Revenge of the Test-Flunkers

by Martin Harris

If the late John Nesbitt were still on radio, he’d devote an episode of his Passing Parade time-slot (it ran from 1937 to 1951) to the remarkable news regarding the US Department of Education’s NAEP student achievement tests. Specifically, some of them have just been cancelled by the Feds, after a 44 year run starting in 1969, which, from the start, revealed then-new and drastic short-comings in public education. For three subsequent decades, the tests were tolerated but disregarded by the 50 State Education Departments because the dismal results weren’t widely publicized, but then the entire test template became the target for K-12 edu-crat evasion and criticism after No Child Left Behind was adopted in 2001, its political crime being the requirement that, henceforth, student test scores be widely publicized, and that the shortfall in student achievement –Proficiency– be corrected year by year through measurable Annual Yearly Progress until by 2014, the goal of all-students-Proficient (as we all were prior to the “innovations” of the 1960’s) goal would have been painlessly achieved. It hasn’t been, and, by last count, over 40 States have requested temporary AYP waivers from their Federal tormentors, and so they’ve taken the next, more permanent step: they’ve played their political cards to get the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests cancelled. The bad news, from their point of view, was that only the less-publicly-visible and publicly-followed Civics, History, and Geography tests were removed, while the good news, from the politicially-less-important (mostly middle-class parent) public point of view, is that the more significant Reading and Math tests, illustrating substantial productivity shortfalls in students’ basic necessities for literacy and numeracy, have survived this particular ambush.

The official reason? “the sequester made us do it.” The real reason? In the current political climate (think back to the Prez 44 quote on politics as a means for favoring your friends and punishing your enemies) it’s that the dismal test scores (roughly 2/3 of all students can’t make Proficient on them, meaning they can’t function at grade level expectations) have been an on-going embarrassment to the vote-critical public-ed constituency, and therefore, in return for its earlier (and future) support, that electoral bloc now deserves a favor. Except for the frequently-argued Students-Who-Won’t-Learn phenomenon, the unacceptably poor student Proficiency percentages (about a third, on average) the Conventional Wisdom has decided that the real test-flunkers have been the educators, not the students: as we military instructors were warned by our own administrative bureaucracy long ago, “if students didn’t learn, it’s because teachers didn’t teach.” Getting rid of the inadequacy-revealing tests solves the immediate (but, of course, not the real, longer-range) problem.

There’s a parallel, of sorts, to the “poor carpenter blames tools” aphorism, supposedly of 13th century French origin, but an older and better one is found in the Biblical Book of Matthew: “judge not that ye be not judged.” In the newly-arrived context of evaluating teacher productivity by means of, amongst other criteria, student achievement scores, it accurately explains why edu-crats never militated against tests when public education was as well-functioning an enterprise as Horace Mann ever hoped for. None of your Humble Scribe’s generation would have gotten through all 12 grades without having earned promotion out of each previous one, specifically by demonstrating various subject-area Proficiencies in the annual May tests; and conversely, why edu-ctrats are now so militating because, now, the tests reveal that, for whatever reason but usually over-simplified to teacher-(in)effectiveness, the test scores are embarrassing to students and even more so to their supposed instructors. Eliminating the tests eliminates the annual addition of unpleasant statistical facts to the inconvenient evidence.

Killing the tests produces a “better” result than the find-an-easier-test tactic, deployed by edu-crats since NCLB was first adopted. That’s because a sufficiently-easy test apparently can’t be found. Vermont, for example, has been through the New Standards Reference Exam, then switched to the New England Common Assessment Program, and is now about to move again, to the Smarter Balance test associated with the new Common Core curriculum design. NECAP produced remarkably better achievement “results” ( 2/3 of the same universe of students who can’t make Proficient in Reading and Math on the Federal tests, can do exactly that on NECAP) but it wasn’t enough: NCLB’s 2014 deadline calls for all-students-Proficient, not 2/3-of-all-students Proficient. Judging from the first results coming in from the two tests associated with Common Core – Smarter Balance or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers—the numbers so far closely track the earlier, dismal, NAEP numbers. Edu-crat test-flunkers will find (HS prediction) no salvation in either SB or PARCC, which perhaps explains why, for political-pressure reasons, States adopting Common Core demanded and got permission to use their own preferred tests in any mix with the Federal NAEP. Tennessee, for example, with the “easiest” (as “mapped” by the Feds against the NAEP) such State test in the Nation, the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, will continue to use it.

The new political focus on test-killing has diverted attention from two earlier suspects-of-interest: one was the brand-new notion that teachers now need multiple higher-ed degrees to qualify for teaching the 26 letters and 10 numbers of the Western World’s writing and counting systems, and the other was the ancient practice enabling teachers to remove SWWL’s (Students Who Won’t Learn) from their classrooms so those few don’t. by blatant disengagement, disruption, or worse, destroy the learning environment for the entire class. Indeed, some teachers commenting on education Web sites have argued that, with classroom discipline returned to its once-standard first priority, they would be quite willing to be evaluated by student results: when their students don’t flunk, neither do they, and revenge via killing the tests wouldn’t be necessary.

One thought on “Revenge of the Test-Flunkers

  1. Excellent concise analysis of the Blob’s fifty years war against assessing results.
    As a young legislator in 1970 I introduced the idea of educational accountability, putting me permanently on the Blob’s Great Satan list. Ironically, my inspiration was Sen. Robert Kennedy.

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