Sunday, February 08, 2015

A Stopped Clock Is Right Twice A Day

That's the general way of saying that Mike Mazenko and I might agree on a couple things, but that's more likely due to chance than to a meeting of the minds.

His latest opinion piece, published in the Denver Post, is about PARCC testing, one of the two consortia vying for big money in Common Core testing.  He's against such testing.  He's right when he claims that the Common Core standards are not internationally benchmarked (as California's now-former math standards were), but he's kind of taken the express bus to Crazytown when he claims that standardized tests "increase gaps and reinforce inequity."  No, they really don't; they diagnose problems and help point out where gaps exist.  And while it seems obvious that of course some schools (and teachers) are better than others, I lean more towards "it's the community/culture" when explaining so-called inequity than I do the "institutionalized racism" explanation.  Mazenko's nod to the extreme Diane Ravitch doesn't help his case in my eyes.

I've written before about how flawed the Smarter Balanced math test, the one we'll use in California, is, and Mazenko has similar concerns about the PARCC English test.  He's right to suggest that Colorado ought not to use that test, at least until it's "better" or until Colorado creates a better one of his own, but I can't help but think that's merely an excuse not to have any standardized testing at all, at least temporarily.

Why do I say that?  Mazenko started off with a dig on President Bush, saying it was he who kicked off the "standardized testing craze"--which "Lion of the Senate" wrote NCLB?--but completely ignores President Obama's role in Common Core acceptance via Race To The Top, etc.  You have to take that kind of bias into consideration when evaluating the merits and conclusions of this article.

For a smart guy, Mazenko makes use of one of the weakest, most flawed anti-testing arguments:
Test scores should be detached from teacher evaluations, not because teachers shouldn't be held accountable for performance, but for the same reason that your dentist isn't accountable for your cavities, your doctor isn't blamed for your high blood pressure, and your trainer shouldn't lose his job when you put on pounds over the holidays.
Your dentist identifies your cavities.  Your doctor diagnoses your high blood pressure.  Your trainer shows what you should to in order to be fit.  In each of those cases, it's up to you to take their advice.  A teacher, however, doesn't just identify or diagnose, a teacher's job is to teach.  And while you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink, part of our job as teachers is to motivate and inspire our students to drink that water; we can't just say "we taught but they didn't learn" and expect that to excuse overall poor student performance.  Mazenko's analogy to the trainer might not be too far off--if the trainer doesn't motivate you, you fire him/her--but the doctor and dentist comparisons are so flawed that intelligent and educated people should flee from them as from a burning building.

What do we agree on?  We agree that the specific tests, the Smarter Balanced and PARCC tests, are flawed and should be significantly improved in order to be valid measures. 

There--twice a day.


maxutils said...

Wait … I'm not clear on this. After the dentist tells me I have a cavity, I have to fill it? Bad analogy. There are ver y good teachers in very bad schools that will be thrown in to the light because of bad scores; there are very bad teachers in very good schools who will face the opposite. I believe you're right in that community and parenting play a much bigger role in student learning … but no standardized test will EVER tell you how good a teacher is. So, why bother with the test? Hire the best teachers you can, give them the best curriculum to teach, and give them the extra couple of days a year not taken up by testing to teach it. If you have bad teachers? Observe them more. Solicit input from parents and students and other teachers. Teachers ALWAYS know who the bad ones are …but there are so many variables not under the teacher's control that to judge based on a test, especially one of dubious value, is not fair … and I don't care if Bush and Obama took turns writing sentences and kissed when they were done.

Darren said...

The point of standardized testing *should* be to determine what students know.

mmazenko said...

Thanks, D. I am basking in the love and adulation of your post.

But, seriously, I do appreciate the posting and the criticism. You have some valid concerns. And I concede your points, even if I don't quite agree I'm in Crazy-town.

Darren said...

That point in particular is one I truly don't understand--so you're in Crazytown on that one point :)

A point on which I think we'd agree is this: why can't the testing companies do better with their tests? Wouldn't they make the same amount of money, or perhaps even more, if their tests were better? How hard can that be?

Of course, I know the answer to the question. There are people, even teachers among us, who think those questions are *exactly* what our students need! I don't understand that mentality, I truly don't.

Ellen K said...

My take on testing, all testing, is that if you really want quantifiable data on what a student has learned, you should test them the first day they enter the classroom and then test them over the same exact material at the end of the year. All this other testing is conjecture that seems based more in wishful thinking than in actual hard science. I have seen kids who tested out on high levels never achieve their supposed goals. I have also seen kids who never did much more than the minimum in school, achieve great things. That being said, if so much of our planning is going to be based on high stakes testing, then let's do them correctly.