About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Comedy: HBO's John Oliver Swings (& Misses) Against Standardized Testing

It's no easy job being smart and funny at the same time, and especially so when the topic is something as boring and controversial as standardized testing.  But last night's John Oliver segment didn't seem to succeed at either task, and came off somewhat blinkered with its focus on the concerns of (mostly) white teachers and (mostly) white parents and students. Watch for yourself and let me know what you think:

As you'll see, there are some funny bits and great snippets -- Obama bashing standardized tests in a pandering campaign speech before the NEA, a dirty remark regarding the Common Core logo, a funny quip about teachers' inspirational class posters in the new age, a bit about value-added formulas coming from livestock prediction models (is that true?), the instructions on what to do if a kid throws up on a test (is THAT true?), the comparison of Pearson to Time Warner Cable, the pop culture references (Fight Club, etc.).

There are tons of problems with standardized tests, and lots of things that could be done to improve them.
But Oliver seems to be trying way too hard and might not have the goods. Making fun of school testing pep rally videos seems like something you might see on America's Funniest Home Videos (if that's still on). The repeated focus on Florida seems problematic. The Talking Pineapple test question is old. The adult who did poorly on the test I don't care about him. The French kid with the cigarette? I have nothing to say. The girl crying because she tests poorly and can't take advanced art seems hard to believe (someone find her!). Going back to the dancing test mascot not twice but three times seems desperate (or maybe just not my cup of tea).
More importantly, going back to a world without standardized tests, and subgroups, and attempts to link teachers to student progress, is hard for me to imagine, and my sympathies lie much more with the kids who aren't being taught by teachers who think they can learn or school systems that don't give them the resources they deserve to succeed.  I don't think testing dramatically worsens those problems, even if it doesn't fix them.  The Common Core testing rollout has been glitchy but nothing like, say, the initial rollout of Obamacare.  And as I noted last week recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere have been a big reminder to us all that fixating for or against testing, charters, or technology increasingly seems like fiddling on the margins. 
None of this is to say that I hope Oliver and his crew don't continue to watch and mock things going on in education.  The Daily Show and the Colbert Report were generally great in terms of keeping an eye on hits and misses in schools and improvement efforts.  It seems unlikely that Colbert is going to be able to interview education researchers in his new gig.  So we need Oliver et al to keep the attention.  I'm just hoping that they'll be funnier and smarter about it next time around. Or maybe I just need to be in a better mood.

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The Daily Show and the Colbert Report have had an advantage in the daily format, because neither tried to attack an Entire Giant Issue in one shot, the way Last Week Tonight (or the Nightly Show) does. Compare Oliver's segment with Stewart's piece on Atlanta: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/x4vg3f/fraud-city -- Stewart could make a focused argument about how we blame teachers disproportionately for social ills, and let financiers off the hook.

Bill Sanders - the earliest implementer of value added model in education (the Tennessee value added model) - began his work developing these techniques in agricultural economics.

Actually, Oliver's piece was perfect. Oliver's entire comedic shtick lies in his absurdity and the absurdity of his target criticism. Watch any number of his other pieces and you will see the same pattern. It's what he does, and he does it well. More importantly, like Stewart and Colbert, he perfectly mocks a broken and misguided system that does nothing to achieve it's stated goals- equality, accountability, and competition; but does plenty to achieve their unstated goals- profiteering, breaking unions and furthering inequality.

Alexander, you are spot on with this post. He conflated so many things (standards and tests, federal and state, merit pay and eval), it almost felt like he was deliberately messing with the facts to make the bit work. And that's a bummer because on issues I know far less about I tend to take him on faith (and sometimes laugh riotously). I wonder if I've been duped those other times?

Or maybe one of his producers is opting their kid out of NY tests...

Disagree that testing has not hurt the marginalized in our socieity. The stack ranking of schools by tests and no child rules that punished diverse schools for having measurable amounts of subgroups has been a factor in the resegregation of metropolitan areas by schools. Many schools made sure to succeed by not haveing those people around any more. We have also provided ample abundance for the "good" people on the winning end of that resegregation while taking away from the "losers"-- the poor and minority concentrations. This machine has been used to take away the funding and shove kids aside. Consider how no child forced communities to send 20 percent of their title 1 funding to private companies or how these new tests are more than twice as much as the old tests. 15 years ago the city I live in had healhier integrated school systems. No more. We now view only those who measure up as worthy of investing in based on the test and school ranking and sorting out of the unworthy. Same stuff that was tried 15 years ago in business and dropped because it hurt companies overall and detroyed morale.

Why civil rights groups say parents who opt out of tests are hurting kids - The Washington Post.

A dozen civil rights groups issued a statement Tuesday criticizing the growing movement of parents who refuse to allow their children to take standardized tests, saying the anti-test push “would sabotage important data and rob us of the right to know how our students are faring.”

Considering how much the test scores have been used over the last 15 years to poison funding for schools and to redline so many schools without saying that we are redlining it is sad how some of those groups are now backing what has been used to harm them quite a bit. For example here in our county the wealthiest school districts were getting beat up on for their special ed students failing under no child---solution: send them to the "crappy" district and no longer mainstream them in your own. Off your books then. Not to mention funding inequities that have resulted. Here in this state the schools that serve the bottom 20% of income population lost 120 million in funding in 2012, 130 million in 2013 while the total for the those for the top 20% in income saw their school funding decrease by less than 30 million both years. But hey, lets use an above grade level standard of proficient targeting about the 35th percentile to beat up on those that haven't cast them all out instead of working to actually overcome the inequities.

What evidence do you have that the result of testing is the provision of more resources for poor kids? We really have to be careful--both supporters and opponents of putting all our eggs in the testing basket--not to engage in magical thinking. More testing is being used as an excuse not to improve educational outcomes for poor kids, but as an excuse to break the backs of teacher unions and monetize public education for the investor class. At the same time, opponents of over-testing have to acknowledge that there will always be testing, and that making testing go away will not automatically improve the outcomes for poor kids, either. You don't pass this test in this piece.

Testing does have the potential to worsen outcomes, however, because when traditional, underresourced public schools are closed because of poor test scores and replaced by for-profit, underresourced charter schools, the focus moves away from educating kids and toward returns on investment. If your point is that testing helps us understand which public schools need more resources, and what resources they need, you don't make that point here.

"school systems that don't give them the resources they deserve to succeed. "

School systems? The feds promised 40% of special education costs. They give NJ 16%. NJ law promises (by court order) to fully fund our schools. My district is underfunded by 18%. How is my school to offer the resources the students need to succeed when the school is severely underfunded by but the state and federal government?

The comments to this entry are closed.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.