Apparently clueless superintendent discusses the wonders of testing: Nobody’s heading back to school yet. That said, we were struck by a puzzling essay in Sunday’s Washington Post—an essay from the head of the public schools in the state of Virginia.
More specifically, we were struck by the incoherence of the piece—the type of fuzziness which has dominated such writing for decades.
As she started, Virginia education secretary Anne Holton sounded an upbeat note, including a note from her own childhood. She said the state was determined to help its kids escape poverty—and she said the state’s testing program has helped:
HOLTON (7/12/15): As the 12-year-old daughter of then-Gov. Linwood Holton Jr., I helped integrate our formerly racially divided public schools here in Virginia. I have spent much of my working life focused on children and families at the margin, with full appreciation of the crucial role education can and must play in helping young people escape poverty and become successful adults.As you can see, Virginia’s statewide testing program carries a slightly unfortunate acronym. The statewide tests are known as the SOLs.
As Virginia’s education secretary, I oversee one of the strongest public education systems in the nation. Our graduation rates are well above average, and we outperform most other states on the Nation’s Report Card. A significant factor in our success has been the Standards of Learning (SOL) accountability system Virginia implemented in the 1990s. The rest of the nation followed in Virginia’s footsteps when No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2001. Virginia led again when we moved several years ago from assessing for minimum competency to our current college- and career-readiness standards, complete with rigorous, high-stakes testing.
After puffing Virginia’s statewide performance a bit (see below), Holton said the SOLs have been “a significant factor in our success.” Presumably, she refers in part to Virginia’s success in helping kids escape poverty.
According to Holton, the state of Virginia led the way in the move from “assessing for minimum competency” to what sounds like a more challenging type of “rigorous, high-stakes testing.” But as she continued, she seemed to paint a dystopian picture of testing in the state's schools:
HOLTON (continuing directly): Our successes have come with challenges. Parents, educators and students resoundingly tell us that our kids are over-tested and over-stressed. Eight- and 10-year-olds suffer through multi-hour tests that measure their endurance more than their learning. Barely verbal special education students whose individualized education plans are focused on independent living skills are instead drilled incessantly on a handful of facts for a modified SOL exam. Teachers are teaching to the tests. Students’ and teachers’ love of learning and teaching are sapped.It’s hard to know what to leave out as we highlight that paragraph.
According to Holton, kids in Virginia are “over-tested and over-stressed.” Eight-year-old children are “suffering through multi-hour tests that don’t really measure their learning.”
Special education students are “drilled incessantly on a handful of facts”—inappropriately so, Holton says—so they can pass their own SOLs. Meanwhile, teachers are “teaching to the tests.”
Students’ “love of learned is sapped.” Teachers have learned to dislike teaching!
According to Holton, these have been a few of the bugs—the “challenges”—as the state of Virginia has led the nation in the implementation of high-stakes testing! She makes it sound like these practices continue to this day.
The incoherence of this presentation seems apparent to us. It also seems familiar. The nation’s discourse about standardized testing has always been uninformed and incoherent. In our view, the incoherence, ignorance and technical incompetence can be found on all asides of our current debates about testing.
Personally, we can’t imagine running a low-income public school system without some sort of annual test. In the absence of some objective measure, it’s easy for systems to start fudging the facts about our achievement gaps.
Holton’s concerned about those gaps, as of course she should be. But this is what she says as she continues:
HOLTON (continues): Most troublesome, Virginia’s persistent achievement gaps for low-income students have barely budged. We have done a good job of identifying challenges but have been less successful in addressing them. An unintended consequence of our high-stakes approach is that it is now even harder to recruit and retain strong educators in our high-poverty communities. Many of the best opt instead for schools where demographics guarantee better test scores; too often fine teachers leave the profession.In the course of leading the nation for several decades, the state’s “persistent achievement gaps for low-income students have barely budged,” Holton says.
According to Holton, the state “has done a good job of identifying challenges.” But the state “has been less successful in addressing them.”
We’re not sure when we’ve read such an incoherent presentation. Unless it was the last time we read a piece by an education official about standardized testing in schools.
Having said that, let us make a basic point about “achievement gaps.” More precisely, let us make our same old point—the SOP!—about this important subject.
Let’s assume that Virginia’s gaps haven’t narrowed all that much. That doesn’t necessarily mean that low-income and/or minority kids aren’t doing better in reading and math.
It’s true! In Grade 8 math, Virginia’s black-white achievement gap hasn’t changed in recent years. On “the Nation’s Report Card” to which Holton refers—the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the gap was basically the same in 2013 as it was in 2000.
(For all NAEP data, start here, then use the NAEP Data Explorer.)
The gap is unchanged since 2000; that sounds like gloomy news. Here’s the good news:
The average score of black eighth-graders in Virginia rose by more than fourteen points during that 13-year period. And good lord! According to a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often compared to one academic year.
If we assume those NAEP data are basically valid, black eighth-graders in Virginia are doing substantially better in math. The achievement gap hasn’t been reduced for a deeply pernicious reason—white eighth-graders in the state have been scoring higher too!
What has been happening in Virginia? We can’t tell you that.
That said, do you get the idea that Holton knows? In all candor, we don’t. But this is the way such discussions have worked for as long as we’ve been following them, dating back more than forty years.
We live within a very primitive intellectual/journalistic culture. Due to the elaborate branding of newspapers like the Washington Post, this highly counterintuitive fact may be quite hard to discern.
Now for the bad or the good news: Here’s the bad news for Virginia—on a nationwide basis, black eighth-graders recorded even larger score gains in math over that 13-year period.
From 2000 to 2013, the average math score by black eighth-graders in Virginia went up by 14.07 points. Nationwide, the average score by black eighth-graders went up by 19.46 points!
As we’ve endlessly shown you down through the years, upbeat information like this never gets published or discussed, certainly not in the Washington Post. We doubt that Holton has ever heard such facts.
Instead, we keep hearing that nothing has worked in our public schools with their ratty teachers and their infernal unions. For reasons no “expert” has ever explained, our deeply primitive journalistic culture works in precisely this way.
Everyone agrees to this, including those “experts” who toil on your own tribal side. This is the world in which we all live.
Go ahead! You explain it!