This issue of PILOTed interviews Sharon L. Nichols, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio. In 2005, Dr. Nichols and two associates examined data from 25 states on whether NCLB high stakes testing results in increases in learning. Further studies resulted in a book, Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools, which is published by Harvard Education Press.
MW: Can you give a 3 to 4 paragraph appraisal of the assessments prescribed by NCLB?
SN: Let me tell you how we talk about it in the book. Our message is that the use of tests as the only measure of effectiveness is causing serious damage to the education system at large. We are not anti-testing by any means. We are against testing if the only use of the test is to determine consequences; that is inappropriate.
There is a phenomena that we refer to as Campbell’s law described by eminent social scientist Donald Campbell which states, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” In short, high-stakes testing distorts human activity.
Guided by that general idea, we applied Campbell’s law to education. We looked at situations where the use of tests is the only indicator of effectiveness; we found hundreds of examples how the process of education becomes distorted.
MW: Can you provide an example? How does NCLB distort teaching? What should teaching be, and what is it becoming under NCLB?
SN: We document a lot of evidence of this distortion.
Basically, the test creates pressure to pass the test. The pressure varies widely from state to state: teachers can get bonuses, or they can get fired. Students can get denied promotion. And the goals, themselves, are impossible: how can there be one standard, and one set of competencies, that apply to everyone?
For teachers, this pressure becomes significant, especially in schools where students are starting off further behind. They are preoccupied by student test score performance. They get pressure from administrators to show that students are doing better on the test year after year. And, they want their students to be successful.
What happens is teachers abandon their own classroom decision-making in favor of any activity that will help students become successful on the test. One simple reaction is to replace “teaching” time with test preparation activities. That severely undermines students’ capacities to learn.
Teachers are using fewer project based activities, interdisciplinary activities. Studies in Colorado note teachers have reduced the amount of time they spend on interdisciplinary activities and things like field trips because it takes too much time away from test prep. the problem is that if students spend all their time practicing taking tests, we become more uncertain about what the test score reflects. Are they learning the material? Or are they becoming test takers?
Unfortunately what we see is that the people who are supposed to be helped the most by “No Child left Behind” and high-stakes testing are the very ones who are being hurt the most. Children of poverty do not start at the same place their more advantaged peers do and yet they are expected to perform the same on the same tests. Our work suggests that a disproportionate number of students of poverty are being harmed by the system.
MW: What research supports your appraisal, and what does it say?
SN: We have research from all over the country about this. there are thousands of anecdotal examples of the ways in which high-stakes testing is harming our children and our schools. The empirical work has mostly focused on whether the policy actually causes learning increases. Our study suggests this is not true.
MW: You conducted a study and published a paper on this in 2005, what’s changed since then?
SN: You can view that report here (http://epsl.asu.edu/high-stakes-testing.htm). The problems of high-stakes testing seem to be more widespread, there are more stories, there is more evidence, but nothing fundamentally has changed. We are not in every community, but it appears that abuses are more extensive and it is getting worse.
MW: What do you think happens if we just continue along the NCLB assessment path that has been laid out?
We will have a major crisis.
The testing is causing a dumbing down of the curriculum. This will cause some long term economic consequences, both to the economy and students. Drill and kill curriculum for the sole purpose of the test causes students to be less inquisitive, it discourages students from working with others. The testing thus de-emphasizes the skills needed by business, and it stunts student innovation.
We also find that the pressure of testing is leading to higher dropouts. Many students are dropping out, and it appears more than before NCLB. Students drop out because they cannot pass the test, they can do many of the things required of them, but just cannot pass the test. Some dropouts are on the cusp, but are not good test takers, so they would be denied a diploma, so they just drop out, which has serious costs.
There is both an economic and a moral cost.
MW: Are these just issues of implementation that will get worked out over time?
That depends on what aspect we are talking about. High stakes testing should be stopped immediately. There is no good way of implementing high stakes testing, period. High stakes testing is problematic and the root cause of many problems as we describe in our book.
The idea of accountability is not terrible. Because accountability emerges from the business community, and because their voices are pretty loud, most citizens, including educators, agree it is a good thing. But high stakes testing, the current mechanism used to accountability purposes is extremely problematic. We need to find alternatives.
Children are not commodities. Schools are not input output factories. We cannot directly transfer practices from business to schools. But, we could implement some other version of assessment. We still need to find out what schools are doing, what children are learning, and what we can do to improve.
