Sunday, December 19, 2010

The New Age of Testing

My brother forwarded me this Times article about Shael Polakow-Suransky, the soon-to-be second in command of the NYC public school system. The focus of the article is Mr. Polakow-Suransky's approach to assessment: despite a progressive pedigree—he attended an extremely progressive highschool and studied under Ted Sizer at Brown—he's for more testing and better testing. Strange as it sounds, that may be the only viable position for a contemporary progressive educator, working at the policy level; and though some will probably call it a softening of ideals, Mr. P-S's position represents not so much a compromise as an adaptation of old principles to new circumstances.

Experience has shown that an unmonitored inner-city school system will be a dysfunctional school system. As those on the left will be quick to point out, that's not at heart a fault of the schools: poverty, lack of adequate early-childhood and prenatal services, and egregious underfunding (as compared, at least, to nearby suburban districts) create massive obstacles to education. Overcoming those obstacles will take more than testing, but assessment will have to be part of the equation—because, if we don't assess our kids and our schools, then we don't even know if we're improving.

That statement is sure to raise some red flags for some of my readers. The people who brought us high-stakes testing—most notably the second Bush administration—have steadfastly ignored the underlying structural and financial inequalities between America's de facto segregated black and Hispanic schools and the rest of our public education system; some of them have gone so far as to deny that money even plays a role in the problem.[1] Clearly, that's ridiculous; and when I write that assessment will have to be part of the equation, I'm not joining the ranks of the apartheid-education deniers. More resources, more free preschools, better services, better facilities, active desegregation—all of these should be part of the solution, but without assessment, we will not know whether the new facilities and preschools are doing anything, whether the better services are really any better, whether the added resources are really going to improving the schools. Never doubt that a vast, entrenched bureaucracy like the NYC Department of Education can gobble funds and produce nothing to show for it.

We test because we have to know what's actually getting done, and we use those tests to hold everyone accountable—i.e. we put stakes on them—but once we introduce high-stakes testing, everything shifts: schools realign themselves to teach only and precisely what is on the test; students are literally drilled on the questions from previous years' state exams; worksheets and in-class quizzes are formatted and worded to mimic the formatting and wording of those exams. The aims of public education are altered; and in the experience of many educators, myself included, they are severely reduced.

The solution, then, is to improve the tests. The problem with our current system isn't the fact that we're testing—it's the fact that our tests are lousy. To quote Mr. P-S (as quoted in the article), "All we're testing is basic skills." As long as that's the case, schools are going to stick to the reductive methods of test prep that we've seen in recent years—because, frankly, they're the quickest way to raise scores, in the short term, for kids who lack the foundational knowledge to comprehend the test material at a high level.

(As I've discussed in a previous post, in some cases the current system makes such high-speed, low-comprehension methods not merely appealing but indispensable. Knowing that "high standards" is the watch-word of modern education reform, but lacking the resources, the wherewithal, or maybe just the guts (see below) to create truly rigorous exams that force kids to think, state boards of ed often[2] substitute breadth for depth, packing exams with large quantities of information, much of which is of little relevance or purpose and all of which is tested in the simplest possible terms. For an inner-city teacher whose students generally arrive behind grade-level—research suggests that, by kindergarten, inner-city students are already well behind their middle-class peers in terms of vocabulary and IQ[3]—the rush to cover such a wide array of topics makes teaching anything beyond basic skills impossible. See this bit from my August 16th post for more on this phenomenon.)

The kinds of assessments that Mr. P-S wants to implement go far beyond traditional testing. He's talking about state assessments that "ask kids to write research papers, ask them to solve unfamiliar problems, ask them to defend their ideas, ask them to engage with both fiction and nonfiction texts…." Such assessments would cost more to produce, require more of students' time and energy to complete, and take more teacher-hours to grade. Thus, better testing means more testing and more costly testing—but if assessments really are driving instruction, then it only makes sense that we put a lot of resources into making good assessments.

