Sunday, October 26, 2014

Testing and Accountability: More Oppressive and Destructive Than Ever!

"You can prep kids for a standardized test, get a bump in scores, yet not be providing a very good education." Mike Rose, "The Mismeasure of Teaching and Learning: How Contemporary School Reform Fails the Test"
It should not be a surprise at all to politicians, policymakers, and educators that the cry and backlash against testing and accountability is growing. During my 25 year career, I've seen the number of state tests administered in public high schools in North Carolina grow from 1 to well-over 2 dozen. Testing and test scores are the talk, and the focus is almost always on "how can we get those test scores up?" About the only ones, with the exception of a few teachers, who are enthusiastic about all this testing are school administrators, who for the first time have a "cattle prod" as Taubman calls it in his book Teaching by Numbers, to shock those teachers who get out of line and who aren't "producing." Blind acceptance of test scores as "the only data of importance" is common, because such data is seen as an "objective" measure, another myth perpetuated by testing and accountability supporters. But is that true?

Peter Taubman's book Teaching by Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education points out some flaws with this blind acceptance of testing as "the data" on which to base all educational decisions. He writes,
"Fundamentally, tests provide little more than data, but just as one must question the confessions extracted under torture, one has to wonder just how reliable that data is, when it is wrung out of students shocked by the constant administration of tests." 
In other words, no one questions, least of all school administrators, this "data" we're looking at as measures of teacher, school effectiveness and student learning. Tests are data, but how good is that data when students have been subjected to test-after-test-after-test as we do in high schools in North Carolina? North Carolina education leaders truly believe in the maxim, "If it breathes; test it." Data collected under the oppressive, tortuous testing system in our state isn't foolproof, and our jobs as administrators, educators and teachers is to remember that when we start looking at numbers.

There's no doubt when our state education leaders, administrators use the phrase "accountability" they mean primarily multiple choice tests designed to keep teachers, administrators and whole schools in line. As Taubman writes again,
"All too evident, accountability translates into teachers' responsibility for their students' learning as measured by performance on tests." 
I would add that when our state leaders and most administrators use the phrase student achievement they are only speaking about test scores. The testing math in North Carolina is captured by this equation:
Student Achievement=Test Scores
Reducing learning to a test score is great if you are accountant, but for those of us who know teaching, we know that genuine learning is rarely, if ever, only contained between the letters of a multiple choice question. Real, worth-while learning is not always subject to being captured on a a standardized test.

Administrators love tests though, and with the same enthusiasm that politicians do. Why is this? I think Taubman once again hits the bullseye. He writes,
"One reason administrators are sympathetic to testing, the data it generates, and various practices connected to testing and data aggregation is that these provide control from a distance, a fundamental component of what is called audit culture." 
Testing allows principals to become accountants, district leaders to become accountant managers, and superintendents and state level leaders become CEOs. Through test scores, all levels of administrators finally have a tool to control what happens in classrooms. They can dictate how teachers can act, and even in some school systems, teachers are given scripts to follow to make sure they cover what is to be tested. Increase the number of tests administered and you control more and more of what happens in schools. All that talk about allowing teacher decision-making, but holding teachers accountable for those decisions is just empty rhetoric. Tests are measures of control and compliance, and they are gradually strangling public education. Testing finally gives administrators what they think is an "objective" tool for getting rid of teachers and for making sure everyone is compliant.

Test data also gives administrators at every level "bragging points." It gives them something to boast about to the public, to business, to industry, and to politicians. Never mind that testing almost always reduces teaching and learning to only what can tested. Taubman gets it right once again when he writes,
"Tests constitute one way the educational reforms show the educational system. Extracting data from students, teachers and schools, they force our noses into the bottom line. Keeping us under constant surveillance, they make us vulnerable to centers of control beyond our reach, and, providing the illusion of objective accountability and meritocracy, they reduce education to right answers and information." 
Testing is about keeping teachers and students noses to the bottom line. It is about using the "illusion of objective accountability" to make sure no one gets out of line.

There is no question that this accountability and testing culture is negatively affecting teaching as a profession as well. According to Taubman,
"High stakes tests erode the autonomy of teachers, for if tests determine the curriculum, and if tests tell us what is important to know as a teacher, and if these tests are fabricated by centers of control beyond the reach of teachers, then the teachers' passions, commitments, and wisdom count less and less." 
As mentioned earlier, accountability and testing is in some case reducing the act of teaching to little more than a "scripted lesson." Instructional delivery is simply following the state or district lesson plan. Teacher autonomy due to the massive testing load is at an all time low. Teaching is no longer a profession; it is a factory job, whose goal is to churn out test scores. If a teacher fails to "make production," they are branded "Ineffective" or "Not Making Expected Growth" as its called in North Carolina.

What is more amazing is that state educational leaders just don't get it. Enrollments in education programs in colleges and universities for training teachers is at an all time low, and it isn't just about salaries. Teaching is just not very attractive when your job is test-score production. Talk to any students about becoming a teacher, and they laugh in your face. Even worse is when you find yourself as an educator no longer encouraging young people to become teachers because being a public educator anywhere, much less North Carolina, has been robbed its ability to be satisfying career because too much emphasis is placed on accountability and testing.

Where does all this end? I wish we knew. North Carolina, as do other states, continues to ramp up its testing by adding new tests, and the state stubbornly hangs on to its massive testing regimen. Will it be when there's no one entering teacher education programs in our state? Will it be when there is no one with more than 10 years experience left teaching in the classroom? Or, will it be when parents, students, and teachers finally push back and say they've had enough? Testing and accountability is more oppressive than ever in North Carolina and elsewhere, and it is sinking public education and the teaching profession along with it.