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Curmudgucation: Let's Just Test All The Damned Year

One of the repeated techniques of reformsters is this: when a proposed policy fails, insist that we need to do it more harder.

Using the Big Standardized Test as the foundation of all school evaluation is a failure. It hasn't provided teachers with actionable data. It hasn't improved student learning. It doesn't tell us much that we couldn't learn from looking at a school's demographics. And you'd be hard pressed to find a word of approval from anyone who 1) has first hand experience with it and 2) doesn't make money from it. It doesn't measure what it's supposed to measure, doesn't provide the benefits it's supposed to provide, and fails to make anyone happy.

So what could possibly be the solution? Might Bill Gates pop up to say, "Hey, this didn't work out so well, so let's drop the whole idea."

Of course not. Instead, this is what happened:

In the fall of 2021, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative funded Education First to work with assessment developers and state education agencies on researching and developing a new generation of through-year solutions connecting what is taught with what is tested by aligning assessments with scope-and-sequences or curriculum. If the grant program is successful, by June 2023, the project will have seeded multiple new assessment designs and test prototypes available for development into full-scale operational systems.

Education First is "a mission-driven strategy and policy organization dedicated to helping our clients navigate through complexity to create more people-focused, equitable and inclusive initiatives, strategies and organizations." 

It was founded by Jennifer Vranek used to make grants for The Gates Foundation. One senior management member is Anand Vaishnav, who somehow went from Boston Globe reporter to Boston Public Schools Chief of Staff in 2005. This group of "educators and strategists" includes on its executive team folks from a host of familiar reformster groups-- Gates Foundation, Teach for America, TNTP, Joyce Foundation, Broad and Harvard Graduate School of Education products. I found one person with an actual background on the ground in a public school. So it's that kind of crew.

So Education First cranked out a report about what we're now calling "through-year assessments." 

The TYA are supposed to address what the report calls "long-standing, legitimate concerns expressed by students, families and educators about traditional end-of-year summative assessments’ inability to support teaching and learning" and let me acknowledge the large clueless cajones required to call the Big Standardized Test "traditional," as if the BS Test was not foisted on schools twenty-some years ago with the enthusiastic backing of Gates et al. Tradition, my butt. 

The report even identifies three issues with the BS Tests:

Disconnected from curriculum and instruction, 

Provide results that do not inform instruction, and 

Require undue time and resources

All accurate because

1) They are disconnected from the work of the school because they were imposed from outside the school in an attempt to take control of curriculum and instruction

2) They provide results that cannot inform instruction because they arrive far too late, provide little-to-know granular insight, and (because protecting test manufacturers' proprietary right is more important that providing useful results) teachers are flying blind about what exactly the students had trouble with.

3) Oh, you have got to be kidding me. 

Because if there's any solution to the time-suck problem of BS Testing, it would be more testing. But wait-- maybe if they clarify what their thinking is, it might not seem so--

Education First believes these through-year assessment systems have the potential to be more equitable, focused and relevant for students, families and educators. In particular, we are interested in exploring the ways through-year models can strengthen the connection between assessment and instruction by timing assessments of learning immediately following relevant instruction or even aligning directly with curriculum. We refer to this as “testing what is taught, when it’s taught.”

You or I or anyone who has actually worked in a classroom might refer to this as "what teacher already do on a regular basis." Seriously. Are we imagining teachers somewhere saying, "Yeah, I teach a unit, and then at the end of the unit, I give a test on a unit from a few months ago, or maybe just read toad warts soaked in tea leaves. But you know-- teach a unit and then give a test on what I just taught??!! That's crazy talk! "

There's plenty of details and examples in this paper, because thirteen states are busy implementing some version of this foolishness. I could walk you through some of the details-- we should stop long enough to admire the heading, "How are states designing through-year assessments to change perceptions about the time and resources devoted to testing?" because, I guess, changing the perceptions is a better goal than changing the reality? But this is one of those times when it's pointless to get wrapped up in examining the trees because the whole forest is perched on a mountain of lime jello and fairy dust.

What exactly is going on here? A couple of possibilities come to mind:

1) Once again, some teaching amateurs are proud of themselves for inventing the wheel.

2) Certain people are looking for ways to expand the market and increase revenue for test manufacturers (partners who get thanks for "reviewing and improving" the paper include reps of the Walton Foundation, NWEA, Center for Assessment, and Learning Policy Institute). 

3) Certain people see a new path for trying to micromanage curriculum and instruction, since the BS Test didn't quite get as far down that road as they had hoped. Because standards are magical and if we can just force everyone to get in line, things would be awesome.

4) More testing means more data to mine! Ka-ching!

The three foundations have created a whole grant for this kind of year round test-a-palooza, so if it hasn't hit your state yet, keep an eye peeled. 


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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...