Why Testing Has Failed Our Schools

The over emphasis on test scores (can you say A-F report cards?) is wrong-headed and detrimental to students and our school systems.

Here is a great article from District Administration magazine by Tim Goral exploring this topic.  Tim interviewed Daniel Koretz, one of the nation’s foremost experts on education testing, the Henry Lee Shattuck professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of “The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.”

Pressure to raise achievement test scores has become the driving force behind what is taught and how. Worse, the results from these tests reveal only a fraction of the overall picture of whether students are learning—and whether teachers are effective in their jobs, says Koretz.  In fact, he says the whole idea of test-based accountability has failed.

In his book,  Koretz says the pressure to produce results often leads to outright cheating.

“Test-based accountability has become an end in itself in American education,” Koretz says, “unmoored from clear thinking about what should be measured, how it should be measured, or how testing can fit into a rational plan for evaluation and improving our schools.”

I have to say, reading your book made me angry at times.

Well, thank you. I have to admit, I wrote it in part because I was angry. Probably came through.

You’ve been studying testing for about 30 years, and you tried to warn of the misuse of standardized tests early on.

It’s depressing. My concern was that it was clear that using tests in this way wasn’t going to work, that it was going to generate serious side effects, and that, ironically, it was going to undermine the value of tests.

In 1987, I published something that said that one of the consequences of high-stakes testing is that test scores will be less valuable. And that has been true.

That’s Campbell’s Law that you wrote about in the book.

Campbell was one of the founders of the Scientific Study of Program Evaluations. He said, “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 intended to monitor.”

We’ve known for a long time that this would happen. The majority of people who study incentive systems in a variety of fields know and accept that it happens. That makes it even more striking that people in education have pretended that it doesn’t.

Hence the word “charade” in your book’s title.

Exactly. It’s pretense. Everywhere I turned, people in education were acting as though this weren’t true, even though they had evidence to suggest it was. They found it inconvenient, so they pretended it wasn’t there.

You write that standardized testing has value, but not in the way we’re currently using it.

Standardized tests were designed, primarily, to monitor and diagnose. And they work pretty well for that.

For instance, at the same time that racial differences in achievement have been narrowing, socioeconomic status differences—more specifically, the gap between rich and poor kids—have been growing. And we know that because of standardized tests.

So we need to measure what matters in multiple ways. How can we get more valid assessments?

What I always say to people is, even before you get to that question, ask yourself what you want to see when you walk into a classroom. If you can’t describe what you want teachers to do, and what you want them to do better, there’s no point in even starting to design an accountability system.

When I visit a classroom and see kids absolutely bored to tears, then I know that the classroom is not acceptable, even if the test scores are good.

When I observe classrooms, at the top of my list is student engagement. I want to see them motivated. I want to see them committed to real intellectual work, as opposed to just sitting there doing chores, doing worksheets and so on.

Different teachers produce that kind of engagement in different ways. I want to see what teachers are producing in the classrooms, and not just a standardized list of things that they should be doing.

There are many teachers and district leaders who now equate good instruction with just getting better scores.

It’s even worse than that. In many places teachers are told that good instruction is test prep.

This is something that students here at Harvard, who are former teachers, have been telling me for years—that it’s not just that they were told explicitly to do test prep to raise test scores. They were told that doing test prep is good instruction. And they were often given these little menus for how to do it: Do step one, do step two, do step three.

So they don’t recognize the contrast between good instruction and test prep. They’ve never seen anything else.

The clearest example I can give comes from a former inner city teacher. She said, “I know that what we were doing was not what the kids really needed. But you tell me—how else was I going to meet the targets that were set for me?”

That, in two sentences, sums up what’s wrong with this system. Instead of teachers asking, “What can I do to improve their learning,” it’s, “What can I do to get their numbers up?” And in many cases that has turned out to be simple cheating.

Let me stress one thing in the book that doesn’t get as much play as I would like. Cheating is just a canary in the coal mine. There’s a huge amount of test prep that produces fraudulent gains in performance. And if you define cheating that way, it’s everywhere.

It’s not just in Atlanta, where people changed answer sheets, or El Paso, where they made kids disappear from the enrollment rolls. It’s all over the United States.

Are you hopeful we can change it?

I think we can. But it’s going to be a tough slog, because there are a lot of people who stand to lose if we back away from this. You’ve got all the people who pegged their careers on these reforms. Suddenly they’re going to be in an awkward spot.

