Nobody In New York City Is Serious About An Alternative to High-Stakes Testing

I’m among those who believe an accountability system based largely on standardized tests is the best of the imperfect options we have for improving our schools. Yet because the imperfections of such a system are so discouraging, I think it’s extremely important that we attempt to develop better alternatives. But thus far nobody who rails against the spread of high-stakes testing seems interested in putting forth a comprehensive plan that still ensures legitimate accountability.

That’s why I was excited to see that New Yorkers For Great Public Schools put out a new report titled “Charting a New Direction in Testing and Accountability.” The report was deemed significant enough that it was announced at a press conference featuring UFT president Michael Mulgrew and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, with the other Democratic candidates all releasing statements of support. Unfortunately, the report demonstrates that a real alternative to standardized testing will remain a pipe dream. To be blunt, the document is more of a trite blog post than a serious proposal.

The proposal, which comes in at a whopping two and a half pages, is divided into three sections: Testing (5 bullet points) Accountability (4 bullet points), and State & Federal Advocacy (5 bullet points). I’m tempted to go through all 14 bullet points, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus on the vacuous points that are most emblematic of the report’s deep lack of seriousness.

Let’s start with the 4th bullet on Accountability (emphasis not mine):

The new accountability system should ensure that all DOE policies, including school budgeting and resource provision, teacher placement, and student assignment policies (such as high school admissions and other choice-based processes, as well as the assignment of students with disabilities, English Language Learners, students overage for grade, and over-the-counter students), do not set struggling schools up for failure and undermine systemic improvement efforts.

Look, I understand that when you spend 12 years demonizing a mayor’s policies you can start to believe your most extreme rhetoric. But I feel confident saying that the number of people who do not advocate the platform above is literally zero. If somebody wants to produce the DOE document where Walcott lays out the plan to screw struggling schools and at-risk students I’d love to see it. But in the absence of such evidence a serious “plan” needs to explain the mechanism that’s preventing the status quo from producing the desired outcome, and then describe what should be done differently. Instead what you have here is essentially a quote from an anti-Bloomberg rapid-response press release being passed off as a serious policy proposal.

Here’s the second bullet point is the Accountability section:

The new accountability system should enable the DOE to identify a set of struggling schools that need interventions and supports to improve their academic performance. These prioritized schools should be identified through a rating system based on multiple demographic and performance indicators and transparent and equitable comparative measures that identify the schools within tiers of citywide performance to distinguish which schools are highly successful, average or struggling.

First, it’s worth pointing out that the Progress Reports put out by the DOE largely do this. For most metrics each school is given a percentile rank within a group of 30-40 comparison schools that are demographically similar. Now it’s fine if you disagree with the exact methodology the DOE uses (and I happen to have some issues with it), but if that’s the case then you need to explain what your objections are. What you can’t do is ignore what’s being done and pretend that the DOE has no interest in identifying struggling schools in an equitable way. And yet you see this ignorance of reality in a bunch of the report’s initiatives. In general, you have an entire document (with an accompanying press conference) based on the illusion that NYGPS and the Bloomberg administration have different goals rather than a different set of priorities for achieving those goals. Again, this is what I’m talking about when I call the plan a trite blog post rather than a legitimate plan. The plan says “Bloomberg wants bad things but we want good things,” but it doesn’t offer any details on how to achieve the good things. Note the incredible vagueness in both the sections quoted above. No piece of any them contains a hint of detail.

Moving on, this is the first bullet in the Testing section:

Promotion and retention decisions should be based on a student’s full body of work. The educator’s and school leader’s judgment should be the primary input in such decisions, and a review should be triggered if the test results contradict that judgment. Retention decisions should also include the provision of additional academic and other supports if needed. Parents should have the right of appeal in all promotion and retention decisions.

This point is less egregious that the others because it’s not based on a gross mischaracterization of current policy, but note the lack of detail. A full body of work? What does that mean? Is the classroom teacher the only person judging this work? Isn’t this basically just allowing the teacher to decide? I’m open to the idea, but it would be helpful if there was some explanation about why this would be an improvement — an explanation that doesn’t involve the a priori assumption that anything is better than tests. And what about the parent’s right to appeal? This would be an enormously complex and controversial process. The nature of the appeals process has tied up union negotiations for decades. Isn’t it worth contributing at least a paragraph to explain how this might work? More importantly, an appeals process is very labor intensive. Where is the extra funding for this process going to come from? How does NYGPS plan to find the resources to deal with there potentially being a legal hearing for every student who is to be retained?

Here’s the fifth Testing bullet:

Expand the use of alternative assessments such as portfolio and performance-based assessments to measure student progress.