Education is a complicated system; schools are embedded in communities, and communities impact schools. There is plenty of data, and many others have talked about inequities in communities, and the role poverty plays in where children are when they enter school.
It is not reasonable to compare a child who has been read to all her life to one without any books in her home. These two types of children do not start off equally. We must acknowledge community-based differences, and as part of the effort to find out what schools do well and what they can improve on.
This requires will, time, money, and study.
Tests cannot be used as the only measure of how schools are doing. It distorts the process so much that the test scores are meaningless, we do not know what the test scores mean, does it just mean that students have learned to pass the test?
MW: Forget about consensus building or a process of figuring out what to do. Let’s say you became Secretary of Education and you were granted the ability to increase federal education funds by 15%. What would you hope to accomplish in your first year?
SN: I would talk to as many educators as I could. I’d send out teams of trusted advisors to hold town halls to speak with administrators, teachers, and students to understand what are the challenges facing children and teachers. I would get a comprehensive understanding of what it is like to teach, and what it is like to learn in this day and age.
Teachers voices are alarmingly absent from current policy.
I would start trying to brainstorm,
I would stop high stakes testing immediately. The end result is not to stop testing. People might still engage in a test once a year, but then we would look at the data and make decisions that are helpful.
We would do away with prep time for tests.
In England, they have a reporting system built around an inspectorate. An inspectorate is an independently body of people trained to asses the conditions of a school. They observe teachers. They talk to students. They interpret test data at that school. They interpret the contextual elements of that schools, like is there a computer for each student, are there any computers at all, are ceiling tiles falling down while students are trying to learn, are there enough books, what are the conditions facing students and teachers in that school.
An inspectorate could not only make improvement recommendations, but they could also share with the community all the things a school is doing right. What a refreshing change of pace it would be to receive a public accounting of a local school that starts off with, “here is what the school is doing well….” We don’t ever hear of what is going right. How hard teachers are working, the collaborative nature of adults, the time spent brainstorming ways to reach children. Nor do we hear the stories of students who are getting A’s even when they have to go home to abusive environments.
I’d make this report available to the community, not just policy makers. We need to produce some good will, which will encourage the community members to become involved.
MW: What about the idea of national standards, will that help?
SN: It sort of depends on what they look like and how specific they are. We have to have standards like, “every school should have highly qualified teachers.”
I don’t like the idea of detailed national standards. Having 130 bullet points on what you have to learn in math is overkill.
Different communities require different skills. To say everyone has to know a certain amount at a certain time is too restricting.
I am guided by the question of, what function do standards serve? If they are guideposts, information to help administrators and teachers make decisions, they are appropriate. If they drive a robotic-like curriculum that is the same to everyone across the nation, then they water down education, undermine teacher professionalism, and inhibit student creativity and innovation.
What if students have a question that is interesting but not in the standard? It could be an important question; and it could lead to learning, but it would be stopped because it is not in the standard. What if the standard was about the battle of Gettysburg, but a class became interested in the battle of Vicksburg? Is Gettysburg important? Yes. Could students learn more from a creative, innovative exploration of Vicksburg than from memorizing which general led which attack at Gettysburg?
There is some truth to this being an issue of power and control. If someone is determining what should be taught, and how, and when, the teacher population becomes reliant on someone else determining what to teach. This demotes teachers’ instincts; it is not celebrating the authentic interests of teachers.
My other research area is motivation. Everything in high stakes testing is completely against how to trigger motivation. When you rely solely on external motivations for schools, it demotivates students from learning. What you get are dependent, resentful learners.
Many students know on day 1 that they are going to pass the test. What do you think external motivation says to them? Get by with a b or c; just pass the test, and you go on to high school. They don’t do anything, or they do very little. Is that the environment we want? If you’re good enough, do as little as possible?
MW: Your book is titled, Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools. Who does the book appeal to?
SN: The book appeals to anyone who is interested and concerned about education, the future of education, and the next generation. It is accessibly written and provides a human face to what is going on in the classroom.
We wrote it for parents, educators, and we hope policy makers. We show what is happening, and we want to promote a dialog into what we should be thinking about in terms of accountability. We need accountability to evaluate effectiveness, but we should not rely on a single indicator for determining that.
You can view a description and purchase the book from Harvard Education Press, here (http://www.hepg.org/hep/Book/62).