Oh My! Whatever Will We Do Without High Stakes Tests?

My last post was all about how wrong-headed and destructive high stakes tests are to schools, teachers and students. We need to get rid of the yearly tests. Not jigger with them. Not improve them. Not replace them with complex, multi-faceted rubrics to rank schools' effectiveness. Get rid of them. Repeal and don't replace.

There's only so much we can know about education, and it's far less than the tests pretend to tell us. Learn to live with uncertainty. It beats being certain and wrong.

We lived with uncertainty before No Child Left Behind came along fifteen years ago and created our yearly high stakes testing ritual. We've always argued about schools. The difference is, before NCLB, we didn't have yearly test scores from students around the country to "prove" our point. The scores didn't prove anything. All we learned from running those millions of data points through sophisticated computer analyses is that we can arrive at mathematically precise conclusions that are wrong four places to the right of the decimal point.

We can live with uncertainty again. We can continue to disagree about our schools on educational, political and financial grounds, using whatever arguments and data we can pull together to make our cases. But let's not back up our claims with bad data which has been passed off by politicians as educational gospel. It cheapens and distorts the conversation, and it hurts the students.

It's not like we won't have any hard testing data to look at. Since the 1970s, a sampling of students across the country have taken the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) exams, also referred to as the nation's report card, every few years. All standardized tests are flawed, but the NAEP is the best national educational measurement tool we've ever had. You can find educators on the right and the left citing the test results with a reasonable level of confidence. That kind of agreement doesn't happen very often.

The NAEP is a standardized test, but it's not high stakes like the yearly NCLB regimen. That's a vital distinction. Teachers, schools and districts don't rise or fall with the results.

NAEP results indicate that student achievement has gone up since the 1970s. Not by a whole lot, but the trend line is up, not down. If we accept the NAEP timeline, today's schools are as effective as schools going back four decades, maybe even a little more effective. The tests also indicate the achievement gap between White, African American and Hispanic students has shrunk. Not as much as we might hope, but again, the trend line is positive, not negative. The results are no reason for complacency, but they contradict the "failing government schools" mantra repeated ad nauseam by the privatization/"education reform" crowd to promote its political agenda, usually using high stakes test data to "prove" the point.

The NAEP is about as close as we're going to get to certainty. In other words, not very close.

There's plenty of other data out there, collected over the years by researchers with greater or lesser degrees of care. It's open-ended enough that experts use the same information to draw different conclusions. You can join in if you wish. Read the research, pick your favorite studies and draw your own conclusions. It all has one huge advantage over the yearly high stakes tests. The information is collected without subjecting millions of students to weeks of test prep and days of testing. And no reasonable person can look at it and say, "This I know for certain."

When it comes to all things educational, the only thing I know for certain is, we can't be certain about anything.