US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently reemphasized the importance of the annual testing requirement. One of the key reasons he’s advocating for them is that they provide information about what’s working and what’s not. A coalition of civil rights groups also support annual testing for the same reason– as a means to “target funding” where it’s most needed– for the most vulnerable students including “children of color; children living in poverty; children with disabilities; homeless, foster and migrant children; children in detention; children still learning English; Native children; and girls as well as boys.”
Secretary Duncan and the Coalition of Civil Rights Groups make it seem logical that the continuation of annual testing is the nation’s best move forward. The logic goes something like this—(A) create a standard body of knowledge that we expect all students to possess (in English Language Arts and mathematics, at least); (B) provide a test to see who possesses these standards; and (C) look at test outcomes and provide the remedies where needed. This A+B=C model hinges on our capacity to change course when we see that what we are doing is not working, that we know which course to choose, and that we have the power and resources to make these changes.
What does history tell us about A + B = C?
As we watch Congress debate the future of the No Child Left Behind Act [NCLB] and whether the testing requirements will change, it’s important to look at historical outcomes about these types of actions. In 2000, President Bush signed into law the NCLB act. Included in it were accountability standards requiring that the nation’s students be tested annually to see how school was working for them. Fifteen years post-NCLB, we have a LOT of test outcome data showing that things have not changed much for the very groups that the Civil Rights Coalition name as needing it the most. The gap between who is and isn’t succeeding has remained constant during this fifteen-year period. Coupled with this sad reality is a second and equally important one. Students from these ‘minority’ populations are growing rapidly. One is no longer a minority population; for the first time in 50 years, most students live in poverty.
How do we really get to the Core of “C”?
So, let’s go back to the logic model. It’s akin to the person who slips on an icy sidewalk and hurts his leg. He goes to the hospital and gets an x-ray. The x-ray shows a broken leg. Now, before we jump to conclusions about what happens next—have we been given enough information about the person? What if he is three years old, or 46, or 96, or if he’s previously broken the same leg multiple times? With each of these scenarios, would he receive a different course of treatment – meaning- is there one standard or test that truly fits all?
Standards and tests of the standards provide us with only a partial picture of any whole. Missing in the A+B=C formula is what’s most important: knowing, really knowing our learners and having the capacity and resources to create and implement a plan of instruction that is just right for each of them. Renowned psychologist and Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, states that we often make sweeping decisions based on limited data. What does this have to do with the tests that are given to millions of students? The Standards were not created for these underrepresented populations and neither were the tests. Rather, they are intended as a broad brush for the total student population. Also, test data is just that- how students do on tests. It provides only a tiny bit of information. It is not about how students learn or what motivates their engagement in learning. That is what deserves the lion’s share of our attention and effort (and funding). Who, for example, are the very students living in poverty in our specific geographic area? What are their personal, cultural, world interests and how might we match these with what happens in school (their communication/literacy, subject matter, thinking-skill, and citizenry development)? Who are their families and how might we better partner with them in their child’s education? While standards and test makers (and even publishers of the textbooks based on these) may be working hard to make them as bias-free as possible (or at least we hope that they are), our over-focus on them is shining way too much light in the wrong direction. Truly knowing a student (how they learn, their assets, their interests, their families, etc.) is far more essential than how they perform on any norm-referenced test as it gives us the much-needed information that we need to make education work.
This article was drawn from Zacarian & Silverstone (2015) In It Together How Student, Family, and Community Partnerships Advance Engagement and Achievement in Diverse Classrooms and Zacarian (2013) Mastering academic language: a framework for supporting student achievement.