Five Reasons Why NJ Will Once Again Fail to Resolve the Testing Issue

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Gary Larson  – Far Side Gallery 4

NOTE:  I recently responded to articles in our local press.  The articles dealt with the seemingly endless debate here in NJ about the use of PARCC as both a graduation hurdle and a tool for teacher evaluation.  As I developed my response, it became increasingly clear that the issue was much larger than ‘to PARCC’ or ‘not to PARCC’. So, while this piece focuses on testing, the reasons that I’ve shared here suggest why, at least in part, we fail to effectively address the entire process of school reform.

Recent articles in New Jersey Spotlight and an editorial in NJ.com (“On PARCC, Murphy is failing the neediest kids”) continue the discussions concerning the New Jersey administration of the PARCC high stakes assessment for New Jersey children. Once again we are offered the opportunity to reflect on why such discussions inevitably fail to resolve anything of significance.  Make no mistake, however, these, too, will fail to resolve the issues involved in our continued attempts to do the wrong thing better.  Here are five reasons why this will happen.

  1. We don’t know what we believe. Or who to believe.

We live in a time of changing “stories”… a time when many of the stories with which we were raised no longer seem to apply.  In education one of these stories goes something like this… Go to school.  Study hard. Get good grades. Go to college.  Get a good job.  Have a secure future.  Ask a parent of a young college graduate with a $100,000 or more in debt and no job in their field of study if that story is working for them. For an increasing number it is not.  But the story persists.

We are between beliefs in our understanding of school and learning.  We’ve had decades of reform following Sputnik and A Nation At Risk.  The story was that better, more rigorous standards and equally challenging assessments would “solve the problem” of “underachievement”.  But what do we do when our belief in such strategies is shaken by disappointing results, relatively flat academic performance, significant increases in costs, and continued gaps in achievement? Do we revisit our beliefs to see if we’re headed in the right direction? No. We hang on to old beliefs and we get trapped in what Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff call the confusion of trying to do the wrong things right versus doing the right thing.

The path to the right thing begins with learning and

  1. We refuse to learn.

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy

We remain committed to hurling beliefs at one another as if they increase in validity the louder we shout them. There are 50 states that have a mandate to evaluate their students.  There are now 2 that remain committed to the use of PARCC.  Why is that so? How do we discern this?  Not by continuing to provide forums for folks who have refined their talking points more than their listening skills.

How can we grow in McLuhan’s “insight and understanding”?  Maybe those charged with making decisions about the ways in which testing can/should inform and improve student learning might begin to learn more about testing and focus less on winning the testing debate.

For a place to begin this process, Daniel Koretz, a testing proponent and Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at Harvard University offers a highly readable and informative work, The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better..

  1. But we’re more committed to solving proxy problems than to thorough problem analysis.

We, as a society, have grown to expect and demand quick solutions.  We have no patience for the time it takes to analyze a situation thoroughly to find deep/root causes.  We place great value in leaders who propose quick, aggressive solutions.  When such solutions inevitably fail, we focus on the assignment of blame, refusing to revisit the wisdom of the original solution or the accuracy of the original problem definition.

The current iteration of the testing debate will fail because we continue to have no idea or willingness to confront what all previous large scale assessments have revealed to us in large font… such assessments reflect the socio-economic status of the test taker far more accurately than the quality of instruction or the innate ability of the test–takers.  But poverty and racial divides are too big and too inconvenient to deal with.  Better to throw multi-million dollar testing solutions at the wall with little or no understanding of the folly of expecting all kids to reach identified levels of proficiency simply because they have lived the same number of years as their peers.

  1. Because sensible argument cannot compete with good theater.

“There are some stupid mistakes that only very smart people make, and one of them is the notion that a sensible argument seriously presented can compete with a really good piece of theater” — Laurie Penny in Longreads, Sept 2018

A quick review of the research on confirmation bias will reveal what we all know to be true.  We exist primarily in the echo chambers of our beliefs and these beliefs are less susceptible to alteration than we might like to admit. Regardless of our feelings about the direction of the current administration in Washington, it should be clear to most of us at this point that our (to us at least) logical arguments in support or opposition go largely unheard by those who hold the opposite positions.  Over time the talking points get more sophisticated and often better reasoned, all with limited impact.  Theater may not be in the form of high-energy protests or rallies.  Theater may be the convening of yet another group of “experts” or interest group representatives whose qualifications may reflect shared ignorance as much as shared knowledge.

  1. And we don’t want to

Perhaps the most important reason for the predictable failure of attempts to resolve the issue of large-scale assessment, its promises, its shortcomings, and its impact on learning is that the various participants see this as a win/lose contest.  Winning is critical… critical for the support base, critical for the political gain/damage, critical for testing companies, etc.  Interestingly enough, it is also critical for a group that may never have been represented in any such discussions… the students affected by these decisions.

The bottom Line

It is tragically ironic that, in the pursuit of measuring learning, we persist in demonstrating an unwillingness to make our own learning/understanding about testing the cornerstone of our deliberations.   Hurling beliefs at one another makes marketable theater and further demonstrates the doing wrong things right/doing the right thing distinction.

In an essay written in 2016 and posted on the Ackoff Center Weblog, Will Richardson offers a quote from an interview with Russell Ackoff …

“Peter Drucker said ‘There’s a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.’ Doing the right thing is wisdom, and effectiveness. Doing things right is efficiency. The curious thing is the righter you do the wrong thing the wronger you become…Almost every major social problem that confronts us today is a consequence of trying to do the wrong things righter.”

For those involved on either side of the “discussion”, positions have been repeated so frequently that they have become deep-seated beliefs, taking on moral implications.  Conversations continue to focus on adversarial positioning, a type of bargaining strategy that is based on the consequence of winning or losing.  As long as egos continue to be more important than thoughtful problem analysis and mutual acceptance of common interests, there is a predictable (and regrettable) end to this story. It will be a “doubling down” on trying to do the wrong thing better.

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