There are probably close to one million teachers who will need to be completely retrained because they’ve never seen any other type of instruction.

A former teacher asked me, “Where is the point of leverage to start changing things?” And I think the answer has to be partly at the top.

When you say at the top—do you mean the federal level?

Right now, many people tend to point fingers at the federal level because the feds took control of this with No Child Left Behind. But keep in mind, the origin of this heavy-handed test-based accountability really began at the state level. Some of them will really have to change their tune as well. We don’t know exactly what recipe will work.

There are huge differences in the challenges facing, for instance, teachers in low-income schools and high-income schools. So why would we insist that they do things in exactly the same way? It doesn’t make sense to me that they would.

Some schools have large populations of kids who don’t speak English well, and who aren’t in a position to pick it up quickly on their own. Seems to me they should be organized differently.

Unfortunately, many families without resources are relying solely on schools to educate their kids, and they’re not being served.

That’s one reason I got so fed up with the pretense. The motivation for a lot of the reforms of the last 15 years was to begin to reduce inequities. That was why, when NCLB was in Congress,  people like Ted Kennedy and George Miller supported a Republican bill. They wanted to pressure schools to improve things for the kids at the bottom.

There’s just no evidence that it has worked.

I believe we have an ethical obligation to admit that we failed and we have to look for another approach. And we can argue about what that other one should be, but it’s not this one. We’ve done this for more than 20 years, and that’s a generation or two of school kids who have been cheated out of an education.

Here Is One Teacher Who Nails It. Must Watch.

It’s that dread time of the year known as “testing time.”  It’s when life at any school is consumed by doing all they can to boost test scores. The world literally stops.

I have been at schools during this time.  Teachers wear soft sole shoes so their footsteps don’t interrupt a student.  Back when the exams were on paper, it was easier to get into Fort Knox than in the room where tests were secured.  You hear no children laughing and giggling as you do on a normal school day.  The stress level of teachers and administrators goes through the roof.

Which makes this video by an English teacher in a Tennessee school all the more powerful.

In one sense it is hilarious.  But at a deeper level it is sad because it vividly focuses on what some “experts” have forced us to believe is what education should be.

Meet Some Montgomery Area Teachers

April is National Financial Literacy Month and the good folks at Max Credit Union in the river region are looking for three teachers who do an outstanding job with financial education.

The community selects these through on-line voting.  My fourth-grade teacher friend Kris White is one of the nominees competing for $1,600 to be used for classroom supplies.  She teachers at Bear elementary and she and her class took time one day to show me some of what they study in math these days.

Kris passed along the voting info and I dutifully cast my ballot for her.

But what really got my attention was the background info about Kris and the other seven teachers in the running.  I was very impressed.  They all look like outstanding teachers.  I encourage you to take a moment and check them out.  Hopefully you will get the same feeling that I did, that the continual cries of the Doom & Gloomers about education paints too many folks in the classroom with much too broad a brush.

Jessica Lucas – Prattville Junior High; 8th Grade
Though an English teacher, Jessica Lucas teaches her students beyond the scope of English Language Arts. She explores science, history, math, and financial education with her students to engage their interest and to ensure they fully understand the context behind the novels she passionately teaches. For example, she explores money themes in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” as the plot allows her to explore with students the value of knowledge and careful planning with one’s finances and the dangers of frivolous spending. Through her creativity bringing central themes in this novel to life, her students leave her classroom with a deeper understanding of financial responsibility.

Whitney Dyer – Forest Avenue; 5th Grade
At Forest Avenue, the 5th graders participate in a “micro economy.” Each class elects a “mayor” and creates a “city council.” Each student is a citizen who performs tasks to earn paychecks that can be exchanged for goods at the end of year auction. They can also be fined, such as when a rule is not followed. Whitney helps her students as they set up roles and jobs in their “city” and serves to encourage and support them as they learn how to earn a paycheck and understand basic economic concepts.

Crystal Joiner – MPACT; 9th-12th Grade
As a Health Science teacher, Crystal Joiner not only educates her students about health services, she engages students in lessons that teach the financial aspects of the medical field. Students are charged with developing a budget, researching, and allocating costs for medical supplies and facility maintenance. She builds relationships of mutual respect with the students, encouraging them to reach their full potential. She is preparing them with life and financial skills that will serve them outside of the classroom.

