Take the Tests, Decisionmakers!

In case any of you missed this at f(t):

A school board member in Orange County, FL had the guts to sit for his state’s high-stakes test, the type of test a lot of decisionmakers are all in such a rush to have students’ futures and teachers’ livelihoods resting on.

Kate is asking her readers to call on NY Governor Cuomo to do the same thing.

This is effing brilliant. I say we take it up a notch. If you live in the US, pick an elected or appointed government official or purveyor of “education reform” who is rushing to rest more and more human futures on the results of a test, and call on them to take the test. I am not trying to be an organizer right now; I suppose it would be smart to make some strategic choices about whom to contact and via what medium (Kate: Cuomo / Twitter), but that’s not my style. I do have some nominations:

Arne Duncan
Bill Gates

Because these folks are operating at the national level, it’s not obvious which test to tell them to take. I want to say all of them, but maybe that’s just cuz I’m pissed off. Abnegating my role as organizer I’ll let you call it. Here’s one that’s easy:

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Take the NY Regents, mayor, and make the results public. I don’t care how you do, but I want you to know what you’re talking about when you make policy, and I want you to be willing to be scrutinized as you are insisting that students, teachers, and schools be.


Here’s what I love about this.

The last few years have felt to me like American schools are riding on top of a malfunctioning robot that is careening inexorably toward more and more insane school policy. The robot is being driven by an inflated sense of the importance and automatic legitimacy of numerical data. For a decade, a chorus of voices (many of people directly involved in the practice of education) have been crying out that this is madness,[1] but the robot has only sped up.


During the same decade, and especially in the last few years before this fall, the language used by national political figures advocating for justice and progressive change has felt more and more tepid to me. The clearest instance of this is the way that Democrats and even some progressive advocacy groups have latched onto the phrase “middle class.” Y’all are giving up the fight, guys. If you feel you are not allowed to advocate for working people or (God forbid) poor people, that in order to be a legitimate public interest your cause has to be sanded down and shellacked with a patina of educated white-collarness, then the folks who are only looking out for the interests of rich people have already prevailed.

My mood in relation to this language was not unlike my mood when beholding current debates about education: the feeling that justice and sanity are speaking, but being ignored; and they cannot find the language that will make the powerful listen.

So, imagine my thrill when this fall a new language took over: the 99%. Whatever you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement, you have to give it credit for a complete reshaping of the vocabulary available to discuss economic inequality. It seemed like everywhere I went this fall, somebody was talking about either “the 99%” or “the 1%” or both. This is just what I was missing: a way of talking about economic justice that feels powerful and relevant. That interrupts the inexorable slide into tepid lameness that characterized the national discourse till now.


What I’m getting at here is that we need ideas to interrupt the inexorable careening of the malfunctioning education reform robot, and Kate may just have found one. In the words of Rick Roach, the Orange County school board member who took the Florida tests,

“I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the FCAT in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

You know I don’t love the word “accountable,” the way it is thrown around these days. But these are the folks who do love it. So if they love it so much, let’s make them accountable. What I really mean is this: the public defamation of public schools and teachers, and the concomitant policy initiatives, have been based on numerical data from tests whose contents are public, but this is the only public thing about them. Most critically, their development is opaque, the way the data is used is opaque, and the way that decisions get made about how the data is used is therefore not subject to legitimate public scrutiny, or even, in all probability, based on any real understanding of the tests. The decisionmakers don’t even know what taking the tests is like!

So, decisionmakers, take the tests! You are willing to force students to take them, to scrutinize the results, and to make important decisions about students, teachers, and schools on their basis. Finding out what you’re actually forcing on them, and opening yourself up to the same scrutiny, is the least you could do.

[1]One of these voices was the television show The Wire, which aired well before the latest and most intense phase of this insanity, but which in spite of this develops a beautifully articulated critique of numbers-driven accountability in municipal institutions. Schools are included, but the brunt of the criticism is aimed at the police department and the city government. However, the essential problem is the same in all cases: when you demand numbers from people who are supposed to be doing a job requiring creative problem-solving and perseverance, you divert their attention from their actual work to the problem of giving you what you’re asking for. If you’ve never seen the show, you can get the whole thing from Netflix. You won’t be sorry. If you think I shouldn’t be citing a fictional television show regarding public policy, let me quote Mathnet: the names are made up but the problems are real. Not convinced? Read this.


9 thoughts on “Take the Tests, Decisionmakers!

  1. I agree that the current standardized tests are horrible, but I just think that means they are bad tests — not that holding schools, teachers and students accountable using tests is bad.

    Imagine a test that asks a student to discuss a mathematical concept and answer verbal questions about it. I think if the system’s incentives were aligned for that type of test we’d have a great education system! But that specific test is too heavy to be viable. Maybe we can find some middle ground?

