out in high schools in some affluent areas are because the exam was seen as meaningless and interfering with students’ abilities to prepare for other exams that actually matter to students (e.g., APs, SAT).

Since it was signed into law in 2002, No Child Left Behind has done little to advance the educational interests of our most disadvantaged students. What’s more, the high-stakes-testing climate that NCLB created has also been connected to increased discipline rates for students of color and students with disabilities.

I think the first sentence there is not correct–as I showed in the previous post, there’s evidence that achievement has increased due to NCLB for all groups, including the most disadvantaged (but not much evidence it has narrowed gaps). I’m not aware of well designed research showing the latter claim, but that’s not my area. Regardless, as I also discussed in the last post, sweeping claims of harm to disadvantaged students are hard to square with empirical evidence on outcomes such as test scores and graduation rates.

And even after these tests reveal large outcome gaps, schools serving poor children of color remain underfunded and are more likely to be labeled failing. Most states have done nothing to intervene effectively in these schools, even when state officials have taken over school districts. Moreover, despite NCLB’s stated goal of closing the achievement gap, wide disparities in academic outcomes persist.

I think this is mostly true, though of course it depends on state (some states are much more adequate and equitable in their funding than others). And the lack of intervention in low-performing schools really is about a lack of effective intervention, though I’d be very curious what interventions these authors would recommend. It’s true that achievement gaps persist, though I believe racial (but not income) gaps are about as small now as they’ve ever been.

We are not opposed to assessments, especially when they are used for diagnostic purposes to support learning. But the data produced by annual standardized tests are typically not made available to teachers until after the school year is over, thereby making it impossible to use the information to respond to student needs.

Some of the new state tests get data back faster. For instance, some California results were made available to teachers before the end of the year. In general I think it’s a bad idea to heap too many different goals for a single test. It’s not clear to me that we always want our accountability test to also be our formative, immediate feedback test–those probably should be different tests. But that doesn’t necessarily obviate the need for an external accountability test.

Thus, students of color are susceptible to all of the negative effects of the annual assessments, without any of the positive supports to address the learning gaps. When testing is used merely to measure and document inequities in outcomes, without providing necessary supports, parents have a right to demand more.

Again I think the intention of both the original NCLB and the waivers was that, in the early years of school “failure” students would be provided with additional supports and options (e.g., through supplemental education services and public school choice) to improve. Those turn out not to have worked, and perhaps future supports will not either, but it’s not necessarily for lack of effort. I’m curious what specific supports these authors would advocate, bearing in mind the intense hostility among half our nation to raising any additional funds for schools or anything else.

The civil rights movement has never supported compliance with unjust laws and policies. Rather, it has always worked to challenge them and support the courageous actions of those willing to resist. As young people and their allies protest throughout the country against police brutality, demanding that “black lives matter,” we are reminded that the struggle for justice often forces us to hold governments and public officials accountable to reject the status quo. Today’s status quo in education is annual assessments that provide no true path toward equity or excellence.

This strikes me as a stretch, though I agree with the first half of it. I’m not sure the “black lives matter” movement was really about holding the government accountable to reject the status quo, as much as it was about holding both government and individuals accountable for centuries of unjust laws and actions (but this is not remotely my area).

The anti-testing movement will not be intimidated, nor is it going away.

I think that’s right. Though reducing or eliminating teacher accountability based on state tests would probably at least reduce the extent to which the unions are actively encouraging opt-outs.

Some may choose to force districts to adopt a more comprehensive “dashboard” accountability system with multiple measures. Others may push districts to engage in biennial or grade-span testing, and still others may choose to opt out. What remains clear is that parents want more than tests to assess their children’s academic standing and, as a result, are choosing to opt out of an unjust, ineffective policy.

With respect to the first sentence, some states did this (and all states had the opportunity to do this in their waivers). With respect to the sentence, it’s not clear to me how biennial or grade-span testing is any more “just” than yearly testing. Perhaps if these authors stated what they think is the optimal testing regimen from a “justice” perspective, that would help.

So, I don’t think it’s an especially convincing argument. But I don’t know that the pro-opt-out movement really needs convincing arguments. If parents have the right to opt their kids out of tests, at least some of them will do so. I suspect this will lead to increased inequity, but that’s an empirical question for another day.


[1] Were I omnipotent, I would enact that rule, and I’d also require private and homeschool kids to test.