New Book Scrutinizes National Obsession with ‘The Test’

Anya_Kamenetz_The_TestWhen Anya Kamenetz began writing a book about standardized testing’s grip on public education, she couldn’t have known it would hit bookstores precisely when the future of assessments and accountability was being debated across the nation.  The timing couldn’t be better. Not only has the backlash against overtesting intensified over the past year, but recent action in Congress on No Child Left Behind has pivoted largely around whether to limit standardized testing. In The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be, Kamenetz, National Public Radio’s lead education blogger and author of several previous books, makes a compelling case against the current testing regime, but also presents a framework of potential alternatives that could foster real teaching and learning in the classroom.

Kamenetz recently spoke with NEA Today about the obsession with testing, the role of parents in the debate, and finding a new path forward on assessment and accountability. 

In The Test, you approach the issue of overtesting as a journalist obviously, but also as a concerned parent. When you began the book, were parents always a key audience? 

Anya Kamenetz: Well, there was a personal motivation in that my daughter is three years old, and I want to send her to public school. I want to feel good about that choice. A lot of the parents I spoke with have a lot of problems with the way schools are working – even in places that are famous for their schools – and that was because of the focus on tests. So that’s really where I stand.

It always a good idea for parents to get involved in the cause of public education. It really is the place where it makes the most sense to be engaged in our democracy. If you have kids in school, you’re committed. And now is a particularly good time now for parents to get involved.

The opposition to standardized testing has gained traction in recent years. To what extent do you attribute that to growing resentment against these tests from parents?

 AK: Some of the smartest observers I interviewed said that it’s middle-class parents specifically that can really sway this issue. This is the group in America that holds a large amount of political power. It’s really now that there are parents with high property values in affluent areas that are getting upset about these tests and they really hold the potential to change the conversation.

So it’s encouraging but we shouldn’t get too complacent because this moment could end in a number of ways, and certainly there are divides among parents – even among those who have formed alliances around testing.

Anya_Kamenetz_The_Test

Anya Kamenetz, author of “The Test”

You describe standardized testing as being “universally despised” and yet it’s still so entrenched. Is one particular testing interest proving more resilient than others?

AK: It’s still really all of them. This is the era of Big Data. For a while now we have had a very large thirst for metrics and numbers to drive our decision-making across all different policy questions. And there’s a particular use of testing as a political weapon between politicians who believe the issue with underperforming schools is with underperforming teachers, and we’re going to use testing to ferret out exactly who the slackers are and try to get rid of them.  And of course you have the Big Four testing companies, who behave like many other companies who are dependent on government contracts. They’re not exactly open to competition and not particularly transparent.

And what makes it easier for the current system to survive is the perception at least that there is little consensus on what should replace it.  

AK: Right, but what’s funny to me is that there’s no defense of the status quo either. I was sparring on Twitter a few days ago with someone from Achieve.org. He said I was kind of a biased reporter to talk so much about the opposition to testing. So I asked who was defending the status quo of standardized tests? He replied that that was a strawman, that no one defends the status quo. Ok, so if no one is defending the status quo, then where do we stand? We know that we need to change, even though there’s not a consensus yet on the alternative.

Much of the book examines different approaches to alternative assessments. You identify three groups of players with different philosophies and strategies, all of whom have something to bring to the table. But you settle on a fourth approach that you call “Team Unicorn.” What is it about this approach that you think points us in a better direction?

 AK: It’s about assessments in which students complete authentic, engaging tasks that demonstrate higher order thinking and growth. The results of these tasks are very individualized but you would still be gathering data. But it’s data that could be shown to anyone and not just left up to an individual’s judgement to describe the curb or trajectory of learning. So you’re somehow squaring the circle of providing a nuanced and three-dimensional picture of the learning and thinking process and yet doing that in a way that is described with large amounts of data. I do think you need some sort of comparable information that can be used across school systems.

Assessment is a part of good teaching and good learning and assessment and feedback should happen every single day in the classroom. Instead of stopping for a weeks to administer a test, can we instead fold the practice of assessment into the high quality teaching and learning that we do every day in a way that also gives us reportable data.

