Gather round kids. We need to talk.
Come on, there’s room for everybody. You three lurking in the back, join us. There are plenty of seats up front. (Sheesh, professors, y’know what I mean). Ahem, the gentleman with the pink tie and jeans in the front row, you can stop looking around the room and waving. They all know you’re here. You can chat with them later. Thanks.
Ready. Let’s begin.
I have called you here today because once again, like clockwork, the issue of the value of large-scale state testing has been joined.
And once again, the debate will be chock full of red herrings, straw men, false premises, false promises, and general measurement misinformation.
We have been through this before, so let me make the message very simple this time:
STATE TESTS ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO TELL YOU ANYTHING
THAT YOU DON’T ALREADY KNOW
That’s it, plain and simple.
And to whom does this simple message apply? Pretty much everybody.
- Teachers? Especially teachers.
- Principals? Yup.
- Parents and students? See teachers.
- Policymakers? Surely, state tests are supposed to provide new information to state policymakers. To be sure, it’s a little more nuanced when you get up to the level of state policymakers. However, if you can limit the debate to whether state tests provide new information to state policymakers, you’ve already won.
And so, are state tests still necessary and valuable? Damn straight.
Worth the money? A bargain at twice the price.
Worth the time? We’ll circle back to that.
Alright. Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
An Honest Mistake – at least at the beginning
As we have discussed, the main problem is that we have allowed the purpose of state testing to be defined as measurement when the purpose has always been data collection.
People wouldn’t expect to learn something new if they thought you were simply collecting data from them.
For years, I used the census as a perfect example. You don’t wait to complete the Census every ten years (and another year for the federal government to compile the results) to know how many people live in your house, your street, or even your town.
But then one year the Census folks started a radio campaign telling people that they needed to complete the census to know whether their town needed a new traffic signal. It was a matter of public safety, your neighbors’ life and death. I got so flustered when I heard that I almost drove through a red light at the new traffic signal our town had installed six months earlier because traffic had increased and there were several near accidents.
Teachers know (or should know) which of their students are Proficient without waiting for the state test to be administered and results returned. And if teachers know, students, parents, principals, and the local community should know.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away somebody decided that it would be a good idea for the state to collect information about the proficiency of students in each district and that a short test instrument would be the best way to collect that information. They weren’t wrong on either count. That is, the information was needed, and at that time a testing solution was the most effective, the most efficient, and the most cost effective – perhaps the last time in educational assessment where good, fast, and cheap was a viable option.
Administering a test, however, doesn’t change the purpose of the task from data collection to measurement.
It does, however, change people’s expectations if we let it.
People’s expectations are even more likely to change if we set out to change them with our own messages.
Teachers, you need the state test to determine whether a student is Proficient.
Parents, can you trust your teachers and school to tell you whether your child is Proficient?
We may have even convinced ourselves that we are doing our part in a noble struggle to make the world a better, more educated, and more equitable place by solving this great measurement problem.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave …
The Great Reset
Now what? How do we put the genie back in the bottle, the toothpaste back in the tube, the expectations for the state test back in their rightful place?
A first step is to remind people that most of the measurement they participate in on a regular basis (and there is a lot of it) is intended not to provide them with new information, but rather to confirm information that they already have.
When I step on the scale each morning, am I ever surprised by the number that appears? Disappointed, sure. Surprised, no. I know that I stopped at the McDonald’s drive-through yesterday.
When I glance down at my dashboard, I usually have a pretty good idea of what the gas gauge is going to tell me. Back when I had a 130-mile round-trip commute to work each day, I knew which days each week I would have to stop at the gas station.
The same is true with the speedometer. Unless I have been listening to an interview on NPR, I am never surprised by how fast I am driving.
I take my own temperature, or took my child’s temperature, when there was an expectation of a fever.
After seven months, I know what I need to do to close the circles on my Apple Watch each day, and by dinnertime I know if all of them are going to be closed that day.
After 120 blog posts, I have a pretty good sense of what the metrics are going to look like after I publish this.
The same is true for students and proficiency. Teachers know whether [insert a set of culturally diverse names here] are Proficient before [and appropriate pronouns here] take the state test. The student should know, too. As should parents, for individual students, and principals, for groups of students.
If the state test tells any of them something that they didn’t already know; that is, if the test results don’t confirm what they believed to be true, there is an issue to be addressed.
And that’s why the state tests are valuable to them – even if they don’t tell them anything they didn’t already know 99.9% of the time.
So, what about that time thing?
Like any of the measures I mentioned above, there must be an appropriate relationship between the amount of time it takes, the purpose it serves, and the information that it provides. Right now, the time-value equation for state tests is out of balance and needs to be corrected, sooner rather than later. But let’s not conflate the time and value issues or conclude that the solution is to try to provide more information to justify the time.
I go for an annual physical with the hope and expectation that it will confirm what I already know and feel about my health. (If I thought that there might be a problem, I would have scheduled a separate appointment earlier.).
It’s not fun, but I know that it’s important to confirm what my body is telling me and perhaps to catch some early warning signs of a problem I might have missed. So, I do it.
Would I go for an annual physical, however, if it were a week-long battery of daylong tests? Probably not. Honestly, definitely not. But it’s 90-minute appointment, perhaps with a separate stop in advance one morning for a quick blood test, so I make the appointment, put my elbows down on the crinkly paper and grin and bear it.
Our task is to convince people to think of state tests the same way.