This isn't the first time in recent months that I've heard talk of truly rigorous state exams. The Times reported in September on two large coalitions of states that are collaborating to develop new assessments; according to Arne Duncan and the coalitions themselves, those assessments, relying heavily on digital technology, will "measure higher-order skills… including students' ability to read complex texts, synthesize information and do research projects." In addition to online, interactive test questions, they will include "performance-based tasks, designed to mirror complex, real-world situations," and, unlike current state tests, students will undergo them multiple times a year.

On the surface, this increased focus on assessments looks like a natural continuation of the testing movement that picked up so much momentum in the Bush years. In fact, the emphasis on higher-order thinking over so-called basic skills[4], that we see in the rhetoric of Duncan and P-S constitutes a drastic shift. If P-S really implements the kinds of assessments described above, the real question isn't whether he's going "run the schools too much by the numbers"—it's whether his ideas are too radical to survive the political and pedagogical battles they seem bound generate.

Assessments like the ones P-S and Duncan are describing would force a revolution in teaching. The relentlessly test-aligned, teacher-centered instructional style that educators have used thus far to stay (or try to stay) one step ahead of the NCLB-mandated deadlines for progress will fail utterly, if such assessments are adopted. In the long run, of course, that will be a good thing—but the transition will be harrowing; and, though everyone acknowledges that educators will face some major challenges, I doubt many people at the policy level realize just how huge those challenges will be. If they did, I think they'd have chickened out.

In fact, it's impossible to know for sure what the transition to deep assessments would entail, because the difficulty of it depends on precisely those qualities of contemporary education that the existing tests fail to measure. My own narrow experience—primarily with middle-school mathematics education in Harlem—is that students are accustomed to a style of learning that is almost entirely passive and rote. Faced with an unfamiliar problem, or even a familiar problem in an unfamiliar context, they have no idea how to proceed. At one school where I worked, we discovered that students who could solve a particular type of problem in math class were often unable to solve the exact same problem if it appeared in another class—say history or reading. The inability to adapt knowledge to new contexts was severe and appeared to me to be a direct result of the top-down, test-aligned teaching methods that we were using at the school. What's more, the students were so used to those teaching methods, that they became uncomfortable when teachers asked them to figure something out on their own. They had neither the confidence, nor the experience, nor the tools to unravel a puzzle.

How wide-spread are the comprehension deficits that I observed in the school I worked at? I have talked to several math teachers who have observed similar deficits among their own students, but I have also seen some inner-city math classes where students seem more confident and independent. If we implement deep assessments—tests that present kids with unfamiliar problems and require that they demonstrate not merely procedural but conceptual knowledge—we will shine a great clarifying light on these questions; and we may not like what we see.

It's hard for me to imagine that the public will have the stomach for those revelations, or the patience for the long and difficult reform that will follow, or the heart to devote to poor kids' schools the resources that they will need for that reform. Still, I have to hope that Polakow-Suransky and the inter-state coalitions go through with their plans to create better assessments. I really can't imagine what will happen if they do.


[1] ^ This is one of the controversial statements attributed to the documentary Waiting for Superman by many of its critics. As with so many things in that movie, I'm not sure that's actually what Guggenheim was saying—but maybe it was.

[2] ^ I actually don't know how often this happens. My own test-driven teaching experience is with the New York State math exams, and it certainly happens there.

[3] ^ The most famous data on this is from a study in Kansas City in the '80s and '90s, which found that, by age 3, welfare children had about half the vocabulary of middle-class children and an IQ 38 points lower. These results were attributed to differences in parenting styles, though it seems to me a number of other factors—diet and nutrition, incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome, etc.—must have played a significant role. (See B. Hart and T Risley, 1995; do a Google Scholar search.)

[4] ^ As I discussed in a post back in August, the rush to keep up with the tests often forces teachers to drill children on higher-order procedures even when they have not mastered the basic skills that underlie those procedures. Thus, a student who is learning to combine like terms in a polynomial often cannot add 9 and 7 without counting on her fingers; a student who is struggling to master long-division often never understood short division; etc.

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