You write that even a new, beautifully-designed assessment could still be used as as cudgel to punish teachers and schools. What are the changes to accountability that need to be made so that a new system can work on all fronts?

AK: The number one principle, articulated by folks like Linda Darling-Hammond, is multiple measures, that you don’t make accountability decisions based on a single metric or outcome. Another really important principle, articulated by Julian Vasquez Heilig, is community accountability or resource accountability. The idea here is instead of what we’re doing now, which is only holding schools and teachers accountable for outcomes, we should also be holding districts accountable for inputs. It’s recognizing that the inequity of resources in public schools is a really huge problem across the states. And if we don’t want zip code to be destiny, we have to be very careful to track exactly what happens in each school in terms of great teachers, materials, programing, curriculum, wrap-around series, and facilities. All that needs to be a part of the accountability picture as well.

There’s obviously better ideas on the table, parents are engaged, and no one supposedly is defending the status quo. So are we going to see real change over the next few years?

AK: I maintain a level of optimism in that when my daughter starts first grade in couple of years,  I will be able to feel good about the school that she is in and that improvements in assessments can be made. But will the whole system be transformed or reconstituted on a totally different level of quality and access and transparency?  No, I’m not holding my breath for that.  You look at the history of education reform in the United States and you see the constant rotation around an axis that never really ends up in a very different place. The persistence of poverty, the reoccurrence of segregation – these are issues our grandparents were dealing with and our grandchildren will be dealing with them as well.

  • Aaron Levine

    No more poverty complacency. Let’s work to end the cycle. History doesn’t have to repeat itself.

  • Zena Bates

    The common core will be advantages in that it will give all teachers common material that must be taught.

    • Out Sick Today

      In fact, it does not give common material. The standards are mostly in common, but even there, there’s 10 percent or so of wiggle room. Perhaps you mean “material” in a different way? But some against CC think it dictates curriculum. I don’t see that.

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  • Betty Sanchez

    Two things to say. Firstly, this is the tack we (teachers) were on before NCLB kicked in. Give us some control. We know what to do. Secondly, the big question is, then what? How do we solve the problems we find? The problem no one addresses, that I believe is causing the US to lag, at least as much as, if not more than ill-trained teachers is whether or not kids are engaged. If children are not tuned in, for whatever reason, nothing is going to happen. It is much more difficult to hold their attention than it used to be. There is much more competition for their attention, regardless of the environment in which they live. Teacher training programs need to focus on this issue, how to engage an manage students and on setting up curriculum that is relevant to the needs of students as well as the communities in which they live. I guess there is also a third point. Not all students need to function at the high levels in mathematics. They need to function well in society. If math or science or political science is their passion, then the route to achievement in those areas should be readily available to them. But, if music or the arts or trades or technology is what interests them, then those avenues should be just as easily accessible.

  • San Diego Observer

    In California, the test scores do not show on transcripts, are not used for placement, and have no value to the student. Therefore, how much effort should they put in the passing these tests? Also, in high school, students are tested by grade level, not by the courses they are taking. So, if a student has failed algebra and is re-taking it, the test doesn’t care. That student will be tested on geometry because that is the next year’s test.

    So many high school students are being tested on material that is not the material in the courses they are taking; rather, they are being tested based on age. If I chose to take chemistry before biology, it would be too bad for my test. I would be tested on biology, not the chemistry I took.

    I think if we make any test as “high stake” as everyone wants, then we need to make it important to the student, like put it on their transcripts and use it for next year’s course placement. Then, if they do not try, even if they got A’s in their courses, they will need to take lower courses because, obviously, they do not understand the material. The test told us that. Until the students care about the test results, we will not have authentic values for our data.

    One time, I had a student choose random answers for one of her state tests. I told her that I was going to grade her math test like that later in the day. I would just choose random answers instead of reading the questions, and since it was not a multiple choice test, the answers could be dramatically different than hers. She didn’t think that was fair. I explained that she was showing me that she thought it was good enough for the State of California; therefore, it must be good enough for her as well. She did not like the analogy, and she was not happy when her methods were going to be applied back to her. Somehow what they think is fair for the State isn’t fair to them.