And the Answer Is? (Shh! We Can’t Tell You!)

Though nothing that most educators didn’t know, Jennifer Medina’s front-page story in the New York Times this morning is worth reading—if you like reviewing, in slow motion, the tape of a train wreck.

In fact, the long report (it is nearly 4,000 words) about how the New York State education department struggled with, and ultimately flubbed, the testing challenge is less a narrative of education failure than a cautionary tale about relying on big government (and the attendant bureaucracy) to run our schools. (See USA Today today:  apparently, six in ten Americans say the government has too much power, and nearly half agree with this alarming statement: “The federal government poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedom of ordinary citizens.”)

“State long ignored red flags on test scores” is the headline in today’s Times.

[E]vidence had been mounting for some time [that the state’s tests] had serious flaws. The fast rise and even faster fall of New York’s passing rates resulted from the effect of policies, decisions and missed red flags that stretched back more than 10 years and were laid out in correspondence and in interviews with city and state education officials, administrators and testing experts.

Paul Peterson and Rick Hess raised red flags long ago, with their research comparing the assessment systems of the states. (See Johnny Can Read…in Some States.) And then there was the classic, to me, front page Times story, from 2002:  The Elderly Man and the Sea? Test Sanitizes Literary Texts, telling the story of the Brooklyn mother who caught the New York State Education Department “cleaning up” (i.e. changing) the texts of famous writers for the state’s ELA tests.

What is amazing to me is that no one goes to jail for this kind of thing. We have become so numb to the news of school failure—and so blinded by the blame-the-victim excuses—that we greet stories like Medina’s with an institutional yawn instead of an arrest warrant.

Part of the problem is that these debates are like TV wrestling: it has some entertainment value.  We can easily get caught up in the testing narrative and miss the essential question: what do we want our children to know? In fact, Medina’s story mentions “curriculum” just once, and then only in an oblique reference to “the citywide math and English curriculums” in New York City.

And that is the second doleful takeaway from this depressing story: that we have handed over our schools to test-makers. Please don’t misunderstand. Tests—and assessments—are critical to learning, but they are the thermometer not the weather. The jobs of educators these days seem to be to trick kids and teachers rather than provide a measure of knowledge.

“In many cases you could not write an unpredictable question no matter how hard you tried,” the Times quotes Daniel Koretz, who “specializes in assessments systems,” according to the Times and who “oversaw the study of New York’s tests that led to the state’s conclusion that they had become too easy to pass.”

We are supposed to have “unpredictable” questions?

This is a system very much lost in the weeds.

There is some hope in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, but until we put the horse in front of the cart and have rigorous, detailed, and broad curricula for our schools and districts, we will continue with a largely useless argument about who sits where in the carriage.

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