May 23, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #2: The Unintended(?) Consequences of Mandatory, High Stakes Tests

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. & Mrs. Johnson
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Answers to Your Questions

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Johnson:

Thanks so much for attending our “Meet The Teacher” night last week. I’m sorry that we had so little time to address your questions, so I’ll do my best to elaborate on the issues we just didn’t have time to properly discuss. Please let me know if I don’t do that to your satisfaction. But before I do, let me give you a few links that you can review if you like:

(1) For an article on the effects of big government on education, go here.

(2) For a paper on the costs of the No Child Left Behind Act, go here.

It’s important to remember, I think, that while teachers catch most of the flack in the media and in the halls of our legislators, they’re actually the wrong targets. Virtually everywhere, teachers have little or no authority to make decisions, to formulate and implement policy or to affect the direction of their districts. They don’t hire, they don’t fire, and they don’t supervise. In some school districts, they have little or no control over the curriculum they “teach.” They don’t control money, build buildings, or make any meaningful decisions that affect much of anything outside the walls of their classrooms. Yet, they’re the people with the targets painted on their backs. I suppose I’m a little sensitive about that…

Now, as to mandatory, high stakes tests, it would probably be worthwhile for me to clarify some of the things we talked about. As I mentioned, the issues to keep in mind with any part of the curriculum are time, cost and effectiveness. In other words, is any given lesson or activity effective? Does it really teach what we think it will teach? Is it worth the time involved? Some lessons may be really worthwhile but take far too much time to be practical. And finally, what’s the cost? In the classroom, that’s not usually a major issue, but when you’re talking about spending on the state or federal levels, costs can get quickly out of hand.

I know that you’re worried about excessive governmental intrusion into, well, into just about everything. I’m worried about it too. I’m always amazed at Conservatives who rail against big government yet embrace just that when it comes to education. Mandatory testing is one of the worst examples of the excesses of big government. You might want to take the link at the beginning of the letter to a good article that outlines the problem. Mandatory testing is a very large foot in the door for big government in education.

You were right: it really is in large part George W. Bush’s fault. He wanted to help Hispanic kids in Texas improve their academic performance, and when he became president, with the best of intentions, he saw a chance to help even more kids all across the nation. As a businessman, he wanted greater “accountability,” but he had to have data, so the way to generate loads of data was mandatory testing. He also probably thought that if everyone had to score well on tests, they’d more or less automatically improve in every way. The only way to ensure that schools and kids took the tests seriously was to impose major consequences for not taking them seriously, so kids who don’t pass the tests don’t graduate from high school and states that don’t buy in lose billions in federal education funds. That doesn’t sound like small government conservatism, does it?

And if you need any additional proof of big government involvement, consider that Mr. Bush worked with former Senator Ted Kennedy to enact the No Child Left Behind Act (in 2001) which federalized education to a previously unimaginable degree. Republicans tend to consider working with Democrats, for what they think to be the public good, to be bi-partisan cooperation. Leftists consider bi-partisanship to be tricking conservatives into giving them exactly what they want. Ted Kennedy must still be smiling--even in the grave--over that one.

Here’s how it works: You stir up the public with shocking news of a dire problem. In this case, the public schools are horrible, none of the kids can read or write or do math, America is behind the rest of the world, etc. Then you propose a reasonable-sounding solution, in this case, mandatory testing. As long as the public is willing to go along with testing, legislators make their usual sausage and toss every other educational boondoggle and policy they’ve ever imagined, but could not pass, into the mix.

As with so many laws made by Congress, much of this one is plainly preposterous. For example, the law requires every schoolchild in America to be reading and doing math on grade level by 2014. As a political sound bite, it’s great, but because it completely ignores human hature, it’s nonsense. It’s simply not possible for every child in America to read or do math on grade level by any date. It’s like writing a law requiring every child in America to be able to dunk a basketball, or run a sub-12 second 100 meters by a date certain. Many people will simply never be able to do it, no matter how wonderful and well intentioned the law that demands it, yet NCLB demands it anyway, and forces the states to demonstrate and document “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) toward an impossible goal.

