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Two Views on What We Should Say About Testing

Publication Date: 2006-03-06

George Schmidt's critical analysis of the FairTest position as stated in Monty Neill's letter is essential to our struggles. He is not attacking FairTest but pushing them to deepen the argument. His analysis challenges all of us to think carefully about these issues.

Colleagues and friends:

Recently, I went over Monty's letter to Education Week, with an eye towards asking that it be expanded for publication in the April Substance, where we have more space to cover the broader issues. Three things I would suggested expanding are:

1. It needs to be noted that the three tests (MCAS, TAKS, and NY Regents) that Monty examined and found lacking were just about the only ones that are available because in most states, including Illinois, secrecy prevents the public
from ever reviewing the actual tests. Any letter or critique of high stakes testing that leaves out the fact that more than 40 states (I'll leave it to someone who catalogues such things to give the exact number at this point in history) are using secret high-stakes tests which even parents are forbidden to review in total. The only first step towards a critique of high-stakes tests themselves is the complete disclosure of every question and every "correct" answer once the testing cycle is completed and the children's scores have been
released. The reason Monty was able to review TAKS, MCAS, and the Regents is that they are from the small minority of states that release the tests and scoring rubrics (as opposed to "sample items" which prove worse than useless because
they are used to mislead people via the media).

I would have hope that Fair Test would have made a plug for full disclosure of tests and am disappointed this hasn't been done here.

2. The stratification of scores on standardized tests -- whether normed referenced tests like the Iowa or supposedly tests based on course content like most of the state tests -- according to economic status is not based on something
that teachers and principals are failing to do inside public schools, as Achieve and Ed Trust prattle when they go on about "achievement gaps". It is based on the "savage inequalities" (Kozol) and the terrible impacts (plural) of poverty on children (see David Berliner's "Our impoverished view of education reform" for the most recent exposition of this fact.) To discuss these issues
without reiterating that point over and over is to allow the teaching bashing that forms the basis of the testing industry at this point -- "We have to test them because we can't trust the teacher in a 'government school'".

3. Which brings us to the last and equally important problem, the promotion of "professional development" as the solution to the "problems" of low achieving schools.

Just as No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes state and local programs based on standardized testing became first a full-employment program for
psychometricians (and, in many cases--pseudo- psychometricians), so the "professional development" panacea then falls right into place and becomes a full employment program for "external partners", professors of education, and a growing cadre of for-profit in-service providers whose only real skill is marketing themselves and their latest Power Point CD based wastes of teacher time. The presecription for external and centrally mandated "professional development" (which is what Monty is doing at the end of his letter) is a form of teacher bashing based on the notion that teachers just need some professor and fast talking contractor to tell them how to do it right. This is promoted even if all the kids are poor, with bad teeth in a community where the wealthiest person is the local drug gang leader, as we face in Chicago and as Berliner and others have noted.

In Chicago, this has translated into white "experts" with no inner city teaching experience replacing and lording over the mostly black teaching and administrative staff of our most hard core schools. Now that we have had four years
of school closings (for "poor performance") under "Renaissance 2010" here, that racial divide is very clear, and hundreds of black parents, teachers, and community leaders have been meeting across the city here to organize around the
growing realization that the formulas of "school reform" that have been put upon us the past decade are, at their core, aimed at the people of the inner city.

I don't think it does the movement for justice any good to have a public statement like Monty's letter pull punches on such important questions as test "security" and the underlying white supremacy of the "professional development" panacea.

George N. Schmidt

Editor, Substance

Published in Education Week
To the editor

Education Sector?s report ?Margins of Error: The Education Testing Industry in the No Child Left Behind Era? accurately analyzes the >serious limitations of the testing industry?s products, documenting the sad reality that state exams overemphasize low-level skills and thinking, with harmful effects on teaching and learning ("U.S. Should Do More to Aid States in Developing Tests, Report Says," Feb. 1, 2006).

But the report fails to grasp that modest improvements in test quality will not solve the larger problem that teaching to the test narrows and dumbs down the curriculum.

The report touts the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams. But MCAS reviews by the nonprofit Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education found that ?the tests were very much like all the other standardized tests,? and that they ?are likely to dampen student
achievement by undermining quality.? Because the exams are ?eminently coachable,? the group said, ?test scores are likely to improve without much attention by teachers to genuine content.?

Similarly, teams of academics examined New York?s language arts, history, and science Regents exams, finding them low-level, often focused on trivia, and unrelated to college work.

Recently, I reviewed the MCAS and the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills language arts tests. For one section on each, I read only the
questions, then answered eight or nine of the 12 items correctly. If I had gone back to skim the passage, my correct-answer rate would have
been higher.

Last year, Achieve Inc. asked college professors what incoming first-year students need to be able to do in order to succeed. Most of
their list cannot be assessed well by standardized exams: write extended works, critically read and respond to complex materials, reason scientifically, and be orally proficient.

If our nation is serious about high-quality education for all children, it cannot continue to mandate accountability programs tying high stakes
to standardized tests. Rather than waste vast sums on more standardized exams, school systems, states, and the federal government should supportprofessional development that focuses on classroom?and especially formative?assessment.

? Monty Neill, Executive Director, FairTest

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