Teachers’ unions have made the overuse of standardized testing one of their primary issues for many years now. They have ramped up the pressure, calling them “toxic,” among other frightening names.
Even the staunchest defenders of standardized testing admit they are limited in what they can tell us about students, teachers and schools. So how did we get to this point? Why do we insist on so much standardized testing?
I wouldn’t have expected American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten to come up with the answer, but she has done it, and continues to do it, every day since Election Day.
The president of the American Federation of Teachers wants critics to know that the 2014 mid-term U.S. election cycle was no failure for labor unions. Rather, it showcased voters’ dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama, she said Monday in New Orleans.
Moreover, in key down-ballot decisions that included minimum wage initiatives, teacher tenure and widely publicized contests for Jefferson Parish School Board seats, there were victories, Randi Weingarten said. “Yet you hear all around the country that what we stand for, we didn’t win,” she said.
To say that Weingarten’s reading of the election results is selective would be the understatement of the year. We can go to her own Tweets before the election to see where she spent her time and energy and what she claimed the issues were in those races.
She wrote about how Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn “believes in early childhood education.” She walked for Charlie Crist in Florida because “he understands you can’t measure everything with a bubble test.” She tweeted that working families stand with Alaska Sen. Mark Begich. It goes on – Mary Burke, Mark Schauer, Anthony Brown. Pinning all those losses on Barack Obama and claiming the union didn’t share in the defeats is delusion of the highest order.
The thing is, if your only source of information was Randi Weingarten, you might accept her interpretation of events as fact. After all, she campaigned, she traveled the country, her team polled and strategized and studied the issues. They’re the experts.
Fortunately, we have tons of other information. We have the election results themselves. We have exit polls and surveys. We have statistical gurus with comparative models from past elections.
Even with all that stuff, are the results still open to interpretation? Absolutely! But there are some undisputed truths. A candidate with fewer votes than his or her opponent lost. There is no alternate form of math we can employ to change that. The loser can’t present a portfolio of accomplishments from other campaigns. An incumbent who loses doesn’t get to remain in office for two more years on an improvement plan.
So while we were swamped with polling, focus groups, campaign ads, prognostications and punditry about who would win and why, we also ended up with data. Numbers. Registered voters pulling levers, punching cards or yes, filling in bubbles to choose candidates. And while those figures don’t explain why, or how, or whether there were mitigating circumstances that led to the result, we can still count, and protect ourselves from any claim that the real winner was the candidate from the Official Monster Raving Loony Party.
Standardized tests should serve a similar purpose.
I’m with the unions this far: Standardized tests cannot, do not, tell us all we need to know about student performance, teacher performance or school performance. For taxpayers, policymakers and parents, the input of school employees is absolutely essential for an understanding of what goes on, because we cannot be there in person.
But the reverse is also true. The input of school employees cannot, does not, tell us all we need to know about student performance, teacher performance or school performance. Their perfectly natural self-interest and protection of their livelihood can color their perceptions. Their desire for students to succeed can lead to misinterpreting whether they are succeeding.
It’s simple. Testing should never be used as proof that our schools are failing, or succeeding. They are invaluable, however, as a restraint on those who insist that losses are wins and hope that you will ignore any evidence to the contrary.