The news that Massachsetts is abandoning a planned multi-state test for the Common Core (Kate Zernike, “Massachusetts’s Rejection of Common Core Test Signals Shift in U. S.,” New York Times, November 22. 2015) and that New York Governor Cuomo is likely to retreat from his insistence that 50% of teacher evaluations be based on students’ scores on standardized tests (Kate Taylor, “Cuomo, in Shift. is Said to Back Reducing Test Scores’ Role in Teacher Reviews,”New York Times, November 25, 2015) reflects the reaction of state education officials and elected politicians to the public relations disaster facing standardized testing of K-12 students. Although neither of these moves amounts to a wholesale abandonment of standardized testing, the push for nationwide testing as a driver of educational reform is clearly losing its mojo. As I noted in my last blog on the backlash against micromanagement in several fields, the powerful force in this about-face is not the teacher unions or disgruntled bloggers but students’ parents. The parents have become suspicious of tests that take significant time away from instruction, could rate their child negatively on material that teachers may never have covered (in part because the teachers themselves had limited or no professional development on the material), and about which the parents know the teachers themselves are suspicious. In addition, the schools themselves can end up with a failing or less than stellar “grade,” which could have a negative effect on everything from a child’s chance of getting into college to local property values.
It’s important to remember that standardized tests in K-12 have been around a long time and were at least grudglingly accepted. As I remember, most of them were not used to “grade” anyone but to give teachers, counselors, and parents insights into the strengths and weaknesses of an individal student. Aside from statewide secondary subject matter tests such as the New York Regents exams, where the individual student was graded on actual achievement, these tests were tests of intelligence, apitude, or potential, at least as those qualities were seen by the test creators. The tests were primarily a guidance tool and were not usually high stakes for the student, the teacher, or the school.
In the last 30 years standardized tests have become a management tool to closely monitor student academic progress, to evaluate teacher quality, and to publicly rate schools based on students’ test performance. As many commentators have noted, there are incredible problems with using standardized tests to achieve these varied objectives. As just one example, does publicly rating a school in an overwhelming poor rural community with a grade of “D” actually help anyone? School choice is not an option when the nearest school is 20 or more miles away. The school’s public rating is really nothing more than another nail in the coffin for another hard-luck town. Yes, the school must be improved, but another less destructive way needs to be found to do it.
These numerous objections to the overuse and abuse of standardized testing were denigrated by the tests’ advocates, but their overweening ambition seems to be becoming their downfall. There is the story of the peasants and the mule. The mule was very strong or seemed to be. Every time the mule carried items from the fields up the hill into the village, the peasants would load still more items unto the poor creature’s back. Well before its time the mule died. The peasants took advantage of the occasion and ate the mule. The peasants ended up way ahead of our true believers, unless they plan to eat their tests.