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Curmudgucation: Tests and Threats

Weighing the pig does not make it fatter.

This is not news, and yet the recent push-back by supporters of the Big Standardized Tests have included, among their various paeans to testing, the repeated assertion that testing leads to improved achievement. Take Valerie Strauss's piece written by a Pearson executive

Tests are a means to an end – showing what individual young people have learned and how schools are preparing them for their next step in college or their careers. New annual state tests, supported by Pearson and other testing companies, will help students and teachers in those crucial life choices. Strong accountability and assessment systems are pivotal to ensuring equity for all students. We share a common goal with the teachers, parents and students we serve – to ensure that every single child graduates from school ready for success in life on her or his own terms.

If you want a more protracted version of the same thing, read the New York Times conversation between Kevin Welner and Patricia Levesque, which reminds me of conversations about personal responsibility that I've had with my chocolate lab. Some people are just deeply committed to Not Understanding.

The connection between Taking Tests and Getting Better Educational Results is always shrouded in mystery. On twitter this week, someone tried hard to show that BS Tests lead to better education. Or scores. Or something. Somehow.

The Somehow part is always left out. I don't think this is because reformsters don't know what it is, but because they understand that it doesn't play well. The closest they come to explaining is the magically vague word "accountability." And the process that they believe in, but are reluctant to describe, goes like this.

  • Students take BS Test
  • Results come back
  • We catch the lazy sonsabitches who are doing a crappy job
  • We punish them so they will get off their asses and do better next time
  • Start next round of testing by reminding everyone that they better do well, or else

The backbone of the BS Test narrative is not the actual tests; the policy stands on the strong two legs of Threats and Punishment.

Hell, the tests barely matter. Look at how little time the reformsters have spent making damned sure that those tests are excellent and accurate and valid and reliable. Look at how little time and effort they have spent holding test manufacturers accountable for the contents of those tests. Look how little discussion there has been about making sure that the BS Tests are not loaded with cultural bias, that they are in fact a fair measure for poor and minority students. Now compare that to the amount of time reformsters have spent arguing, lobbying, angling for and pursuing the policies that will properly punish teachers and schools that bring in low scores.

We have entire bodies of regulation on state and federal level discussing how to properly punish, retool, transform, and otherwise beat into submission "low-performing schools." Compare that to the amount of government oversight brought to bear on making absolutely certain that the indicators of Low Performance are accurate and valid and reliable and true.

It's like we've set up a cancer hospital and spent gazzillions of dollars staffing it and filling it with machinery and tools and treatment plans, but at the admissions desk all you have to do is walk in and say, "Hey, yeah, I think my neighbor has cancer" and they'll grab your neighbor and go to town on him. (Of course, our system is also like a cancer hospital that treats your cancer by beating you with pointy sticks and throwing you in a cage with angry badgers.)

Nobody has tried to deliver a great BS Test, because nobody asked for one. Leaders like Duncan and Cuomo and Bush just wanted something to generate "proof" that a bunch of public schools suck so that we could all start leveraging threats and punishment to make them shape up. Lately folks Peter Cunningham and the ed reform universe's angriest citizen have been pretty explicit about their diagnosis-- teachers and their unions are deliberately doing a crappy job so that they can be guaranteed lucrative cushy jobs while simultaneously keeping minorities beaten down.

They don't need or want a great BS Test-- they just need proof that public schools suck so that they can holler "gotcha" and start punishing and replacing.

Weighing the pig to make it fatter does make sense if you think that A) the farmer is starving the pig on purpose and B) once you have proof, you can use threats and punishment to make the farmer feed the pig properly (or just take the pig away and make the farmer pay somebody else to raise it).

This model says a great deal about what its adherents think of teachers in particular and human nature in general. We don't have to tell them that tests don't improve student learning-- they know that. But the tests give them a hook on which to hang the true transformative force in education-- threats and punishment.

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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. ...