"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, April 17, 2008

National Standards, National Tests, National Stupidity

Having wasted the last thirty years of ed reform with making kids stupid with tests and eager to escape school, undercutting support for public schools, demonizing teachers, and getting tough on oversight and accountability for everyone on the other side of the corporate board room door, the same elite know-nothings who brought you the most recent three decades of school misery are planning the next three.

From Monty Neill at FairTest, who offfers this summary of some interesting docs that recently came across his desk.
I received in the mail today a document - Intergovernmental approaches for strengthening K-12 accountability systems - which is a transcript of a meeting of Oct 29, 2007, sponsored by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. Lynn Olsen of Ed Week wrote a summary, available here.

Part I
Intergovernmental Models for Setting Academic Standards, with Checker Finn and Michael Cohen as panelists. The lead presenters in part II are Bob Linn and Tom Toch, but most of that section is actually discussion. In panel one also, most of the time is spent in discussion among the 40 participants.

I would note that based on names I recognized, the list of names, and the photos sprinkled throughout, there appeared to be one person of color (black). No union person and no person from a K-12 education association (principals, subect area groups) was present, nor community activists or parents. The discussion involved some academics, mostly people from government and even more from the non- and for-profit private sectors; measurement experts were fairly prominent.

What these folks are doing is working out how to construct a system of national standards and assessments. There was no discussion of whether such a system is desirable - some on feasibility, far more on various ideas of how. Interestingly, at this point there was little push for attaching real stakes. Rather, the basic conception is that of the American Diploma Project: build standards that states will adopt in common (maybe with federal support, but not federal mandate); then construct assessments. Lack of current quality was certainly mentioned – but in part 2 there is the pretense that the MA MCAS test is a good exam, and a defense of the NY Regents tests from an NY official. The claim is this system will provide signals on what education should accomplish. The prototype is an ADP Algebra II test. Hard to see how stakes would not soon follow, though the problem at least in the short term is that if the assessments could actually assess pretty comprehensively and accurately what students needed to do in college, vast numbers of students would not be "proficient."

People raised lots of issues, from whether or what stakes to quality of tests to opportunity to learn - but, again, no one questioned the underlying premise as to whether to work toward some sort of system, despite a few questions about its effectiveness to date. For example, Susan Traiman of the Business Roundtable asked: " Five years from now, approximately 2013, the United States will then have been at this whole process of standards, graduation requirements, for about 30 years. So what makes you think that the historians won’t look back and say, 'The country has spent 30 years fiddling around with standards and assessments and graduation requirements, and no more kids were college- and work-ready?'"

But, given who was there and that ADP is working in many states on this project, we can certainly see from this document a direction being taken on standards-based tests that I expect will become increasingly powerful. Note that the direction here is largely end-of-course exams, which more states are talking about doing and some actually implementing.

Note also that ADP has worked from first-year-of-college expectations back to grade 1 to craft standards, grade by grade. Presumably these will not be national, but they are likely to be increasingly common. Whether tests are common, still state-based, purchased by states from companies, or whatever, this group seemed less clear on - no one model of how to do the assessing emerged. Finn strongly argued for keeping NAEP separate, as did some others.

Part II
More dismal in that it sank into the mire of testing details. Of course those are important if the tests are made important, but the pretense was that the chimerical "good test" can be constructed and used – if only enough money were spent on it. As the measurement people took over the conversation for a while, they pulled off the trick of taking what was posed as a problem and surrounding it with enough fog that the problem seemed to disappear – all is well.

While, again, truly fundamental issues were either not raised or quickly dismissed (as with 'opportunity to learn'), there were arguments, and many clearly believe that NCLB is either having a harmful effect or no real positive effect, that it won’t get the US to high-quality schooling.

Many in this room did convince themselves that a national test is on the table politically, though others very much disagreed.

The idea of a complex system of low-stakes assessments feeding into school improvement seems to have pretty much escaped this group.

Conclusion: While Part I showed this push toward commonality, Part II seemed far more mired in particulars and with far less generality. It was less focused, more all over the place. It is in that sense less relevant to understanding the push toward a common national set of standards and assessments.

PS – there are assorted other materials in the last 50 pp of this 15-page document.

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