More testing not the answer
Let’s go deep for a second: What’s the point of data?
Imagine you’re a runner trying to beat your personal record in the mile. Is the point to get a better time or to actually run faster? Is the elapsed time the point of running, or is the real goal to run faster, to be stronger, to increase your endurance?
Don’t like sports metaphors? Fine. You’ve got a rib roast in the oven. Is it done because the meat thermometer reads 135 degrees? When your family chows down, does anyone congratulate the cook on the perfect thermometer reading or because the meat is tender, pink, juicy, and making me hungry as I write this?
So I put it to you again: What’s the point of data? We can treasure the marks on the door jam that inch up over the years, but the importance is in the growth of a child. You might think that in these cases the data and the actual result are the same, a difference without a distinction. And in that, you would fit right in with the data-driven education reformers these days who think test scores are the same thing as an education.
Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that the test scores are valid measures of classroom learning, something that the American Statistical Association has cautioned against. Last April, the ASA said “teachers account for about 1 percent to 14 percent of the variability in test scores” and that standardized testing should never be used as a tool to hold schools accountable.” Basically, using test scores to gauge what happens in a classroom is like using that meat thermometer to measure how fast you ran a mile.
But no matter. Let’s assume that standardized tests are effective diagnostic tools. Let’s assume that the test scores we’ve been getting since No Child Left Behind and now with Common Core are producing useful, actionable information showing that poor, minority students do worse than wealthier, white students. Let’s also assume that the scores show that when you give the minority kids more help (funding, tutoring, better teachers and facilities) that their scores go up.
What do we do with that? What is the point of this data?
To many, the answer is more testing. And because they’re testing darn near every child in America in most core subjects, now education reformers are going after the K in K-12. The Education Commission of the States says kindergartners are now being given standardized tests in 25 states as well as the District of Columbia to measure whether they are ready for the rigor of crayons, naptime, and singing the alphabet song.
These tests aren’t kid stuff, either. In Maryland, where teachers are asking for the state to suspend the tests, the average kindergartner takes more than 1 hour and 25 minutes to complete the tests. Teachers report that students don’t understand that they’re being tested to measure what they don’t know. When these 5-year-olds don’t know an answer, they think they’re stupid. We’re talking oceans of tears here.
Remind me what the point of the tests is? To one state education official, the tests “will help improve early education,” which confuses things further. Remember, the thermometer doesn’t cook the meat.
So let’s go back to the original question: What is the point of data? With standardized tests, the point was supposed to be to diagnose which schools and students needed extra help. At least, that’s how they sold it to Dallas schools in the 1980s, then Texas schools in the 1990s, and then the whole country with No Child Left Behind.
But at some point, shouldn’t we remember what the data is for—and act on it? The point of data is to give us a reading, a measurement. And we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to give us the same answer: Poor, minority children need help.
Some people think the answer is more charter schools and vouchers to go to private school. I think the answer is prenatal care, pre-K education and summer school. But the answer sure as heck isn’t more testing.
The point of data isn’t data.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.