DS08: Over-testing and the “accountability” dodge

Our nation’s current teach-to-the-test pathology is strong evidence of how our educational system has failed in deep, fundamental ways. However, President Bush’s No Child Left Untested debacle is a program that benefits nobody except his friends in the educational publishing industry. It’s bad for teachers and worse for students, who wind up graduating with no critical thinking skills, no ability to solve problems or unravel novel challenges, and an abject lack of skills necessary to succeed in college and the professional world that awaits them when their formal schooling ends. In essence, they learn to take multiple choice tests, a talent that’s of zero value in the real world.

However, we continue to insist on more and more testing so as to assure “accountability,” a cynical, silly misappellation that aggressively refuses to acknowledge the real problems facing our schools. In short, when your teachers are a) drawn from a pool of what’s available at bargain basement wage scale, b) under-resourced, c) saddled with obscene amounts of mind-numbing clerical work, d) placed into overcrowded classrooms that are little more than warehouses, e) forced to teach 21st Century students with a 19th Century educational model, and f) afforded no effective means of addressing disruptive (and often dangerous) students, it is patently stupid to suggest that “accountability” is even possible, and even more ludicrous to suggest that standardized testing (leading to the threat of school closings) will somehow improve education.

The fact that there are people who think this way in positions of authority is perhaps all the evidence we’d ever need to prove that massive, systematic reform is needed.

When talented teachers are provided the ample resources and effective support, accountability isn’t going to be a problem. When learning organizations are tailored to 21st Century skills, tools, requirements and dynamics, we can reasonably expect the failings that “necessitated” over-testing to disappear.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have standards, appropriate measures for evaluation (for students, teachers, administrators and facilities) and processes for assuring the highest functioning of the system (and yes, that includes removing sub-par educators). However, our focus must be on curing the disease, not profiteering off the symptoms.


  • Are you trying to incite me to riot?

  • Well, that wasn’t the primary incentive. But if it’s a secondary effect, I’ll take it.

  • The amount of testing is obscene. This is what my 7th graders last year endured:

    9 hours of CSAP testing
    4 hours of CSAP “dry run”
    6 hours of district writing assessments
    3 hours of district reading assessments
    3 hours of district math assessments
    1 hour of reading level placement testing

    When I left, the district was working on adding performance assessments in each core area. The science assessments were an additional 6-10 hours.

    And it feels like I’m forgetting something–perhaps I blocked it out.

    Very little of this testing was designed to be useful to me in planning lessons, which meant that I still had to administer my own assessments to figure out what direction I needed to take the class and who needed additional help.

    People keep asking me when I’m going back to teaching. I laugh.

  • Jen:

    Here’s what I’m looking for: a teacher who doesn’t have a problem with all the testing. I’m sure there’s bound to be a few out there, but I literally haven’t come across a single one. And I know a few personally, and cross paths with a lot more online.

    Is it unanimous?

  • I know a teacher of math who felt my state’s standardized math test was both a good test and worth teaching to, since it actually measures the logic skills math is supposed to foster. I think that’s about the only positive thing I have heard about testing from a teacher, but it is one ;-).

  • I think if there’s a case to be made, it’s probably in math and the hard sciences, since there are hard facts that need to be known. In other areas this comes at the expense of critical thinking, though. Of course, that matters in the sciences and math, too….

  • If you don’t mind (well, hell, even if you do, I guess), I’d like to divide this issue out into two categories: intent and execution. It seems to me, Doc, that most of your problem is with execution, but I could be wrong.


    What I think I’ve learned as a management consultant to large businesses is that there are two things you simply must have going for you if you are to succeed: (1) You have to know what outcomes you want, and (2) you have to know if what you’re doing now is getting you there.

    I think many people would be surprised how often businesses don’t know what outcomes they want except in the most general and useless terms, like “maximize shareholder value” (I’ll get to how this applies to education if you’ll just bear with me a moment). Because of that, they do a lot of floundering around with bad tactics to get what they want.

    US business is actually doing better at #2 these days (in some ways) than at #1. The quality movement of the late 80s and 90s brought statistical process control (SPC) to American manufacturing. SPC, basically, ensure that every step in the manufacturing process is measured and remains under control so that the final product has as close to zero defects as possible. Since it’s easy to figure out #1 when what you’re talking about is zero defects, SPC has improved #2 to the point that there are actually some high-quality American products these days.

    Ideally, we (the American people) could agree on what outcomes we want from our schools, in terms of demonstrable knowledge, skills, and the like. I don’t think we’ve done that very well in most school districts.

    Once we actually know what we want we could, theoretically, design means of measuring the educational process throughout a person’s student life, and that would almost certainly include testing of some sort.


    Testing execution in many places is clearly inferior, but we must first look to the fact that we don’t necessarily know what we want, so many of the tests are groping for a meatball in a sea of mush.

    Even when there are clear standards, the tests are often poorly validated, poorly designed, either too lengthy or too brief, etc.


    The parents of school districts need to decide exactly what knowledge and skills they want their kids to graduate high school with, then back that down the grades to build that knowledge and those skills as they go along. Testing is absolutely essential to decide where to devote more resources, when particular techniques are not working, and what newly introduced techniques work better.

