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The pushback against high-stakes testing, and some alternatives

There's been a spate of news stories recently about various educator and parent groups across the U.S. protesting the ever-expanding emphasis on high-stakes testing as the ultimate means of educational accountability.  While I basically agree with many of the concerns about our pathological attention to testing in K-12 education, I worry that there's not enough public discussion on what should replace this emphasis.

Critics of high-stakes testing make many valid points.  When schools are obsessed with test scores, other concerns take a back seat.  Non-tested areas like the arts get squeezed into narrower and narrower slices of the curriculum and kids increasingly lose their unique identities (and needs) to educators who view them exclusively in terms of their test score output.  This leads to an extreme emphasis on interventions for kids who are just below proficiency, especially if they are in a targeted population, because tiny test score gains for these students yields the largest bump in most accountability systems, while students who are extreme high or low achievers are often allowed to languish.

Many educators, myself included, have rightly noted that standardized tests aren't even a particularly valid measure of instructional effectiveness.  In other words, they don't do a good job of measuring the real impact individual teachers make on individual students over some given period of time.

Perhaps one of the best arguments against high-stakes testing, if not always the most effectively voiced, is the idea that such assessments represent the ultimate form of industrialization in education.  Schools operate far too much like factories (they were actually designed to be this way), where students (and sometimes teachers) are treated as manufactured products.  Such an approach always tends toward standardization of processes that brush over the myriad individualized intersts, personalities, and needs of students.  (For the best critique of traditional education in this vein, see John Taylor Gatto's Weapons of Mass Instruction, which I reviewed here and here).

In many respects, Kentucky fairs far better than other states on several of these counts.  We are not immune from it, of course, as many frustrated parents, students, and teachers would no doubt attest.  But at least in Kentucky there has been a shift toward End of Course assessments at the high school level, which, while certainly imperfect measures, provide a closer gauge of what students have actually mastered in a given year.  The expansion of program reviews for arts and humanities and other "non-tested" areas may prove to be a better system of accountability for these subjects.  The growth component of the state's new accountability system will give better measures of how students have increased their knowledge and skill over the period of a year, even if they didn't reach proficiency, than we've ever had before.  And even though Kentucky's proposed teacher evaluation system does include some measure of student performance in assessing teacher effectiveness, it does so in a far more reasonable and effective way than many other states (and I happen to believe that value-added measures of teacher effectiveness do have some validity and should be further pursued).

Nevertheless, Kentucky like most other states does suffer from test mania, and many of the critiques against testing in general do apply here.

My concern with all of this is how rarely critics of testing offer some other meaningful alternative for promoting high performance and accountability.  I've argued elsewhere that given the enormous taxpayer investment in education, the public has a right to know whether we are delivering a good service.  For all its problems, testing has brought a long-needed emphasis on achievement gaps for poor and minority students and students with disabilities that were simply shameful in the past (and happily, some of these groups have shown real academic progress in recent years, though still much work obviously needs to be done).

To my mind, two things must fundamentally change to make genuine progress in getting more students to proficiency in content knowledge and skill. 

The first is teaching quality.  In my experience, teaching most traditional American schools has changed at a glacial pace.  I do believe teaching has improved, especially at the elementary level, but most changes in teaching practice have been largely cosmetic.  In many American high schools, rigor is lower that in past decades while teaching methods are largely unchanged.  Schools in crisis (as measured by test scores) continue to emphasize expensive programs or elaborate intervention models, with little attention to what happens during regular classroom instruction.

Practicing and aspiring school leaders who are serious about student achievement need to start with a thoughtful and direct assessment of teaching practice (which includes a transformation of classroom grading and assessment).  The best framework I've found so far for doings this can be found in Marzano, Frontier, and Livingston's Effective Supervision: Supporting the Art and Science of Teaching, which I use in my instructional leadership courses at WKU.  For a much more focused and greatly simplified treatise on the basics of good teaching practice, I recommend Mike Schmoker's Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, which I've written about extensively on this blog and discuss ad naseum in my classes.  Either book is an excellent starting point.

A strong emphasis on instruction should be the number one school leadership imperative, and it's not one that is easily legislated or directed from the state and federal level.  Individual teachers and administrators at the school level must take the initiative to make these needed changes of focus.  As I tell my students, if you have a strong enough instructional vision, then the state can again change the curriculum and testing systems (and trust me, they will), and your vision can remain steady.  If your school is serious about the work of transforming instruction, testing and accountability take care of themselves.

But the second thing that must change to ensure genuine accountability is to vastly expand the range of educational options available to families.  I question the extent to which traditional schools can innovate new approaches to curriculum and instruction as long as they maintain an exclusive monopoly on educational services for the vast majority of families.  Meaningful, widely-available school choice programs provide the autonomy for schools to innovate new and creative approaches to instructional delivery and meet educational needs that are so often neglected under the current system. 

The need for accountability remains, and improved testing programs might be one part of it.  But testing alone doesn't ensure high-quality learning experiences for students.  Only teachers (supported by effective leaders) and parents can do that.  We need to place far greater emphasis on liberating these groups to do the real work of improving student learning, and testing will find its proper place.



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You stated "Perhaps one of the best arguments against high-stakes testing, if not always the most effectively voiced, is the idea that such assessments represent the ultimate form of industrialization in education."

If that is one of the "best arguments" something is drastically wrong. On my list of reasons why high-stakes testing (which ultimately means standardized testing) is wrong that one might come in last.

To get an idea of exactly just how "wrong" high-stakes and standardized testing is please read, if you haven't already read which I doubt because otherwise you wouldn't have made the above quoted statement, Noel Wilson's 1997 dissertation "Educational Standards and the Problem of Error" to be found at: http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/577 .

There has been no rebuttal whatsoever of his damning critique of educational standards and standardized testing. In contacting Noel about his tome he told me that only a half a dozen or so people have contacted him about the study in the 14 years that it has been available on line.

If you have any further questions please feel free to contact me, Duane Swacker @ [email protected]

Gary Houchens

Thanks for the comment, Duane. I will look at this study.

I do, again, recommend John Taylor Gatto's book. I suspect he wouldn't take issue Dr. Wilson's research.



I have read some of what JT Gatto has written but not for a couple years. May have to go look it up again.

I would be interested in your views on Wilson's dissertation. Another bit of his writing (a tad shorter piece) on the validity or as he puts it invalidity is "A Little Less than Valid: an Essay Review" found at http://www.edrev.info/essays/v10n5.pdf

Thanks for responding. By the way what was your dissertation and can I access it by internet?


Gary Houchens

Duane, I'll post a link to my dissertation as soon as my Internet is back up (I'm pecking on my phone at the moment). It was a multi-case study using Argyris and Schon's concept of "theories of practice" to study the instructional leadership of successful principals. You'll be interested to know my own research is all qualitative. I share your sentiment that the mostimportant things can't be easily measured.

Gary Houchens

My dissertation study can be accessed here: http://digital.library.louisville.edu/utils/getfile/collection/etd/id/863/filename/864.pdf

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