Applying the Brakes to Testing

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No field trips, no senior proms or formal dances, no Kente commencements or graduation ceremonies. Welcome to May 2020, and the world turned upside-down for everyone, and in quite particular ways for students and schools.

These rituals and experiences will surely return one day, but for young people on the verge of taking the next steps forward in their lives, the loss is level, and the disappearance irreparable. 

Another passing away—one that ought to be embraced and not mourned—is the suspension of report cards, grades, and standardized tests. Like similar policies adopted in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, the Chicago Public Schools just announced a new grading system that suspends failing grades and introduces a “hold harmless” approach in which students can improve their grades but cannot drop below where they stood before the shutdown. Depending upon the circumstances, students may earn a pass or incomplete.  This sounds like an improvement, although it is not without its detractors, and just reading the various arguments around what is equitable and what is fair reminds us that systems of grades always focus attention on the grades themselves and not the learning they are purported to represent.

The pandemic made the annual administration of high stakes standardized tests impossible this year. In the best of times, the use of these tests has been problematic—exacerbating existing social and educational inequities by doling out plums largely to the already privileged, distorting the work of teachers by placing undue emphasis on a limited set of skills, and devaluing the most humane, creative, and expansive aspects of schooling. Further, the ranking of schools by test scores places unwarranted pressure on teachers to “teach to the test” rather than to the child, and perpetuates the distasteful reality that good schools are for some and not for all in a democracy.  And, of course, testing is massively expensive, money that could surely be better used to create smaller classes, expanded arts programs, and place nurses and counselors in every school. 

Why not seize this opportunity to extend the suspension of high stakes testing for at least three years and to create something more vital and robust, based on the idea that every child is of incalculable value and worthy of an education geared to their full development as human beings?

Standardized testing within K-12 schools has been a common-place feature for decades, and it’s unleashed an increasingly forceful opposition—parents electing to have their children skip the tests, stay home, or sit in the auditorium during test time. Hundreds of communities have concluded that the tests are disruptive but have no authentic educational benefit. Tests correlate strongly with parental income—choose the right parents and your scores will soar. In addition, the weight placed on certain standardized measures combined with the huge consequences—high stakes—makes cheating inevitable. This explains in part why cheating scandals on standardized tests are rampant across the land—the root problem is incentivizing the wrong thing.

 “Goodhart’s Law,” named after the British economist Charles Goodhart states: A performance metric is only useful as a performance metric as long as it isn’t used as a performance metric. If you want to build a “good high school,” and you announce up-front that 100% college attendance is the indicator of whether you’ve achieved that goal, people will work frantically and single-mindedly toward that designated target, and it might even be achieved, but to the detriment of the larger goal. One hundred per cent of its graduates could indeed go to college (the performance metric) because every effort was bent in that single direction, but proponents glossed over an anemic curriculum, autocratic and rote teaching, a massive push-out rate, a sketchy list of what counts as “college,” and astronomical college failure. Not good. The target had become the goal, and the larger universe (the school itself) continued to be an educational wasteland. 

The whole modern testing regime distorts life for students and teachers alike. It de-professionalizes teachers, turning them into clerks, and it focuses on a tiny set of testable things that then become glorified as the things-most-needful. The tail is wagging the dog. Albert Einstein famously noted that not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. Think, for example, about love, joy, justice, solidarity, curiosity, creativity, beauty, kindness, compassion, commitment, peace, effort, interest, engagement, awareness, connectedness, happiness, joy, sense of humor, relevance, honesty, self-confidence, respect for others, and keep counting. 

Twenty years ago, the College Board acknowledged that the Scholastic Aptitude Test had little to do with “aptitude” and dropped that word from its title, changing the name to the Scholastic Achievement Test. That wasn’t quite right either—the test can’t say what’s been achieved and so the name was changed again. It’s now simply called the SAT. It makes some wacky, perverse sense that the most famous test in the land is named for itself and measures those skills needed, mostly, for itself.

The pandemic crisis illuminates anew intolerable circumstances and situations that we’ve somehow been tolerating all along. In Chicago African-American make up a third of the population and three-quarters of the Covid19 deaths; healthcare as a product to be sold at the market place is a catastrophe for most people; massive numbers of Chicago students have no computer, and when the City sweeps in to provide one, they still have no access to the internet.

And then, in the blink of an eye, we see clearly that what we’ve been told was impossible, is in fact, possible: the federal government can guarantee incomes and send payments directly to individuals; businesses can extend sick leave to their employees; healthcare can be guaranteed; people awaiting trial can be let out of jails. A bar of soap can be placed in every CPS lavatory.

So step back a moment and ask a fundamental question: what could schools be, and what should they be, in a free and democratic society? Let’s rally to suspend standardized testing for three years, freeing teachers from the tyranny of the tests, and use that time to mobilize teachers, students, parents, and whole communities to examine innovations in assessment, and to generate meaningful approaches for documenting school effectiveness and student learning that suit our blessedly diverse population of students.

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Marv Hoffman

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