An Overview of the Politics of Testing

This fine email was forwarded by Angela Valenzuela. I don’t think it has been web posted yet. In the email, an expert on national testing trends wonders about motivations behind the testing movement. My own impression is that standardized testing in Texas correlates very closely with a kind of “demographic shock” that began to shiver through the establishment when it was pointed out that white folks were headed rapidly for minority status.–gm

What next to combat grad and grade promo tests?

Recent developments around graduation and grade promotion tests suggest that at best the effort to halt that misuse of testing has been stalemated.

Recent developments include the first year in which graduation tests for students in CA and AZ will come into effect. In both cases, looming court decisions could change those apparent facts. At least in the case of CA, the immediate decision would only be for this year, though subsequent legal battle could extend it. Nonetheless, thus far the courts have not protected students from the misuse of tests, preferring to defer to state authority even when it is well documented, as in MA, CA and AZ, that many of those who do not pass have been denied a fair or adequate opportunity to learn. And the courts have offered absolutely no protection to students who have been retained in grade.

On the political side, the trend toward using graduation tests has slowed since the late 1990s. In the past few years, only OK and ID have decided to have such tests, and much could intervene between now and then. As it is, half the states but 70 percent of the students face such tests now, including CA and AZ. Geographically, states that have not gone the high stakes route are essentially New England except MA, and the Midwest from Illinois and the “border states” of KY, IL and AR through to the Rockies (until NV and UT), and stretching to the Pacific Northwest ˆ till WA and ID perhaps join the grad testers.

However, no state has politically ˆ legislatively – moved to drop the tests. Some have been willing to implement alternatives for students who repeatedly take and fail the tests; Georgia recently has done so, joining states such as MA, NJ and IN. However, the alternative in NJ is under serious attack (tho not likely to be completely eliminated) and just the other day an article in Indiana included an attack on the alternative, in part because this year the numbers of students earning a diploma that way rose (to a bit over 3000; not a large rise, and it had been over 3000 at its start).

On the grade promotion front, most of the action has been in the cities, but over the past half-decade there has been a steady accretion of states requiring students to pass tests to be promoted, tho I think they all have exemptions, even FL and TX (which of course are under attack from the ilk of Jay Greene and Marcus Winters). I have not noted a sizeable trend toward more state-level retention requirements, but one could erupt given the pressures of NCLB.

The most important question is what can now be done to counter the steadily, though not rapidly, increasing use of grade promo and graduation tests, and to roll back their use.

To figure that out requires asking why these things have spread. Clearly, the tests are relatively cheap, appear objective, and therefore seductive to politicians and the business and media interests that have promoted them. The circular nature of teaching to the tests and rising scores (test score inflation) fosters the illusion that things have improved. Thus, some simplicity of argument, inexpensiveness, apparent success, and very well heeled and powerful interests behind it, have combined to convince large shares of the public of the desirability of high-stakes testing.

What counters this? Clearly, we opponents have no where near the resources of proponents. Thus, we start out very behind in a critical arena, the more so since the media by and large have been proponents. We have some numbers with some resources, especially teachers and to some extent their unions (the NEA moreso; the AFT is opposed to high stakes for kids; but most of the action on these issues is at the state level and thus dependent on whether and to what extent the unions will take up this issue). Those numbers have rarely been well organized at the state level, often due to the lack of resources. Unless the teachers unions step up to a greater degree, and an alliance is clearly built with other education groups, parent groups, civil right groups and others, and this issue made a serious priority, the consequences of the resource gap will be very hard to over come.

Another aspect is arguments and evidence. It is clear that evidence alone won’t work or we would not be in the mess we are in. But we must have evidence. On retention, the evidence is overwhelming: it is a bad idea. Making retention decisions based on test scores compounds the problem. But surveys show the public backs retention, and this is another ‘tough love’ sort of proposal too many politicians etc like to promote. On this basis, the ‘end social promotion’ framing has been increasingly successful.

