Fight The Power!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Dana Goldstein raises some serious questions and concerns in her American Prospect article ("Testing Testing") about the process of developing national academic standards. The process is dominated by three organizations--two (ACT and the College Board) with a proprietary interest in ensuring that assessments are a featured component of any final product.

The problem is that the initiative's co-signers aren't just state governments--they are also testing groups: Achieve, a nonprofit that advocates for more effective standardized tests; the College Board, maker of the SAT; and ACT, which administers a competing college-entrance exam. Right now, the College Board and ACT have little engagement with the K-12 education sector. They do, however, have ample experience creating and administering national exams. And there is little doubt that one goal of this national-standards process is to create standardized tests--not one single national test but perhaps two or three options from which states can choose.

As oligopolists, it makes total sense for the College Board and ACT to be eyeing, together, expansion into the immense K-12 assessment market. But given these testing companies' track records, it is worth asking if this is a wise idea. A number of studies have found SAT scores are far less effective than high school grades in predicting how well students will perform in college, and professors say standardized-test prep does little to teach students the research and critical thinking skills they will need at the college level. Because of these shortcomings, an increasing number of colleges--led by the giant University of California system--have made standardized test scores optional for admission.

It would be a shame if national education reform further cemented a system in which passing standardized tests is the goal of learning.

While others (including Dan Brown) have pointed out that only one classroom teacher has a seat at the table, Goldstein follows the money, so to speak. I am disappointed, although not surprised, that the national organizations leading this effort have basically turned it over to Testing, Inc. The corporate boards of both the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association are littered with representatives of the student assessment industry--ETS, McGraw Hill, and Pearson in the case of CCSSO; and ACT, the College Board, ETS, and Pearson in the case of NGA. To their defense, both CCSSO and NGA list these organizations directly on their respective web sites. As a former employee at NGA, I also can honestly say that their funding did in no way impact the substantive advice provided to the nation's Governors when I worked there. But does it provide these companies ready access to Governors and their senior staff at regular meetings? Sure. Does it raise questions about their role in this standards-setting process and create the appearance of bias? Absolutely.

Of the 29 slots on the mathematics and English-language arts Work Groups, 15 are taken by employees or affiliates of ACT and The College Board. Another seven slots are occupied by Achieve, Inc. (Some individuals serve on both Work Groups.) Of the remaining seven slots, two are filled by America's Choice, two by Student Achievement Partners, and single seats by a communications firm, a consultant, and a professor. In addition, 37 individuals serve on twin Feedback Groups for both math and English/LA standards. They are overwhelmingly higher education faculty. Of the 19 members of the math feedback group, 15 represent higher education with a single k-12 teacher in the mix. Of the 18 members on the English/LA feedback group, 14 are professors and there is one "instructional performance coach" from a public charter school as well.

The decision to cut k-12 educators out of the standards development process contrasts sharply with the rhetoric of President Obama and Secretary Duncan about including educators in the development of education reforms. Indeed, it would "be a shame" if Testing Inc. rode this gravy train to the (hopefully not) inevitable conclusion suggested by Goldstein's article. Of course, in the end, it is the product rather than the process that really matters. In this case, one can hope that some of the participants' potentially parochial and proprietary interests don't define the outcome or the intent of the entire effort. The standards should be developed based on what is best for students and how such standards can best be utilized by educators -- not to ensure their ease in being converted into multiple-choice tests.

Hat tip to TWIE.

UPDATE: See Education Week story (7/30/2009).