Monday, October 23, 2017

Test Based Reform Likened to Failed Soviet Centralized Planning

The Testing Charade, A new book by Daniel Koretz, a testing expert who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, claims that test based accountability as it is now used in our public schools is doing more harm than good. This is disturbing conclusion considering the recent action by our BESE in adopting a new school grading system that intensifies the pressure on Louisiana public schools to improve standardized test scores.

Much of Koretz’s criticism of test-based accountability is based on a social science principle called Campbell’s law. Campbell’s law is a well-documented theory that exposes the self-defeating effects of imposing high stakes rewards and punishments on individuals and institutions based on the achievement of arbitrary social goals.

Campbell’s law, proposed in the 1970’s by social scientist, Don Campbell states that when a particular quantitative indicator is used to determine success in producing a certain outcome, the indicator itself will be subject to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the outcome it was intended to measure.

Koretz points out that test based accountability is failing to improve education in the same way that Communist production goals based on centralized planning doomed the economy of the Soviet Union. Yes, Koretz claims there are great similarities between the arbitrary math and Language Arts testing goals used to grade schools and the arbitrary industrial production goals that helped bring down the communist bureaucracy that ruled Russia for over 70 years.

Communist dictators were convinced that Russian factories could be forced to boost production by simply imposing upon factory managers a system of rewards and penalties based on arbitrary production goals. Today’s education reformers believe that setting  arbitrary learning goals measured by standardized tests and rewarding or punishing educators based on the achievement of these goals will produce improved student achievement.

It turns out that in both cases, Campbell’s law results in false progress by producing shoddy manufactured goods in communist factories and by producing score or grade inflation in public schools. Koretz produces facts and figures that prove that most test based educational gains are not real, and amount to false score gains when compared to other more objective tests. This blog has given numerous examples of test score manipulation and inflation in our Louisiana accountability system.

One of the major goals of test-based accountability was to close the achievement gap between various racial and socioeconomic groups. The goal was to insure that black, Hispanic and high poverty students would improve their school performance compared to white, Asian and more privileged students.  Koretz shows that the achievement gaps have actually widened slightly since the introduction of test based accountability. (Coincidentally,  common core standards advocates confidently claimed that introduction of their test based standards would close the same achievement gaps. They have not.)

We learned over 30 years ago, that top down arbitrary goals and high stakes penalties imposed by a central government somehow always get circumvented and eventually fail. In fact the entire Soviet economy failed because of Campbell’s law.

Koretz provides numerous examples of how test based accountability has resulted in various forms of test inflation based on bad test-prep schemes and even by outright cheating by educators. The blaming and shaming of educators for student test scores has resulted in truly shameful behavior by some educators. I am personally saddened to see my chosen profession degraded and de-professionalized by this unfair system. 

Some educators are now rationalizing and condoning the use of what educators would once have considered unethical behavior used solely for raising test scores. Some educators have gone to jail for erasing and changing student test answers or for manipulating test groups to produce higher scores. But the embarrassment is so great when schools are rated D and F even though educators are giving their very best,  that it pressures educators to implement the corruption of educational practice predicted by Campbell’s law. 

Why do I call this test based accountability system unfair? Here is just one example: BESE member, Doris Votier,  pointed out at the last BESE meeting that all of the alternative schools across the state that serve at-risk students and students with discipline problems are rated F. Is it possible that all of these educators in many different school systems are all incompetent or lazy? Of course not. The test based accountability system unfairly rates all schools serving at risk students at the bottom of the scale no matter how hard they work to help these needy students. The same principle applies to schools that serve high poverty neighborhoods.

In his book, Koretz also shows how many important and critical educational practices are being neglected because of the overemphasis on test scores. He gives examples of truly innovative teachers who are forced to drop techniques that motivate and stimulate students with the joy of learning because more time has to be devoted to test prep. Let me give you a personal example: My teaching specialty was high school science. My supervising teacher taught me to teach science using an inquiry based approach where students use laboratory work to observe first-hand the principals of science. Laboratory work is more time consuming than lecture and drilling using worksheets as a way of teaching science. But all the experts point out that the inquiry approach is much more motivating and stimulating for promoting the love of science in students. Yet this approach is now being minimized as teachers are forced to do more test prep by the perverse incentives of this system. If we are truly interested in promoting STEM careers in Louisiana, our present accountability system is self-defeating.

Please take just a few minutes to read this recent article in U.S. News by Daniel Koretz which touches on the corrupting influence of test based accountability.

Here is a petition you can sign to oppose the Gates Foundation's disastrous efforts to tinker with public education.