We Can't Do Right by Kids If White Liberals Like Tim Wise Are Confused About Testing

Jan 19, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Catlin Goodrow

There’s a lot of B.S. out there in the world about standards and standardized testing and it’s gotten to the point where for many liberals, misinformation is taken as truth. For example, what I heard anti-racist activist Tim Wise say recently on the  Rock the Schools podcast (listen to the episode at the bottom of this post). He said:
Most of the tests we’re using to evaluate excellence under federal educational law and various state laws are these standardized exams which are essentially guaranteed by definition to have 50 percent of the test takers perform under 50 percent…which means that we’re using tests that essentially produce failure on purpose so as to then say whether schools are failing.
That sounds terrible, even immoral…except it’s not true. A little background to battle the misinformation: Wise was referring to what are known as norm-referenced tests. As a kid, if you took a test and got back a report that said you were in the 99th percentile or the 62nd percentile, you took a norm-referenced test. These type of tests take all the test takers and basically rank them along a continuum from first to 100th percentile—it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the basic idea. As Wise points out, it would be a terrible way to evaluate schools, because some would always be failing. Luckily, that’s not how schools are evaluated. The critical tests almost all kids take (including the new Common Core-aligned tests) are what’s called criterion-based exams. Criterion-based exams are based on standards. If a standard says that a child should be able to identify important ideas in nonfiction, the test will ask a child to read some nonfiction and identify the important ideas. Wise pointed out that these are pretty good ways to assess what kids have learned. Theoretically then, if all children were getting wonderful, standards-aligned instruction, every kid in the state could get all the answers right on such an exam. Rainbows would appear in the sky and unicorns would dance on the school lawns; it would be a beautiful day. Of course, that’s not what’s happening. Many, many children are not being taught to read, write and count. That’s why it matters how we talk about tests. I’m not sure how Wise was misinformed about the type of tests students take most often. It’s not surprising, however, because Facebook, Twitter, and the dining room tables of middle-class liberals are exploding with falsehoods, big to small, about standardized testing and how it is destroying our educational system. It’s particularly insidious, because falsehoods and misinformation are infecting the discourse of people, like Wise, who want to further anti-racist work. Many of these well-meaning liberals believe that if standardized tests were removed from schools, education would somehow start working for all children. I have three responses to this, informed by my years as a teacher and teacher educator and coach.
  1. Thoughtful educators use standardized tests to elevate and guide their instruction. They don’t let the existence of standardized tests turn their classrooms into test prep factories.Take one fifth-grade teacher I coach.

    Her students were studying sensory language in poetry. The typical way to teach that standard might be to have kids find similes and metaphors in poems. If the teacher is creative, she might have the kids illustrate them. However, when we looked at the standardized (criterion-referenced) test, we found that what students were actually going to be asked to do was to analyze how sensory language impacted the author’s message. That’s a lot more interesting and rigorous than just finding some similes.

    A week after looking at the tests with the teacher, I walk into the classroom and I can’t find her. It turns out she’s sitting at a table having a rich discussion with her students. Kids were reading Langston Hughes’s “Dreams” and were analyzing how the images of barrenness and broken wings were impacting Hughes’s overall theme. That’s the kind of instruction that any parent would want for their kids (I hope), and looking at test samples helped the teacher to make it happen.

  2. Spreading misinformation about testing keeps us from having nuanced conversations that we really need to have.For example, how can we eliminate bias from tests?

    How can we ensure that we are not holding children of color to white norms, while still keeping teachers accountable for teaching kids to read, write and count? Are there more authentic ways to assess students that would also be cost-effective for states? How can we best grow teachers so that they are not under-teaching students year after year? All these things need to be discussed, but the current rhetoric around tests keeps us from talking about these topics that involve a lot of intellectual complexity.

  3. Most important to me: Spreading misinformation about testing threatens one of the primary data points that can be used by parents, teachers and lawyers to fight for the civil rights of children who have been under-taught.

    Every time I read one of those anti-test Facebook rants or Twitter threads, I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach because the voices of middle-class, mostly white, liberals are rising above the needs of children of color. Every time someone opts their middle-class kid out of an exam, they are impacting the validity of data that could be used in a court case to prove that students’ civil rights are being violated in their schools. Every time someone spreads the lie that teachers can’t do their jobs because of standardized testing, they give credence to forces who don’t believe that teachers should be accountable at all.

When it comes to talking about testing, maybe we can all take a lesson from the posters that some teachers have in their classrooms: Is what we’re going to say truthful? Is it helpful? And is it necessary? If not, we might need to step back so we can have a debate that is grounded in truth, is intellectually rigorous, and focused on the civil rights of children who have not been taught to their potential.
An original version of this post appeared on the Citizen Ed blog.

Catlin Goodrow

Catlin Goodrow is an alum of Teach For America and taught first and second grades. She has been working in teacher education and coaching since 2007. Her focus is on impacting teacher practice to create environments for children that are intellectually rigorous, culturally responsive, and critically conscious. Currently, she is doing this work as the Teacher Development Officer for Literacy at Houston's Promise Community Schools, a part of Neighborhood Centers Inc.

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