    Badly designed tests are like badly designed executive and sales compensation plans. They do more harm than good, since they incent the wrong sorts of behaviors.

    But this is not to say that the idea of deciding what one wants, and they measuring whether one is getting it, is a bad thing.

  • Jen & Sam,
    As someone who taught young adults (18-25 year olds) from 88-93 I can say that even then the other instructors and I lamented some of our students cognitive capabilities even after testing had weeded out over 90% of applicants. With that in mind I shudder to think what it would be like to teach the same age groups now much less in five to ten years.

  • JSO:

    It seems to me, Doc, that most of your problem is with execution, but I could be wrong.

    I agree that these are different issues, but I think there’s a huge problem on the intent side, too. More below.

    Ideally, we (the American people) could agree on what outcomes we want from our schools, in terms of demonstrable knowledge, skills, and the like. I don’t think we’ve done that very well in most school districts.

    The problem is that while Americans might generally reach some consensus on what they want from education, the agreement would erode dramatically once you got past the most general goals. More importantly, though, is the problem that American education isn’t answering to the will of the people, it’s marching to beat of powerful vested interests who I think want some very specific things out of our ed system.

    Specifically, they want a huge pool of people who are good at performing rote tasks and who aren’t given to lots of out-of-the-box thinking. Critical thinkers are important for an organization, if they’re in the right places. But you don’t want the line drones thinking too much, and what kinds of people do you think NCLB is built to produce?

    Note a couple things Jim has written. First, see the ed-related section here. Then note the structure of the process here.

    So what I’m getting at is this: our current system is doing a nice job of executing on its intent. The problem is that the intent is part-and-parcel of a larger dynamic that further entrenches the power elite and widens the nation’s opportunity gap.

  • Sam,
    to address this : “Specifically, they want a huge pool of people who are good at performing rote tasks and who aren’t given to lots of out-of-the-box thinking. Critical thinkers are important for an organization, if they’re in the right places. But you don’t want the line drones thinking too much, and what kinds of people do you think NCLB is built to produce?”
    I say that one bright spot for thinkers is such resources as S&R where your challenged to think and respond by folks from all sides of the issues, including at times from sides you didn’t even know existed until they boot you up side the head.

  • Sure, except I fear that the S&R audience is largely comprised of people who already HAVE these kinds of skills.

  • And I fear that most of the people we need to influence for something like education reform are lacking in critical thinking skills while firmly believing that they’re masters of them….

    (feeling cynical today)

  • Sam & Brian,
    I agree with you both. It would still help others to frequent sites like this though.

  • The No Child Left Behind policy is a funnel for our Military to take those that are not achieving and move them from this flawed system of eduction into a flawed military system.

    It’s no mistake that the majority of current recruits come from the lowest of the education and economic scale of our country.

    This act has required that all school provide student information to military recruiters and their questionable tactics to indoctrinate our young when they are at a time in their lives when they are most vulnerable. And in the same breath, do no allow recruiters like the Peace Corps to do the same, because for some insane reason, they do no feel that the Peace Corps could provide an actual benefit for long term careers. How vile.

    They are dumbing down you kids by teaching them by wrote, no by teaching them how to use resources to think for themselves.

  • 1. Be careful of presuming a level of parental interest that simply does not exist, at least not at a significant level.
    2. Critical thinkers are valuable in any job, but there will never be an excess of them.
    3. I have a tough time believing that the vested interests mentioned (or the people who run them) have any particular outcome in mind, other than profit and the continuation of privilege for the few. Yes, indoctrination into social norms is the “unwritten curriculum;” but what are those norms now? And where do they truly originate?
    4. No Child Left Behind had one purpose: publicity value. Had its originators actually believed in their own great plan, they would have funded it.
    5. I’ve seen a good, well-constructed writing assessment with a thoughtful rubric which actually tested thinking skills, not just the gift of test gab. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it as part of the NINETEEN INSTRUCTIONAL DAYS now lost each year in my district to standardized testing.
    6. Children are not refrigerators, or tires , or laptops, or any kind of standardized product. Testing them to determine my competence as a teacher (NCLB) is ludicrous. Assess them to determine their skills; assess me to determine mine.

  • Testing them to determine my competence as a teacher (NCLB) is ludicrous

    Statistically speaking, you’re wrong. You need a large enough sample of your students to take the test to draw meaningful conclusions, and the test questions need to be carefully designed, but once both of those conditions are met, it is possible to assess your teaching ability from the response of your students. Statistically speaking.

    That does not, however, mean the assessments of your students will be be carefully designed, or that the data will be used correctly. The latter piece is the thing that drives me the craziest, since bad data interpretation is what makes most of these standardized assessments useless. If you’re not tracking the aggregate improvement of kids from one year to the next, and controlling for the different batches of kids (some batches have a higher percentage of poor students than usual, for example), then the interpretation of the data is what killed the effectiveness of the assessment.

  • Agreed, to a certain extent. The effectiveness of a given program/teacher can be assessed and evaluated over a long enough period of time, with a large enough sample, by a carefully created and appropriately used set of tools. Doesn’t happen, but it’s certainly possible.

