National Testing Jumps The Shark

After several months of valiant effort by pundits and educationistas of various stripes, today's Robert Gordon commentary in Education Week will, I think, mark the moment when the current, stumbling effort to revive national testing finally jumped the shark. Let's make it a merciful death.


Identified as a staffer at the Center on American Progress and a former Kerry/Edwards education advisor, Gordon's piece is a little more scholarly than most, but wildly repetitive given the slew of similar pieces over the past few months -- and no more convincing than any of its predecessors.

It's also amazingly tin-eared on the politics of the testing issue and poorly timed given the fact that there's a testing scandal going on right now. But then Kerry was never known for his ear, his timing, or his education policy -- and in fairness Gordon is not really a fulltime education guy. Frankly, I'm not sure why EdWeek published it.

Friends, please stop now. There may be a time for national testing, but in the midst of the dismantling of NCLB -- the closest thing to federal standards in education that we've ever had -- and the SAT scoring fiasco is probably not that time.


Anonymous Kevin R. Kosar said...

There are strong policy arguments for establishing national standards. That said, policy doesn't happen in a vacuum. The big political question that advocates of national standards and tests must face is this: who shall be empowered to write the standards? Mr. Gordon suggests having "nonpolitical" experts do it. That may be rational policy-wise, but it strikes me as a political non-starter. We tried this approach 15 years ago and a debacle ensued (see http://hnn.us/articles/22591.html). What children are to be taught is a very political matter (think history, health education, etc.) I don't see how interested individuals and groups could be kept from making a hash of the standards-crafting process (for a parallel, see Diane Ravitch's "The Language Police" on what interested parties have done to school textbooks.")


8:51 AM  
Anonymous andy eduwonk rotherham said...

Blood In The Water
Over at This Week Martin Brody Russo attacks CAP's Robert Gordon over his Ed Week commentary about national standards ($) (which was based on this Eduwonk post during Gordon's guest-blogging stint here).

Russo's right that the politics of this issue are too frequently ignored. There are lots of people in the think tank world all hot and bothered about this.

Yet despite thoughtful arguments for and against the idea none of them can explain --beyond generalities-- how this issue actually goes anywhere on the Hill considering the political realities up there, and regardless of what happens in November. It's one of those classic "where the rubber meets the sky" think tanky moments.

But it's not fair to castigate Gordon for having a tin ear just because this week's news about testing screw-ups coincides with his piece. One doesn't get an Ed Week commentary published in real time.

Nor should he be castigated for raising the issue. It's an important one, worthy of debate on the merits, and at some point perhaps the politics will change particularly as NCLB becomes more ingrained and the debate turns more toward what NCLB 2.0 and 3.0 ought to look like.

Also, all that said, Gordon's piece is really well done and worth your time to read.

-- Posted at 9:04 AM | Link to this item

9:25 AM  
Anonymous o/b/o mike petrilli said...

The shark bit your %#$ on this one!

Robert is a gem, and wrote probably the best NCLB piece ever (see here:

He may not be an “education guy” but when he writes on education, it’s prescient.

You might wish that the movement for national tests was crumbling, but it’s only gaining steam.

Just last week I heard a top hill staffer identify it as one of the top three issues that’s going to be debated when NCLB comes up for reauthorization. And that makes sense.

Right now we have the worst kind of federalism—Washington is mucking it up while states are racing to the bottom.

If we could replace the mess we have now (which everyone hates) with something rational, the public (and Congress) just might go for it.


P.S. Keep your eye on the Gadfly…

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

I can only hope that national (and state mandated) testing has indeed "jumped the shark." Like so many other educrat inspired, brilliant new and improved, research-based, change-the-face-of-education schemes, may it die the death that has been so long awaited by teachers and that it so richly deserves.

Unfortunately, such schemes usually take about 15 years to, for the most part, vanish from the American education scene. When this occurs, there are fitfull, pathetic, occasional attempts to resurect the monster by true believers, but most teachers are thankfully spared the recurring horror.

So many of these bright ideas begin as someone's doctoral dissertation, and are embraced by the educational intelligensia. Billions are spent, millions are harmed, years are spent defending--with greater and greater anger and deception--that which wasn't defendable from the beginning, and as those whose reputations and/or careers were built and dependent upon the great idea fall from favor, are murdered by angry teachers, parents and students, or they are elected to public office or retire, the great idea falls by the wayside. At first, teachers simply heave a collective sigh of relief and ignore it, but eventually, the public gets around to wondering what in God's name might have been wrong with anyone who thought that the great idea was a good thing to do in the first place.

You want an example? Glad to help: The open classroom concept. Remember it?

By tearing all walls out of schools, we could have such great flexibility! Why teachers, students would fully realize their innate creativity without the stultifying effect of boxy little classrooms. It would transform American education! Of course, no one bothered to ask teachers. They would have rained on that parade.

And so billions were spent around the nation building these monuments to 60's/70's happy, happy (chemically deranged) thinking. The teachers were ignored, and enormous energy was spent defending the indefensible. You do, of course, remember what was wrong? No? Allow me to assist.

With no walls, what was happening in one classroom was happening in all. Discipline was impossible and individual concentration required the powers of Mr. Spock (always in short supply). And so millions were spent buying and installing portable partitions to serve as makeshift classroom walls. Of course, if one class was watching a video, every class was at least listening to it. And the future aircraft engineers of America experienced a boon in the surreptitious construction and flight testing of paper airplanes across the tops of partitions. Those less aerodynamically inclined resorted to rolled up balls of paper, shoes, or other objects at hand that could not be easily traced back to their owners.

So eventually, school districts across America--most without mentioning it, and certainly without admitting that they wasted millions on a boneheaded concept that any rational person (teacher) could have told them was dumb as dirt--spent additional, untold millions building walls in buildings that weren't designed for them, causing ridiculous wiring, heating and air conditioning problems. But at least we once again had classrooms. Classrooms, in some cases without a single electrical outlet, or controllable heating, lights, etc., but real, workable classrooms again. All for the mere cost of...well, God only knows how much it cost in dollars, let alone damage to kids.

You'd think we'd learn, but educrats may be distinguished by two extraordinary characteristics: Hubris sufficient to resurrect Zeus and attract immediate and accurate bolts of lightning, and an absolute inability to learn from history, recent or distant.

7:27 PM  
Blogger EdWonk said...

We've linked this post over at The Carnival Of Education.

1:47 AM  
Anonymous Jal Mehta, New Vision said...

Cross-posted from New Vision's blog, Foresight

My own dissertation research on the politics of standards in the states suggests that Russo is likely right. Legislators I interviewed in Utah, for example, would in one breath condemn the federal takeover of education, and in the next proudly offer up their own standards-based plans for closing the achievement gap. (I heard similar things in my interviews in Maryland and Michigan, albeit with a slightly weaker states' rights thrust.) There are serious concerns about the comparability of assessments across states, but in the larger picture, the pro-standards crowd should realize how much progress they have made in getting states to see this agenda as their own.

Rather than inviting another fight over testing and federal power, policy energy should focus on the critical questions that NCLB has brought to the fore but left unanswered: How can more schools reach AYP? What strategies or policies are likely to make that happen? Federal policymakers have largely eschewed these questions out of deference to local control and a philosophical shift toward deregulation, important goals both, but assuming schools will figure this out without any help from state or federal policy defies experience and logic. This is the next frontier for the standards-based approach -- what ideas can their proponents offer that will make their laudably ambitious target goals (nearly all children proficient by 2014) a reality?

6:25 PM  

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