Bored on the Fourth of July

Large-scale state testing is boring.

tedious, dull, monotonous, repetitious, repetitive, unimaginative, characterless, colorless, soulless, passionless, spiritless, uninteresting, unexciting, uninspiring, unstimulating, unoriginal, derivative, jejune, nondescript, anemic, sterile, bland, vanilla, wishy-washy, banal, lame, plodding, ponderous, pedestrian, stodgy, dreary, mechanical, stiff, leaden, wooden, mind-numbing, soul-destroying, wearisome, tired, tiring, tiresome, irksome, trying, frustrating, mundane, commonplace, workaday, unremarkable, routine, run-of-the-mill

How else can I say it?  Las pruebas estatales son aburridas.

This is not the post I intended to write. My plan was an inspirational July 4th themed post about the spirit of America and the corresponding “spirit of assessment” – the “can do”, “yes we can”, “what if?” entrepreneurial spirit that led to great advances in large-scale testing in the past and would serve us well as we venture into an uncharted and uncertain future.

I had no trouble writing about the past. Things slowed down as I tried to write about the present. It came to a screeching halt each time I thought about the future.

I went for a walk to clear my head. That usually works. Not this time. Then it hit me.

Large-scale state testing is boring.

It’s not that the current state assessment programs don’t have high-quality tests that serve them well. A couple of posts over the past two weeks have eloquently and accurately defended the quality of our current achievement tests and suggested that their quality was not the source of our testing problems. I agree wholeheartedly.

The problem, as I see it, is that large-scale state testing has become boring. Boring tests, addressing boring questions, to inform boring policy.

Seriously, who gives a flying phi-coefficient whether the percentage of students proficient in mathematics is really 31%, 34%, or 37%?  Not me. Do I really want to spend my time building a better test to answer that question?

A Victim of Our Own Success

Like so many other cool things and people, state testing became less appealing when it started to gain popularity. Nothing makes something uncool faster than when it goes mainstream, and of course, nothing is more mainstream than the feds.

Many regard NCLB as the beginning of a state testing boom, but it also marks the point in time that large-scale state testing started to become boring. Innovation requires problems to solve and the freedom to solve them –

  • freedom to wonder how we can overcome the challenge
  • freedom to design, develop, and implement a solution
  • freedom for that solution not to work well the first time.

IASA provided the perfect environment for innovation in state testing. It established a “requirement” for state testing – providing a market and funding. However, there were few restrictions, deadlines, and consequences associated with that requirement. There was room to try, try again when, at first, we didn’t succeed.

NCLB ripped away a lot of that freedom with Regulations that restricted the design of state tests, imposed tighter deadlines, and increased the consequences associated with performance on state tests. Perhaps most importantly, NCLB dramatically increased the amount of state testing. Those factors combined to make efficiency the highest priority problem in state testing.

Figuring out how to make things function more efficiently can be fun for a while (even state tests), but that gets old quickly, particularly within so many constraints.

The Race to the Top Assessment competition rather than being the shot in the arm that reinvigorated the field by moving state testing beyond the bubble test, was simply the needle that burst our bubble.  Consolidation and centralization don’t breed innovation. Neither does pissing off, or on, the primary market for your product (see test-based teacher evaluation). Thanks, Obama.

The more successful program to come out of the RTTT assessment competition took the safe approach to large-scale testing; computer-adaptive testing is about all about efficiency.  Smarter Balanced states were never interested in breaking new ground with the quality of their large-scale test. Their interests then and still lie elsewhere.

Smarter Balanced – even the name is boring. Just kidding. Some of my best friends are smarter and fairly well-balanced.

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” – Yogi Berra

To paraphrase the line that Yogi Berra may or may not have said, “Nobody goes into state testing anymore, because everybody is doing it.”

When a field becomes boring, good people lose interest in it and seek other outlets for their talents. Exciting questions/problems/challenges attract exciting people and organizations who, in turn, produce exciting solutions. Remove the exciting challenges, and you remove the exciting people and the exciting solutions. Ultimately, the money follows them as well. It’s a vicious cycle and a virtuous circle.

Not sure that’s true, let’s try a Brian Gong-style thought experiment. Take a minute to think about the people who are your LinkedIn connections and Twitter follows. Now, think about the elite group atop your list – a few good women and men – whom you really, truly follow.

  • How many of those people actively work on the design, development, and implementation of large-scale state tests?
  • How many used to be more directly involved in state testing?

It’s likely that people who formerly used state testing as their vehicle of choice are still very actively involved in trying to improve education. They still advocate for state testing, and may even still be involved in assessment in areas other than state testing. But they’ve taken their considerable talents away from state testing and directed them toward some other area that offers more personal and professional challenges and opportunities.

“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” — Marilyn Monroe

The heading of the closing section of my planned inspirational post would have featured a quote from JFK. Instead, a quote apparently not actually said by Marilyn Monroe seems more appropriate.

Public education has many challenges to face and overcome.  I firmly believe that states and the assessment community must play a significant role in any lasting solution, including through the use of large-scale state testing. As many of us have long argued, however, the ideal role of large-scale state testing is limited and can only be realized when large-scale state testing is part of a comprehensive and balanced assessment system.

Large-scale state testing that is a complementary component within a balanced assessment system will look quite different and be used quite differently than it is today. Creative people and organizations can lead us there.

Getting there, however, will require a commitment to a creative environment that accepts a bit of beautiful imperfection and fosters the madness and absolute ridiculousness necessary to make large-scale state testing less boring. That’s not too much to ask. Evidence suggests that Congress should have no trouble writing imperfection, madness, and absolute ridiculousness into the next reauthorization of ESEA.

Let Freedom Ring!

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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