All of this, of course, creates enormous and costly local, state and federal educational bureaucracies to make rules, produce and administer the tests and the rest of the related laws, gather, crunch and disseminate the data from the tests, and the process goes on and on as the bureaucracies—as all bureaucracies tend to do—work assiduously to gather even more power and to expand themselves so that it will become impossible to ever reduce their size or power, to say nothing of doing away with them.

How costly? According to the Office Of Management and Budget, in 2006 NCLB imposed 6,680,334 hours of additional administrative paperwork on the states at an estimated cost of at least $141 million dollars. In 2007, Connecticut spent more than 17 million just to comply with NCLB, while Virginia estimated its yearly costs at $20 million. The federal and state education bureaucracies have certainly grown since then. And Texas, for example, has announced that it will spend just under a half billion dollars over the next five years just to purchase its new mandatory tests. My wife and I spend around $2000 per year, of our money, to buy supplies and equipment for our classrooms. We’re far from the only teachers who do that. I have a suggestion or two about where those millions might be better used.

So we start with a huge federal education bureaucracy that is substantially enlarged by NCLB. The Feds issue new rules and requirements, and the paperwork burden alone requires the state education bureaucracies to become larger to comply. But because failing to meet all the unfunded federal mandates can be very expensive indeed, state educrats don’t want to be surprised by embarrassing test scores, so they often go beyond federal requirements, requiring additional testing that they hope will predict how kids will do on the tests that do count. In this pursuit, many states take advantage of federal intrusions to enact their own legislative sausages, thereby enlarging their state level bureaucracies and imposing mandates of their own on local school districts, requiring them to hire additional personnel merely to keep up with all of the federal and state mandates.

Let’s examine Texas, the state that has an enormous effect on the rest of the nation’s schools. Texas has a large, powerful education bureaucracy that is surely the envy of the educrats of many other states. Schools are scored not only on their mandatory test scores, but on a variety of other factors, including attendance, graduation rates, special education populations and many others. Enormous amounts of data are generated by local districts on a continuous basis, including highly specific data on the relative academic performance—measured by the tests, of course—of specific racial populations. The state hands out rankings, ranging from “Academically Unacceptable” to “Exemplary” each year. What all of this means, for Texas and other states, is a substantial increase in personnel who do virtually nothing but manage the required paperwork, and of course, it greatly increases costs. The livelihoods and careers of educators, from the beginning teacher, to the district superintendent, become inextricably tied up in the production of the right kinds of data in the right amounts, which involves substantially diverting their attention from teaching and learning, which, the last time I checked, is supposed to be the primary purpose of schools.

On the local, school district level, the effects are even more disastrous. Because districts don’t want to be surprised, they often impose “benchmark” tests, which are usually approximations of the mandatory state tests, on a regular basis until the actual state tests, which usually take place toward the end of the year, are done. The most foolish districts tie teacher’s evaluations directly to test scores. The inevitable consequence of all of this is a single-minded focus on teaching to the test.

By “teaching to the test,” I don’t mean the kind of focused instruction all good teachers do on a daily basis. I mean spending huge amounts of time doing nothing but covering the information and tricks—and I do mean tricks—necessary to pass those very specific tests, tests that often have little to do with the real curriculum, the curriculum kids need to truly learn to function in the real world. In some schools, particularly elementary schools, very little apart from test drill is done.

All of this is sadly predictable. What for some are the unfortunately unintended consequences of good intentions, are for others very much intentional and are far more about power and control than benefitting children.

The best teachers usually teach more demanding material on a higher intellectual level and demand a higher level of accomplishment and performance from their students. In very real ways, mandatory, high stakes tests are actually a dumbing down of the curriculum. Yet, if your livelihood, your career depended on the test performance of your students, what would you do?

