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Pencils Down: Introduction

Why We Need to Rethink High-Stakes Assessment and Accountability

by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel

In 2000, Rethinking Schools published Failing Our Kids: Why the Testing Craze Won't Fix Our Schools. In that volume, editors Kathy Williams (then Swope) and Barbara Miner pulled together a groundbreaking collection of essays, letters, articles, and analyses that challenged the juggernaut of high-stakes testing and accountability in public education policy.

And we thought things were bad then...

We now live in a world after the bipartisan passage of NCLB. The tsunami of high-stakes testing and accountability has crashed on our educational shores with full force-threatening the foundations of teaching and learning, as well as the democratic aspirations of public education.

Those of us who held even the slimmest hope that changes in presidential administrations might stem or perhaps turn back the tide have had those hopes dashed as waves of corporate-backed reforms pushed by Republicans, Democrats, and billionaire philanthropists continue to batter kids, teachers, parents, and schools.

Now, despite duplicitous official rhetoric that speaks of the importance of multiple measures to assess learning and teaching, high-stakes test scores are being used to quantify, rank, and judge everything in public schools. Schools are charged with overcoming every aspect of socioeconomic inequality to show test score gains. District administrators and their "clipboard police" enforce a strict, scripted curriculum focused on little beyond reading, writing, and math. Teachers and their unions are the new enemies of achievement because, despite decades of persistent inequality in education, they can't raise the test scores. Despite an economic crisis that has resulted in the massive defunding of public education, schools are expected to raise test scores.

Now, charter schools are being used to dismantle public schools, based on the false promise that charters can raise test scores. Teach for America is being used to attack unions and teacher preparation programs by placing under-trained and unqualified teachers in "high-need" schools, where need is determined by test scores. Following corporate hierarchies, district superintendents are rebranded as "Chief Executive Officers" and use test scores to competitively rate and rank students, teachers, and schools within the new "free market" of education. Teachers and teaching are now reduced to being inaccurately described by measures of how much "value" they can add to their students' test scores.

Now, students = test scores.

Now, teachers = test scores.

Now, teaching = test scores.

Now, learning = test scores.

Now, education = test scores.

The entire package of corporate-like educational reforms hinges on the use of high-stakes, standardized tests. These tests form the justification for charter schools, union busting, merit pay, value-added teacher evaluations, school closures, turnarounds, reconstitutions, and just about any other way free-market competition manifests in education policy today. Without the test scores, there is no basis for comparing students, teachers, principals, schools, districts, cities, states, and countries. And without an ability to make comparisons, the entire system of competition simply collapses on itself.

Democratic, Authentic Assessment

We want to be clear: We are not opposed to assessment or accountability. We take seriously the real concerns that parents—especially working-class parents and parents of color—have about the quality of their children's education. Opposition to testing does not mean opposition to accountability and documenting educational outcomes.

We firmly believe that assessment is critical to good, effective teaching, and that teachers and schools have a responsibility to their students and to the communities in which they teach. But the current systems of high-stakes testing and accountability are top-down models of reform that are fundamentally undemocratic: High-stakes tests and the policymakers who want to use them to hold educators accountable have no interest in the voices of students, teachers, parents, or administrators. Instead, they have to reduce us to numbers in order to fit all of us into their system.

But we know that students, learning, and teaching are more complicated than numbers. Education is a human endeavor, full of hope, struggle, and creativity; it involves failures and victories. We believe our systems of assessment and accountability need the flexibility and capability to capture all of that human messiness (in all of its beauty and power) if they are to provide fair and accurate measures of any aspect of education.

We need assessment that recognizes that learning and development happen unevenly, in spurts, with both backward and forward motion.

We need assessment that embraces the different learning styles of all children and also values the richness of cultural and community experience all children bring to the classroom.

We need teacher evaluation that acknowledges that teachers are both trained professionals and learners themselves. Such assessment would, by extension, recognize that good teaching not only requires training and practice, but also opportunities for self-reflection, growth, and improvement (and yes, the chance to learn from mistakes).

We need systems of accountability that honor our responsibilities to children and their communities. This accountability has to be based upon a shared commitment among teachers, students, parents, and administrators. It needs to be democratic and bottom-up, instead of the current crop of top-down, corporate-style reforms. This includes holding policymakers and administrators accountable for providing adequate and equitable resources to all children and schools.

