Elizabeth Warren made some news in education circles this past week when she sat for an interview with NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. Garcia read a question from a retired teacher who wanted to know what Warren would do to end high-stakes testing. Warren said, in part:
“This notion that it’s all about testing — that it’s all about what somebody far off in the state capital or far off in the national capital says, here’s what constitutes success and worse yet, here’s what constitutes failure — no, that’s not what education is about,” Warren said.
“Education is what goes on in the classroom; what a teacher has said is the goal. And when a kid gets there, it is a teacher who knows it. We do not need high-stakes testing.”
While I put almost zero stock in what Presidential candidates say while trying to woo voters with transparent pandering, there is the potential that sound clips like the one above can generate interesting conversations. Warren’s rhetorical stand against high-stakes testing certainly did that.
Peter Greene, who writes one of the best education policy blogs from the perspective of a public school supporter, wrote:
“Nothing in the last twenty years of education has done more far-reaching and pervasive damage than high stakes testing. If the candidates want a bandwagon to jump on, I recommend this one.”
As someone who will be starting his 20th year in the classroom this fall, I think Greene is right about the damage caused. But he’s probably wrong about this being a fruitful bandwagon, an opinion shared by USC School of Education Professor Morgan Polikoff:
Alas, he’s likely right.
No candidate is going to tilt the electability scale in their favor by opposing high-stakes testing. On the other hand, they probably won’t hurt their electability, either. As much as education people wish it wasn’t so, not many people care about education issues when it comes to picking a President. If you don’t believe me, go back and count the number of education questions asked of the Democratic candidates during the first debates.
It’s also interesting to ask why people support testing to such a degree. I think Jennifer Binis touches on the reason in this tweet:
Binis frames the persistent existence of testing as the result of demand, but I’m not so sure. I think the culprit is likely tradition and inertia. Every generation has indeed had some form of high-stakes testing, which serves to perpetuate high-stakes testing. People cannot separate testing from schooling; they go together like peanut butter and chocolate. But that doesn’t mean that people actually like testing, just that they’re too complacent to do much about it.
You can see this status quo bias everywhere you look. My dentist and doctor’s office still has a stack of magazines in the waiting room even though everyone who enters it has a phone with as much reading material as they could ever want at their fingertips. That doesn’t mean people want the magazines there; it means the people who put them there are just doing what dentists and doctors have done for a long time. Class reunions still exist in spite of the existence of Facebook and the fact that hardly anyone gets excited about attending their class reunion. We still force kids to blow out candles on birthday cakes even though it means everyone will be ingesting the birthday boy’s germs, and why do we do it? So they can make a wish (which they must keep secret). Nonsense, clearly, and yet we persist.
Just because people continue to do things doesn’t mean it makes sense to keep doing those things.
But even if the continued use of high-stakes tests does represent the sincere and intentional will of the people, the people regularly want stupid things like fast food, Walmart, and interest-only mortgages. We have, in our past, permitted slavery, opposed women’s right to vote, and favored a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays serving in the military. Just 15 years ago, 60% of Americans opposed gay marriage. As Henry Ford once said:
It’s a leader’s job to lead, and sometimes that means ignoring the polls and doing the smart thing. The smart thing right now is to kill high-stakes testing.
Of course, there are some who think such a move is foolish:
The argument here seems to be that we need high-stakes testing because kids don’t know and can’t do what we want them to know and be able to do. But such an argument ignores the fact that we’ve had high-stakes testing since No Child Left Behind and standardized testing for much longer than that. Those who believe testing will lead to improved scores have had, at minimum, 17 years to prove their case.
Since critics of education so often believe schools would be better if they were run more like businesses, one has to wonder what they would make of a business that doubled down on a policy that had never, in at least 17 years, led to the kind of improvement it was designed to.
But even if testing hasn’t led to greatly improved academic outcomes for our students, it’s not like we were knocking the ball out of the park before all the high-stakes testing started. That’s what Fordham Institute’s senior fellow Robert Pondiscio appears to be saying here:
If that’s the best argument for testing then we should stop testing. That’s like defending Prohibition by saying, “Sure it’s an abject failure with a ton of awful unintended consequences, but what we were doing before wasn’t working. Let’s just stick with the obviously crappy policy.”
As for the equity argument, high-stakes testing has had 17 years to help children in Providence and Detroit. So how’s that going?
Some in the discussion staked out the middle ground. They argued that it’s not the testing that’s the problem; it’s how the tests are being used.
I’m sympathetic if for no other reason than finding the compromise position is usually my go-to move. But it’s wrong in this case.
Yes, the tests by themselves are not the problem; the way people use the tests are. But this is a little like saying it’s not the gun that kills people but the person holding it. Technically true, but guns are made to shoot things just as tests are made to compare things. And once people start comparing, there will be winners, losers, and people trying very hard to turn the losers into winners while other people try very hard to remain winners.
In other words, the way some people use the tests is as inevitable as the way some people use guns.
Here is what we know:
High-stakes testing has not given us what its proponents hoped it would give us. It’s had time to work and it just hasn’t.
High-stakes testing, while failing, has also given us lots of nasty unintended consequences, not the least of which includes fewer high-performing students wanting to become teachers. (For other consequences see here, here, here, and here.)
High-stakes testing will always be used to compare nations, communities, districts, schools, principals, teachers, parents, and students. There is no reason to think the tests will ever be de-weaponized. For this reason, we should take them away. It’s time to kill high-stakes testing.