What’s lost is Shakespeare, Mozart, Einstein, Hemingway, poetry, history, science, and all of the other parts of school that are so vital to helping kids build bigger, better brains. That’s really why we have school, not only to socialize kids and to help them learn to be rational, functioning Americans, but to teach them how to think, not what to think, and not how to pass a set of tests that will not, in any way, be of future value to them, and will not build bigger, better brains in the here and now. I lose about 29% of my school year to test drills. That’s 29% of opportunity for real learning lost, forever lost.

Many of those who support such testing don’t seem to understand the nature of tests or their limitations. In order to make it possible for most students to pass the tests, they must reflect only an average level of difficulty, perhaps even a bit less, so while such folks want everyone to read and write on grade level by a date certain, they’re at least somewhat more practical in actually writing the tests that will determine it. Or perhaps they’re doing that on purpose? After all, if you spend much of a year learning to take a specific test, wouldn’t you expect to do pretty well on that test? And wouldn’t those who write and support such testing think that proves that the test is valid? After all, they have the data to prove it!

Test data can’t tell us which students read well and which don’t. They can’t tell us which student tries hard and which doesn’t. They can’t tell us which teachers teach well, which principals are good managers and leaders, or which schools are truly better than others. They do provide data that indicates, statistically, which schools outscored other schools on one specific day in a given year, but given the complexity of human beings and schools, what does that information really tell us and at what cost? Such scores may be suggestive of some of these things, but why not merely ask your child’s teachers how they’re progressing? Why not ask to see their work? That won't increase your tax burden and limit your rights, and will help to limit the size of overbearing government. That’s what matters to parents, students and teachers, not the relative test scores of neighboring or far distant communities.

But what about bad teachers? What about failing school districts? What about incompetent principals? What about communities who fail to hold their school boards accountable? What about corruption and mismanagement? None of these things can be fixed by tests or accurately diagnosed through testing data, and none of them are an argument for grotesquely expanded government. Only involved, caring people on the local level can solve these problems. Fortunately, the mechanisms to solve these problems exist in every school district in America if only people will care enough to use them. Abdicating your responsibility and authority as a citizen to educrats and tests is a recipe for failure.

I suppose the bottom line is that most tests can be of at least some value, but the situation is out of hand. We spend far, far too much money and devote far too much precious classroom time to these tests, and they cannot tell us what any good teacher can tell us, for only the cost of their salary and materials, after a few weeks of class time with their students. And of course, the big government these tests and all associated with them require is never a good thing. It is always wasteful and unresponsive to the will of the people.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough. Hopefully, I’ve answered your questions; please let me know if I have not. Just one more thought before I go: When legislators or others talk about how horrible the public schools are, I always wonder. Most of them attended public schools, so how were they able to avoid being turned into drooling illiterates, particularly in the days before mandatory, high stakes tests?


Mr. English Teacher

PS: I recently received our state test results. Consider what happened to two of my students. One is a very bright, hard working, capable girl, a straight "A" student, and one of the best writers in our school. Academic accomplishment is very important to her. The other, a gregarious but generally lazy boy, who occasionally earns a low "B," but who is always flitting about either side of failing. He's a mediocre writer, mostly because he just doesn't do the necessary practice to do well. Academic accomplishment is not on his "to do" list. She failed the English test and was devastated. He not only passed, but earned highest honors and was delighted that, once again, he successfully gamed the system. This sort of thing happens all the time with mandatory tests, but never with my assignments and tests because they require genuine knowledge, skill and accomplishment.

Posted by MikeM at May 23, 2011 09:55 PM

The key to quality, in the end, is "conformance to specifications". This is the minimum standard. High quality is "exceeding expectations".

So how do we gage the quality of education in such a way that different methods, schools, teachers, students can be evaluated? Develop a specification, then compare to it. That is what standardized tests do. If you let teachers and parents and school boards do whatever they want with little accountability, then what? We end up with city councils that think "black hole" is a racist term, we end up with a generation that has no clue as to the harm that socialism/capitalism has wrought, a generation that doesn't like to read, cannot follow written instructions, thinks that expressing themselves is more important that actually knowing anything. We get black students graduating so unprepared that when the government hires them under affirmative action they have to make the rules so formulaic that even they can interpret them.

