Saturday, November 21, 2015

Accountability and Testing: Distorting Teaching, Learning, and Public Education

To continue my critique of the “accountability and testing regime,” I have been thinking about what the ultimate goals of those whose faith and belief in the promise of standardized testing, statistical technologies, and classroom surveillance are. They have captured the discourse in education and conveniently made unacceptable anything critical anyone else has to say about testing and its high stakes deployment. An educator who questions it is not taken seriously and is deemed out of bounds. Testing and accountability seeks, in a nutshell, to make teaching and learning “measurable, calculable, in order to be controllable."

What does it mean to make teaching and learning “measurable?” It means reducing teaching and learning to “indicators” or “standards” that can simply be determined to be not present or present. It means making teaching and learning into something that can be captured using the available technologies at our disposal, such as teacher observations and standardized testing. Teaching, then, is made measurable by teacher evaluations, and, more recently, using statistical measures such as value-added models, which both result in what is hopefully “objective” and widely accepted as being “true” measures of acceptable teaching and learning, because they happen to be numerical.

As an administrator, I have heard many of my colleagues make the statement, “If it isn’t measurable; it didn’t happen.” That statement captures beautifully the complete faith in testing and measurement that currently exists in education. But it is also a statement of ignorance. Even the best psychometricians will say that “NOT EVERYTHING IN TEACHING AND LEARNING THAT IS WORTHWHILE IS MEASURABLE.” But this faith in “educational measurement” is at the heart of current educational reform, and it is still believed by many educators, politicians, and policymakers to hold the “silver bullet” that will finally make all public education effective. “We just don’t measure enough and measure effectively” is the belief that keeps driving round after round of testing-and-accountability-based reforms” in education. Tests are cheap in comparison to really dealing with the equity issues of healthcare and poverty. With tests and statistical tools, the belief that one can erase these social justice problems, but sadly that is not the case.

For those of us in the schools, those of us in tune with the teachers and students there, we see the results of this: an education system that continues to be distorted and twisted, that ultimately meets the needs of a few, mainly those who can use these “measurable results” to determine their own effectiveness and the effectiveness of their own ideas. An education where test results are still valued over individuals, and any old methodology that results in higher test scores is acceptable. Testing takes precedence over everything else schools do: just look at a state’s testing regulations if you want to see this. In other words, no matter the rhetoric coming from testing and accountability addicts, testing is driving everything in schools, and that’s they way they want it. That keeps them in power and needed.

Making teaching and learning “calculable” is very much akin to making it “measurable.” Making what we do in schools “calculable” is seeking to reduce what we are supposed to be doing to numbers. Somehow, our current system views “numbers” as somehow more objective, therefore superior to other things like judgment or intuition. This desire to make everything “calculable” leads to bizarre decision-making, where outcomes are ridiculously reduced to numerical values, even if those values distort the process and result. Standardized tests do this very well. They can’t measure an “effective essay” for example. Determining whether an essay , or musical composition, or painting is “effective” is by nature a “judgment.” And, whether it is effective in all instances and in all ways is relative. It might be effective at one thing or in one instance, but not another. Rarely are major literary pieces simply “effective for all time” or “in all ways.” The same applies to music, art, and so many other human endeavors. So, in the name of “objectivity,” current testing manics send essays, compositions, and even paintings to “outside” observers to evaluate all in the quest for “objectivity.” But such actions might create a facade of objectivity based on faith, but it completely results in an unfair evaluation of student work. For, who knows better whether a student has progressed than that teacher who has been in the trenches with that student, day after day and seen their incremental growth first-hand. So, the pursuit of making teaching and learning “calculable” is to simply turn it into numerical values or make it have the facade of “objectivity” because the belief is that “numbers don’t lie.” Testing and accountability becomes more about distrust of teachers and their judgments, than really trying to provide an effective education for students. "We can't trust teachers' judgments about students, so must use tests and other outside evaluators," is the rationale.

It is this desire to make teaching and learning both measurable and calculable that leads me to the final goal of accountability and testing as I see it: to make teaching and learning controllable. Policymakers, education reformers, and even politicians all believe they hold the “ultimate vision” of what effective teaching and learning is. They believe, armed with their many contradictory studies on the subject, that they hold the answers. Answers in hand, they seek to control teaching and learning in order to mold it into their image of effectiveness. Through tactics of measurement and calculability based in standardized testing and measurement, they use high stakes decision-making to weed out the “deviant” practices that don’t meet “best practices standards.” The problem lies though with the truth that both teaching and learning is so complex that to reduce it to universal rules of effectiveness ends up distorting it and neutralizing it to simply a “technical knowledge” that anyone can understand, including administrators and policymakers and education reformers who have never spent a day engaging in teaching in classrooms and making decisions about student learning. Teachers, as a result, find themselves engaging in a strangely distorted form of teaching that must jump through the hoops of “best practices” in order to get the “results” desired by this twisted system of education. Teaching the test and test prep are two examples of this distortion. They have become assembly-line workers who “add” knowledge to students as they roll down the assembly-line, and testing with this value-added component is the “quality control mechanism” that drives teachers in the entire system to produce even more “globally competent graduates" that can produce ‘number one test scores’ on international tests such as PISA. Under the testing and accountability regime, teachers are reduced to technicians whose judgement does not count and means nothing. Test results and other “quantitative” measures are hierarchically superior.

In the end, if you wanted to design an education system that turns education into a factory-like system that produces standard results, you couldn’t have done better with that created by our current accountability and testing regime. If you wanted to create a system that transforms and de-professionalizes teaching as a profession, you can’t do much better. In the end, our public education system might ultimately match up to the vision of those who adhere avidly to accountability and testing practices, but I can’t help but wonder whether those teachers in this system find the same level of satisfaction and dedication to students when test results are valued so highly. I also have to wonder what kinds of students such a system of this really produces. Perhaps, that’s what’s desired by accountability and testing advocates: they want students who don’t question; who don’t criticize; who don’t engage in learning deemed irrelevant such as the arts, and learning seen as deviant. They want both students and teachers who “just do their jobs” and not engage in dreams of how things might be different or better.