Is the God of Testing Dead? Or Just More Dimly Lit in the Firmament?

Summary – With the shift in educational decision making to the states under ESSA, testing can be expected to diminish in its relative importance, but retain a proportional role alongside such comprehensive measures of student outcome as educational attainment, employment, and avoidance of legal entanglements.

The god of testing may have run its course and its power diminished. The reduction of teaching and learning to its quantifiable data points, a child of market thinking and a need for accountability, is necessarily here with us to stay, but perhaps in a more proportional role, balanced by measures of long lasting school benefit such as graduation rate, employability, lifetime earnings, absence of criminal record, college completion, and even progress of offspring.

Complex resistance at the state and local level to federal education initiatives under the Obama administration has played an important role in blunting if not defeating the role of testing. Conservatives, despite their otherwise sympathetic stance toward the private market and charter school inroads, nonetheless resented the big brother push by Arne Duncan and company to dictate school policy they believed to be the province of the localities. Died in the wool teachers and other school types intuited that mechanistic testing (along with the teaching keyed closely to it) impeded a spirit that exists between teacher and student when complex learning occurs. michelangelo-71282_1280In the end, the testing star began to descend toward the horizon when test scores in marquee schools proved devilishly difficult to duplicate in any kind of broad based comprehensive way, and when attempts to evaluate teachers by a test progress matrix encountered a host of obstacles. Failure has a way of taking the steam out of things.

The feds under Obama essentially acknowledged defeat, both politically as well as in the philosophical argument by shifting the decision matrix more closely to the states with passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. In the wisest act of her fraught incumbency Betsy DeVos seems content to go along.

Testing used to guide and evaluate instruction had been seen as the North Star, the ultimate guide to navigation. In its extremity, it became an obsession, even a goal unto itself rather than an important tool in a teacher’s and a school’s bag of tricks.

Of course teachers need to work with students to improve their skills, but what has too often been misplaced in the skill/testing nexus is that skills are not the ultimate goal, but one important vector in moving a student toward an independent and generative lifetime, as measured by such milestones as graduation from high school and college work completed, employment and income levels, and so forth.

These meta goals require student characteristics beyond the purely academic such as resilience, perseverance, and an ability to self-start and to communicate.

More properly, academic skills are necessary but not sufficient outside the acquisition of these “softer” and difficult to define characteristics that are cultivated through relationships in a trusted culture of family, school, and community.

In fact, it may be that all these skills — academic, personal, and interpersonal — must reinforce one another or not grow sufficiently in isolation, a reality that mavens focused only on testing overlooked.

Graduation from high school, though a measure that school districts have chronically gamed at times in order to make the system look good, when used correctly evaluates a school district’s impact on at risk populations, often those whose membership in a graduation class has been limited in the lives of previous family members — the brown and black, the low income, the learning disabled, the LGBTQ. For these disproportionately disenfranchised groups, graduation from high school is a first portal into membership in broader economic and social equality.

— In an economy increasingly integrated with technology, a high school diploma is still a lowly tier, though some vocational programs in high school can provide marketable entry level technical skills. At least some post high school training or college is the next echelon of preparation for relatively secure employment, though in the current economy too many college-skilled Millennials are slotted closer than anyone likes to minimum wage.

The term “college” is often used too imprecisely. It can mean “university”; the two terms tend to be used interchangeably. But “college” can refer to other post high school options, such as two year community college and technical college based job specific training ranging from trades to esoteric medical programs.

As difficult as tracking of a third grader through to her completion of a community college medical program can be in this mobile culture, the seeds of her success began in elementary school or even preschool. If she has succeeded, so has her elementary school those many years before; the data should reach back over the years for accurate evaluation.

— The same can be said of continuity of employment and lifetime earnings, which establish the longevity of the elementary school’s impact.

— Because we are in an “age of incarceration,” an epidemic affecting communities of color, a community reduction in legal involvement into the teen and early adult years particularly for African American males may signal that local schools among other influences have reached an effective hand into the crisis.

— Most exotically, and beyond financial prosperity, the educational attainment and secure employment of progeny is testament to the staying power of that parent’s growth, as in Erik Erickson’s notion of “generativity,” the ability to create beyond one’s self.

Such a goal has taken on additional heft with the news that young black men raised in families of wealth struggle to maintain the same level of economic gain as their parents.

The point of this exercise is not to disrespect testing, particularly not the variety that directs skill instruction. But it looks to me as though testing’s place in the educational firmament is undergoing a contraction, particularly as the penultimate measure of school quality and as a prime arbiter in the evaluation of teachers.

At risk kids are more complex than isolated skill development encompasses. It is a hard core truth that trauma in one’s life, fragile faith in oneself, the distractions of the street, institutional racism, and myriad related issues yield if they are to yield at all only to human intervention and its pattern of relationships. Schools if they are to promote at risk student welfare must serve as incubators of psychological growth while also, yes, attending to skill development.

The various longitudinal measures– educational attainments, employment, the freedom from legal involvement, and the generativity in offspring — better serve than test scores to establish whether or not we have schooled to inclusion those too often excluded.

This entry was posted in At Risk Students, School Reform, Schools and Culture, Schools and Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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