The sin of testing

Via Number 2 Pencil, here’s Teresa Heinz Kerry’s take on education policy:

In terms of education, Heinz Kerry blasted Bush’s No Child Left Behind reform measure as an unfunded mandate that has increased bureaucracy.

Schools have been hampered rather than helped by its mandatory assessments, she said, and some extracurricular activities are falling by the wayside as schools teach to the tests.

“Tests should be a measure that is enabling, not disabling,” Heinz Kerry said. “Tests that are a trap are sinful.”


You’ll be happy to know this: “Day One of his presidency, every child in America will have health care. Period,” Heinz Kerry said of her husband. Then he’ll guarantee catastrophic care to everyone, paid for by cutting administrative costs. Yes, that always works.

Elizabeth Edwards, campaigning in one of the other Americas, came out for giving more money to failing schools. Because that’s worked so well before.

About Joanne


  1. Well, that’s your spin to say the proposal is to give more money to failing schools. Schools are not businesses, never have been, never will be. They can be reformed, but not with simple-minded “accountability” measures of the sort mandated by NCLB.

    The National Endowment for the Arts recently published ReadingatRisk, noting that reading imaginative literature is down in all segments of the American populace. The testing mechanisms pressed on American schools by both states and the Feds focus almost entirely on transactional values and outcomes. The joy of reading is NOT what this particular group of reformers are about.

    It was Laura Bush who refused to let poets read at the White House, not the Democratic wives.

  2. John L wrote:

    They can be reformed, but not with simple-minded “accountability” measures of the sort mandated by NCLB.

    Does this mean there are complex-minded “accountability” measures that aren’t being mandated by NCLB and that those would reform schools?

    I’m going to guess “no”.

    I’m almost certain – you correct me if I’m wrong John L – that “accountability” is anathema to truly caring teachers who would only be handicapped by the rigidity imposed on the pedagogical process by high-stakes testing.

    So what would help, rather then hinder the reform of public schools if “accountability” is so barren of value?

    How about money!

    I know that when I’m feeling down there’s nothing like a couple of bushel-baskets of money to put the spring back in my step and the rosy glow of health back in my cheeks. I’m just sure that money would be just the elixir that would reform the heck out of public education. But how much?

    Now there’s a question, hey? Not an easy one to answer so let’s ask another question.

    What would be too much money? How much money would be more then the public education system could effectively use?

    $10,000 per student? Naw, that’s less then the Washington D.C. public schools spend and they suck.

    $15,000 per student? Hmmm. More then Washington D.C. spends but not by much and, like I wrote above, they suck.

    $20,000 per student? Now we’re starting to get into some serious money. Better then double the current national average. Would that do it, John L? Would that “reform” public education?

    But that wasn’t really the question I wanted answered.

    Would $20,000 per student be too much? Or would more money increase school effectiveness? How much money would be more then the public education system needs?

  3. John L says The joy of reading is NOT what this particular group of reformers are about.

    I doubt they’d argue with you. When someone can’t read at all, joy can wait for mastery.

  4. Zippy The Pinhead says:

    Reforming education against all odds
    George Will

    March 11, 2004

    WASHINGTON — Some critics of President Bush’s policy regarding elementary and secondary education have an alternative. It is: Let’s leave lots of children behind.

    The No Child Left Behind Act was passed overwhelmingly by the House (381-41) and Senate (87-10), but now liberals see that NCLB expresses essentials of Bush’s conservatism. Democratic presidential candidates have denounced it as a “federal intrusion” in state and local affairs — everyone knows how much liberals dislike such intrusions. Howard Dean, that perfect indicator of liberal passions, seemed to think that if tests reveal that many schools are failing their children, then drastic changes must be made to the … tests.

    Yes, the tests can be improved, and schools should have somewhat more latitude regarding disabled students and those whose first language is not English. But many complaints about NCLB are not about marginal or easily adjustable matters.

    Teachers unions recoil from accountability and resent evidence that all is not well, or that whatever is wrong cannot be cured by increased funding of current practices. But per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, is three times what it was 40 years ago, and the pupil-teacher ratio is 40 percent lower, yet reading scores are essentially unchanged.

    Middle-class parents, who are often mistakenly complacent about the quality of their children’s schools, dislike having their complacency disturbed. Twenty states denounce NCLB as, among other things, an “unfunded mandate” because they will need to spend money to rectify revealed shortcomings. But as they correctly insist, primary and secondary education — and their shortcomings — are primarily their responsibility: federal money is just 8 percent of total spending on grades K through 12. Besides, they can escape the NCLB intrusion if they are willing to forgo the federal intrusion they covet — $24.3 billion that flows from Washington for NCLB.

    Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, says that since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1994, states have been required to set standards and begin testing. But only 11 states were in compliance by 2001. Boehner says that between 1995 and 2001, whenever states said the requirement was too burdensome, Bill Clinton — he billed himself as a “real education president” but actually was the teachers unions’ president, which is different — gave them waivers.

    Twenty-eight percent of the nation’s public schools (about 26,000 of 91,400) have been found to have not made “adequate yearly progress.” To those who say it is excessive to require 100 percent of a school’s students to reach certain goals, Boehner responds: What number would you substitute? Ninety-five? “That means you can throw 5 percent of the children overboard.” His is the right spirit, but perhaps a, say, 95 percent requirement would allow reasonable latitude. There would, however, be pressure to lower it to 85 percent, on the way to …

    The danger is that standards have the perverse effect of triggering a “race to the bottom”: States such as South Carolina that set high standards — and had 62 percent of its schools fail to make mandated progress last year — will face sanctions as a result of high standards. Note this: States are required to set their own criteria for identifying “persistently dangerous” schools, from which any child will have a right to transfer. By California’s chosen criteria, the number of such schools in the state is: 0.

