Where are the waves of students now arriving on college campuses super-prepared? Where are the businesses proclaiming that today’s grads are the most awesome in history? Where is the increase in citizens with great-paying jobs? Where are any visible signs that the test-based accountability system has worked?” -  Peter Green, Forbes, September 2018

A provocative quote to say the least. As we march through another school year, three articles caught my attention and insist that we examine this focus in education. Clarity of purpose becomes paramount as we explore the latest thinking on high-stakes testing.

From Green in his Forbes commentary, “we see increasing evidence that the movement for standardized testing is not improving the long-term goals of education … Teachers have said, repeatedly, that the tests don’t measure what they claim to measure, and that the educational process in schools is being narrowed and weakened in order to focus on testing. Teachers have said, repeatedly, that the Big Standardized Tests are a waste of time and money and not helping students get an education. Teachers have been saying it over and over and over again. In return teachers have been told, “You are just afraid of accountability” and “These tests will finally keep you honest.”

From Daniel Koretz in his book The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, “For decades we’ve been studying, experimenting with, and wrangling over different approaches to improving public education, and there’s still little consensus on what works, and what to do. The one thing people seem to agree on, however, is that schools need to be held accountable—we need to know whether what they’re doing is actually working. But what does that mean in practice? High-stakes tests. Lots of them. And that has become a major problem. Koretz argues that the whole idea of test-based accountability has failed—it has increasingly become an end in itself, harming students and corrupting the very ideals of teaching. Rather than setting up incentives to divert instructional time to pointless test prep, he argues, we need to measure what matters, and measure it in multiple ways—not just via standardized tests. Right now, we’re lying to ourselves about whether our children are learning. And the longer we accept that lie, the more damage we do. It’s time to end our blind reliance on high-stakes tests.”

These strong words from Green and Koretz give voice to the concerns of many educators. As a public employee, however, this is a tricky issue in which to have a voice. For those in agreement, the question becomes how to work within the system and yet not compromise the ideals and beliefs held to be true.

Let’s explore the idea of necessary accountability - which seems to be a point of agreement.

It is important to know how schools are doing.

We can consider the release of data from Education Week's K-12 Achievement Index, which utilizes a “basket of 18 indicators in all, with a strong emphasis on data such as test scores and graduation rates that are comparable across states.”

The plethora of data and information here is fascinating, (which I expect to explore more fully in a subsequent newsletter.)

The multi-faceted look at data makes a compelling argument for any conclusions that are drawn.

What we see is a wide gap in achievement indicators across states, creating an average score of a C nationally.

As we look more closely, we see that certain states consistently score lower, while other states consistently score as top performers.

Massachusetts is also a top scorer when looking at issues of equity and achievement gaps for students of poverty. “Grades in the equity category are based on gaps in test scores between poor and nonpoor students on NAEP. Since 2003, income-based achievement gaps have widened in 3 out of 4 states. Delaware (95.6) and New York (93.4) earn the only solid A grades in the equity category. They are followed by seven states posting A-minuses: Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Montana, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming. The District of Columbia receives the only F (50.0). (Still) Poor students lag behind their more affluent peers in every state.”

The question becomes, why is Massachusetts consistently outperforming other states in the nation?

We know that Massachusetts takes accountability seriously. And that accountability comes from the administration of the high stakes MCAS tests. MCAS testing data is scrutinized for trends in performance by all districts. This is a major part of the reality of being an educator in Massachusetts. Do we know, however, that the MCAS accountability plan is the reason for the higher scores? Which other variables are at play? Given the well-deserved kudos and high ranking, it is doubtful that anything different in terms of testing would be done here in Massachusetts. It is impossible to argue with the data which reveals a compellingly positive picture.

So, here I sit mulling this information over. Does the use of high stakes testing as a means of accountability translate to better educated and more successful students?

AND, does time dedicated to that end justify the means?

If not, what do we use for accountability measures?

How do we work to close the achievement gap across states and within states and districts, in particular for special populations?

This brings me back to my foundational motivation which is always the children. How do children learn best? What needs to be happening in education in order for children to emerge successful? And, how do we even define success?

These are just the beginning of my questions. I do not have all of the answers. What I do have is a profound respect for all educators, who do their job, who work within the required testing parameters - whether that is the solution or not. They show up every day with the responsibility of educating children and the mission to make the world a better place.

I believe that when we do what is right by children, all else falls in line.

Children need to feel safe and to know that they have a voice in their learning. Their education needs to be engaging and reflective of the trends that exist in the world of 2018. Technology needs to be an integral part of classrooms. Opportunities for choice, exploration, and creativity need to abound. Measuring and assessing success, therefore, needs to be as multifaceted as the learners that are in front of us. These are some of my beliefs.

I am very interested in continuing this discussion. What are your thoughts? Where do you fall in this debate? How do we take these points of view and make sense of what it means to be an educator in 2018? How do we best support each other in this journey?

Share your thoughts with me at @LooneyMath