On graduation test results, the evidence is more complex. (The views of the profession against high-stakes testing are officially clear, but largely ignored, including within the profession itself.) Clearly, there are students who do well in school and have earned a diploma except they have not passed the test. These are vitally importatn cases, but in some ways, esp. if there are not many of them, more for winning the right of appeals and alternatives than as a direct challenge to the tests. Some studies have found that most of those who don’t pass would not graduate anyway (the Boston Globe did a very detailed tracking of students on this issue- tho it did not discuss the social contexts of those kids lives).

As to dropouts, the overall evidence is that dropouts do go up, but not in large numbers; kids may well be dropping out at younger ages and may be less likely to return to school. Sadly, these numbers are mostly comprised of low-income and minority group kids who lack political clout even as the politicians purport to be looking out for them (somehow not having a diploma has become better for these students than having one).

More than one observer has noted that the question is the political cut score: how many kids (and which kids) can ‘safely’ be denied a diploma ˆ and how many be denied a diploma to prove the system is ‘working’ (an issue likely to soon arise in AZ where the numbers failing have fallen dramatically).

In short: these data and arguments do not add up to a good enough case ˆ at least in the face of the proponents combination of resources and arguments. My sense is that using some of this info to push for alternatives (which for example Schwarznegger had to veto in CA) will be effective over time, but that this is not going to be sufficient on the broader issue of whether to have a grad test.

Note also, all this gets intertwined in complex ways with language proficiency and disabilities ˆ what about students without strong English skills or those who complete their IEPs but clearly have not met the expected overall academic standards, regardless of measure?

Arguments such as ‘one size does not fit all’ and corollaries ˆ kids learn differently, kids show their knowledge differently ˆ seem to matter to the public, as does the point that kids who do well in school but do not pass a test should not be denied a diploma ˆ tho the latter may resonate more toward allowing appeals after one has failed the test. While most pols currently are loathe to consider ending the grad test, many more will be willing to consider alternatives, when pushed hard and well. (I will post more on that separately). But ‘one size fits few’ has not been a sufficient argume
nt, even coupled with the evidence of harm to many students.

Opportunity to learn – rather, its absence ˆ should be of real importance. If court cases win in CA or AZ, that will be the basis. But despite all kinds of rhetoric, accountability on the backs of children is accepted by politicians, business and media, in general. Worse, despite the consequences for low-income and minority kids, the other day there was an op ed in a CA paper co-signed by the head of the Cal NAACP that essentially accepted the use of high-stakes testing despite the well-documented lack of OTL in California. That is, resources that may (or may not) come later make it acceptable to damage kids today.

It is generally valuable and certainly appropriate to insist that tests be made open to public review, but where that has happened it does not lead to many people looking at the tests. Some parents, students, teachers or other experts have found flawed items (and that has certainly at times greatly helped some students), and a few groups have then carefully analyzed the tests (CARE in MA; NY Performance Standards Consortium). But those analyses have not gotten much traction.

Last, we come to the longer term and deeper effects from having education controlled by the relatively trivial. That is, there are better ways to ensure that students learn enough before graduation, ways that actually contribute to richer, deeper learning instead of schools as test-prep programs. But, we have learned, this is a hard sell ˆ complex, so far not reducible to soundbites, not part of the ‘common sense’ (or hegemonic thinking) of the day, and perhaps too reliant on understanding how narrow and limited the tests are. (Constant school and teacher bashing contributes to this problem since any reasonable alternatives probably have to rest on substantially teacher empowerment.)

So: all this is to say that I think it could be worth a discussion on what to do to win, given the current overall situation, which remains grim. I can see a lot of what has not worked. Maybe these dreadful consequences are mainly a matter of being out-resourced, that no evidence or arguments can win under those circumstances. But assuming we do not want to quit the field, we need to ask ourselves, how, at this time, do we best contribute to winning more than the right to appeals (useful as that can be, both for itself and as a persistent reminder that the test is not always right)?

Monty Neill, Ed.D.
Executive Director
FairTest
342 Broadway
Cambridge, MA 02139
617-864-4810 fax 617-497-2224
monty@fairtest.org
http://www.fairtest.org
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