We need accountability, and the folks opposed to testing have no meaningful alternative. You cannot police out every fruitcake activist teacher or school board, but you can test all the students to make sure that they have passing familiarity with the Berlin Wall and what happens the government decides to start printing money.

Posted by: Smarty at May 24, 2011 10:02 AM

There's another wrinkle in the Texas system. Funding from the state is directly tied to attendance and rating. This moves the incentive of the bureaucrats from teaching to hiring truant officers and lawyers to take (usually disruptive) students and their parents to court. It really has turned public school into a massive incarceration scheme, because that is where the money is.

I had very poor attendance in HS, because it was boring and I could tell that I wasn't actually learning anything there. If the response had been to take me to court and put me in the System rather than to my parents, I would probably be a criminal right now, and I'm smart enough to be a particularly effective and dangerous criminal. (Thankfully the straight world pays better.)

Posted by: Phelps at May 24, 2011 12:13 PM

This is likely a waste of time, as anyone who equates dunking a basketball with reading at grade level isn't thinking right, but here goes...

First, some of your arguments don't make sense. For example, if teachers often teach more demanding material, why do they need to spend so much time 'teaching to the test' for material that is so basic that most kids are expected to know it? Kids that are being taught beginning algebra ought to be able to pass a basic arithmetic test without having to spend time reviewing the material.

It seems that your complaining can be boiled down to two issues:

(1) you don't like someone else deciding what your students should be taught, and

(2) you don't like being held accountable, and especially by those you hold in contempt (i.e., the parents and the administrators we hire to run the school system).

I have pretty much the same response to both complaints: get off your high horse. Your job is to teach our kids what we want them to learn. You work for us, the parents. If your disdain for us is so strong that you can't accept that we are ultimately in charge, then go do something else with your life. We will give you some autonomy in deciding how to teach the material, but we don't want your deciding what they're going to learn.

The reason there is such a focus on testing is that we just can't trust you. We see that you're more interested in protecting your classroom fiefdoms and your incompetent colleagues than in making sure our kids learn what we want them to learn (if you've recently lobbied your union to make it easier to fire bad teachers, I withdraw my statement.... yeah, I didn't think you had).

Posted by: steve at May 24, 2011 02:04 PM

Dear Steve:

Complaining? Actually, I'm merely providing insider information. The analogy you apparently conflate with not "thinking right," is actually apt. The point is simply that whether the required level of performance is intellectual or physical, many people will not, by simple genetic variability, be able to attain it. Surely you can agree with this much?

Regarding my riding a "high horse," you should know that I have no "classroom fiefdom" or "incompetent colleagues" to protect. In my years of teaching, I've worked in three states, all right-to-work states, which means no unions, in the past and now. I would not work where I was forced to join a teacher union as they tend to get involved primarily in political issues far afield from effective teaching. As you asked of me, would you care to withdraw your statement?

And I do indeed understand that I am a public servant bound to teach what the public wishes. I was hired by the public because of my demonstrated qualifications which include higher education beyond a bachelor's degree in my specific discipline, years of experience, and dedication to my calling and my students. I have a certain amount of professional discretion within the boundaries set for me by the elected school board members and the supervisors they have hired. This is the way of American education. I have no trouble accepting this, and if you reread this post carefully, you'll notice that I am in fact urging parents to become very involved on the local level not so that I may work some sort of mischief against their collective will, but so that they can be fully and accurately informed about exactly what I'm doing on their behalf and so that they can make truly informed choices about how best to spend their education dollars Tests can't do this, and politicians don't always tell the whole story.

And regarding the teaching of demanding material, might I once again suggest that you reread the post a bit more carefully? My point is not that I teach higher level materials exclusively; no teacher does that. Education is a process that includes materials on all intellectual levels. My point is simply that mandatory, high stakes tests tend not to involve higher, more meaningful intellectual tasks and knowledge. They're not an appropriate vehicle for collecting or measuring such information. They tend toward multiple choice, basic understanding matters. Time spent on low middling level issues is time that can't be spent or more worthwhile instruction.

