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Thompson: Why Haven't Reformers Rejected High-Stakes Tests (Yet)?

Tests Against my better judgment, being a team player, I originally supported my union and the majority of teachers who endorsed NCLB. Watching the recent TeachPlus presentation, The Student and the Stopwatch, and listening to the Education Next discussion on the time devoted to testing, I wondered how many participants are doing the same thing.

Leading the discussion with Dave Driscoll, Andrew Rotherham, and TeachPlus’s Celine Coggins, Mike Petrilli kept probing, asking whether high-stakes testing was to blame for excessive test prep. I hope they are just being team players as they all seemed close to acknowledging that high stakes testing had failed. 

None, however, said aloud the logical conclusion that they seemed to be approaching.

Driscoll and Rotherham described the benefits of Massachusetts’ standards based reforms and the “sea change” produced by President Clinton’s reforms of 1994.  Both nailed the key reason for those successes, and both came close to articulating the reason why NCLB failed, and why a Common Core/high stakes testing train wreck is coming.    

Rotherham even coined the best Common Core metaphor that I’ve heard.  Hoping it will solve the problems created by NCLB is like a couple having a baby to save their marriage.
To fully appreciate the wisdom of Rotherham’s punch line, we have to back up and think through his and Driscoll’s diagnosis of education’s real problems.
Massachusetts was building on a long history of success in reforms of all types of public sector services, including education, when it adopted a balanced and well-funded reform that included testing. It thus raised its student performance from 7th or 8th in the nation to #1. Clinton’s standards likely contributed to the NAEP increases of the late 1990s. Most importantly, neither students or good teachers were harmed by those mostly win-win efforts. 
From Rotherham’s and Driscoll’s perspectives, conflicts over their reforms may or may not have been tough.  But, those battles were fundamentally different than NCLB and today’s test-driven reforms. Those involved adult political/academic battles. 
As Rotherham notes, there was a time when old-fashioned accountability only applied to adults. But adults created schools where students were socialized into competitive cultures for raising test scores. In theory, I guess, it was once plausible that adults could have shielded students from the stress of data-driven accountability.   
By now, however, the pattern should be clear.  High-capacity systems are capable of investing new resources in balanced and research-based ways. 
In struggling schools facing numbers-driven accountability, however, the long-held wisdom of educators has been confirmed, the feces rolls downhill. In low-capacity schools, the toxicity dumped on adults flows down on students. Yet, today's reformers are not content to impose high-stakes on adults; high-stakes tests are now being applied on 3rd graders. And, soon, massive numbers of high school students may be on the street with a diploma, not because of failing 1990s-type minimum competency tests, but because they couldn't pass college readiness tests.   
As Rotherham says, we haven't had hard conversations about low-capacity schools and what it would take for them to function in an accountability-driven system. As Driscoll explains, those schools will be overwhelmed by “distractions,” and test far too much for the wrong reasons. One result, as the Teach Plus survey shows, is that urban schools have imposed up to five times as much testing as suburban schools. It is under-the-gun schools, not high-performing schools, that spend up to a third of class time in test prep and even create classes devoted to improving test scores.
Most teachers support fair efforts to fire bad teachers, and they support Common Core standards. As Rotherham says, most union opposition to Common Core is actually an attack on value-added evaluations. He is also correct that in five years teachers will be saying the same thing about Common Core as they are now saying about NCLB-type testing. Surely he, Driscoll, and Petrilli understand the virtual impossibility of simultaneously implementing value-added evaluations and Common Core, but they don’t quite articulate that no-brainer of a conclusion.
If we stopped high-stakes testing, we’d still have things to dispute.  But, we wouldn’t have anything worth fighting over.  Teachers would disagree with some Common Core standards and assessments. The overwhelming majority of educators, and our unions, would gladly unite and save Common Core standards and its formative and summative assessments, but only if stakes are removed.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.  

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