    1. You know I never saw myself as strongly-anti-testing till the last few years. Even now, I’m studiously avoiding a debate about the place for tests in the “ideal world.” What I am sure of is that right now, in this country the government and the press have gone ape-sh*t for tests and they are making bad policy because of it. The problem is not just the bad quality of the assessments. It’s also

      1) The unavoidable sacrifice of nuance in numerical data about learning. People are ape-sh*t for numerical data. So your thought experiment doesn’t bear on the question. Nobody in this country is talking about that kind of test or anything that even acknowledges what that kind of test is going for.

      2) The new development of the last few years is that the tests are not only being used to decide whether students graduate from high school but also they are being used to make hiring and pay decisions about teachers and funding and structure decisions about schools. I.e. these few-hour bouts of student assessment have become highly consequential for everybody. The result is that schools are diverting massive amounts of energy into making sure they can say they did their part to make sure the test results are good and this energy is being diverted away from real thought about how to solve educational problems. In principle “accountability” is supposed to wake people up from their lazy torpor and make them care about doing a good job, but my experience on the ground is that most folks already cared about doing a good job and the “accountability” (at least what it looks like here and now) makes them stressed out, afraid to experiment, inclined to make sure their *ss is covered, and basically suppresses their creativity and resourcefulness.

  2. Ben:

    You have such a great way of verbalizing what all of us on the inside know and everyone outside can’t seem to see. Best regards.


  3. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Florida school board member’s reported test-taking experience is a very good example of the problems with standardized tests.

    In this case, any number of people on the internet have posted a link to past years of the Florida high school tests. The math tests appear to be pretty easy math oriented towards the practical side. The front of the test book even provides the formulas you need. see http://fcat.fldoe.org/pdf/releasepdf/06/FL06_Rel_G10M_TB_Cwf001.pdf

    In this particular case, I think it is certainly reasonable to expect that all high school students should be able to pass these tests. The real question is whether the test is too easy.

    It actually is difficult to believe that he actually could only get 10 out of 60 right.

    1. To me this is entirely missing the point. (I think Roach would say it is missing his; it is definitely missing mine.) If we looked at any 10th grade test in the country I (and probably you) would think it was easy. Our assessment of its easiness or hardness does not bear on what I am highlighting as an issue here.

      I admire what Roach did because he brought the reality of the experience of the test into the political process that makes decisions about education. That’s what I want to call on more decisionmakers to do. I don’t care whether the tests are too easy or too hard or whether any given officials do well or poorly. (For all I know, Mike Bloomberg will ace the regents.) What I care about is that these tests, which have more riding on them with every new policy initiative aimed at “accountability,” finally enter the discussion not just as theoretical objects taken by other people’s children, but as an actual experience that everyone involved in the conversation understands from the inside. To everyone who wants to latch the future of education onto these two- to six-hour experiences of intellectual scrutiny, I say: find out what they are like before you make policy. It’s the least you can do.

      1. If your point is simply that people should actually LOOK at the tests, and see whether they are reasonable, I have no problem with that point.

        But Roach’s point seems to be that these tests are “unreasonable”. He says “A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.” Valerie Strauss goes on to summarize Roach’s view on the math test : “The math section, he said, tests information that most people don’t need when they get out of school… “If you really did a study on what math most kids need, I guarantee you could probably dump about 80 percent of math scores and leave high-level math for the kids who want it and will need it.”

        Well, I’ve looked at the test. First, I think the test does “relate in some practical way to requirements of life”. Second, I think that the math test DOES test information that people DO “need when they get out of school.” Third, the test does NOT test “high-level math”.

        I am skeptical about this whole claimed test-taking. Either Mr. Roach has some severe learning disability related to math, which is unfortunate. Or alternatively, he was trying to make a political point, and deliberately failed the test. The test is so easy that it is difficult to come to any other conclusion.

        Finally, Roach says that “I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities”. In my opinion, if he actually seriously took the test, and did that poorly, I find it hard to believe that he CAN make sense of complex data related to his responsibilities. At the very least, he would be heavily dependent on others to interpret the data for him.

  4. @timbartik – I definitely do not mean look at the test and decide if it is reasonable. I mean take it under timed conditions and make your results public. Looking at it and deciding if it’s reasonable is not a trenchant experience of what the test is all about. One will do this with a theoretical consciousness – “Do I think these are things that other people’s children ought to know?” I want them to find out what the test means for real.

    But it’s clear that you’re not actually responding to what I’ve written about here as much as you are to what Roach said about the test he took, in which case the sensible place for your comments is back at the Washington Post.

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