By John Thompson.

Anya Kamenetz’s The Test comes from the conversation she’s had again and again with parents. She and they have “seen how high-stakes standardized tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness.” Like so many Gen X and Gen Y parents, Kamenetz sees how “the test obsession is making public schools … into unhappy places.”

Kamenetz covers ten arguments against testing, starting with “We’re testing the wrong things,” and ending with “The next generation of tests will make things even worse.” I’d say the second most destructive of the reasons is #4 “They are making teachers hate teaching.” The most awful is #3 “They are making students hate school and turning parents into preppers.”

The second half of Kamenetz’s great work starts with the Opt Out movement, the grassroots parent revolt. She recalls the disgusting practices that drive families to opt out. Under-the-gun schools have resorted to “petty intimidation” of eight-year-olds, even forcing a nine-year opt-outer old to watch test takers rewarded with ice cream and candy, and requiring student opt-outers to sit and stare without books or diversions for hours while classmates take tests.

Kamenetz then presents alternative approaches to high-stakes testing. She explores four different types of assessments that could replace standardized testing. In doing so, she reminds us that “…education’s purpose in the twenty-first century is to prepare students to excel at the very tasks that computers can’t master …”

We already have three alternative approaches to testing that would not require test, sort, and punish:

Team Robot tests conventional subjects (math, reading, writing) in unconventional ways (invisible, integrated, electronic).

Team Monkey tests unconventional qualities (mindset, grit) in conventional ways (multiple –choice surveys).

Team Butterfly, which Kamenetz would use as the basis for a new system, integrates learning with assessment and covers twenty-first-century skills without quantifying the outcomes in a way that’s familiar or easily comparable …

A fourth, Team Unicorn, which is still emerging, relies heavily on video games. She offers an intriguing distinction between Team Unicorn and Team Robot: “the former understands the limitations of what they are doing.”

I agree with Kamenetz that, “Accountability reform comes before assessment reform. Lowering the stakes should be the fundamental principle of test reform.” Certainly, she is correct that “There’s no scenario in which we meaningfully change our schools without changing the tests.” She and Linda-Darling Hammond are also correct that “value-added should only be used along with other measures and in a low stakes way.”  (emphasis mine)

But I’m perplexed by one paragraph where Kamenetz recommends, “Teachers, like students, are evaluated using multiple measures of their own professional practices as well as all of these student outcomes and ….”    (Emphasis mine) So, I must split some hairs and challenge one aspect of the way that she articulates the issue (in an effort, presumably, to reason with data-driven reformers.)

Kamenetz writes that eliminating high-stakes testing would create a big opening for school improvement “but it will never happen without a vision of how we get there.  The push for change has to come from families who are not only fed up but also can see the alternatives clearly.”

This seems to be a part of an effort to seek a dialogue with parents who “are afraid to stop playing the testing game for fear their children will be left behind,” as well as the Billionaires Boys Club.  Kamenetz properly seeks to merge the education reform conversation into “a bigger conversation about the kind of the world we are creating for our children.” She articulates a vision of accountability that focuses on “ability” not “accounting.” In doing so, however, she seems to accept the corporate reformers’ assumptions that: a) accountability can drive systemic school improvement (as opposed to contribute a little bit to better schooling) and the outrageous belief, b) “if you don’t start measuring something, you don’t start valuing it.”

We live in a reality which has produced amazing, humane, inspiring, creativity without top-down, quantitative micromanaging. Every day, we see evidence for Albert Einstein’s wisdom, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” It did not take metrics-obsessed, social engineering by corporate elites to spur our educators, scientists, and psychometricians to invent measures to teach with, but not to.

If we have learned anything from the latest round of supposedly better and “smarter” tests we are getting to measure student and teacher performance against the Common Core, it is that the quest for the perfect test worthy of driving all classroom activity is a dead end. When measurement becomes the driving force, the activity being measured is perverted and ultimately wrecked.

As much as I enjoyed the tour Kamenetz takes us on, describing digital tools to quantify and improve teaching and learning, we should not be surprised that 21st century technology has created such promising, and potentially dangerous, technologies. Even if a magic wand existed and it enabled a ban on all these measures from public schools, would anyone doubt that those tools would be used and abused by affluent families? Rightly or wrongly, in or outside of classrooms, there will be elites who use data-driven techniques to build better Ivy League scholars, to produce faster and leaner child athletes, and more determined ballet dancers. Moreover, those who can afford it will continue to make low tech investments, ranging from field trips, family vacations, and portfolio assessments, that expand their children’s worldviews.

Is there any doubt that the new metrics will result in modern versions of John Stuart Mill, who are raised to be geniuses and to bring the next generation of utilitarianism to an unprecedented level? Isn’t it also inevitable that some parents will follow in the footsteps of Mill’s father, and lead their children to nervous breakdowns?

Some families, and some students, will always embrace extreme competition and use and misuse the latest learning tools that promise victories for those who best measure their “grit” and their frames of mind. They have a legal right to exercise those choices. But, that is not the issue for most families who attend public school.

Corporate reformers have no right to impose these assessments or, for that matter, primitive high-stakes multiple choice regimes on public schools. Neither is there a place in public education for grading students’ character or their states of mind.

Kamenetz clearly understands the potential downsides of emerging assessments, as well as their dangers in the hands of reformers who believe that they should be empowered to micromanage testing and the learning that it guides. For instance, she writes,  “Most troubling to me is the ways in which measuring and holding schools accountable for the social and emotional health of their students, if done in wrong ways, might, once again, worsen the effects of inequality.”

She also compares the data accumulated through new testing methods to putting computer chips in the ears of migrating antelope. Moreover, “student data, like health data, is extremely sensitive.” The idea that it could be used for marketing, hiring, tracking, stigmatizing children is “creepy.”

So, while I respect Kamenetz’s effort to frame solutions in a constructive manner, I believe that the focus must be on the way that “standardized testing leads to standardized teaching.” We must concentrate on the way that output-driven accountability means that “whatever subject the kids hate most … takes over all of school.” We should not give defenders of bubble-in accountability (or those who are tempted to collaborate with it) an easy out.  We must focus on Kamenetz’s wise metaphor, “Pervasive assessment is a nightmare version of school for most students. It’s like burning thirsty plants in a garden under a magnifying glass, in the hope they will grow faster under scrutiny.”

What do you think? How did we get to the point where reformers could claim that we will only get (and value) what we measure and not be ridiculed for their reductionism?

Featured image by Anthony Cody.


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


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