The Coming Chaos in Student Testing

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

From a New York Times story on Mayor de Blasio reversing more of Mayor Bloomberg’s policies:

Teachers and parents had been lobbying for a change in the promotion policy since last year, when the state adopted new exams aligned with more rigorous academic standards known as the Common Core. Test scores across the state plummeted; in New York City, 26 percent of students in grades three through eight passed the English exam, while 30 percent passed in math.

Responding to the outcry, the State Legislature this month mandated that school districts take into account multiple measures in deciding which students to promote, and it barred schools from including test scores on student report cards.

Finally got rid of those test scores on student report cards. Whew- what a relief!  I read somewhere that the Republican candidate for Governor in New York has joined the testing opt-out movement, which is also charming.

Meanwhile in Indiana, well, go read about it for yourself.  Given that the federal government requires student testing in Grades 3-8 and once in high-school as a condition to receive federal funds, it might be a really good idea for Common Core opponents to give some thought to what it is they favor in addition to what they oppose.  A constructive vote of no confidence is a much better idea than what is starting to look like:

Here in Arizona, Governor Brewer requested $13m for a new assessment tied to the standards that the State Board adopted in 2010.  The legislature appropriated $8m.  What happens next?  Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

It might be easy to attribute this to Common Core, but you take a look at fiercely independent but still chaotic Texas and then you realize that it’s not so simple. I highly recommend reading the Dallas Morning News series How the Texas Testing Bubble Popped.  The series has three parts (I, II and III) and is well worth reading.  Towards the end of part III the DMN series says:

While test opponents elsewhere are looking to Texas for clues about how to pop the testing bubble back home, it’s not a model that will be easy to replicate.

The battle over testing in Texas pulled together an incredibly broad-based and narrowly focused coalition that managed to avoid the political battles that afflict many other issues.

School superintendents started tilling the field in 2006.

What had seemed unified business support for the tests publicly fractured, giving some legislative leaders political cover to join the rebellion.

TAMSA brought in mostly white, suburban moms from high-achieving schools who were politically and geographically diverse. 

Mind you that Texas had a 30 year bipartisan elite consensus on testing that gave birth to No Child Left Behind. The elite consensus got steamrolled in 2013. I had something close to a second or third row seat to the debacle. Governor Perry threatened to veto HB 5, but wound up having a signing ceremony despite the fact that the legislature had acceded to few if any of his demands. Governor Perry already had a special session called that could have addressed the topic. Texas is however a democracy, and the demos appeared to be speaking loud and clear regarding the end of course exams system.  We all have times where we want the trustee model to triumph over the delegate role, but you get some of both in life.

So when you factor out the unique Texas strangeness out of the Lone Star State accountability collapse (which may have only started rather than finished btw) it looks to me that the future of testing in the United States is going to be a battle for the hearts and minds of suburban parents.  The Dallas Morning News opines that what happened in Texas is unique and complicated. Perhaps so, but it may be the case that it is simple: when the Alphabet Soup crowd successfully recruit suburban parents to wreck shop on state testing systems, well it kind of reminds you of Hudson’s post-crash tactical assessment from the American film classic Aliens:

So where is this all headed?  I have no clue.  Circa 1980, public schools largely stood as transparency free zones where real estate agents based their highly sought after expert opinions on public school quality on the percentage of kids they saw running around on the playground that were white. This was the school system that I grew up in. Personally I’d prefer not to go back, just in case you were wondering, but it is not going to be up to me.



16 Responses to The Coming Chaos in Student Testing

  1. (Matt): “Finally got rid of those test scores on student report cards. Whew- what a relief!
    That will help. (/sarc)
    Some organization holds a liars’ contest every year. Contest rules exclude politicians, lawyers, and other professionals. One year the winner (a married couple) described their summer auto tour of several national parks. Among other dubious assertions, they claimed that a broken fuel gauge enabled them to make the entire tour on a half tank of gasoline.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    A constructive vote of no confidence presupposes that the opposition speaks in a single voice and can therefore identify an agreed-upon alternative to the status quo. This can only take place in a parliamentary system where party bigshots have some power under the constitution to force the backbenchers into line behind them. The U.S. system avoided that model on purpose, so we would not just have a few parties in charge of things at the top, but a vast multitude of political actors who all get to have a say. It is designed to be more chaotic than the parliamentary system. In particular – Madison stressed this – the system is designed to make it easier to derail political coalitions than to build them. That’s a feature, not a bug.

    In the system the framers designed, you have no right to demand that everyone who is against X must all agree about what they are in favor of before they are allowed to work together to oppose X. That’s not how the congressional system works.

