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Testing, Truth, and Consequences

Robert Pondiscio of Democracy Prep writes again to Deborah Meier today.

Not so fast, Deb.  

As much as I'm eager to find common ground with you, I'm not quite ready to agree with your summary, "we both oppose making profits from educating our nation's children." That's an impractical stance and an impossible standard. Our classrooms are filled with the products of profit-making industries, from smart boards and laptops to loose leaf paper and No. 2 pencils.  I'm hard-pressed to think of a single object I can touch in any classroom that someone, somewhere isn't "making profits from."  It doesn't trouble me in the least.  

As we've discussed, the very different incentive structures and value systems of business and education make me skeptical that a for-profit system of schools can be successful (I'm struggling to think of one), but I won't be joining you on the barricades to protest their mere existence.

If a for-profit school can produce good outcomes for students and turn a profit at the rate a state or municipality sees fit to pay, I see no reason to criticize or ban it.  I've been utterly consistent about my view of this: The public's interest lies in ensuring a well-educated citizenry.  Under whose roof or control that happens is a secondary concern.

Having observed that education responds poorly to incentives and changing market conditions let me now give credit to a high-profile attempt to do precisely that.  The College Board last week announced significant changes to the SAT, including a focus on evidence-based reading and writing, less emphasis on arcane vocabulary, and a greater reliance on America's founding documents and the "ongoing Great Global Conversation about freedom, justice, and human dignity" they reflect and inspire. 

There's much to discuss in these changes, but let me first simply applaud the impulse that inspired them. In announcing the shift, College Board President David Coleman said, "We must confront the inequalities that now surround assessment such as costly test preparation.  It is time for the College Board to say in a clear voice the culture and practice of test preparation that now surrounds admissions exams drives the perceptions of inequality and injustice in our country."  A bold statement, but what immediately followed impressed me even more:

"We cannot stand aside and say, 'We made a good test.  What happens before and after is not our fault.' We must take responsibility for the practice our assessment inspires." [my italics]

I'm seeing heartening evidence this line of thinking—that test-makers must consider the consequences of their work—is beginning to assert itself more forcefully.  Another education thinker I highly admire, David Steiner, the dean of the Hunter College School of Education, made a similar point in an under-discussed Huffington Post essay last month about anticipated common-core assessments. "Given our historical lack of consensus over curricula, it falls to assessments to influence the depth and quality of instruction," Steiner wrote. 

"We know from international research that well-designed testing can drive better learning outcomes, so the new tests have the potential to benefit our students immensely—but only if the test makers take bold steps in their designs. This means incentivizing the use of meaningful content in the classroom and eschewing misguided, patronizing notions of fairness that would undermine the promise of the Common Core and harm the educational opportunities of our most disadvantaged students."

I have made no secret of my discontent with the effects of standardized testing, while maintaining support for the principle of accountability.  It just won't do to say, "a great education is the best test prep" and turn a blind eye to curriculum narrowing and other deleterious effects of testing.  As long as we insist on attaching stakes to testing, for students and teachers alike, we are not merely incentivizing teaching to the test, but functionally requiring it.  We simply do not have the luxury of blithely ignoring the classroom practices tests encourage or discourage.  Those of us who consider ourselves reformers must own that. 

The changes in the SAT and Coleman's remarks are encouraging evidence of this emerging realization.  I hope those responsible for creating the common-core assessments will read and consider carefully David Steiner's excellent essay and follow suit.  

We will never satisfy those for whom all testing is an abomination.  But fair-minded readers might applaud the mindset that asks not simply, "What does this test measure?" but also, "What kind of classroom practice does this test encourage?" 

Robert

Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City's South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio

 

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