Public education is not an island, but rather part of an interconnected and integrated network of social services and socioeconomic relations. We need systems of assessment and accountability that hold leaders accountable for providing resources such as health care, dental care, affordable housing, and other social supports.

We need systems of assessment and accountability that effectively and accurately identify sources of educational inequalities, particularly those related to race, economic class, gender, sexuality, home language, and immigration status.

Testing and Inequality

The impacts of systemic racism and other forms of injustice are real. They need to be exposed and fixed. Some have argued that test scores are one effective way to create such exposure. However, researchers have found that:

Given these facts, we can only conclude that testing is the wrong way to expose educational inequality, and that the tests themselves are interfering with the accurate measurement of learning, teaching, and achievement.

This confirms what social scientist Donald T. Campbell identified in 1976 as Campbell's Law:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. ... [W]hen test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.

Based on the evidence, high-stakes testing is exacerbating the inequality it is supposed to be measuring. Much of that evidence is highlighted in the pages of Pencils Down.

Time To Put the Pencils Down

Because high-stakes testing is so central to the entire apparatus of the corporate educational reforms that are being forced upon us—and because of the overwhelming evidence of the invalidity and injustice of using the tests as they are presently being used—we are publishing Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools. We are in the midst of a war on public education, and high-stakes, standardized tests are the enemies' weapon of choice. Pencils Down is one attempt to expose the fallacy of high-stakes testing to the general public: We wanted to put together a collection of articles that provide thoughtful, emotional, and classroom- and research-based critiques of high-stakes tests-one we could put in the hands of students and teachers (future, present, and past), and also pass around to parents at PTA meetings, potlucks, and picnics.

In Pencils Down we take the high-stakes tests to task, deconstruct the damage they cause to our education system, highlight their inaccuracy as tools of measurement, and offer visionary forms of assessment that are more authentic, democratic, fair, and accurate.

The first section, "Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3..." covers the nuts and bolts of standardized testing, and presents an overview of the enduring problems with the tests. Section two, "Testing Kids," offers views from the classroom of just what high-stakes testing is doing to the quality of education. The third section, "Testing Teaching," highlights the ways high-stakes testing stifles instruction and de-professionalizes teaching, as well as examining efforts to bring standardized assessment to the process of teacher credentialing.

The fourth section of Pencils Down, "Testing the Tests," provides analyses of some lesser-known problems with the tests: their validity as a form of measurement, and the inconsistency found in their results and grading. This section is fundamental to any critique of high-stakes testing because the numbers produced by the tests carry an air of objectivity. (And pundits, policymakers, and philanthropists assert that such objectivity exists.) However, on closer examination, the numbers are far from objective.

One of the critical questions facing education activists today is, "What can we do?" From refusal and opting out to protests and organizing letter-writing campaigns, section five, "Resisting and Responding to High-Stakes Testing," takes a look at a wide range of efforts teachers, students, and communities have employed to oppose the testing regime.

But critique, while important and necessary, can only take us so far. We need real, concrete visions of what "alternative," non-high-stakes, standardized testing and accountability can look like. Many teachers, who have been hemmed in by the tests for years now, also need to learn (or relearn) how to provide quality assessment. That is why the sixth and final section of Pencils Down, "Beyond High-Stakes, Standardized Testing," focuses on authentic forms of assessment, including portfolios and ongoing teacher and student self-reflection based on classroom evidence. Effective methods of assessing teaching and learning exist: They are just messier, more intensive, more democratic, and less punitive. And they require a bigger commitment to public education than the test-pushers are willing to make.

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The powers that be continue to force high-stakes testing and accountability upon students, teachers, and parents. As a result, we are feeling ... tested. Despite the infatuation for tests shared by policymakers, philanthropists, and corporate education reformers on both sides of the aisle, resistance continues to build. The struggle is far from over, however. As of this writing, the U.S. federal government has announced intentions not only to ratchet up the use of high-stakes tests to measure student learning and teacher effectiveness, but also to measure the effectiveness of teacher education programs by the test scores of the students of the teachers who graduate from the programs. This proposal sounds convoluted and ludicrous, but it is just another entry in a long list of examples of test abuse and misuse in education policy, and our kids are paying the price. It's time to stop the testing. It's time to put the pencils down.