Testing assumptions

These posts continued the exchange on Bridging Differences:
Dear Mike,

When I ask myself how I might be wrong, I try to examine my assumptions. These seem to be some of yours. Am I wrong?

You seem to want to put schools on a Bell curve and then assume that most schools that serve children in poverty are, and (because of “the system”) will remain, mediocre. Further, you assume that “those” children learn differently and need direct instruction. Are you really prepared to abandon a goal of working toward creating the sorts of learning communities you’d want for your own children, ignore learning for life, and just focus on increasing test scores? “Sorry kids, you chose the wrong parents so you’ll just have to put up with drudgery.”

You assume that testing tied to standards, including CCSS, is part of the solution because there’s a correlation between increased scores and higher-paid jobs. But correlations are not predictors. Fewer people are killed wearing brown shoes – but changing shoe colors doesn’t make driving safer! Further, high-stakes norm-referenced standardized summative testing is not the same as assessment of significant learning. Tests only measure how well kids did on the tests. And commercially created packaged tests are both artificially cut off from actual learning contexts and tend to value low-level individualistic thinking. Worse, most reading and math tests test for how well the students (and teachers) are following a scripted mandated reading or math program. Don’t you want young people to learn literacy and numeracy in context to get things done in the real world? Meaningful assessment can help but most testing actually gets in the way of real learning.

You also seem to assume that testing improves teaching. But summative tests don’t improve teaching – it’s authentic formative assessments tied to learning that make a difference. Gardeners don’t keep digging up plants to see how well their roots are growing or wait until the end of summer to see if they flower – they watch how well they are growing and tend plants accordingly to their individual needs.

Finally, and most disturbingly, you seem to acknowledge the negative effects of testing on the culture of a school and students’ relationships with teachers but assume that is no big deal. That’s like saying learning in prison is no different from learning in a caring family or in schools of the quality of the Mission School.

Dear Sherrie

You’re right. I didn’t address the issues you raise in your response but that’s not because I don’t agree with your core point about unfairness. I was focused on responding to the premises in Mike’s argument about testing.

I agree with you that all children deserve high-quality teaching in enriching learning environments and in schools ten minutes from where I live I could show you the same shameful inequities that you note. My point is that it is morally wrong to deny poor children in some schools the opportunities afforded to children in others based on a self-fulfilling statistical argument that some schools will always have lower expectations.

Deborah Meier has spent her professional life showing that it is not true. Just as I know too many examples of the inequities you are rightly angry about, I could also take you into classrooms and schools where poverty is not the deciding factor. Your sentence that begins “Schools with lots of poor children …” does not need to continue in the way it does. You are not describing how schools serving poor children all are or could be. Classrooms, schools, and districts can change and provide the sort of education your children, and those young people in the schools you allude to, deserve.

No one who’s experienced changing the teaching and learning culture of schooling would say it is easy, especially when you inherit young people (and teachers) who have been treated so badly by their school districts and politicians. But that doesn’t mean the goal should be abandoned. Nor that the resources and professional development that could move a district in a direction toward more fairness should be spent on testing aligned with scripted curricula.

I too want high quality teaching including everything you list. And yes, the teaching in some schools is better since NCLB. But that does not mean that the testing required under NCLB caused that.

The nub of the argument is whether or not high-stakes standardized testing is going to get you better schools. If you have time to read more of the literature referenced in some of the posts in this blog you’ll find a more critical analysis than I suspect you’ve been previously been introduced to.

Yes, good teaching can include testing as part of authentic formative assessment of learning. However, what’s at stake is whether you and I will support or question increased testing (justified by standards) knowing that testing narrows the curriculum and steals valuable resources and time to crowd out the very things you and I want all young people to learn in school. Worse, the plan in states including mine (supported by Race to the Top funding) is to sort children, schools, and teachers along that Bell curve into “good” and “bad” and “passing” and “failing” based on the results of the tests. I’d value dialogue about what we look for in good teaching. However, I am clear that teachers are not “good” merely because they are good at test preparation or compliant in the face of inequity.

Transforming Teaching and Learning

Transforming Teaching and Learning with Active and Dramatic Approaches: Engaging Students Across the Curriculum. will published by Routledge in August 2013.

Tables and Figures are posted under Handouts.