Federal Opinion

When a School Board Member Takes a Test, the World Listens

By Anthony Cody — December 08, 2011 3 min read
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Follow me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

Three days ago, Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post published the hardest-hitting critique of testing of the year. Before discussing that, I want to take a moment to recognize her work. Ms. Strauss is the ONLY blogger in the mainstream media to consistently address education issues from a perspective that is critical of the test-crazy status quo. Every day she brings us insightful perspectives, research and reports from the field. Her column includes her own excellent work as well as that of others (including occasionally myself.)

Monday’s post, When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids, contributed by education expert Marion Brady, was exceptional. In the past three days, this post has been shared more than 54,000 times on Facebook. At this time, more than 500 people have commented on the post. I get excited when I see a post on my blog being shared widely, but this is in a whole new realm.

If you haven’t read the post yet, please do so. It describes what happened when a friend of Brady’s, who is a member of a school board, took a couple of the standardized tests used to measure learning of the tenth graders in his system.
This man, successful by all accepted indicators in our society, bombed. Especially on the math section. He wrote:

It might be argued that I've been out of school too long, that if I'd actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn't that miss the point? A test that can determine a student's future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can't see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.
If I'd been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I'd have been told I wasn't 'college material,' would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.
It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student's entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state's children in a future they can't possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail "cut score"? How?

In her followup post the next day, Strauss revealed the identity of this brave school board member, Rick Roach, of Orange County, Florida.

Why has this post been so widely shared?
It raises fundamental questions about the relevance of the data we are using to make life-determining decisions about our children. If the questions being asked on tenth grade tests do not correspond to skills that our students will need in their future careers, how can we use this data to determine who gets a diploma or who ought to go to college?

I wrote a post last April that asked the question “When will the Testing Bubble Burst?

In it I drew a parallel between the way both real estate and test scores have had their value inflated beyond what it really is:

Just like real estate, test scores have some intrinsic worth. They can be used to see how students at a given school are performing in some important areas of basic skills. We have had tests available for this purpose for decades, and they allow us to see patterns at the whole school or district level, and to judge the effectiveness of different curricula or instructional programs. But the value of these tests is being vastly inflated as a result of the phony imperative that we are in an "education crisis," and the only cure for this is "accountability" for test scores.

I may have been overly generous in the intrinsic value I accorded test scores.

But the fundamental point is this. Just as with real estate, the value we accord test scores depends on enough of us BELIEVING they are of great worth. When a critical mass of people no longer believe in this inflated value, the bubble bursts and the values come back to earth. The popularity of this blog post is a bellwether that tells us the public at large is hungry for this perspective, and is aware that something has gone fundamentally wrong with the way we are assessing learning in our schools.

People in Florida are especially familiar with this phenomenon, both with real estate and the test score bubble, so perhaps it is appropriate that the bubble-bursting should happen there first.

We need a thousand more school board members like Rick Roach to take on this challenge and take the tests they are signing off on. We have a democratic governance system for our public schools that has been asleep at the wheel as we have trundled down the road of test-driven reform. We need ten thousand more principals to join the brave ones in New York who are protesting the test-driven evaluation system. We need a million more teachers and parents to raise their voices as well, before we allow the testing bubble to carry us even farther from the real learning our children need.

Monday’s post tells us this process is underway. The bubble is bursting. Sharpen your pins and get to work.

Update: Diane Ravitch replied to my tweet of this post: “Why stop with school board member? Governors, state legislators, and Congress shd take tests and release scores.” She followed this up with: “I challenge anyone who supports the current testing regime to take the 12th grade test for graduation and release the results to the media.” (Follow her on Twitter at @DianeRavitch)

Brian Crosby (@bcrosby) adds, “Why not media folks too? Maybe let them warm up taking an 8th grade test.”

What do you think? Does the response to this post indicate a shift in public thought? Are there going to be more brave school board members and principals coming forward?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.