Monday, July 18, 2011

Easing test pressure

I just read Jay Mathews' post Easing Test Pressure won't Save Kids which addresses the Atlanta cheating scandal.

The premise of the post is that despite all the evidence showing the cancerous consequences of high stakes standardized testing, Jay Mathews wants to stay the course.

I guess he hasn't seen enough blood, sweat and tears from the victims of testing. After reading plenty of other blogs and columns point towards the inappropriate and unreasonable pressure brought on by high stakes testing as a source of the cheating, Mathews isn't convinced:
I have trouble squaring with reality their conclusion that the fault was too much test pressure and that our schools will work better once we dial that down.
If he isn't prepared to dial down the test pressure, then I have to assume that Mathews wants to either keep the pressure the same or perhaps even increase it - either way, such a stance is completely ignorant to a social science law called Campbell's Law.

In their book Collateral Damage, David Berliner and Sharon Nichols summarize a stack of high stakes testing cheating scandals. Their premise is built around Campbell's law which states:
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it was intended to monitor.
Like Wile E. Coyote's relationship with gravity, pundits like Jay Mathews find Campbell's Law to be quite inconvenient - so they simply ignore it. But if you've watched any of the cartoons, you know how this ends. Whether laws are of the physical world or the social science variety, they don't like to be ignored. Humming and hawing over their existence like Matthews does simply won't take us anywhere productive.

Here's Mathews:
We are trying, as a country, to raise achievement so that when students graduate from high school they will have the reading, writing, math and time-management skills that will allow them to do well in the workplace or college. How do we do that without motivating them and their teachers to do the work necessary to achieve those goals?

Unfortunately, student achievement has become code for nothing more than high scores on bad tests. It's also important to note that when Mathews wrote that last sentence above, he wasn't really asking a question. You see, he may have wrote this:
How do we do that without motivating them and their teachers to do the work necessary to achieve those goals?
But what he meant was this:
How do we do that without motivating them and their teachers to do the work necessary to achieve those goals!

Putting an exclamation mark at the end, rather than a question mark, is the equivalent to putting your fingers in your ears and saying, "La la la la la la". It's not an honest attempt to ask a question to which you don't know the answer -- it's an act of willful blindness.

Mathews and other pundits like him not only get school reform wrong, but they also get motivation and learning wrong, and to grasp just how wrong they are when it comes to supporting high stakes standardized testing, Richard Ryan and Netta Weinstein's Undermining Quality Teaching and Learning is a must read. They conclude:
High stakes testing represents a motivational strategy that, because it is controlling and extrinsic in character, often raises targeted test scores in the short term while producing a plethora of unintended negative long- term consequences. Nichols and Berliner (2007) discuss these issues in terms of Campbell’s law: the idea that attaching serious consequences to any indicator increases the probability that its meaning and utility will be corrupted. While that names the problem, it does not explain how and why such corruption occurs. Teaching to the test, narrowing of curricula, crowding out of enriching student activities, test preparation resulting in poor generalization of gains, and the other corruptions we described, are motivated phenomena – they occur because of the controlling nature of high stakes testing policies. These effects of high stakes testing can all be predicted from Self-Determination Theory, and indeed have been for over two decades.

You don't make change by manipulating people who have less power than you, and yet that is precisely what Bush's No Child Left Behind 1.0 and Obama's No Child Left Behind 2.0 are designed to do.

I find it more than a little disturbing that Mathews' title implies that he has the kids' best interest at heart by refusing to ease the pressure of testing. Is he, and others like him, not aware of the harmful and destructive affects high stakes testing has on children? Alfie Kohn writes:
The significance of the scores becomes even more dubious once we focus on the experience of students. For example, test anxiety has grown into a subfield of educational psychology, and its prevalence means that the tests producing this reaction are not giving us a good picture of what many students really know and can do. The more a test is made to "count"—in terms of being the basis for promoting or retaining students, for funding or closing down schools—the more that anxiety is likely to rise and the less valid the scores become.

Accountability, if nothing else, should be about transparency. That is, at the very least, citizens should know what they need to know about their schools, and yet the more pressure applied to high stakes testing, the more distorted and corrupted the scores become. 

While easing test pressure may not be sufficient it most certainly is necessary if we wish to save our kids and our schools.


  1. Jay Matthews is one of the worst of the standardized pundits, because his rhetoric sounds so logical on face value. He writes with a sense of authority and sounds, initially, like he has real expertise. I can handle Rhee. She sounds like an idiot. But ultimately Matthews is worse, because he sounds open minded when he's not open to adjusting, to engaging in a dialogue with readers to to approaching a subject with any sense of nuance.

  2. Once again Joe, dead on. Your points have been made time and time again by yourself and all of the people you quoted. I have to ask....what now? How do we change it? Everyone reading this blog feels the same way you do, but obviously not one of us has the slightest clue where to go from here.


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