Eugene Robinson: The racket with standardized test scores

Apr 2, 2013 by

It is time to acknowledge that the fashionable theory of school reform — requiring that pay and job security for teachers, principals and administrators depend on their students’ standardized test scores — is at best a well-intentioned mistake, and at worst nothing but a racket.

I read that first paragraph of this column by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Eugene Robinson and found myself wanting to stand up and cheer.  For years those of us in the trenches in education have tried to make people aware that the Emperor of Educational “Reform” in the form of test-driven accountability was naked:  it had little to do with real reform, and was destructive of meaningful learning and teaching.  Given that the editorial board of his paper has been among the champions of test-driven reform, this is of special significance.Robinson’s column is not perfect.  He considers standardized achievement tests”a vital tool.”  But to misuse use a tool can be worse than not having it –  using a sledge hammer to set a broken bone is more destructive than helpful, and that has been how we have used standardized tests in the so-called reform movement.

I am glad for Robinson’s column, even as I am going to criticize some additional parts of it.

The occasion of this piece is, not surprisingly, the indictment of former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 teachers and principals in the most thoroughly investigated cheating scandal.  Robinson goes through the details of the scandal, including noting Hall’s selection as Superintendent of the Year by the relevant professional association, the American Association of School Administrators.  Here I note this it not the first time that organization has honored someone who supposed achievements were false:  Rod Paige was honored for his work in Houston, even though scholars were seriously challenging the results being reported for his school district, results later proven to be manipulated by holding children out of test, and claiming a false low drop-out rate by only looking at the percentage of those starting senior year who graduated on time, thereby masking the fact that more than 50% of those who began 7th grade dropped out.

Robinson properly references the work of his Post colleague Valerie Strauss, whose blog The Answer Sheet has been one of the few places that has featured the voices of those of us (including me) who have been critical of the reform movement.  I note that one of the people on the Editorial Board of the Post who writes about education told me at a conference that the members of that Board disagreed with what Strauss writes.  Robinson offers this quote from Strauss:

“We don’t really know” how extensive the problem is, Strauss wrote, but “what we do know is that these cheating scandals have been a result of test-obsessed school reform.”

Out of dozens of reported scandals, only that in Atlanta has been thoroughly investigated.Robinson notes how Michelle Rhee was lionized, even though

there are unanswered questions about an anomalous pattern of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets

during her tenure –  I could write dozens of posts on the problems of Rhee’s tenure, starting with problems with reported test scores.  Even when there is not provable outright cheating, people claim great improvement on their watch that turns out to be false:  that was true of the tenure of Joel Klein in NYC, and after the State Department of Education readjusted the scores the “miraculous” improvements turned out as illusory as those under Rhee  (which just about when he resigned as School Chancellor and went to work for Rupert Murdoch’s for-profit educational venture).Robinson writes

Our schools desperately need to be fixed. But creating a situation in which teachers are more likely than students to cheat cannot be the right path.

That is unfortunately inaccurate on both counts.  Our approach to education the past three decades has been on a false and destructive path.  That does need to be changed.  If one understands the data, one of the real problems has been that we have not addressed the underlying societal problems that affect how children do in school.  When adjusted for poverty, the scores of American school children compared to their peers in other nations are actually more than decent.  But our focus on test scores in a few subjects and how we use those test scores has led to a real narrowing of education, often for those most in need of a richer educational environment.I must take issue with the second sentence in that most recent block quote.  I’m sorry, but the vast majority of teachers do NOT cheat.  The statement has the effect of smearing the profession.  It is more than unfortunate that Robinson offered those words.  For all the cheating scandals he can identify, even where teachers were involved, in some cases they were directed by their superiors to do things that are illegal and unethical.  Should those people have refused?  Certainly I would have, but then I was not the sole support of my family.  In places where teachers lacked the due-process protections of “tenure” a refusal to follow even illegal directions of a superior could lead to dismissal and being black-balled from future employment in schools.  I know of people to whom that happened.

Having criticized Robinson, let me now praise him.

His final three paragraphs nails it.

Let me explore each, one at a time.

Standardized achievement tests are a vital tool, but treating test scores the way a corporation might treat sales targets is wrong. Students are not widgets. I totally reject the idea that students from underprivileged neighborhoods cannot learn. Of course they can. But how does it help these students to have their performance on a one-size-fits-all standardized test determine their teachers’ compensation and job security? The clear incentive is for the teacher to focus on test scores rather than actual teaching.

Donald Campbell wrote in 1976 about the danger of putting weight on social indicators.  in Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change, we find the famous statement that

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

This destructive nature of this is regularly seen in fields outside of education:  reward policemen by how many arrests they make, and a community will not only see a low percentage of convictions, but may well wind up paying to settle suits for false arrest.  Change to the percentage of arrests that result in convictions and some police will not make an arrest unless it is a slam-dunk conviction.  Rate a hospital or a doctor on fatalities and there will be a reluctance to treat the most seriously ill.  Reward people on Wall Street for quarterly stock prices and decisions will be made that get the brokers bonuses but jeopardize the long-term financial health of the organization.Campbell applied his rule directly to testing:

From my own point of view, achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.

Let’s go to Robinson’s penultimate paragraph:

Not every school system will become so mired in an alleged pattern of wrongdoing that officials can be charged under a racketeering statute of the kind usually used to prosecute mobsters. But even absent cheating, the blind obsession with test scores implies that teachers are interchangeable implements of information transfer, rather than caring professionals who know their students as individuals. It reduces students to the leavings of a No. 2 pencil.

This paragraph gets to the heart of the critique many of us have made about the direction of educational policy in this nation.  When I was asked what I taught my answer always began with one word:  students.  Regardless of the subject at hand, I had to start with where my students were, which meant I had to know them.  No two classes were the same, which is why scripted lessons are garbage.  Students learn in different ways.  And much of what students learn and can do cannot be accurately measured by multiple choice questions.Robinson’s final paragraph challenges the entire way we as a nation have been going about the “reform” of our schools:

School reform cannot be something that ostensibly smart, ostentatiously tough “superstar” superintendents do to a school system and the people who depend on it. Reform has to be something that is done with a community of teachers, students and parents — with honesty and, yes, a bit of old-fashioned humility.

First, let’s drop the entire idea of miracle success and superstars.  It makes for exciting copy and turns into nice movies, but is not reality.  I am an award-winning teacher. I know others similarly honored.  But for all of us the real reward is not the ceremonies, although the recognition is nice and any financial bonus is always welcomed. Rather it is when we can see the students connect, improve.  It is when the students reach out to us later to thank us, especially those students we were not sure we were reaching.It is not just “reform” that cannot be done “to” –  it is teaching, because it is done “with.”

Look again at the first part of that last sentence:  Reform has to be something that is done with a community of teachers, students and parents.  It is why the solution is NOT to close down schools and ship students across town, as is being done in too many cases – in NYC, in Philadelphia, most of all in Chicago.  Education occurs in the context of community, a community that includes families as well as the educators.

I have my quarrels with some of what Robinson wrote.

But I praise the thrust of this column, hope it will, despite my reservations on part, be widely distributed.

I can only hope the editorial board will pay attention to what he wrote.

And not only the Post editorial board.  Those policy makers who are responsible for creating the situation which is the context for the scandals we have been seeing.

Unfortunately, I do not have that much expectation that either hope will be fulfilled.

And given my low expectations, I weep for our children.

Daily Kos: Eugene Robinson: The racket with standardized test scores.

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