Sorry, Michelle Rhee, but our obsession with testing kids is all about money

Rhee, Nicholas Kristof and Arne Duncan exaggerate test results again to advance an ugly anti-public school agenda

Published December 6, 2013 12:44PM (EST)

Michelle Rhee                         (AP/Jeff Chiu)
Michelle Rhee (AP/Jeff Chiu)

When President George W. Bush asked the American people, back in 2000, "Is our children learning?" left-leaning people everywhere got a big hoot out of it. Little did they know that the joke was on them.

The question not only revealed the inability of our national leaders to manage something as basic as English grammar. It reflected the incoherent means to which American education policy, with the support of Democrats and Republicans alike, would ultimately go about attempting to assess the impact of the country's entire schooling enterprise.

Beginning with No Child Left Behind in 2001, an elaborate scheme to answer the question, "Is our children learning," rolled out wave after wave of various assessments across every state in the country.

Results from national diagnostic tests, such as the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which had previously never made much of a splash outside of academic circles, suddenly became throat-clutching events anticipated with days of media buildup.

Results from obscure international assessments – Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) – suddenly became crucially important "data" for determining the nation's potential prosperity.

The results of all these exams have now become fodder for nearly every politician and government official to make grandiose claims that their campaign or their administration is "for the kids."

Economists use the test results to build elaborate spreadsheets to justify all sorts of pronouncements about "what works" in education. And a parade of Very Serious People in news shows and symposiums obsess over pinhead arguments based on testing "output."

Are all these assessments useless? Of course not. As a diagnostic tool, each may or may not reveal something worthwhile.

As University of Virginia professor Daniel Willingham recently observed, "Just as body temperature is a reliable, partial indicator of certain types of disease, a test score is a reliable, partial indicator of certain types of school outcomes."

But that's not how the assessment results are being talked about in the media or how they're being used to leverage policy and change.


Now, hardly a week goes by when another data dump from testing of some kind doesn't send Americans scrambling to see how our country, state, city, school or child is doing academically.

Last month, the most recent results from the NAEP provoked an array of media types – from "reform" enthusiasts like Michelle Rhee to all-purpose pundits like Nicholas Kristof – to make huge rhetorical overreaches using NAEP results to advance their opinions.

This week, the latest round of PISA results came across the transom, and a media feeding frenzy ensued.

"U.S. Test Scores Remain Stagnant" rang the alarm from the education writer at the Huffington Post. The headline at U.S. News and World Report exclaimed, "American Students Fall in International Academic Tests, Chinese Lead the Pack." (Note to USN editor: The "Chinese" in the case of PISA are students from one city only, Shanghai, which represents an insignificant sample of the Chinese national population.)

Arne Duncan Dissembles

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took the release of the PISA scores as an opportunity to use the resources from his own department, funded by the American taxpayer, to choreograph a mostly negative P.R. campaign aimed at public schools and educators.

The point of Duncan's campaign was to use "stagnating" PISA scores to spur urgency for a political agenda. He worked with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which conducts the PISA, and other groups to stage PISA Day, a media event that spent most of five hours (!) arguing that the PISA scores were reasons to get behind policies that have been branded as "reform."

At one point in the discussion, moderator Amanda Ripley noted that none of the top scoring nations from the PISA were particularly keen on ideas the Duncan platform espouses, such as using student test sores in teacher evaluations and promoting more charter schools as a competitive parallel school system.

Duncan replied with anything but a straightforward response, hauling out familiar talking points about the need for "accountability for student learning."

Has anything from PISA caused you to question what you've been promoting, Ripley asked? Duncan replied with more bromides about the need to "raise standards," yet another conclusion in no way supported by PISA (or any other research for that matter).

Michelle Rhee Pours On More Rhee-form

Michelle Rhee took to the pages of Time to use the PISA scores as an opportunity to scold Americans about settling for "mediocrity."

"America needs to hit bottom – 34th out of 34 – before we’ll truly embrace reform," Rhee suggested – "reform" being, of course, the policies she helped implement in Tennessee and Washington, D.C.

She claimed, "The countries that are excelling academically are doing similar things. Setting high standards for all students. Investing in teacher effectiveness. Ensuring accountability at every level." None of which is true.

By "standards … effectiveness … accountability," what Rhee means, of course, is more emphasis on her reform agenda of assessing schools, teachers and students with high-stakes test scores – not at all an agenda uniformly accepted by top-scoring nations.

Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg corrected her on a blog site at the Washington Post, noting that Finland's PISA scores are routinely at or near the top, yet "the Finnish approach to educational policy has stood in direct opposition to the path embraced by the United States."

