Janresseger: Faith in High Stakes Testing Fades, Even Among the Corporate School Reformers

After a recent twenty-fifth anniversary conference at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell—a Gates funded education-reformer think tank, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum summarized presentations by a number of speakers who demonstrate growing skepticism about the high-stakes, standardized testing regime that has dominated American public education for over a quarter of a century.

Because the Center on Reinventing Public Education is known as an advocate for portfolio school reform and corporate accountability, you might expect adherence to the dogma of test-and-punish, but, notes Barnum:  “The pervasiveness of the complaints about testing was striking, given that many education reform advocates have long championed using test scores to measure schools and teachers and then to push them to improve.”

Then at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology School Access and Quality Summit early this month, Paymon Rouhanifard presented a major policy address challenging the use of high stakes testing to rank and rate public schools.  Rouhanifard was until very recently Chris Christy’s appointed, school-reformer superintendent in Camden, New Jersey.  Formerly he was the director in New York City of Joel Klein’s Office of Portfolio Management.  Rouhanifard describes the belief system he brought with him to Camden and describes how his five-year tenure as Camden’s superintendent transformed his thinking: “Our belief was that politics and bureaucracy had inhibited the progress Camden students and families deserved to overcome the steep challenges the city was facing…  We believed it was important for the district to segue out of being a highly political monopoly operator of schools….  This is a story about an evolution of my own thinking during that five-year experience…. What I’m referring to are the math and literacy student achievement data we utilize to drive so many of the critical decisions we make… My realization a few years ago was that I rarely asked questions about what these tests actually told us.  What they didn’t tell us.  And perhaps most importantly, what were the specific behaviors they incentivized, and what were the general trade-offs when we acutely focus on how students do on state tests.”

In 2013, at the beginning of his tenure, Rouhanifard introduced a school report card that rated each school primarily by students’ standardized test scores. Two years ago Rouhanifard eliminated his own school report cards.  He describes his realization: “We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized.  We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education…. I… believe the drawbacks currently outweigh the benefits.  That we haven’t been honest about the trade-offs.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, like Rouhanifard, held a position in Joel Klein’s “reformer” school administration in New York City.  Now the president of Bank Street College of Education, he was formerly Klein’s former deputy schools chancellor. Barnum explains that Polakow-Suransky has become an emphatic critic of the nation’s high-stakes standardized testing regime: “The biggest barrier to student learning and closing the achievement gap is the current system of standardized tests.”

In a piece at The 74, the  Thomas Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio quotes Polakow-Suransky: “All of us were well-intentioned in pushing this agenda, but the tools we developed were not effective in raising the bar on a wide scale.”

While the Thomas Fordham Institute has endorsed corporate school reform including high-stakes, test-based accountability, Fordham’s Pondiscio now acknowledges that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, U.S. public schools have become mired in an education culture defined by test-based accountability.  Though he seems unclear on the way forward, Pondiscio now advocates for serious reconsideration: “The challenge is not testing vs. not testing.  It’s not accountability vs. none.  Both bring benefits of different kinds, and both are required by a federal law that’s not going to change anytime soon.  The challenge is to develop a policy vision that supports—not thwarts—the classroom practices and long-term student outcomes we seek… The problem is the reductive culture of testing, which has come to shape and define American education, particularly in the kinds of schools attended by our most disadvantaged children.”

There are some who remain faithful to the school reformer dogma. The Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Robin Lake tries to change the subject: “We need a more productive debate about school accountability, not tired arguments over testing.” And Matt Barnum quotes Sandy Kress—still a tried-and-true believer in the No Child Left Behind regime he helped create: “Research shows clearly that accountability made a real difference in this country in narrowing the achievement gap and lifting student achievement.”

Of course, research does not clearly show that Sandy Kress’s kind of No Child Left Behind accountability made a real difference.  Here is Harvard’s Daniel Koretz, in the authoritative book he published a year ago, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.  It is perhaps this volume by an academic expert on testing that has helped change the minds of some of the corporate school reformers quoted above.  Koretz writes: “It is no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge.  Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale.  Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents.  Cheating has become widespread.  The public has been deceived into thinking that achievement has dramatically improved and that achievement gaps have narrowed.  Many students are subjected to severe stress, not only during testing but also for long periods leading up to it.  Educators have been evaluated in misleading and in some cases utterly absurd ways  Careers have been disrupted and in some cases ended.  Educators, including prominent administrators, have been indicted and even imprisoned.  The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary-school math that don’t persist until graduation.  This is true despite the many variants of test-based accountability the reformers have tried, and there is nothing on the horizon now that suggests that the net effects will be better in the future. On balance, then, the reforms have been a failure.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 191-192)

Introducing readers to Don Campbell, “one of the founders of the science of program evaluation,” Koretz defines the problems inherent in our society’s quarter century of high-stakes, test-and-punish school accountability by quoting Campbell’s Law:  “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intend to monitor.”  Campbell directly addresses the problem of high stakes testing to rank and rate schools:  “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of … achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

How has the testing regime operated perversely to undermine the schools serving our society’s most vulnerable children—the ones we were told No Child Left Behind would catch up academically if only we created incentives and punishments to motivate their teachers to work harder?  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools.  The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others.  Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do.  This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’  It was a deliberate and prominent part of may of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic  The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Besides imposing unreasonable and damaging punishments on the schools and teachers serving our society’s poorest children, Koretz believes our commitment to a regime of punitive testing has distracted our society from developing the commitment to address the real needs of children and schools in places where poverty is concentrated: “We can undoubtedly reduce variations in performance appreciably, if we summoned the political will and committed the resources to do so—which would require a lot more than simply imposing requirements that educators reach arbitrary targets for test scores.” The Testing Charade, p. 131)

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...