New Tests Nothing but New

Across the country, states are bidding farewell to the tests they adopted and implemented as part of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002 while at the same time “welcoming” (with apprehension and fear) a series of new and improved tests meant to, once again, increase standards and measure the new (and purportedly improved) Common Core State Standards.

I say “once again” in that we have witnessed policy trends similar to these for more than 30 years now—federally-backed policies that are hyper-reliant on increasing standards and holding educators and students accountable for meeting the higher standards with new and improved tests. Yet, while these perpetual policies are forever meant to improve and reform America’s “failing” public schools, we still have the same concerns about the same “failing” public schools despite 30 years of the same/similar attempts to reform them.

The bummer that comes along with being an academic who has dedicated her scholarly life to conducting research in this area is that it can sometimes create a sense of cynicism, or realistic skepticism, that is based on nothing more than history. Studying over three decades of similar policies (i.e., educational policies based on utopian ideals that continuously promote new and improved standards along with new and improved tests to ensure that the higher standards are met) does a realistic skeptic make!

Mark my words! Here is how history is to, once again, repeat itself:

  1. States’ test scores are going to plummet across the nation when students in America’s public school first take the new Common Core tests (e.g., this has already happened in Kentucky, New York, and North Carolina, the first to administer the new tests);
  2. Many (uninformed) policymakers and members of the media are going to point their fingers at America’s public schools for not taking the past 30 years of repeated test-based reforms seriously enough, blaming the teachers, not the new tests, on why students score so low;
  3. The same (uninformed) policymakers and members of the media will say things like “finally those in America’s public schools are going to blatantly see everything that is wrong with what they are (or are not) doing and will finally start taking more seriously their charge to teach students how to achieve higher standards with these better tests in place – see for example U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent comments, informing U.S. citizens that the low scores should be seen as a new baseline that will incentivize, in and of itself, school reform and improvement;
  4. Test scores will then miraculously begin to rise year-after-year, albeit for only a few years, after which the same (uninformed) policymakers and members of the media will attribute the observed increases in growth to the teachers finally taking things seriously, all the while ignoring (i.e., being uninformed) that the new and improved tests will be changing, behind the scenes, at the same time (e.g., the “cut-scores” defining proficiency will change and the most difficult test items that are always removed after new tests are implemented will be removed, all of which will cause scores to “artificially” increase regardless of what students might be learning);
  5. Educators will help out with this as they too know very well (given over 30 years of experience and training) how to help “artificially inflate” their scores, thinking much of the time that test score boosting practices (e.g., teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum to focus excessively on the tested content) are generally in students’ best interests; but then…
  6. America’s national test scores (i.e., on the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP]) and America’s international test scores (i.e., on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS], Progress in International Reading Literacy Study [PIRLS], and Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA]) won’t change much…what!?!?…then;
  7. Another round of panic will set in, fingers will point at America’s public schools, yet again, and we will, yet again (though hopefully not by the grace of more visionary educational policymakers) look to even higher standards and better tests to adopt, implement, and repeat, from the beginning – see #1 above.

While I am a gambling woman, and I would bet my savings on the historically-rooted predictions above, should anybody want to take that bet, I would walk away from this one altogether in that in the state of Arizona, alone, this “initiative” is set to cost taxpayers more than $22.5 million a year, $9 million more than the state is currently paying for its NCLB testing program (i.e., the Arizona Instrument to Measure Statndards [AIMS]). Now that is a losing bet, based on nothing more than a gambler’s fallacy. That this is going to work, this time, is false!

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