We’ve been there before…

“The task of returning testing to its proper place will be difficult….Those of us who believe in educational equity are facing enormously difficult problems,,,,Our belief in democracy–that normal every day people can make sense of their world and learn to make decisions about it– is at stake…There…is arising a renewed interest in educational tracking…and in new legislative proposals to support private education… All these anti-egalitarian trends….are nourished by the renewed focus on testing

“To the ideologues of the New Right, the focus on testing appears correct and proper, since the free play of market forces ‘naturally’ produces inequality… Such nonsense will someday fade. But the ‘normal’ curve so deeply and perniciously embedded in American education through the use of standardized norm-referenced testing will not fade as quickly. …The much needed development of a theory and practice consistent with democratic schooling is crippled by the existing means of evaluating and documenting educational success. It will not flourish, even in better times, until we break with the dominant ideology of 20th century psychometrics.”

Guess when that was written? 31 years ago. It appeared in the Fall, 1981 Dissent magazine, and includes examples of test items, their impact on reform, as well as useful alternatives. In just 10 pages. Author? me. (It can be read in full–see Articles above–look for Why Reading Tests Don’t Test Reading, pdf) )

It hurts to repeat what we knew 31 years ago. But I also think that we’re writing today to a broader, more powerful audience, representing far more activists than was the case in the 80′s. At least, I’m hoping so. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we can overcome the testing obsession by logic, good analysis, or its palpable silliness alone. Yes, we also still need to educate. But we gave a lot of great speeches on this topic during the 70′s and 80′s, and everyone–superintendents, politicians, and teaches–clapped loudly–and then did nothing about it. We–the good guys and the bad guys–still use test scores as a synonym for intellectual achievement!!

There was a moment, shortly after I wrote this piece for Dissent, when I imagined we had defeated the test-makers. But I was wrong. They were, it seems, just preparing themselves for the next stage of their plan to thoroughly demolish the idea itself of democratic schooling.

In 2013 let’s see if we can breakthrough the fog of camouflage–testing s the new civil rights plan– that is driving the education agenda these days. To 2013! Happy New Year one and all.

5 Responses

  1. Of course your point is entirely valid. Accountancy is indeed the crippling, restrictive force. But it is very important that those against testing offer a legitimate alternative, even if simply by way of reference to the pre-matriculation Finnish education system.

    There needs to be some way of assessing the status of children’s learning in order to address current shortcomings and steer future learning. But the moot point, it seems, is that assessments have been hijacked for external purposes when the children, teachers and parents should be the beneficiaries.

    • Read the whole where I describe alternatives

      But if there were no drug for a disease would it be wise to recommend one we knew wasn’t ?appropriate?

      Sent from my iPhone

  2. Thanks. Will download and read the pdf offline. (It might have been prudent to summarise the findings in this post as the article was not in the related articles section but in a subsection of Writings, so others may not find it).

  3. As a teacher in the late ’70′s and early “80′s I too that we had defeated this beast. It continues to maze me how strongly it has come back, and how impervious it is to logic and data.

  4. The following quote from material you had written 31-years ago, was inspiring:
    “The task of returning testing to its proper place will be difficult….Our belief in democracy–that normal every day people can make sense of their world and learn to make decisions about it– is at stake…There…is arising a renewed interest in educational tracking…and in new legislative proposals to support private education… All these anti-egalitarian trends….are nourished by the renewed focus on testing.

    However, something seemed to be not right about the following section:

    “To the ideologues of the New Right, the focus on testing appears correct and proper, since the free play of market forces ‘naturally’ produces inequality”

    I repeated to myself; “free play of market forces ‘naturally’ produces inequality”.
    I asked myself, ‘would the ‘new right’ ever have considered not endorsing a methodology for measuring teacher performance based on the fact that it might be detrimental to students’ mental growth?’ I don’t think so.

    I think that most successful business people attribute their success to in-born capabilities more than to their teachers. People who belong to organization like the BRT (Business Roundtable) must know that 25% of our college graduates can’t find jobs and be ready to accept the concept: that even our better students are getting beat out by those from other countries. So, this suggests that they would favor reforms that they thought would make the upper half of the ‘bell-shaped’ curve score even higher and close their eyes to those at the lower end. But this argument is also flawed because, in reality, they probably had no clue as to how more testing was going to affect the average student’s ability or intelligence level. Support for increased testing grew among business leaders because they viewed schools as production units in an industrial system; since they were putting so much money into the system, they wanted proof that those hired to produce the product were doing a good job.

    The problem is that our economy forces us to view schools as production facilities. The problem is that testing kills curiosity, causes a lot of tension and does not build up children’s confidence in trying out and defending an answer, traits are among those most sought after by companies in their new employees.

    We are headed towards a world where MNC’s (multi-national corporations) will dominate the markets and offer the most opportunities for employment. Job search and employment recruiting are in for big changes. “Who you know” will still play a role but which school districts are hooked up with which post-secondary schools will matter more.

    HR professionals will do most of the ‘hooking up’; they might even eventually be used to channel funds (that a MNC might be willing to invest) to districts, hard-hit by an austerity-minded state legislature, in return for data access, the right to include some of their own questions in the standard test and an arrangement for them to advertise the companies associated with that MNC. Eventually, these MNC’s will want to know that the new graduates the HRs are bringing in have some recognized ‘seals of approval’. These education ‘warranties’ will be based on results of tests (being developed with RttT grant monies), student grades, and recommendations by schools that have established approved methods for evaluating their teachers. The challenge of the future is to develop process-based evaluations that are better and more reliable than the student-test based ‘value added’ method.

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