To Sarah Bolton, Education Policy Director
Senate HELP Committee
Ranking Member Patty Murray
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope to speak to you again sometime soon. For the record, I am two years retired after serving 15 years in the NW Regional Comprehensive Center starting in 1994. Before that I administered the Title VII Indian Education Project in Portland for 15 years. Before that, I worked for 5 years at the old NW Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL) where I where I spent the first year in training as an intern for educational evaluation. For the remaining four years worked on various lab contracts for educational evaluation, research and test development. I am also a Blackfeet tribal member raised and schooled on the reservation. I graduated from high school in Browning, Montana in 1964. My recommendations to Senator Murray are:
Drop support for the SBA (Smarter Balanced Assessment). Spending millions on better tests is a bad investment. The law of diminishing returns has long applied in test development. My five years of work in evaluation and measurement left me with the conviction that growth in human learning cannot be measured in terms of comparative numbers. The whole field of psychometrics rests on a wobbly set of theories balanced atop some questionable assumptions. Yet, there has evolved a multimillion dollar educational testing and research infrastructure at work across the nation studying a problem they may have created in the first place when they first duped the public into believing that their paper and pencil tests were “instruments” capable of actually measuring growth in human learning and that the numbers produced by the tests were worthy of deep statistical analysis. Educational research, based on test scores, has grown like a cancer on the public school system with one dubious theory after another creeping into policy and distorting practice in schools.
Money has corrupted the psychometric discipline to the point that it has often devolved into sophistry. Indeed, the CCSS/SBA (Common Core State Standards/Smarter Balanced Assessment) initiative is not a legitimate school reform effort but rather a corporate sponsored business plan to feed at the federal trough at the expense of the public school system. If Senator Murray looks closely, I think she will find that the SBA has been oversold and that the level of precision they promised is nowhere close to that which was inferred when they made the sales pitch. (Is dropping students into one of four categories the high degree of precision they promised?) Nor is the information for parents and teachers any better. (There may be more of it but it is much like reading blurbs in a horoscope). Lastly, but perhaps more importantly, the time required to prepare for and to take the SBA, is so great that there is little time for anything else (including the very innovations that the CCSS hoped to inspire).
Federal test requirements should be as cheap and as unobtrusive as possible.You mentioned that Senator Murray is supporting the SBA in part because of strong pressure from civil rights and minority groups to strengthen accountability for public schools. I sympathize with their concern but believe they are misguided in calling for more tests. However, if there must be a federally required standardized test, we should revert to the older norm referenced tests. There are several reasons.
1. They will take much less classroom time for administration and preparation. Days if not weeks will be freed for more engaging educational experiences.
2. Teachers will not be forced, by practical necessity, to teach toward a test.
3. They already exist
4. Norm referenced tests are more objective. The SBA depends on the judgement of hourly wage earning employee sitting in front of a computer all day reading and judging student essays against a matrix of criteria. I have done this kind of work and can tell you that the reader/scorers must often guess at which box to mark. With a norm referenced test, each of the possible answers in a norm referenced test is either correct or incorrect.
It is true that these older tests are flawed, biased against minorities and provide only very limited information. However, if they are used properly and in a limited way, they can provide the necessary objective evidence to meet your needs without setting up insurmountable barriers for minority kids. I support the idea of adding graduation rates and attendance rates in the evaluation. In this you are counting real things and the numbers mean something.
I agree with many of the ideas within CCSS. We want our kids to undertake and demonstrate high level skills. Trying to induce schools to move in this direction by developing new tests is the big mistake. School accountability is a good and necessary thing but too much is counter productive. I remind you of the little homily commonly attributed to Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire ”. I certainly subscribe to the idea. You can’t light fires by testing, only smother them. Senator Murray should endorse the Washington Tribal Leaders Congress initiative and look toward methods of public demonstration to evaluate high level skills.
In closing, let me say that I believe our public schools to be a cornerstone of democracy and I expect Senator Murray to not only hold them accountable but to protect and nurture them. Thank you for you time and attention in this matter
PS--For your convenience, I summarized my comments about the attached ECAA summary document you presented to us. They are listed below in italics.
The claim that the Bill "ends the test based accountability system" of NCLB is belied by the fact that the full regimen of new tests remains. The number, duration and difficulty of testing in schools will increase profoundly. Theoretically, states will be able to place whatever value or weight they wish upon the tests within their own evaluation systems. However, the requirement to publish disaggregated scores for various populations makes the SBA a 600 pound gorilla. Under ECAA, the states need not adopt the CCSS yet they will be judged by a CCSS based test.