I know that Matt Yglesias is smart and clever and very influential, but every time I read something written by him on education, I want to break something. (I know, I know, everyone loves the guy. I'm like Elaine in this episode of Seinfeld about "The English Patient.")
In response to Goldstein's piece he says:
"The exposition is very clear and informative, and though it’s obvious Goldstein is skeptical (for basically Campbell’s Law reasons) that this is going to work out, those of us who are less worried about the Campbell’s Law phenomenon see here a very strong portrait of a school district going all-in on measuring and rewarding quality."
There's a huge assumption being made here: That standardized tests measure quality of learning and teaching. They mostly don't do that. Yet he regularly makes this assumption in his columns.
Standardized tests have important uses such as for diagnostic purposes (for example, for gauging reading proficiency levels so teachers know which books students can handle or for diagnosing disabilities) and for estimating at the school and district level where students are, but I reject the notion, especially if you look at the low quality of many of the tests themselves, that they measure quality of teaching or learning.
As a teacher and now as a parent I don't want just a measurement; I want an evaluation. I want teachers and tools that evaluate my children's achievements, what they've learned, what they know and what they can do. I want to read their writing, to listen to a podcast they've made about the life of a famous American, to view their art work, to see science experiments they've done. And I want to evaluate my children's teachers based on the climate in their classrooms, on the relationships they have with my children, and on the quality of knowledge gained and work done under their guidance. Standardized tests tell me almost nothing about this.
In the same post Yglesias says:
"The one real bone I’d pick with her characterization of what’s happening in Colorado is that I’m not sure how much sense it makes to complain that 'high-stakes testing' is being administered too often. If you have someone sit for a test 25 separate times per year then the stakes for any one test can’t be all that high. That would seem to me to be part of the point of testing frequently."Okay. Yes, the stakes will be diluted by giving twenty-five tests. But that's twenty-five freaking tests! Students will be bored to frustration and mostly not engaging in meaningful learning during those twenty-five days. I'm okay with some testing, especially if it's teacher-generated and meant to help students remember and practice what they've learned. But I am not okay with twenty-five days of standardized testing and if that comes to my district, I will complain vigorously about it whenever I have the chance.
Alexander Russo made a similar criticism in this post about Goldstein's article, that he wasn't sure how "stressful" mid-year assessments were. Okay, granted--some kids get stressed about the tests, some don't. My sons don't, but they get really, really tired of preparing for them, of engaging in learning through the lens of a multiple choice test. They're only in second grade, mind you. In Virginia, the high-stakes standardized tests don't start until third grade, at which point I've heard that the testing mania gets much, much worse.
For now, they are constantly taking tests: multiple choice tests, benchmark assessments, passage-based reading tests. They are bored by taking so many tests. They tell me this all of the time. (For a truly disturbing tale from a teacher at a school with an abhorrent culture of standardization and testing, read this moving account from Mary Ann Reilly's blog.) Now, some things in school, and life, are boring, and there are good reasons behind some testing, and I tell my kids this, but do we have to bore them and waste their time so often and so insidiously, just for the sake of a measurement that a bunch of think tankers, oligarchs, politicians, legislators, and education reform industrialists want? Do we have to ruin the learning experiences of our children to get these people their probably-not-even-valid measurement?
When I was a teacher, I didn't get stressed about the tests themselves. As Teacher Sabrina describes here, the testing days were easy. There was nothing to plan, the kids behaved, every one knew what to do. The part that's stressful is having to constantly prepare for the tests, to give practice tests, knowing in some cases that the students must pass them to graduate. It was stressful knowing that the quality of my teaching was going to be evaluated by an assessment I had not made or seen.
What was truly stressful, though, as journalist Linda Pearlstein describes here and as teacher Amanda Sheaffer describes so poignantly in this letter to her third grade students, was knowing that I was cheating my students out of a rich and meaningful education. Now that my own children are in school, I have careful conversations with their teachers about this and they agree: the standardization, the pacing, the constant assessments, the high-stakes testing all gets in the way of what most teachers are really yearning to teach and what students, such as my children, are truly yearning to learn.
Michael Miles, the Harrison District superintendent Goldstein profiles, is wrong when he insultingly says the options for an art teacher are between narrowing standardization and "doing coloring." What an incredibly impoverished view of art education, and of the teaching and learning processes in general. How utterly depressing that these are the ideas of the people "reforming" our public schools.
Goldstein didn't interview a Colorado teacher "who didn't mind the extra testing or even thought it helped her do her job better" as Russo implored her to do because, as John Thompson comments here, she was probably hard pressed to find one. I was recently critical of journalists for "balancing" their stories for the sake of balance at the expense of truth and accuracy. However, I praise Goldstein for resisting that habit in this particular article, for relaying truth via narrative (as, to his credit, Yglesias remarks) about what the recent education reform policies enacted in places such as Colorado are doing to teaching and learning, to teachers and students, to tell the story that those who teach and those who are parents see unfold almost every school day.
To conclude, this piece in The Economist provides a brilliant historical analogy for why the standardization approach to education that Goldstein chronicles, although well-intentioned, is the wrong one.
At the dinner table a few months ago my heart sank when my son Caleb, a voracious reader and creative soul, announced, "Mommy, I love reading, but I hate reading tests." As testing takes over, I'm afraid this will simply turn into: "I hate school."
No reform, no measure of "quality" is worth that.