Keisha Graves – Bear Exploration Center; 3rd Grade
Keisha Graves strives to create an environment where students can be successful both academically and in the real world. She incorporates hands-on exploratory learning through aids such as play money, dice, and play checks to explore numeric and monetary concepts. She uses real life experience and storytelling to start conversations and deepen understanding. For instance, she brings two books to life in her class: “If You Made a Million” by David M. Schwartz and “The Lemonade Wars” by Jacqueline Davies. She uses the storytelling to demonstrate how earning, saving, investing, and spending money work in the real world.

Melinda Brumbeloe – Stanhope Elmore High School; 9th-12th Grade
In addition to her ESL and Spanish classes, Melinda Brumbeloe teaches Career Preparedness. She brings in various activities to help students learn more about how to handle finances. She looks for creative ways to engage the students and prepare them for the situations they will face in the real world. She uses online learning activities, games, and guest speakers to help introduce and develop concepts. Her students then bring what they learn to life through projects, such as building a budget, balancing a checkbook, preparing to buy a car, developing group presentations, and more. Her students leave her class more confident and more prepared to handle financial situations they will face in high school and beyond into adulthood.

Paula Jackson – Bear Exploratory Center; Kindergarten
Paula Jackson brings financial concepts to life in her kindergarten class with fun activities – including songs, games, and interactive apps. These include the song and activity “I Love Money” and “Shake Your Piggy Bank” – both designed to explore the value, look and feel of each coin and bill. They build up their “piggy bank”, then practice counting their coins to spend what they earn each week in the classroom “shop.” Her passion for bringing these fundamental concepts to life help instill a love of learning and builds their confidence.

Henry Tellis – Sidney Lanier High School; 12th Grade
Many of the students in Henry Tellis’ Economics classes have had little to no financial literacy exposure. Henry strives to help his students overcome this obstacle by finding ways to apply what they learn in his class about economics to their everyday life. He works with them to learn how to build a budget, learn new ways to save money, and how to live a debt-free life. He knows the important role that families play, and he encourages his students to work with parents or guardians to learn what is spent in their households on everyday items. His students work on a project each year in which they create their own business or non-profit. He also works with the Alabama Council on Economic Education to help his students learn about the stock market.

Kris White – Bear Exploratory Center; 4th Grade
Kris White loves teaching, and two of her biggest goals are instilling a love of learning math in her students and increasing their performance in math. She shows how math plays an important role in financial success, and she builds real-world knowledge amongst her students in fun and exploratory ways though group, differentiated, and one-on-one instruction and learning. For example, her students become entrepreneurs as they manage coffee shops or lemonade stands online. They create the recipes, purchase the supplies, set the price tag, watch supply vs. demand, and keep an eye on economic and other influences (like the weather). She knows collaboration is a key element to learning and encourages her students to engage in discussion and debate.

Tales From The (Campaign) Trail

Don’t be fooled.  Campaigning for any office is pretty much a slog.  Whether it is for the local school board, as I am doing in Montgomery, or for governor, it is hard work.

And you are constantly disappointed as you realize most folks are just not very interested in politics, and have had a bellyful of politicians who can’t seem to remember why they are in office.

You knock on doors and if lucky, maybe two times out of five someone will respond.  But often they will holler through the door, or just barely open it to tell you they are not interested.

But not always.  For instance, a lady recently came to her door and immediately said, “I’ve been wanting to meet you.”  She had read several of the pieces of mail we’ve sent out and had some questions.  We spent a delightful 30 minutes in her living room talking about education and the Montgomery community.  She is retired and has a daughter who teaches in south Alabama at a school I know.

She could not have been nicer or more attentive as we exchanged thoughts.  She wanted a sign in her yard, which I gladly put up, took some literature and promised to talk to her friends on my behalf.  And I’m sure she will.

Needless to say she lifted my spirits.

They were also lifted on a recent visit to a high school where I had an appointment to meet the principal.  But when I arrived, he was tied up.  Here’s why.

A few days ago two students were in a horrific car wreck and one will be crippled for the rest of her life.  This was shortly after another student was murdered in a drive-by shooting.

Obviously all of this stunned the student body.  They did not how best to cope.  (Which reminded me of my own senior year when we lost a classmate and were at a loss as to what to do and how to feel.)