Finally, far from holding anyone in contempt and disliking accountability, I welcome any parent to my classroom at any time. I ask that they call ahead first so that they don't spend a day watching kids reading or taking a test, but I love to see and hear from parents. All professional teachers do. And as to accountability, I've never had any doubt that I'm accountable to the public through my principal. He has the same notion and acts on it.

It may interest you to know that I recently received our state test results. Of my students, less than 2% failed the test, and nearly 30% received the highest possible honors. I do what the public expects of me Steve. That's being accountable, but I also have the responsibility to inform and to encourage them to think about those issues, and about whether they really want to spend untold millions of dollars on tests that only increase their tax burdens and reveal nothing that teachers can't tell them at no cost.

Thanks for reading and for your comment!

Posted by: Mike Mc at May 24, 2011 05:57 PM

Dear Mike McC,

My sister is retiring from a school district in the Orlando area next year. Dedicated teacher and very, very smart. She has been telling me exactly what you have, quite eloquently, written.

The political process - yell fire and fund a new fire department - is the major problem, as you pointed out. It is motivated by money and power, not the interests of society. The world is not perfect and politicians have never proven to be particularly effective in moving us in that direction.

Get the Feds completely out of the education business. The states too to a large extent. Are we going to have educational failures? Of course. We do now. Always have. Always will. But it is ludicrous to sacrifice the welfare of most students to save the few. Just to line some pockets.

Hang in there pard,


Posted by: Roy Lofquist at May 24, 2011 09:21 PM


Mike is probably running out of patience with the likes of you, but here is another attempt to penetrate the fog.

The benefits of high stakes testing should be measurable by a cost-benefit analysis of sorts. That would suit your business model mind, would it not? However, you would despair to justify the stupendous sums of precious public money now lavished on NCLB. If, as you apparently believe, we are raising student learning to new, higher levels, you are mistaken. The results of these high stakes tests are certifying and instituting mediocrity as the norm. This is required because testing rigorously for knowledge and skills would fail far too many students to be politically acceptable. That is a simple and undeniable truth. Hence, as Mike explained to you, we spend billions to go through motions. NCLB is a charade, a shadow theater that now benefits the many ticks that feed off the blood of the Beast.

Steve, if you believe that we must simply soldier on because we MUST have a standardized test, then you must be a Democrat! Or, you must work for Pearson and Associates (who make ridiculous scads of money from the Beast) and have been detailed to attack the likes of Mike McDaniel!

Actually, resorting to ad hominem attacks makes one look foolish, don't you think? Hey, I got it! Perhaps you should preserve your own dignity and refrain from impugning the character of Mr. McDaniel. That would leave you to arguing through reason and experience. Try that, but a necessary component would be experience.

By the way, and I hope that I do not impugn my own character with this admission, I am a teacher and I too recently received results from my state's high stakes test. If only you knew some of the ridiculous reports I have about the relative skills of my students. Nobody takes these seriously. Only those who stand to make money from this charade, or those who seek to save or advance their careers, really do. And it is these who determine where emphasis is to be placed.

Now, you have to believe us when teachers tell you that these high stakes tests necessarily measure little of real importance in the secondary schools. But O how demoralizing they are to classroom ethos: students are bribed with incentives--such as evading final examinations, if they pass a their High Stakes test--and everybody does! Except the really,really incompetent or the lazy. Then, school is over,for the students know that what is really important is passing the High Stakes test.

Recently I read of a new hire for the superintendent post at a large and prestigious school district in Texas. The new superintendent's winning quality--you guessed it! In his last post, he brought his school district to Exemplary level--based on Texas TAKS scores (our High Stakes test). Guess what the curriculum and emphasis will stress in the new district? Talk about the tail wagging the dog now!