I have no major qualms if somebody Tweets that this is something we should do. In fact, I’m intrigued by the idea of portfolio based assessments and would love to see a large scale pilot that could help us determine if it’s a good way of doing things. But this incited a press conference with Michael Mulgrew and Bill de Blasio. It is not a Tweet! Tell us what kind of alternative assessments should people try. What’s good about them? Where are you going to get the additional resources that such assessments require? Give us one actual detail!

I wasn’t even going to mention the final section on state and federal advocacy because it’s not really about alternatives to testing, but the section is so vacuous that I feel the need to talk about it. Here is the beginning of it.

3. Work at state and federal levels to reduce the amount and the consequences of high-stakes standardized testing by:

a. Advocating against the expansion of standardized tests, and particularly against proposed policies to test young children in the early grades;

b. Advocating against the expansion of high stakes consequences for teachers and schools based on standardized testing;

c. Advocating to significantly reduce the amount of time lost to instruction that students and teachers spend taking and administering state standardized testing;

Is there anybody reading this document who is not already doing this things? Isn’t this just a reiteration of NYGPS’ mission? This essentially says the goal is to advocate for thing A, and the way we’re going to do that is by advocating for thing A. What’s the point?

Many of the remaining bullet points deal with reducing the role of testing in the admissions process for specialized high schools or gifted and talented programs. Unlike most of the other points, this is something that’s less-discussed and thus highlighting the issue with a two-sentence bullet point is more-defensible than doing so for the issue of “we need less testing.” However, the brevity with which it’s discussed once again shows that the point of the document is to blast standardized testing without engaging in a serious discussion. For example, there’s good reason to believe that the emphasis on testing is helpful to low-income and minority students. What will happen if tests are replaced by “multiple measures” as the report advocates? It seems to me that the students likely to benefit from the inclusion of things like essays or extracurricular talents (e.g. piano playing skills) are those from wealthier families who have college-educated parents to help them. Now it’s possible I’m wrong about this. We don’t know. And that’s the problem. If you’re advocating replacing testing with other measures you need to flesh out what the consequences might be. You can’t just assume that outcome will be better because there’s less testing.

Now you might say that I’m taking all this too seriously. That this was just meant to to serve as a communications document that would earn a favorable news cycle. But that also proves my point. Here you have the head of the biggest local teachers union in the country on stage with somebody who might become the mayor of the biggest city in the country, and their plan to transition away from standardized testing is wholly unserious. This is a microcosm of what you see happening around the country. Everybody wants to use the backlash against testing to win the PR war, but nobody actually cares to work on a serious alternative.

Another slightly different take is that the document was simply supposed to be a set of guidelines designed to get the issue on people’s agendas. That would be fine, except the issue is already on everybody’s agenda. Everybody understands the limitations of standardized testing and everybody would like better alternatives. What we need is real evidence about real alternatives. In the absence of that the NYGPS’ proposal is nothing more than the GOP holding inconsequential votes to repeal Obamacare and calling it a healthcare plan.

So once again, I’ll ask the question. If you think there should be less standardized testing, what’s your specific alternative accountability system? (And if you don’t think there shouldn’t be any stringent accountability, where’s the evidence demonstrating that on a large scale such a system would be an improvement. )

3 Responses to Nobody In New York City Is Serious About An Alternative to High-Stakes Testing

  1. Pingback: Remainders: On the unexpected lessons from Regents week | GothamSchools

  2. I agree with your points. And I have ONE alternative to offer. I DO NOT think that high stakes tests should determine promotion and retention; at our school, they simply confirm or deny what we already know about each child from our extensive and complex internal assessment system. Teachers DO make promotion and retention decisions, but it is a yearlong process with parent involvement and administrator guidance and approval at every milestone (which line up with parent conferences).

    When the state test scores came out last year, we had a fourth grader who we expected to be at the top of the class score a 1. I presume he missed a question and bubbled in his answers all wrong. He deserves a 1 for not being thorough and checking his work (fixing this will help him in life), but he does not deserve to have to sit through summer school or repeat fourth grade for this error. He’s graduating from fifth grade today, and headed to an excellent middle school despite his score, because of our advocacy. (I’ll bet he scored a 3 or 4 on the fifth grade test.)

    I made your central point over a year ago, when we were in the throes of our charter accountability period and preparing for renewal:

    Looking forward to some serious conversation instead of trite wish lists!

    • Eric Horowitz says:

      Thanks for the firsthand perspective. And I agree — surely there’s a way to limit social promotion while also ensuring that a teacher’s opinion carries serious weight. Hopefully we can get past the point of meaningless calls for change and to a place where people aren’t afraid to actually propose workable solutions.

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