"China beats the United States in standardized testing and will graduate seven times more engineers than we will this year. Those engineers in China can perform some of the most difficult calculations flawlessly. But almost none of them can create anything."
With that quote from then-MSU Professor Dr. Yong Zhao during a Michigan House Education committee hearing in 2010, I began to question high-stakes testing. I mean, I knew that China, with its communist system where most lived way below American standards, wasn't the engine of innovation. But if they had that many more engineers who did excellent on international standard tests, how could those engineers not be great? Great test scores equaled great students...right? Wrong. Just the opposite could be true. Within three years I would go from being one of the legislature's strongest advocates for high-stakes testing ("gotta hold teachers accountable") to one of the leaders opposing and stopping them.
Looking further into the work of Dr. Zhao and former Texas State Superintendent, Robert Scott (who did a 180 on high-stakes testing), brought me to the understanding that the more a state makes their statewide tests high-stakes, the more effort is made to focus instruction on whatever is on the test...to the detriment of all other instruction. What happens is a child no longer gets a well-rounded education. I've talked to superintendents. They tell me that with greater focus on the MEAP, they have seen band, art, sciences and many other classes disappear. If it's not on the test, the state is saying that it's not very important. And what school or district wants to be seen as having declining test scores?
Bottom line: Creativity is killed.
That's what raising the stakes on the statewide test does. Unfortunately, that's what the Michigan House Republicans announced this past week that they want to do. Make the Common-Core aligned, high stakes statewide test even more high-stakes. They want to make the grading of schools based on how well kids do on the statewide, common-core aligned test. And they want teacher evaluations focused on...yep, how kids do on the statewide, common-core aligned exam.
Can you hear the chants? "We can be a B" (echoing from pep rallies at a "C" school). The focus will be on pre-tests, how to take tests, post tests, test-taking tricks. And classes not on the test? Over time they will be gone. And since Common Core only shoots for kids to get into community college, higher level high school courses like Calculus, Physics and Advanced Placement classes will go by the wayside, too. The desire will be for the schools to pump out great test takers...much like how China is now. Although, China, seeing the error of their ways, has recently decided to start rolling back high-stakes testing.
Central planning can be attractive. You get to sound like you know the best way to educate every child. You can talk test scores and metrics and averages...but kids aren't products or resources. The job of public education should not be to supply workers for society, even if "we" are short in STEM degrees or whatever the central-planners think is currently important.
And no, I'm not talking about local tests. They are fine. Teachers should use tests to gauge the skill level and progress of kids in their classes. And there is a place for tests given by individual schools and even districts, to gauge how well their employees are delivering instruction - though "teaching to the test" will be the natural inclination of teachers for those tests, too.
Statewide exams shouldn't be used to "hold teachers accountable." They shouldn't be used to hold schools accountable, either. School choice is a much better way to hold schools accountable and will drive the schools to make sure they have high quality teachers. I've argued that it is reasonable to utilize statewide exam scores as one of many metrics or attributes on a school's or district's scorecard for parents to see, but don't make the tests high-stakes. Don't give a school or district a public grade based significantly on that exam and don't make the statewide exam a large factor in teacher evaluations. It's harmful to students, stifles creativity, and drives good teachers out of their profession.
Footnote: I've provided some good links by and about Dr. Zhao in this post, but this 14 minute video is absolutely excellent.