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Growing backbones about school testing

Dr. Bill Smith, Community Voices • Jul 29, 2018 at 8:00 AM

A recent Johnson City Press article summarized Tennessee gubernatorial and Senate candidates’ positions on education. Two candidates, Bill Lee and Marsha Blackburn, addressed the subject of testing. Lee spoke of “supporting our teachers by reducing the testing burden,” and Blackburn said that we should “streamline the testing process.”

It is encouraging to hear politicians express concerns about the role of testing in our schools, even if their suggestions lack specificity and are probably just empty campaign promises. Over the last 35 years, improving test scores has been education’s central priority, and elected officials have rarely questioned the wisdom of this approach. Even after Tennessee’s testing follies of the last few years, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite in our legislature for taking a comprehensive look at the problems caused by an overemphasis on testing.

The idea of using standardized test scores to hold educators and schools accountable emerged into political discourse in the 1970s and quickly grew in popularity. Proponents called it educational accountability, or teacher accountability, and often described it as a “common sense business-inspired solution.” They argued that teachers have few incentives to work hard and that schools can correct this problem by operating more like businesses. That is, when businesspeople exceed established quotas for sales or production, they receive extra compensation. When they fall short in their performance, they face discipline or dismissal. Schools, therefore, should use test scores to determine teachers’ success or failure, and then reward or punish them accordingly.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, politicians and pundits aggressively promoted this idea. At the time, I was working about 60 to 70 hours a week as a teacher and coach in one of the lowest-paying school systems in South Carolina (one of the lowest-paying states), so it really didn’t sit well to hear public figures assert constantly that education was failing miserably, that unmotivated teachers were the whole problem, and that the solution was to light a fire under underperforming educators like me.

According to the accountability narrative, our nation’s business leaders were the best of the best — market warriors whose intelligence, savvy and toughness were continually tested and honed in an economic jungle where only the strong survive — so they clearly had the answers for “fixing” something as straightforward and uncomplicated as public education. In South Carolina, Democratic Gov. Dick Riley, who later became America’s longest-serving secretary of education, often consulted with the CEO of Milliken Corp. in developing our state’s 1984 Education Improvement Act. Riley appeared to be a sincere and well-intentioned reformer, so the fact that he sought advice on how best to educate children from a textile manufacturer speaks to the unquestioned acceptance of the accountability narrative at the time. (Call me crazy, but I just don’t think that making cloth and educating children are similar activities.)

Teacher performance was the primary focus of the accountability movement, but school administrators didn’t get off the hook entirely. According to accountability advocates, the problem with administrators wasn’t that they lacked motivation. They just didn’t possess the toughness necessary to get rid of all the bad teachers allegedly plaguing our schools. After all, school administrators begin their careers as teachers. They may have many fine qualities — for example, they’re usually kind and nurturing — but it takes fortitude to look an employee straight in the eyes and snarl, “You’re fired!” If administrators were compelled by law to enforce test score standards for teachers, they would have no choice but to grow some backbones.

Maybe it was coincidental the political and corporate world was then even more overwhelmingly male (and white) than it is now and most teachers were female, as was a substantial percentage of educational researchers. However, it’s undeniable that the objections of teachers and academics to proposed accountability measures were ignored. Both groups foresaw numerous problems that elected officials and businesspeople did not anticipate, but two are especially noteworthy. One, educators predicted teachers would begin to “teach to the test,” perhaps producing higher test scores, but not necessarily increasing learning. Two, they said that an overemphasis on testing would “narrow the curriculum,” resulting in the de-emphasis, or even elimination, of competencies and subjects that aren’t the focus of test standards.

Almost half a century after the introduction of the concept of educational accountability, and about 35 years after most states passed stringent accountability legislation, it is clear that the educators who foresaw problems with this strategy were absolutely correct in their predictions. We have also learned that elected leaders and their corporate buddies are the last people who should talk about educational accountability. Accountability legislation is the primary driver of public school policy. However, when education faces any kind of public scrutiny, politicians use their positions to funnel blame onto educators and thus effectively evade responsibility for their own accountability laws.

I hope that someday we can correct the problems of high stakes testing accountability. As noted above, I’m glad that some politicians are beginning to realize there’s a problem, but I’m not optimistic they are going to change the status quo unless parents and other voters send a strong message.

We need to communicate to Republican and Democratic leaders that there’s a lot more to public education than producing test scores. When educators have to focus all of their energies on testing, everything else that our public schools do withers in importance, and that should concern us all. For example, we cannot take it for granted that students will learn how to consume information critically so that they can avoid becoming adult victims of financial or political scams. Nor can we just assume that children will learn how to be actively engaged citizens when the necessary but hard-to-measure skills and dispositions for citizenship are not “on the test.”

When Republican leaders tell us that businesspeople have the solutions to every conceivable problem, voters from both parties need to push back. Good businesspeople deserve their due, but the history of educational accountability demonstrates that being knowledgeable about business doesn’t make someone knowledgeable about everything else.

And Democrats, here’s something to consider. If you’re not going to break away from Republicans on this issue and offer an alternative to the status quo, just understand that you’re continuing to advocate for a deeply flawed strategy that was imposed on several million, hard-working, mostly female educators by an elite class of mostly white male politicians and business leaders who presumed to know better how to do teachers’ jobs than the teachers themselves (perhaps assuming that only “losers” work for such low pay), who publicly claimed credit whenever their plan appeared to work, heaped blame on teachers whenever it didn’t, and accused educators of being lazy and disingenuous when they expressed legitimate concerns. To me, that doesn’t sound very consistent with stated Democratic values.

There’s a straightforward political solution. Politicians should not pretend that they know exactly how to correct the abuses of high stakes testing that they created. They simply need to make a commitment to address these problems by listening to educators and parents and enacting solutions that return control of our schools to the people who know them, work in them, and are served by them.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator.

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