    However, bad data interpretation is not the primary problem with standardized testing, nor is test design, nor is controlling for different “demographics” (and that’s a can of worms ready to explode at a touch). The problem is what JS described above: a total lack of thoughtful, far-reaching agreement on the purpose and desired outcomes of public education. Politics, religion, greed, incompetence, apathy (my personal bete noir) all play a part – the same hobgoblins that cripple effective evaluation, but at a fundamental and therefore much more important level.

    So perhaps I should say: until the system is perfected, until we can all agree on ideal outcomes, until every child has involved parents, early learning opportunities, and a level economic playing field at school, we need to start at the bottom and test teachers separately, rigorously and for god’s sake, with immediate consequences attached.

    Because with good teachers (more on that later), even those badly designed and poorly used standardized tests will register steady improvement. Mine did. My co-teachers’ did. For years, predictably, without teaching to a fucking test of any kind.

    So screw the deadwood, the burnouts, the clock-watchers. Test ’em all and let the truth sort ’em out.

  • One tough thing about going away for a while, or being insanely busy, is that S&R discussions tend to get away from you (or me, anyway).

    A few things.

    I don’t personally believe in a conspiracy to limit American education because of vested interests. If anything, my clients tend to bemoan the state of the skills they see in entry-level workers.

    Ann, thank you for the support. I really don’t see a lot of organizations of any stripe really knowing what they want. And that includes the education establishment. Of course, how is the education establishment supposed to determine this when the public can’t decide?

  • JS,

    I don’t think there’s a flat-out conspiracy with a bunch of Illuminati types in a smoking room plotting out directives to keep Americans stupid (although you never know :)), but there IS a long-term trend from multiple sectors to discourage any sort of learning outcomes but rote answers to questions.

    Our educational system emphasizes obedience, acceptance, and the ability to process instructions in a rigid, predictable pattern. We’re taught that facts are facts, there is only one answer to a question, and doing things differently will get you punished and ostracized. This worked wonderfully for a 19th century mindset, where most schooling was a formality at best to prepare kids for a life in a labor-intensive occupation, like manufacturing, where it’s important to follow instructions and get things right. And that’s assuming kids even went to school–very often, they did not.

    But that world no longer exists. Now you need critical thinking skills, unique vision, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, as well as knowledge in many different areas–and our school system is absolutely unprepared to teach kids to think on this level.

    Not only that, but you would think that a steady emphasis on rote skill memorization and basic concepts in order to beat tests would provide an army of good worker bees, right? Wrong. Unless you provide context and reinforcement for the facts people learn, as soon as they’re done regurgitating them for the test, they are forgotten. Statistics don’t stick. Numbers don’t stick (generally). Without a framework to show kids why math and science is important, they lose interest when the next shiny thing comes along.

    Then they’re stuck in front of a cash register, a checkbook, a spreadsheet, or something similar, and have no idea what the fuck to do.

  • I wouldn’t use the word “conspiracy.” Also, JSO, I wouldn’t say the goal is to “limit” American ed, per se. I’d say there’s an attempt to channel educational efforts in a certain direction.

    No, what I think we have are some very rich, well-positioned people acting in their perceived self-interest. It is perceived that America needs more of X, and they are acting in a way that’s designed to produce X.

    That these powerful people, with deep family relationships that go back decades, have acted in distinct ways, and that those policies are working to produce X, seems hard to dispute. In this context, introducing language like “conspiracy” serves to diminish the import of actual, known facts.

    I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I am, however, a dedicated analyzer of large trends.

  • Yes and yes.

  • None dare call it conspiracy–to these people, it’s simply the logical process to achieve a desired end. Indeed, it’s so out in the open there’s nothing conspiratorial about it. The name of the game for the elite class is to produce hordes of stupid, unthinking, consumer drones who buy, breed, and die without ever questioning their lot.

    That’s what’s chilling–they know we know about it, and they don’t care.

  • They don’t care because the drones don’t care. Damn it all, no one can turn you into a drone without your consent, tacit or explicit. I’m not saying it’s easy to resist or to think for yourself or to question the status quo – but people do it. And if enough people do it, the drone population decreases, doesn’t it? I have to believe it’s possible.

  • OK. No overt conspiracy. And I agree that there is WAY too much focus on specific skills that can be relatively easily picked up on the job. But it’s been my experience that most of these skills employers want tend to be either very remedial (making change) or technically focused for undergrad college degrees.

    I still say that employers (and parents) don’t really know what they want, and that this is the root of the problem. How many employers could say,

    “I want employees who can easily tease out the relevant information needed for any problem, recognize logical fallacies and how to defeat them, know what they don’t know and how to find out, and are able to recognize broad patterns and use those patterns to find creative solutions to issues they encounter”?

    I’d say just about …


  • I don’t know how many could say it, but managers everywhere wet themselves when they luck into employees like that.

    Critical thinking makes me a better teacher, but it also made me a hell of a bartender and an excellent seamstress/tailor. Thinking: it’s a good thing.

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