Posted by: Mavrocordato at May 25, 2011 12:09 AM

Being a VOF(veryoldf**t) let me point out that prior to around 1964, teachers taught their students math, English and the sciences - at the levels appropriate to the grade they were teaching.
And I suspect if the present crop of teachers was doing the same, these tests would be push-over for their students - without any "teaching of the test".
Of course the problem here is that the past three
generations have been pretty well indoctrinated to government/dumbing down standards so most of the new crop probably isn't capable of teaching that sort of stuff anymore.

Best example I can give is my mother. She was a teacher who set up the ESL course at a local college. The course purpose was to get foreign students up to college English standards(350wpm/70%ret) in one semester.
The first class was in 1962(IIRC) and all the students were foreign nationals. By the time she retired in 1972, she told me that a typical class had more local high schiool grads then foreign students.
ANd I suspect things have not improved since then.

Posted by: emdfl at May 25, 2011 12:48 AM

As you give tests and (hopefully) fail any kid who fails to demonstrate an acceptable level of competence, I argue that your objection isn't to testing in principle, but rather to the specifics of these so-called 'high stakes' tests.

So what is it about these tests that raise such complaints?

It can't be that you're forced to 'Teach to the test'. Isn't that what you do, teach, then test to see if the student understands what you just taught them? My kids were taught how to add, then tested to see if they knew how to add. What's wrong with that?

Is it that the tests are so dumbed down as to be meaningless? They are, and I don't like it, but your (collective) complaints ring hollow in that social promotion has been around for decades and is one of the reasons these new tests have been put into place.

Or is it that the tests doesn't measure what the kid is supposed to have learned? (they're being taught how to add and being tested to see if they know how to cook?) If this is the case, then either the test is wrong, in which case the test should be changed, or you're not teaching what the school system wants taught, in which case I refer back to my first post, in which I argue that you ought to be teaching what we want taught which isn't necessarily what you want taught.

As to a couple of the specifics in your posts:

Why give kids a pass on the rest of the program just because they pass these tests? You can flunk a kid who has passed these tests if he doesn't pass the test you give him, can't you?

And bragging about your pass rates rings hollow given how little you think about the toughness of those tests. Heck, if those tests are so lame, then how do even 2% of your kids fail?

Posted by: steve at May 25, 2011 10:38 AM

Hi MikeMC and Mavrocordato,

We seem to be talking past each other on this testing issue. To be as concise as possible:

MikeMC - laments the intrusion of Government into education

I agree, but see your singling out of Mandatory Testing as missing the forest for the trees. In my view most of what Government touches turns to sh*t. Why should we be surprised that it has that effect on education?

MikeMC - laments in particular Mandatory Testing

If we agree above Mandatory Testing will by definition be screwed up. But not any more than anything else in Government education (New Math anyone?).

But given that I am forced to pay for this monstrosity I want some feedback loop to insure I am (approximately) getting what I (over) pay for. If not the blunt instrument of Mandatory Testing, then what?

And it can not be parental feedback because the majority of parents don't care, as evidenced by sending their kids to public school to begin with.

MikeMC - Mandatory Testing is preventing me from effectively teaching.

I would argue that the entire public school system is preventing you from effectively teaching, as evidenced by your having to buy supplies for your classroom. It is not just the Mandatory Testing.

MikeMC - "Most of them attended public schools, so how were they able to avoid being turned into drooling illiterates, particularly in the days before mandatory, high stakes tests?"

Is it possible that they were educated at a time when the education bureaucracy's grip was looser, and that between when they attended school and now the schools have deteriorated?

I am all for education. I will take your sincerity at face value and believe you are all for education.

So what's up with the Don Quixote imitation, breaking your lance on the edifice of Government Education? Why be the bureaucrat who, while aware that the Kulaks are being deported to Siberia, takes pride in giving them a clean cattle car and complains vociferously about being required to document how many are being exiled?

At some point you have to give up on the corrupt institution.

