Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why Education Experts are Obsessed with Top-Down Accountability–But You Don’t Have to Be

Another recent addition to the New York Times’ extensive literature on 21st century innovation needs is Dana Goldstein’s review of Anya Kamenetz's The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing–But You Don’t Have to Be.

Goldstein begins by laying out Kamenetz's arguments against standardized testing:

...Kamenetz probes psychometry, or the science of testing, demonstrating its roots in the deeply held racism of the early-20th-century I.Q. movement. She shows why today’s achievement tests, designed to evaluate ability on a specific day, typically at the end of the school year, are poor tools for helping either teachers or students improve their practices in real time. “They conceptualize proficiency as a fixed quantity in a world where what’s important is your capacity to learn and grow,” she writes. “They are a 20th-­century technology in a 21st-century world.”
In this brave new world, we learn, current skills and knowledge are no longer important; instead what's important are the future skills that people are capable of eventually acquiring. So, for example, when I’m hiring a programmer, or choosing a doctor or lawyer or accountant or music teacher, I shouldn’t consider their “fixed” proficiencies in programming, medicine, law, accountancy, or music pedagogy, but only how much they seem capable of learning and growing down the line.

Given these compelling conclusions:
…the book’s most urgent contribution is its exploration of how we might hold our schools, teachers and students accountable if we were to scrap high-stakes standardized testing entirely. As in her previous book, “DIY U,” Kamenetz is open to seemingly radical, technology-driven solutions. She reports on artificial-­intelligence experts who would harness the addictive qualities of gaming to instruct and assess kids online; computer programmers who seek to perfect the flawed software currently used to grade essays and track student performance over time; and school administrators experimenting with new measures of social-emotional growth, like student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity.
Ultimately, Kamenetz advocates the kind of approach she observes in action at Bate Middle School in Danville, Ky., and the Urban Academy Laboratory High School in New York City. These schools assess students using long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking. Their practices hark back to the “exhibitions” of early Republic schools, in which parents and the community observed children as they demonstrated newfound knowledge. Kamenetz shows how fundamentally American it would be to turn toward a more holistic system of evaluating educational outcomes.
It doesn’t seem to occur to Goldstein, or to Kamenetz, that "addictive" gaming software might detract from "learning and growing." Or that “student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity” and “long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking” might be just as stressful, just as time-wasting, and just as unreliable as “tools for helping teachers or students improve their practices in real time,” as standardized tests are.

Regardless of which particular century we happen to be living in, there is a much better way to hold schools accountable. Imagine if all parents had real school choice. Imagine if all the programs currently beset with impossibly long waiting lists--Montesseri, KIPP, and language-immersion, for example--could expand to meet parental demand. Imagine, further, if parents could request specific teachers--with popular teachers getting larger classrooms and extra support staff.

Of course, because it empowers the amateurs, who supposedly have much less sense than the experts do of whether their kids are learning anything useful, this sort of accountability will never be advocated by the experts. Especially by those who suspect, deep down, that most parents don't want what they are offering.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The whole “testing” project has been a study in unintended consequences. I can remember taking them myself in 5th grade. One day in the spring, focused generally on vocabulary and math computation. By the time I had arrived at high school there was a mandatory test in English Writing to be passed before graduation. I am in no way implying that I am a long lost Bronte but I was surprised to find that I had failed. The teacher explained while I had written a lovely essay I had failed to write a thesis with three points and then site them in the text. This was the first year and in the days before test prep was even an idea. Needless to say the next time I passed with flying colors as I knew what was expected. So began the cycle in public schools of test prep that continues to this day.

By the time my child started taking tests in 2nd grade, in a private school by the way, weeks of handouts with reading selections and multiple choice questions were given to “get the kids ready”. The test took 2 weeks to administer, each day doing a different section for an hour. I can only imagine the even greater pressure at low performing public schools. Of course if we tie “real-world” consequences people in the real world will want to avoid those consequences and look for whatever, hopefully quick and cheap, method to make it happen.

Which brought the next set of unintended outcomes; everyone realized that the rising test scores were not really reflecting rising knowledge. What is the solution, new “better tests”. Of course the tests needed to be harder to prep for and the answer to that was to make them a bit trickier but inevitably this leads to a test writer’s idea of a clever trick being missed by someone who doesn’t have their perspective. More writing, less multiple choice with the result being formulaic answers being emphasized to ensure that the few seconds that the grader spends on your test they are able to quickly see you have completed the checklist. In fact I think that move to greater written assessments on standardized tests is the greatest scandal that has yet to be fully exposed. There is no way to give a mass test and have individual grading be anything other cursory and formulaic. So much for the much vaunted critical thinking.

Yet the tests are necessary. We do see that even with similar populations schools are achieving different things. Whether that is curriculum, leadership or teaching we don’t always know but we have a right to know that these differences exist. Of course the disparity between rich and poor will also always exist no amount of clever test writing will take that away. We seem much less concerned about the disparity between top private schools and excellent public schools.
Of course I can’t imagine anyone even considering a backwards step towards simpler assessments so we continue on at this hopeless task.