The New Dropouts? The States Divide on Testing and Accountability

Cross-posted from Education Week

It’s funny how things work.  For some people in this country, the idea of the Common Core State Standards—national standards for student achievement—was more than they could bear, an affront to their sense of the right relationship between government and its people.

But these critics were not stupid.  They knew that the support for such standards was very strong.  So they attacked the new standards by professing to believe in high standards and announcing that what they were opposed to was replacing strong standards—say in Massachusetts or California—with weaker standards.  They apparently believed that if they could get states widely regarded as leaders to reject the standards, then others would follow.  But it did not work.  The leaders held firm.  As did almost all the other states.

Then the opponents saw another opportunity.  Instead of going after the states where they could argue that the Common Core would lower high standards, they would go after states that did not want to pay the price of having high standards.  They would get states that were members of the state consortia, tasked with building tests to measure student achievement against the Common Core, to drop out of the those consortia.  They know that teachers teach what the tests measure.  If the tests are not measuring the Common Core, the Common Core is dead…at least in those states.  Whereas their first strategy targeted states with the strongest commitment to high standards, their second strategy is to go after the states with the weakest commitment to high standards.

But, once again, this is not an honest debate.  And that is because the opponents are again being cagey.  Instead of attacking the Common Core on its merits, the opponents are urging the legislators and governors in the targeted states to oppose the use of the new tests on the grounds that they are too expensive, take too much testing time and require technology they don’t have and can’t afford.

It is a smart strategy.  Roughly half of the state members of the PARCC testing consortium now spend less on testing than they would be required to spend if they use the PARCC tests.  That’s a nice juicy target.

But let’s be clear about what is happening here and what is likely to happen if this strategy succeeds.  The tests being offered by the testing consortia are at least twice as expensive as the conventional multiple-choice, computer scored tests long used by American schools.  The tests and examinations used by most of the world’s leading education systems are more than twice as expensive as the tests being offered by the testing consortia.  The top-performing countries can afford these very expensive tests because they are given to students only two or three times in their school career, not every year.

But why would they use such expensive tests?  Because, in testing, as in other things, you get what you pay for.  Conventional multiple-choice, computer-scored tests are quite good at measuring the acquisition of basic skills and facts.  They cannot measure whether you can write well; build a robot, make a pleasing drawing or design a unique solution to a complex problem requiring the synthesis of knowledge and skills from a variety of fields of study—the very kinds of tasks that are now being demanded of adults in jobs that are going to pay well in the modern economy.  Those things can be measured, but it costs a lot more to measure them.

If you are a legislator or a governor reading this blog, I strongly urge you to think very carefully about the choice you are being asked to make.  As an individual state, unless your state is very large, you do not have a prayer of having enough money to build a world-class testing system unique to your state.  If you are thinking of abandoning one or both of the testing consortia on the grounds that you cannot afford their tests, you are now spending less than the average American state on testing, which means that you are spending far less than the average industrialized nation on testing, on a per pupil basis.  If you continue to do that, you will find that there are American testing companies that will be happy to sell you a test they will be happy to announce is aligned with the Common Core, if that is what you want, or not aligned with the Common Core, if that is what you want, at a price you are willing to pay.  But the test you get, whether you make it or buy it, will not test the skills and knowledge that will be needed by the children in your state if they want to be competitive in the global labor market.  I can guarantee you that.

Whatever you are spending on testing, it is a tiny fraction of what you are spending on elementary and secondary education in your state.  But that tiny fraction is crucially important.  It will largely determine what your teachers choose to teach.  If your tests can only measure a limited range of basic skills and basic knowledge, that is what your teachers will teach, and not much more, even if they might wish to teach at a much higher level, because your accountability system will be tied to your tests.

What we are headed toward is a two-tier national education system, separated by the ambition of the tests that drive state accountability systems.  There are quality testing options available to states other than the tests that will be offered by the two testing consortia, but states that chose to go their own way now—ostensibly on the basis that they cannot afford to purchase the tests offered by the consortia—will find that they have chosen to be second class education systems, states whose students will be forever behind the education systems of the states that choose quality now, much like students who make the choice to drop out of high school.  That is a high price to pay for a decision made on the basis of ideology masquerading as practical common sense.