Teach where the kids want to learn, where the parents are interested and involved, and the administration is dedicated to seeing to it that education happens (*cough* private schools *cough*).

Support the defunding of failure and the funding of success (vouchers, if not privatizing the whole d*mn thing).

The market works, you are just in a market that is selling power and *think* it is selling education.



Posted by: James at May 25, 2011 02:48 PM

Dear Steve:

Thanks for reading and following up. Good questions. You are correct that I don't object to testing in principle. I use it, in a wide variety of ways, constantly, however, as an English teacher, the best tests, the tests most revealing of a student's true learning and intellectual development tend to be writings. Sadly, that's exactly the area in which standardized tests do so poorly.

"Teaching to the test" is indeed a problem, and a significant one. In assessing a student's intellectual abilities and growth (learning, if you will), I might work over several short stories, a novel, vocabulary, and grammar issues, as well as teaching specific writing techniques. I'll be "testing" them more or less constantly in ways large and small, but the larger tests will consist of a significant writing assignment in which I'll expect to see evidence of all that they've learned, but more importantly, they're able to do that because of all of the constant, smaller bits of practice we've done. That's how human beings learn any skill, not only through practice, but through correct practice. That's a large part of my job, not only showing the kids how to do new skills, but showing them how to practice those skills in ways that will maximize their chances to learn and retain them. They, of course, have to do the practice and actually engage their brains while doing it. What I've just described is not "teaching to the test."

Teaching to the test is what is required by mandatory, high stakes tests. As you suggested, there is nothing at all wrong with teaching a child how to add and then producing assignments or even tests that accurately reflect their mastery of those lessons. We do it all the time. The problem is that MHS tests do not always accurately reflect what the kids have learned and what they know. They don't accurately reflect a competent curriculum, the kind of academic rigor I suspect you'd demand and support. And like tests such as the ACT or SAT, the kids who study what the makers of the test want and expect, who learn exactly how to most successfully take that specific test format, do much better than kids who have the same level of intelligence, skill and knowledge but lack the specific test taking skills. I know this in part because each year I teach an SAT Preparation class.

You see, on the one hand, you test real growth and ability because you're not limited in your testing format and construction. You can tailor tests to specific classes and their needs, even specific kids. In teaching to the test, you must conform your instruction to the very narrow structure of a pre-written test and the methods necessary to grade hundreds and thousands of those tests, not to help students, not to give them careful, individual feedback and encouragement, not as one more step in the life-long process of building bigger, better brains, but to produce one of hundreds of thousands of bits of data.

Social promotion is an issue for another post, but anyone expecting a MHS test to fix that policy problem and everything that flows from it really doesn't understand the problem and is looking for a quick fix that isn't quick or a fix. The way to fix a bad policy is to rewrite or remove the policy. Unfortunately, politicians are often resistant to something so obvious and rational and prefer to obfuscate and bluster instead.

Steve, as I pointed out in this article, in teaching to MHS tests, I am doing precisely what the public wants me to teach. You're correct in that I do find such things to be unbelievably expensive and a terrible waste of scarce time, and there is the cost/benefit issue that is the core of my concerns. Please keep in mind that not everything on the tests is of no use, and not everything is contrary to a solid curriculum, but the time we are forced to spend on them, and the money spent are the problem. Making a better test that wastes the same amount of time and money isn't the answer, particularly when I can tell you precisely and directly exactly what your son or daughter's strengths and weaknesses are and how to improve at no more cost than my salary. Not only that, I can show you the direct and voluminous evidence of all that I say. I can show you, over tens, even hundreds of assignments over nine months exactly how your child has improved. Compare that to a single test score. Which is of more value to you? Are you really willing to pay greatly increased taxes to obtain that single test score?

Steve, I wasn't bragging about my MHS test pass rates, merely answering your concerns by making the point that I do, in fact, do precisely what the public asks of me, and yes, do it very well. And why do even 2% of my kids fail? Because some kids have a bad day upon occasion. Because some kids just don't care or try. Because some kids--and this might seem counterintuitive, but it's not--are too smart for the damned test and in writing as I require, as an college professor would require, don't meet the specific, dumbed-down requirements of the MHS test. And as I pointed out, there is great genetic variability in human beings. Not everyone will be able to accomplish every task to the same degree of skill no matter how wonderful their teacher.

