By Kevin Welner
A growing number of parents are opting their children out of state testing. This is in large part a protest against the continued escalation of the standardized testing needed to ground the corresponding escalation of accountability policies. If politicians are to hold teachers and principals accountable for students’ test scores, they must have comprehensive data sets that allow for the possibility of following small differences in those scores over time.
A large and convincing body of authoritative evidence suggests that this is a fool’s errand – that attempts to somehow attribute these small differences to teachers and principals run into insurmountable validity hurdles. This is true even when the test focuses on the teacher’s subject – e.g., scores from reading comprehension tests used to evaluate a language arts teacher. It’s even more true when students’ test scores are attributed to teachers who don’t teach the subject of those tests or to teachers who are measured on students they never taught.
Recent opt-out protests here in Colorado brought to mind a conversation I had with my dean when I first started working at CU-Boulder, about 15 years ago. He asked me about the standards-based testing and accountability system in Colorado, which seemed excessive to him. He wondered whether I thought it was a passing policy fad.
“How long will this last?” he asked me.
I assured him, in my best wet-behind-the-ears-policy-analyst voice, that such reform waves have come and gone throughout the history of American schooling. Less than two decades earlier there had been another testing wave, and it had fizzled. The title of Larry Cuban’s 1990 article – “Reforming Again, Again, and Again” – was ringing in my ears.
This exchange with my dean was before No Child Left Behind and the subsequent dozen years of entrenchment of standards-based testing and accountability throughout the United States. So my prognostication was a bit off. But the wave now seems to be receding – in public sentiment if not yet in major policy shifts. What sort of debris will it leave behind?
With the caveat that my crystal ball hasn’t had a great record in this realm, my guess is that the basic policy structure will remain firmly in place, at least in the near term. To mix metaphors, I think the wave that’s receding is only a façade. The structure of test-based accountability reform is much more substantial than the Common Core State Standards or any particular test.
In response to the increased protests, many strong advocates of test-based accountability policies, include Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have made statements to the effect that we need to be wary of excessive testing. Some states have adopted moratoria on some high-stakes consequences of test scores.
In short, we’ve seen dissatisfaction with the status quo of education reform, and we’ve seen acknowledgement of that dissatisfaction. But what we’ve not seen is a widespread, deeper rethinking of school improvement or an embrace of an alternative – and there’s the rub. It’s highly unlikely that the nation will move away from the status quo until it has a different pathway forward.
Accordingly, when we look at our schools two or three years down the line, what we’re likely to see is something a lot like what we have today, albeit with a few rough edges smoothed out. Test-based accountability policies, whether grounded in the Common Core State Standards or some other set of performance standards, will continue to drive curriculum and instruction.
This is not to say that alternative approaches are not available—plenty of research-based best practices could be implemented and could provide a smart way forward. For that to happen, the voices of those now crying out for less testing must also articulate a desire and a concrete agenda for more engaging learning. We must also accept the reality that real reform requires much more than we as a society have been willing to do. It requires demanding more of students and teachers but also of lawmakers and taxpayers. It requires a sustained commitment to ensuring rich opportunities to learn, particularly for students with fewer resources and opportunities outside of the school.
Reforms like test-based accountability give us the feeling of doing something—of demanding excellence—without providing the capacity to achieve our goals. Continuing down that path will continue to leave us disappointed. But, opt-out or no opt-out, that’s where we’re still headed.