The Assessment Wars: Is a Grassroots Revolution Bubbling Up Across the Nation Opposing Punitive Annual Testing?

The education community has been fighting the Reading Wars for decades, and, continues, unabated.

“Why Johnnie Can’t Read” became a national best seller in the 50’s and the battle simmered for decades. For some “whole language instruction” was a political attempt to capture the minds of our children, for others, namely, ED Hirsch, phonics was the path to effective reading instruction.  “Why Johnnie Can’t Read” even became a popular song.

 They’re back. Or maybe the “reading wars” never really went away. For decades, political skirmishes have raged between supporters of phonics instruction and proponents of language.

 Recently the skirmishes have boiled over into battles

The Assessment Wars are not far behind.

20% of parents in New York State have opted their children out of state tests, the  Long Island Opt Out Facebook page  has 25,000 members who are active in local politics, endorsing candidates and working in campaigns, they are a political force.

Is testing of children “new”?

We’re tested children for decades; in New York State children in the 4th and 8th grades were tested annually, additionally there were city and school district tests. The Regents Examinations, required for a diploma in New York State have been around for over 100 years

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the bipartisan law widely heralded in 2002 required testing of all children in grades 3-8 in ELA and Math, and, states had to establish Adequate Yearly Progress. The goal of the law was that by setting AYP goals states would incrementally more forward with all children being at grade level of 2014. The law seemed like NPR Garrison’s Keller’s mythical town of Lake Woebegone where all children are above average. If schools failed to meet goals, higher test scores, the law required interventions, i. e., schools closings, re-staffing, conversion to charter, and the punitive section of the law.

The successor law, the Every School Succeeds Act (ESSA) continues annual testing; the law does change the school measurement metric from proficiency to a combination of growth plus proficiency. Major civil rights organizations strongly supported annual testing. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights , an umbrella advocacy organization, that was led by Wade Henderson  insisted on continuing annual testing.

“I don’t think you can dismiss the role that assessments play in holding educators and states overall responsible for the quality of education provided,” said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella group of civil rights advocates that includes the NAACP and the National Urban League. States and school districts that don’t want to deal with the daunting task of improving the achievement of poor students complain about testing as a way of shirking accountability, Henderson said. “This is a political debate, and opponents will use cracks in the facade as a basis for driving a truck through it,” he said.

 In spite of efforts by unions and other advocates to test every third year and other compromises the law continued annual testing.

Has annual testing improved student outcomes?

The answer is a resounding “no.”

With a roll of drums the Obama administration rolled out the Common Core standards followed by Common Core based testing, the result: student scores declined, and, failed to recover.

The National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP), called the nation’s report card, compares educational progress by state and large urban districts. Over the last few years New York State is moving in the wrong direction,; scores flat or actually regressing.

How do we assess student learning:  the collision of teaching and learning, that point at which the light bulb goes on, that magical moment in which a student “learns?”  Mike Petrilli at the Fordham Institution sees more research needed to uncover the “secret sauce.” For others the “solution” was the stick, use test scores to assess teacher effectiveness, use Value-Added Measurements, and reward and punish teachers. VAM has been trashed by leading statisticians; reformers ignored the criticism.

The reformers who led the VAM crusade ignored the “Cuban-Tyack Principle.”, unless teachers and parents embrace the innovation, the reform, it is doomed.

David Steiner challenges a basic premise, Common Core is not an “answer,” the answer should be curriculum; we should test what we actually teach.

Are there alternatives to the current testing regimen?

New Hampshire and a number of school districts are using performance tasks, Louisiana has an approved federal waiver to use periodic tests instead of end year testing, forty schools in New York State use portfolios in lieu of Regents Exams,

Can testing be useful?

Testing to inform teachers, to inform instruction is used every day, that Friday spelling tests, the math problems; Mike Schmoker in Focus  suggests multiple tests for understanding in every lesson.

Statewide testing has nothing to do with individual students, the purpose is to assess school/school district or state “progress,” or lack thereof. It is also used to shame and stigmatize, and, has created a growing opposition among parents.

The opt outs are now a national political movement. In the recent election teachers and parents played a major role. The “blue wave” included massive numbers of teachers, both in service and retired teachers; not only at the polls but in the trenches, ringing door bells, manning phone banks oft times side by side with active parents.

All politics is local, and, the revolt against testing is bubbling up across the nation. In New York State progressives rolled to victory first in the September democratic primary and in the November general election. While education has been on a political back burner the new crop of progressive electeds might very well be at the heart of a growing anti-testing revolt.

As Jefferson wrote 1787, “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

One response to “The Assessment Wars: Is a Grassroots Revolution Bubbling Up Across the Nation Opposing Punitive Annual Testing?

  1. If my memory is correct David Steiner ushered in the common core with a hearty introduction, detailing its anticipated impact on student achievement. But the position that you attribute to him is on the mark. Its apparent that if assessments were based on the taught curriculum. there would have to be a great deal of work on uniform curriculum and refining existing ones that have been deemed as very effective. What a great starting point that would be as we move on to curriculum and instruction – a novel idea to ensure equity and grade level learning outcomes in regards to content and skills.When people outside of education hear that NYS does not have a uniform curriculum (they do have samples of units of study on the NYS website which is not mandatory) they are usually surprised and then puzzled.Finally these people get some insight into the persistent achievement gap – the socio-economic and racial makeup of a district is quite frequently associated with the level of challenging courses of study offered to its students. Of course there are other factors that impact on learning but a credible curriculum chock-full of challenging content and grade appropriate skills, well developed assignments, effective assessments for purposes of providing student feedback and effective pedagogy would just about cover what seems to be the well kept secret of the characteristics of strong schools. All the other stuff is just stuff, in my humble opinion.

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