I do have one question. I'm not sure of your question where you wrote "Why give kids a pass on the rest of the program just because they pass these tests?" I'll give it a try, but I'm not sure I'm responding directly to your post. They don't get a pass. The MHS tests are a completely separate matter from my student's grades, with the exception that if they don't pass, they can't graduate, no matter how brilliant their academic performance in 12 years of schooling. Try explaining why a student with a 12 year, straight A average--well and honestly earned--can't graduate from high school based on the score on a single test. Interestingly, in my state, some kids have been refusing to take the tests and not receiving diplomas. They've been accepted at the colleges of their choice and done very well despite the lack of a HS diploma.

I hope I've addressed your concerns. Thanks again!

Posted by: Mike Mc at May 25, 2011 07:59 PM

Dear James:

Thanks for your concerns. I don't think we're talking past each other, but I do think we have quite a different view of public education. What you wrote seems to suggest that you find public schools to be, in essence, a failed endeavor. I do not. Without a doubt, there are some schools and school districts that are poorly run and that are so inept I would never considering enrolling my children (or working there), but most American schools do, in fact, provide a good to excellent educational opportunity. That's a term I'll be exploring in detail next Tuesday.

You raised a good question: "If not the blunt instrument of Mandatory Testing, then what?" Good teaching and good management. Any good teacher can tell you far more about your child than a single test score, and a well managed school will maximize your child's educational opportunity. That is, in fact, all any school can hope to do.

James, in my most cynical moments, I sometimes agree that most parents don't seem to care. I'm sometimes tempted to think that most of my students were conceived in test tubes because I see so little evidence of parental involvement. However, I know that's far from universally true, and sending kids to public schools is far from evidence of a lack of caring. Parents have every right to have confidence in their schools and to expect that they will well serve their kids. Mandatory, high stakes tests don't serve anyone but educational bureaucrats and politicians. In those specific places and cases where the schools are not functioning properly, citizens at the local level have great power to make the necessary changes. School board elections in many communities can be won or lost by a handful of votes. A bond issue in my community several years ago failed by three votes and later passed by about the same margin. MHS tests are not a substitute for citizen awareness and informed involvement.

My district and my school do not prevent me from effectively teaching. They basically leave me alone because I've proved that I'm worthy of that level of trust. But the time I must devote to a single MHS test prevents me from teaching as much and as effectively as possible for about 29% of the school year. I know that many people don't know that. They don't know the costs, financial and in lost learning, involved. That's why I'm regularly writing on education. And I'd love my district to pay for all my supplies, but they just don't have the money; schools never do. Though the hundreds of millions spent on MHS tests would surely help.

Schools have, in many ways, changed in the last half-century, and in large part because of the exponential growth of state and federal education bureaucracies. Schools today are required by law to engage in an enormous amount of social services and in social experimentation that is detrimental to our central mission. But even so, we still provide that good to excellent educational opportunity about which I spoke. We could do even better without those distractions, and I'll be writing about that in the near future too.

You wrote "At some point you have to give up the corrupt institution." If I was working in one, I would, but my school, my district, my town do very well indeed. If I taught in Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington DC or any one of a number of well documented educational problem spots, well, I wouldn't teach in any of those places, because no matter how good and dedicated the teacher, if they're not allowed to teach well and use that dedication--you get the picture.

In the not too distant future I'll take up the issue of vouchers and privatizing education, but that's beyond the scope of what we're dealing with right now.

James, involved, aware parents can have an enormous, positive and sufficient influence on their schools. They're near the lowest, fundamental level of democracy and have real power, if they'll only use it. That too is a large part of my message.

Thanks again!

Posted by: Mike Mc at May 25, 2011 08:26 PM