Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The AFT is Finally Fighting Testing (Not)

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is expanding its drive “against excessive testing” with a pithy and pathetic new campaign called “Learning Is More Than a Test Score.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten said the campaign is intended to de-emphasize testing and bring back arts and physical education. However, according to the Washington Examiner, she conceded (as she has always done) that testing has a crucial role to play. Indeed, Weingarten has supported legislation and helped broker contracts with school districts that promote the use of student test data to evaluate teachers (see here, here, here, here and here).

The AFT is not really opposed to high stakes tests. The name of the campaign, “Learning is More Than a Test Score,” implies that the union accepts the tests as one aspect of learning, while its reference to “excessive” testing implies that it simply wants less of it. Either way, the union has accepted the inaccurate and discredited assertion that high stakes tests improve learning outcomes and capitulated to the corporate education “reformers” attempt to rationalize and profit from public education (i.e., testing is big business for the test and textbook publishers).

From a purely selfish perspective (the only perspective a fighting union should take since its purpose is supposedly to improve the working and living conditions of its members), all high stakes tests should be opposed since they can only tell us how well students answer multiple choice questions compared with their peers, under timed and stressful conditions—not where, when or how they learned to do this. The fact that test scores (and student achievement) correlate more strongly with students’ socioeconomic backgrounds than with teaching ability (see here, here and here) should draw into question their validity as a measure of teacher skill in the classroom. Furthermore, the data show that the tests cannot an accurately or consistently measure performance for the majority of teachers and may only be accurate for those at the extremes, and only if averaged out over three years—something that is rarely done.

However, even from the perspective of a public servant (the perspective usually taken by the unions, since they are terrified of being accused of putting their own wellbeing above that of their students), the tests should be opposed. Test administration takes considerable class time away from actual learning (as much as 2-6 weeks, depending on the school). The drastic consequences for schools compels many to sacrifice even more class time for test preparation, sometimes even to the extent of slashing entire programs (e.g., physical education, art, music, science). The tests are stressful and anxiety-provoking for children, yet serve no educational purpose (i.e., children cannot learn anything useful from the tests). They also make school seem even more boring and meaningless, contributing to students’ sense of alienation from learning and disdain for school.

Even from a taxpayers’ perspective all tests should be opposed, as they cost billions of dollars and suck revenue out of the classroom, where it can benefit children, handing it over to test and textbook publishers. In California, alone, it is estimated that the new Common Core Standards (CCS) exams will cost $1 billion to implement (most of it going toward new books, test design, and computers and software to administer the tests). Yet there is no evidence that any high stakes standardized test has improved learning.

Indeed, the real impetus behind the testing mania is corporate profits, not improving the learning or wellbeing of children. In California, where $20 billion has been slashed from K-12 education over the past 4 years, the state Board of Education voted to adopt the CCS two years ago, knowing even then that it would cost more than $1 billion and that the state would have to borrow or slash further to get the money. Yet California already had among the toughest standards in the nation. There was no educational benefit from changing the standards, no potential for it to significantly improve learning, graduation rates or the achievement gap.

To a rational, fiscally conservative person, no need plus no money should have equaled no new test. Instead, heavy lobbying by the educational publishers convinced the board to spend money it did not have on a test it did not need, thus further impoverishing California’s schools. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, with Governor Jerry Brown’s supposedly balanced budget and promise not to make any further cuts in K-12 funding. (Proposition 30, while doing nothing to restore the $20 billion cut over the past 4 years, was supposed to hold K-12 funding steady, but it is not yet clear whether the cost of CCS has been factored in).

More is Less?
Rather than opposing more testing, AFT and NEA have come out in support of CCS (see here), arguing that the CCS tests will be better and more meaningful than the previous ones, even though the tests have not yet been created and it is impossible to know how they might differ. By most accounts, though, the new CCS exams will not significantly decrease the amount of class time lost to testing, anxiety for children, pressure on schools to improve at all costs, or cuts to “nonacademic” programs.

To be fair, the AFT has made a statement in support of Seattle’s Garfield High School teachers who are boycotting Washington’s MAP test. This is a unique and positive step, as neither the AFT nor the NEA have supported this kind of teacher civil disobedience in the past. The unions’ historical perspective has been that this is tantamount to insubordination and failure to fulfill one’s job responsibilities—thus administrators would be justified in disciplining them. On the other hand, the AFT is not providing any material, logistical or tangible support, nor are they promoting similar boycotts or civil disobedience elsewhere—actions that would be necessary if they really want to see an end to the testing mania.

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