It's the Diagnostics, Stupid

At the Atlantic, Jordan Weissman observed, "U.S. teens have tended to botch these sorts of tests ever since the 1960s … Which raises a question: If we've been so bad at these tests for so long, why worry now? In the last 30 years, our growth hasn't lagged other developed countries. Our allegedly underdeveloped American minds still managed to build the Internet."

Indeed, Weissmann noted, "Some have gone so far as to suggest that an over-emphasis on test-taking could harm an economy."

Yet, "none of this is to say we should entirely ignore assessments like PISA," Weissmann concluded.

Like Dan Willingham's analogy to a thermometer, standardized tests of any kind – from international assessments to end of year exams for individual students – can be useful diagnostic tools for uncovering more "serious issues" than mere rankings.

Regarding PISA, for instance, virtually no one commenting about what the tests may have revealed, other than Dana Goldstein at Slate, bothered to look at what's actually on the test.

Similarly, standardized tests given in American schools are implemented in a way that provides absolutely nothing diagnostically significant to the people whom the tests affect most. Schools are not privy to the exam questions, teachers don't get to see the results until months after the test was given (indeed, often after the students are no longer in their classes), and parents and students get no significant feedback other than raw scores with peer or grade level comparisons.

When it comes to the way the media talk about tests and how policy leaders use test results in decisions, nothing beyond mere ranking and spin ever seems to enter the discussion.

In fact, the whole question of how test data of any kind fits into the policy-making process has a $1 trillion answer.

The Big Money in Student Testing

Last month, global consulting business McKinsey & Co. published a report concluding that the market for data in education from both public and private sources represented a new business venture worth between $900 billion and $1.2 trillion in annual economic value worldwide, about a third of it in the United States.

As reported in Education Week, the report contends that more "open and transparent" data on students' academic performance and backgrounds would lead to multiple advantages – including improved instruction, more efficient administration, and better "matching" of students to higher education and employment – that represent billions of dollars in "added economic value in education."

One such system has indeed already rolled out, called inBloom, with the blessings and support of the U.S. Department of Education and the financial backing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Already, inBloom has created enough concerns among parents to cause school districts in Colorado and Chicago to dump their contracts and pushed parents in New York City to file a lawsuit.

Value for Whom?

Who provides the "value" in such a data system, undoubtedly, are the students themselves who have their personal and demographic information loaded into the system and their test results constantly open to the scrutiny of others.

But who reaps the value of such an arrangement is not well understood. Once students' academic information becomes essentially available, it's not at all hard to imagine it becoming the subject of financial speculation at any scale.

In fact, a recent blog post, again at Education Week, by an analyst for an education venture fund explained exactly how that sort of speculation would work at the individual student level. "Why can't I invest in 20% of the future earnings of a first-year Harvard Law student?" he asked. "Now what about the high school junior from Hunts Point that works two jobs to help pay rent that just got an 800 on her Math SAT? … And the nine-year old from Odessa that just aced the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR®) Reading section?"

Of course the answers to these "why can't" questions are obvious: Because what if the investor suddenly decides to pull out or sell the shares to someone else? And what about all those students who aren't such attractive "investment targets"?

But the main point is that the market for test scores has in effect turned student learning – and by extension, the students themselves – into a commodity. This makes test scores the ends in and of themselves for speculation of all kinds – whether from media bloviating or on the floor of trading houses on Wall Street.

Testing's Place on the Balance Sheet

Further, test data feed decision making among policymakers intent on using an economic model rather than an academic one to determine policy.

Traditionally, the “value” of education has been calculated in terms of what it means to a child’s personal well-being and the future of the country. But shortsighted policymakers have decided they want a value proposition that shows payout in the here and now.

With the costs of education – mostly physical plant and personnel – entered on one side of the balance sheet, business-minded policy leaders need “revenue” to show on the other side.

So "reform advocates" decreed that student scores on standardized tests would define the learning “output” that schools would be accountable for. And all of a sudden everything monetarily related to schools – operations budgets, teacher salaries, classroom costs, government funds, grant money – could be related to a test score output.

Now standardized test scores are the “currency” of education that enables all sorts of resource swaps that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

With something on the revenue side of the balance sheet (test scores), venture capitalists can “flip” student test scores into a speculative market. And all sorts of “reform” schemes and start-ups – from starting charter schools to lowering teacher salaries to closing schools – could be rationalized on the basis of test scores.

It's About the Values, Stupid

What get lost in this whole lousy scheme are the goal of real learning and the authentic purpose of education.

Back to Dan Willingham, in another post, who said the purpose of education is to change the world, "to make it more similar to some ideal that we envision."

Thus, education "must entail values, because it entails selecting goals." (his emphasis)

"We want to change the world – we want kids to learn things – facts, skills, values. Well, which ones?"

Right now, governed by an "Is Our Children Learning" policy, the answer to that question is unlikely to be found in the next test results.

By Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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