Photo courtesy of Learning Matters

John Merrow Gets It Wrong on Testing: Any education reporter or editorialist worth his salt has to admire the work of broadcaster John Merrow. But in his interview last week with Mother Jones, Merrow ended up embracing the wrongheaded view of so many education traditionalists when it comes to standardized testing. Argues Merrow: “No Child Left Behind has done a great deal of damage… Testing is largely punitive. It’s a “gotcha” game. We are disempowering teachers.”

Apparently Merrow hasn’t talked to the architect of No Child, Sandy Kress. If Merrow spoke to Kress, or read his study on accountability, he would find that the use of consequential accountability — and the increase in the use of standardized tests used in holding states accountable — has led to positive improvements in student achievement. Certainly not enough given the extent of the nation’s education crisis; but without testing, the harsh light on the low quality of teaching and curricula in American public education would have not been exposed to the harsh light of scrutiny needed to force states to begin addressing the underlying issues. But, of course, Kress is going to be biased toward his own policy baby. One can also cite Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — no fan of accountability federal accountability— who admits that standardized testing and the consequential accountability built upon it (along with other forms of accountability measures and the small number of reforms put in place this past decade) have led to improvements in student achievement.

Meanwhile Merrow’s argument that testing is punitive is also not even close to true. While more states are using value-added measurement of test score data in teacher evaluations, the reality is that for most of the past decade, the idea of testing as punishment (also known as the myth of high-stakes testing) has been anything but. Remember, until the past two years, most states banned the use of test score data in teacher evaluations. From the perspective of students, testing has hardly been punitive at all. As I reported four years ago, eight of the 26 states currently offering or rolling out exit exams require students to actually pass the tests in order to graduate. Given that North Carolina and Tennessee will no longer withhold diplomas based on poor performance on high school exit exams by 2012, there are actually fewer high stakes.

The reality is that standardized tests, along with formative (or diagnostic) tests, are powerful tools that can help teachers and schools improve student achievement. Dropout Nation has discussed how districts could use the data in assigning high-quality elementary teachers in given subjects to work specifically on learning needs. For teachers, standardized tests can help give them get the kind of objective evaluations they deserve in order to know how well they are doing in student achievement, and serve as the first steps in looking at the areas in which they can improve instruction. The tests also serve as useful information on student progress that can help teachers

Add in standardized tests with formative diagnostic tests, and teachers can diagnose student learning needs and address them in meaningful ways. And with the new array of standardized tests being developed by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the SMARTER/Balanced Coalition, which will allow for better reading assessment, teachers will have even stronger tools for their work. If anything, American public education doesn’t rely enough on standardized testing or data in general. Thanks to the anti-intellectualism endemic in education — including the tossing around of such terms as “corporate” without any understanding of what they actually mean — the very idea that data can be useful in improving student achievement and improving the quality of teaching is treated with disdain and utter contempt. Such disdain for data is not only uncommon in other sectors — including marketing and even news reporting — but would actually be given look askance. Data is the way through which we set goals, measure progress, diagnose problems and find solutions. And in education, we have spent far too many decades ignoring data to the peril of children.

What Merrow fails to consider is this reality: The real problem isn’t testing; after all, tests only reveal problems that have been longstanding but left unnoticed and addressed. One of the main problems is one to which even Merrow admits: “Teacher training is not very good.” Ed schools spend almost no time recruiting aspiring teachers for subject-matter competency, entrepreneurial ability (including, the ability to think through issues, develop solutions, and be leaders in classrooms, skills that are also necessary in other sectors), and empathy for children. Once aspiring teachers are brought in, ed schools do a terrible job of training them in reading and math instruction; far too many professors spend more time filling the heads of aspiring teachers with unproven theories on how to teach children than training them how to help kids memorize, retain and build upon knowledge. And ed schools are falling on the job when it comes to effectively analyzing and using data from standardized and diagnostic tests.

Certainly Merrow is right that we must “trust, but verify” what teachers do in classrooms. But you can’t verify without objective data that best shows teacher and student performance. Methods such as portfolio assessments are too subjective and far too easy to game for this purpose. Peer review is good at evaluating observable teaching activity, but is not good at monitoring and evaluating the success or failure of teachers in improving student achievement. Standardized tests are the best, most-objective measures of teacher and student progress. Arguing that there is too much testing, that it is somehow punitive and that it keeps teachers from doing good-to-great work is merely excusing failure.

But Merrow’s faulty thinking on testing is part of a larger problem in his view of the nation’s teacher quality crisis. From his perspective, the issue is that we need to make teaching a better job. This is certainly true. But he seems to think that making teaching a better job alone will largely solve teacher quality issues. The nation’s teacher quality crisis — an underlying cause of the education crisis — is a job problem, a people problem (far too many low-quality teachers who should have never been allowed in ed schools in the first place, much less classrooms) and a systems problem (including laggard teacher training and a teacher compensation regime that emphasizes seniority and degree attainment over performance). Making teaching a “better job” on its own will not lead to the recruitment of higher-quality teachers. And tinkering on the edges when it comes to the other aspects of the crisis won’t help either.

Merrow has plenty of interesting things to say and a great body of work upon which education reporters and editorialist should draw. But when it comes to testing and teacher quality, some of his conclusions are off-base.