In this case, several students asked the principal if they could have an assembly for the student body and seek relief in prayer.  This was going on when I got to the school.  I stepped in the auditorium to stand silently as students rose to speak and lead in prayer..  It was a moving experience and vividly illustrated what I know so well.

Which is that nurturing students involves a great deal more than books and lessons and tests.  A fact that escapes most of those who rant and rave the loudest about school performance and student achievement.

And it is such moments as these that send you to knock on the next door.


When It Comes To School Safety, Lot Of Talk And Not Much Else

The Valentine Days massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, FL rattled America.  And as good politicians do, when you sense a parade is coming, you rush to get at the front of it.

And we do have some good politicians in Alabama.  One of the first to find a bully pulpit was Lt. Governor candidate Will Ainsworth of Guntersville.  He wanted to arm teachers.  But as we pointed out here, the great majority of educators we talked to thought this a very bad idea.  And from all reports, this effort by Ainsworth never gained much traction.

Our colleague, Trish Crain at AL.com, has done a fine job of detailing what has happened at the statehouse since the Parkland tragedy.  You can read her summary here..  She points out that of the nine bills filed after Parkland, only one was approved.  This will allow schools to use money previously earmarked for technology to also be used for school safety purposes.

Of course, since any good crisis requires a lot of study, Governor Kay Ivey signed an Executive Order creating the “Securing Alabama Facilities on Education” council.  This group is to make a report by April 30.  Not to be outdone by the governor, Rep. Terri Collins came up with a bill to establish the Alabama Task Force on School Safety and Security.  As of this writing, I do not know the fate of the Collins bill.

Since ideas are being tossed out, here is one that probably none of our 35 senators or 105 house members have considered.

Why not end the Alabama  Accountability Act and spend the money now being diverted from the Education Trust Fund to private school scholarships toward making all of our 730,000 public school students safer?

For example, since this program began in 2013 we have diverted $116 million  from ETF.  Just how much money is this?  One  superintendent told me she could employ one School Resource Officer (SRO) for a year for $80,000 to cover salary and benefits  In other  words, what we have given to the accountability act would put 1,450 SROs in our schools.  That would cover almost every school in Alabama.

Who knows.  Maybe a task force or committee will suggest such an idea.  But I’m not holding my breath until it happens.


Hitting Delete Ain’t Much Fun

When I checked a few moments ago, there were 2,347 email addresses in my address book.  But earlier today there were 2,349 because I just deleted two.

That’s because two longtime friends passed away in the last few weeks,  But each time this is the reason I hit delete, I have to pause because the action seems so final.  And how do you end a life richly lived with such a brief gesture?

You don’t.

Instead right now I am thinking about all the good times I shared with Lynn Gowan of Montgomery and George Alford of Camden.  Lynn was a Montgomery County commissioner for nearly two decades.  A genuinely good guy.  As  down-to-earth as they come.  If you needed help and he could provide it, he would.

I recall the time not long after he took office that I called and told him I was a farmer in south Montgomery County and needed help.  “You see,” I told him, “we had a terrible thunderstorm here last night and lightening killed one of my cows and I need the county to send out some equipment to bury the beast.”

There was instant stammering and stuttering on the other end of the line as Lynn explained that the county could not do this.  +What do you mean?” I said, “That feller you replaced used to bury cows for me all the time.”

More stammering and stuttering until I came clean.  It was  a good laugh for me, I don’t think so much for him.

George Alford was executive director of the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Council in Camden when I was his counterpart in Dothan with the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning & Development Commission 30 years ago.  He was full of life, seemed to always be on a diet, full of tall tales–and an Auburn grad to boot.

I well remember how shocked he was when his oldest son informed him that he was going to school at the University of Alabama.  George figured that he just “over Auburned” him.  And he later bragged that while the young’un was at Bama, that he never wrote a check to the University of Alabama, instead, always coming up with a way to help his son without actually writing those dread words.

At one point he tried weight watchers and had to go to a weekly meeting in Montgomery where apparently you had to confess if you had backslidden since the last meeting.  While others confessed to falling under the spell of ice cream or chocolate pie, George’s most common fall from grace involved a beer.  He told me that his fellow weight watchers thought he was at the wrong meeting, that he should have been at alcoholics anonymous.

Yes.  It only takes a couple of seconds to hit delete.  But that quick gesture will never erase memories of laughs and good times with good friends Lynn Gowan and George Alford.  I will miss them for sure.