School Testing: Time We Asked Some Really Hard Questions

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In 2009, Merryl Tisch became Regents Chancellor, emerging from the Board’s shadows after 13 years. When ridiculously high reading and math scores were reported that year she conceded New York’s testing program had been dishonest. She pledged reform.

Tisch presided over the selection of David Steiner to replace commissioner Richard Mills, and the appointment of John King as his deputy. The tandem took charge of the State Education Department (SED)—Steiner, the visionary and King, the get-it-done guy—with the expectation that they would bring about hoped-for changes.

Last year the two won $700 million in Race to the Top funds supporting an enriched curriculum, sounder preparation and observation of teachers, more charter schools, the restructuring of failing schools and integrated data management systems.

Now, in less than two years, Steiner is returning to his post as dean of Hunter’s School of Education. King will become commissioner in June. Why the swift exit? Onlookers speculate Albany’s politics were too rough. Others feel Tisch pushed Steiner out because he was too independent. My darker view revolves around the statewide exams. By leaving now, Steiner avoids having to deal with some thorny issues raised in the last two rounds of testing.

Back in 2009, Tisch needed a new broom, ostensibly to clean up a program that promulgated distorted results. Steiner accepted the mission. The official line defending the program’s validity could no longer be sustained. In fact, making a virtue of necessity, he gave Harvard researchers access to test-related data, a request which Mills had denied.

Steiner called for tests less predictable than the ones published by CTB/McGraw-Hill—taken by 1.2 million kids take annually—whose dubious scores have abetted decisions on student promotion, staff bonuses and school closings. They may now count for 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

He and Tisch spoke of establishing higher standards of proficiency in 2010. And last year’s re-calibrated tests showed a plunge in the number of students scoring at or above grade level.

But even before those scores came out, Steiner pointedly refused to hold anyone accountable for the vast harm caused in prior years by New York’s test-spun numerology. When he took office, Steiner had been eager about reform. You’d think he would have called for a clean start, beginning with a forthright probe of what had gone wrong.

Instead, the strategy of Tisch and Steiner was to get past the immediate crisis, assuring us that 2010 would usher in meaningful testing and a better future. In the process, they’ve allowed CTB–which continues to be awarded the contract even after its 2009 test product was discredited–to perpetuate its multi-million dollar, ten-year monopoly and have swept other testing dirt under the rug.

Several issues have never been addressed:

–Why have SED administrators been protected, given their misleading reporting and defense of inadequate testing from 2006 to 2009?
–Why did the state’s technical advisors insist that cut off scores on the tests were lowered because the items had gotten harder—when they had evidence to the contrary?
–Who’s responsible for the field testing procedures that yielded inaccurate data on which the exams were built, and what’s been the penalty?
–Who set the 2009 cut points so low that kids with serious academic problems could guess their way out of this category, depriving them of needed support services?

Those are questions about the past that have been ducked. But the state of the latest tests also demands scrutiny. 2010’s exams were advertised as more rigorous. Analysis of these instruments reveals the items were easier than ever. SED decided to raise the cut scores—guaranteeing fewer kids would be deemed proficient—and market this as setting tougher standards. Requiring students to correctly answer a higher number of easy questions is different from actually asking them challenging questions or raising standards.

What about the future? National learning standards, a core curriculum and tests aligned with them are awaited as a remedy to the state-administered, dumbed down tests inflicted on education in response to No Child Left Behind’s demands for annual progress. But we’re years away from refining those models. Meanwhile, we’re also being lured into the brave new world of computerized testing—the next half-baked panacea private companies are anxious to profit from.

Two years ago, the Regents and Steiner should have called for a moratorium on defective testing, not its extension. They know our students have been the victims of a damaging program. Any investigation of the responsible parties will likely implicate SED, CTB and the Board in the disaster.

As it is, we now await the 2011 scores. If the results come out before he leaves office, Steiner’s closing act might be to announce how the new measures are giving us a more accurate picture of educational achievement. But that’s unlikely to be true. Will King be able to end the destructive testing cycle?

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