EXTRA: Arne Duncan’s Gambit Isn’t Working: When you engage in a strategy that is will do little to advance your school reform agenda, you will pay with plenty of criticism. Which is what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is experiencing with his gambit to grant waivers to states from the accountability elements of the No Child Left Behind Act. Today’s announcement that he would allow states to evade responsibility for student achievement by avoiding the overly-exaggerated 2014 provision is meeting with the same catcalls from all sides that his effort has been receiving, especially from conservatives (including conservative reformers) who have called it an end run around congressional authority.  As Dropout Nation  has made clear (and as your editor points out in today’s column in The American Spectator) Duncan”s gambit isn’t reaching his goal — to get Congress to reauthorize No Child on the Obama administration’s terms. And it may end up hindering the very reforms he is trying to push through — and end up costing President a successful re-election bid.

Excuse-Making, Indianapolis Style: Indianapolis Public Schools is only beaten out by Detroit as the unenviable exemplar of persistent systemic academic failure. Six years ago, when I co-wrote the first major series on how states and school districts inflated graduation rates and hid the nation’s dropout crisis, Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined that IPS was “the first district I have seen where all high schools are doing this poorly.” And little has changed since then, with just 42 percent of all students passing both the math and reading portions of Indiana’s standardized tests in the 2009-2010 school year — and seven of its schools on the verge of being taken over by state Department of Education after six consecutive years of failure.

So when the Hoosier State’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Bennett, argued to the state board of education that IPS and other districts should be ranked based on their success or failure, the district’s superintendent, Eugene White, was none too pleased. From where White sits, not only shouldn’t the state take over its schools, it can’t even adequately rank its performance. Why? As White told The Indianapolis Star: “There is no district like IPS. For the people on the state board to not understand that causes me tremendous concern. It makes me believe there is too much subjectivity and not enough objectivity in people’s thinking.”

Somehow, White failed to mention that there is the Gary Community School district near Chicago, which, like IPS, is one giant dropout factory. Although smaller than IPS, Gary has a mostly-black student enrollment, most of who are poor and are on school lunch plans. There’s also the Hammond district near Gary, which is a mostly-Latino district that has poor students and is academically underachieving. And then there is the Fort Wayne district, which is a little more diverse (52 percent white with a growing Latino population), but, like IPS, serves mostly-poor students; while its graduation rate is much-higher than that of IPS, the fact that only half of its students overall (and 45 percent of eighth-graders) passed the state’s ISTEP-Plus exams pretty much makes clear that the district is no better than IPS.

If anything, IPS is not being singled-out for its systemic failure. It’s in good company, not only with districts in Indiana, but many urban districts throughout the country. The difference is that under White, systemic reform efforts have not been the norm. White has spent most of his seven-year tenure excusing failure, moving around shoddy school leaders such as former Arlington Community principal Jackie Greenwood (now overseeing the district’s high schools), tossing out reform-minded charges such as former John Marshall Middle School Jeffery White, and promoting nepotism. He spent almost no time overhauling the district’s curricula and operations, promoting good-to-great teachers working in the district, and championing charter schools (something White’s former colleagues, including now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in Chicago, Tom Payzant in Boston and Joel Klein in New York City have done with success). All in all, White has much of a failure as a superintendent as I predicted he would be when he took the job.

These are the times when one wishes the Hoosier State had an emergency financial manager law similar to that in Michigan that a smart, savvy state leader such as Bennett could use to render White and IPS’ school board useless and toothless. The kids who are forced to attend the district’s failure mills deserve much better than what White and his team have wrought.

Teachers’ Pension Watch, Cali Department: At this moment, California’s state legislature is considering a bill to end the practice of “spiking”, or greatly increasing the final five years of salary used in calculating payouts from the state’s Teachers Retirement System. The [bill, proposed by state Sen. Joe Simitian, is driven by strong, laudable reporting from the Sacramento Bee‘s Melody Gutierrez and Phillip Reese: Their reports have revealed that the number of CALSTRS retirees earning six-figure sums annual annuity payments (especially among principals, superintendents and central office bureaucrats, who make up half of the people earning such sums) has increased by a seven-fold since 2005. What would happen under the law is that an audit would be triggered whenever the salary of a future CALSTRS pensioner at retirement age increases by 25 percent in a five-year period. Unfortunately, the law would only apply to those joining CALSTRS when they join school staffs.

Naturally, the state’s superintendents association is strongly opposed to the bill, while the state’s National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates want to water it down so as to be useless. What is amazing is that CALSTRS itself is also lobbying state legislators to render the proposed law toothless, only allowing an audit to be triggered only when a salary hits $147,000 a year. This would essentially exempt many pension spike beneficiaries from scrutiny. But this isn’t shocking. CALSTRS board is largely made up of NEA and AFT members and the politicians (including state Supt. Tom Torkalson) who are dependent on their influence and campaign cash. The fact that CALSTRS has challenged few of the spiking cases — and that the agency sacked its pension analyst, Scott Thompson, who made noise about the problem in the first place — pretty much explains it all.

The lesson: CALSTRS can no longer be trusted to manage its own affairs. It’s time for a more-systemic reform of the state’s pension systems.