    Federal money — the 8 percent lever — is large enough to change what must be changed before anything else can be: the subject. Answering the question “Is Bush a Conservative?” in Commentary, Daniel Casse of the White House Writers Group notes that a major theme of Bush’s governance is “deconstructing domestic-policy monopolies (Medicare, Social Security, teachers unions, etc.).” And NCLB, although flawed, “has succeeded in changing the terms of debate.”

    “For years,” he writes, “`progress’ in education was measured by the expenditure of ever more federal dollars and the appeasement of Washington-based pressure groups.” Today the argument is about standards — how to measure and meet them — and how much autonomy schools should have in doing so. That is progress that will not be easily reversed, partly because it is popular with a constituency, the inner city poor, that Democrats often abuse in order to mollify a rival constituency, the teachers unions.

    An aide to John Kerry says, “He wouldn’t in any way back away from the commitment to accountability.” It took decades to defeat liberal resistance to welfare reform. Resistance to education reform is crumbling more quickly.

  5. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘You’ll be happy to know this: “Day One of his presidency, every child in America will have health care. Period,” ‘

    Apparently Jan 20th will be a busy day where first Kerry would abolish Congress, set up a program to administer this new entitlement, get the funding, higher all the new Fed workers to administer this program and distribute all sorts of Federal id cards to all children in the US. Period.

  6. Given the tone of Allen’s comments, I’m not sure he’s really interested in dialogue. Wanted to post here a couple days ago, but the log-in process didn’t work for me.

    And my answer is, yes, there are more complex ways of assessing educational outcomes than multiple choice tests. I’ve been working with them in writing for over 25 years. The program at our college put a writing exam in place about 1979. Initially fewer than 40% of students passed. Within 3 years, the number was up to 70%. The most recent result was 79%.

    This test process follows established testing procedures, but the design of the test was done collaboratively by faculty. The test is tied directly to the curriculum which is articulated with universities our students transfer to.

    However, after all these years, faculty feel the test has become too formulaic, so we are in the midst of a three year process to modify the assessment process to one involving writing portfolios, a more complex technique than the simplistic writing sample the SAT will add next March.

    As for the silly comments about money being bad for schools, I’ll simply note that I’ve never believed that spending money will solve any educational problem. What is needed is a sound curriculum, qualified teachers, and resources to allow those teachers to engage in constant, purposeful innovation. But then the citizenry has to have the will to tax itself to support quality schools. What I see a lot of is magical thinking:
    • let’s demand more of the schools, but let’s certainly not throw money at them;
    • there’s troughs of money wasted in administration and other budget black holes.

    I can assure you if there are any real black holes of funds, the unions will find them and negotiate over them.

    Improving schools requires the cooperation of teachers and citizens in an atmosphere where it’s clear that every effort will be made to support good teaching. But there’s a whole industry now of folks with “business” solutions that simply won’t work because kids are not widgets.

    Teacher bashing, union bashing, and schools bashing will always prove counter productive.

  7. John L wrote:

    Given the tone of Allen’s comments, I’m not sure he’s really interested in dialogue.

    Get used to it John. The public started losing patience with artful dodging over a decade ago and dialogue in this context has come to mean the wiser and better dictate to the dumber and baser.

    This particular round of calls for education reform isn’t like the previous ones where larding on a couple AP classes for a couple of years would satisfy the public until we went back to chewing our cuds. This time there’s real money at stake and from front to back the riders on the public education bus know it.

    Here’s a couple things that definitely aren’t going to work:

    • the implication that some unspecified amount of money more then is being spent is the minimum necessary before there can be any realistic expectations of creating “quality schools”.

    If you’ve got a number in mind then let’s hear it. Otherwise keep your vague implications to yourself.

    • the nonsensical notion that a vague, generalized “demand” for quality education is a vital element in achieving quality education.

    • holding out the tantalizing though always futile possibility of cutting waste.

    If the administration wastes money then, rather then try to make them more efficient, let’s just get rid of them. Two birds, one stone and this stone’s called “charter schools”.

    But there’s a whole industry now of folks with “business” solutions that simply won’t work because kids are not widgets.

    Are there? That may be true but it’s an odd complaint coming from someone who’s defending the industrial age institution of public education.

    Until pretty recently there hardly seemed to any part of the public education business that wouldn’t benefit from consolidation, centralization and business process refinement.

    The number of school districts has dropped by an order of magnitude in the name of “efficiency” although precious little of that has been in evidence.

    Just how is it that the public education system doesn’t treat kids as though they were widgets? It certianly isn’t in a careful regard for individuality. Nor is it in the flexibility shown for various strengths and weaknesses. Scheduling, personnel headcount and budgets always have precedent over educational achievment.

    If kids aren’t widgets you wouldn’t know it from the way they’re treated in the public education system.

    You know what you really have to worry about, John L? Not the teacher, union or school bashing. What you have to worry about is the day the politicians understand that charter schools can deliver education without the need for an administration. The day Mike in Texas’ politicians discover that there isn’t any need for a school administration above the level of the principle is the day public education as we know it comes to an end.

    See, once those politicians, and all the other competing constituencies, all the folks that want a wider spot at the public trough, discover that public education can get by quit nicely without a massive administration, that’s the day they start picking the school districts apart.

  8. Two comments:

    1. You choose the writing style of a jerk so I guess you can live with that.

    2. I could care less if the politicians eliminated administrators. In my ideal world, we’d have very small schools run by a committee of teachers and parents, with tax money allocated by formula not subject to layers of rake-off. Every kid would have wireless access to the web. And all the grand corporate schemers trying to get hold of the schools would be frozen out.