Testing enthusiasts’ timely comeuppance

Office of the Mayor of NYC

Mayor Bill de Blasio Holds Press Conference on After-School Programs with Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina Following tour of Bronx School. January 9, 2014.

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  • How much of an emphasis should NYC place on testing?

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  • In NYC, testing enthusiasts’ comeuppance has come.

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Those who follow New York City schools have been witnessing a time-honored ritual — pro-testing school reformers have mightily overreached, inviting pushback that’s now poised to dismantle much of their useful handiwork.

Mayor de Blasio has said that he and his new chancellor, Carmen Fariña, will “do everything in our power to reduce focus on high-stakes testing.” At the press conference where he introduced Fariña, de Blasio said, “[Testing] has taken us down the wrong road and, within limits of state and federal law, we will do all we can to roll back that focus.”

This strident stance is misguided and likely to yield unfortunate results. There’s good reason to regularly test students in reading and math, and to use those results to inform judgments about how well schools and teachers are doing. When it comes to key skills, such tests can illuminate important truths and make it clear if some schools or classrooms are failing certain students.

Without performance outcomes, it’s tough to evaluate schools or teachers based on how well students are learning. Absent regular assessment data, teachers can only be judged based on how well other people think they’re teaching, on paper credentials or lesson plans.

Now, it makes good sense to rely on much more than test scores to gauge the performance of students, teachers and schools. But it seems pretty obvious that reading and math proficiency are critical and easy to judge in straightforward ways, and therefore ought to be a key part of how school districts go about their work.

All that said, de Blasio and Fariña have tapped into real concerns and raised valid criticisms. However well-intentioned, testing advocates have managed to take a common-sense intuition and pushed it with such reflexive enthusiasm that they’ve created a caricature.

Instead of using reading and math tests as one useful tool, many reformers have made these results the defining measure of school quality. That stance alienates parents and educators who see such an emphasis as narrowing the curriculum and providing a distorted view of school quality.

Last year, Gallup’s annual national survey on education reported that 22% of respondents thought the increased use of testing over the past decade has helped school performance and 36% thought it had hurt. In 2007, the same survey found the public split, 28%-28%.

Meanwhile, reformers have long been hampered by a tendency to overpromise. After suggesting that accountability, charter schooling or now the Common Core standards will spur rapid, profound improvement in schools, they’ve been stuck trying to put a happy face — at best — on much more modest, gradual gains.

All of this has been complicated by reformers’ habit of leaning heavily on federal pressure, first through the No Child Left Behind Act and more recently on the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, to force states and cities to move — even if that meant that policies were pushed forward while still half-baked.

These forces have all combined to transform a promising approach to heightened transparency and accountability into a self-parody that was ripe for blowback. How bad have things gotten? When she accepted the chancellorship, Fariña said, “There are things that need to happen, but they need to happen with people — not to people.”

This unexceptional sentiment was widely regarded as a break with the Bloomberg reforms. Meaning, reformers have seemingly convinced a large swath of the public that they think change happens outside the classroom, and that they believe in doing things “to” people rather than with them.

That’s a clear sign that they’ve driven what was a sensible agenda right off the rails.

The best move for New York City reformers, then, is not to anxiously start counting down to the 2017 mayoral election or snipe from the sidelines, but to pick themselves up, regain their bearings and view the de Blasio-Fariña era as a grand chance for a course correction.

Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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