    • matthewladner says:

      I’m not asking for everyone to be in favor of the same thing, just that if you want to avoid an absurd meltdown that some thought to alternatives is due. Superintendent Ritz for instance has had a couple of years to think about this but seems to have made little use of them.

      As Collin Powell once noted, if you break it you have bought it.

      • Greg Forster says:

        That works for military campaigns where there is a single coherent “you” who broke it and owns it. It doesn’t work in a constitutional system that is designed, on purpose, to allow chaotic loose coalitions of actors to form just long enough to stop another coalition and then disband.

        We have, in fact, “put thought into alternatives.” We disagree about them. That has nothing to do with our shared opposition to Common Core. In the U.S. constitutional order, “but you don’t have an alternative!” is what people say when they want to defend the status quo but don’t have a good argument.

      • matthewladner says:

        I understand that some CC foes are complaining about the math standards being too low, and others too high. Some have well thought out positions while others are sitting in the corner mumbling about the United Nations.

        I agree that just as it is every New Yorker’s right to be miserable and treat other people like dirt, that it is every American’s right to engage in the civic process as it suits them. It is also every officeholder’s duty however to think more than one move ahead. If you’ve had a couple of years to come up with a replacement and build a consensus for it, but have little to nothing as an officeholder to do so, it looks terribly irresponsible.

        It would be superogatory for non office holding opponents of CC to do the same.

      • Greg Forster says:

        But all the same objections apply to officeholders. Many of the officeholders have indeed “thought more than one move ahead,” but they come to different conclusions about what they want to do more than one move ahead. One move ahead (opposing Common Core) is all they can agree on for the moment. So they do that. Nothing wrong with that.

        This is actually where the distinction between the parliamentary system (from which you draw the concept of a constructive vote of no confidence) and the congressional system is relevant. In the U.S. constitutional order, because parties play no constitutional role, officeholders need not agree on an alternative before uniting to oppose the status quo (or uniting to oppose a change to the status quo, for that matter). This is one of the sharpest and most important differences between our system and the system that has worked so poorly for so long in Europe.

        Oh, and the word you’re looking for is “supererogatory.” But it would not in fact be supererogatory for non-officeholders to have a considered opinion on what they’re in favor of, not only because the concept of supererogatory works is intrinsically absurd and inconsistent with all sound moral reasoning, but more specifically because that is their responsibility as good citizens.

      • Matthewladner says:

        So this must explain how Rummy didn’t need to answer anyone’s questions about post-war Iraq before invading. If so I guess I am ready to put in a parliament, especially if it can do a mosh pit like SK

      • Greg Forster says:

        Yes, joking aside, the botch we made of post-war Iraq reveals the limitations of the U.S. Constitution. I hate to say it because I’m an unapologetic warmonger, but our constitution was not designed with this kind of thing in mind.

        And it’s a case in point here, because in fact Rumsfeld did have ideas about how to manage post-war Iraq. The problem was, again, that others in the administration had other ideas, there was no consensus, and (critically) Bush failed to impose order on his cabinet. As a result we had no strategy – not because no one in the administration had a strategy, but because everyone had one.

      • matthewladner says:

        So maybe “you have to pass the bill to learn what is in the bill” is a better example? Great moments in highly responsible governance…

      • Greg Forster says:

        Why yes, I’d say that’s a very good description of what they did when enacting Common Core. 🙂

      • matthewladner says:

        That was Robert Scott’s central argument against adopting CC sight unseen in Texas, and it was a valid one. The river flows both ways on this though.

  3. momof4 says:

    In high-performing schools (affluent suburbs and elsewhere), where most students score highly on state tests, the tests are essentially useless because they do not discriminate at the top. When my kids took the Montgomery County, MD versions, their honors classes spent not more than one period in prep – some sample questions and a reminder to make sure the question number and the answer number matched. It was a big yawn, and all of the kids had top scores.

  4. Mike G. says:

    I can’t speak to the Maryland tests, but in Massachusetts, tests *do* discriminate at the top. Newton, probably the top district overall, has 37% of all students “Advanced” in English.

    Nobody talks about this: ed reformers focus on urban districts, while suburban incentives are to avoid any talk that messes with the “we’re the best” meme.

    So the common parlance is to only talk about “Advanced and Proficient” lumped together (86% in the case of Newton).

    • matthewladner says:

      This might have something to do with the fact that MA has the highest NAEP scores on all 4 tests…

  5. […] These Momma Bears who have discovered an inner strength are putting a serious dent in the education reform plans of the elites.  Did you know mothers are to blame for the testing chaos in the schools?  From The Coming Chaos in Student Testing: […]

  6. […] These Momma Bears who have discovered an inner strength are putting a serious dent in the education reform plans of the elites.  Did you know mothers are to blame for the testing chaos in the schools?  From The Coming Chaos in Student Testing: […]

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