Monday, May 31, 2004
Kill the Messenger:The War on Standardized Testing
by Richard Phelps
by Nicholas Stix
A week doesn’t go by, without a mainstream media story on the “horrors”
of standardized testing, in which reporters tell of widespread testing error, of how testing is causing students to drop out of school, or of how testing is causing an epidemic of cheating.
The story behind the stories is that the relative prevalence of testing error is infinitesimal, that columnists stressing the dropout factor are mindlessly parroting a myth invented by radical Boston College teacher education professor Walter Haney, and that cheating is more easily prevented on standardized tests than with their alternatives.
For years, the American public has been force-fed a diet of test-bashing by the establishment media, the teachers’ unions, professors of teacher education and well-financed anti-testing organizations, in which test-bashers have twisted existing data, ignored contrary data, and fabricated data outright. So reports Richard Phelps in his brilliant, new book, Kill the Messenger: The War on Standardized Testing.
As Phelps tells it, Kill the Messenger “is as much about censorship and professional arrogance as it is about testing.” The author contends that the teachers and administrators who control the public education monopoly, and the teacher education professors who monopolize teacher credentialing, oppose standardized testing in order to shield themselves from public scrutiny and accountability. “… it is disturbing, because school administrators and education professors represent a group of public servants who should serve as models to our children. We pay them high salaries and give them very secure jobs. Then, we give them our children. Is just a little bit of external, objective evaluation of what they do with our money and our children really asking so much?”
Influential test-bashers include Walter Haney, Linda McNeil of Rice University, Harvard’s Howard Gardner, University of California president Richard Atkinson, writers Alfie Kohn and Nicholas Lemann, the privately funded organization, Fair Test, and the taxpayer-funded organizations, CRESST at UCLA, and Boston College’s CSTEEP. (CRESST stands for “National Center for Research on Evaluations, Standards, and Student Testing”; CSTEEP stands for “the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy.”)
Phelps argues persuasively that objective, external, standardized, high-stakes testing is the best measure we have of how much students have learned, and how well teachers, curricula, and textbooks have done their respective jobs. The tests give us a tremendous amount of information on children’s academic strengths and weaknesses, so that we may help them improve. “Objective” is in contrast to classroom grades, which are increasingly subjective, politicized, and inflated. “External” means that school officials with a stake in the results do not control examination grading. “Standardized” means that a test “is given in identical form and at the same time to students in more than one school, and all the results are marked in the same way.” And “high stakes” means that test scores have consequences, so that the test serves as a powerful motivational tool. Alternatives such as classroom grades and “portfolios” of work lack the advantages of standardized testing, while being much more vulnerable to manipulation and cheating.
Phelps sets out test-bashers’ strategies and tactics; presents case studies of campaigns against the SAT, the Texas teachers’ literacy test, and the 2000 October Surprise attack on the “Texas Miracle” of educational progress under then-Gov. George W. Bush; media coverage; the “benefits of testing”; legitimate concerns about testing; and “alternatives to standardized testing.” Two appended glossaries translate test-bashers’ Orwellian jargon, and explain testing terms.
Richard Phelps drives through the armies of test-bashers like Patton’s Third Army cutting through France in the summer of ’44, cataloguing and refuting the misrepresentations they have spread.
For instance, test-bashers have for years insisted that American students are tested more than students in any other country, and that high-stakes, standardized testing causes dropout rates to increase, and educators to “teach to the test.” And liberal reporters eat this stuff up!
Phelps scolds the test-bashers for being too lazy to make a couple of calls abroad, to determine that their assumption is false. “Virtually every other industrialized country in the world tests its students more, and with greater consequences riding on the results, than we do.” He shows how education professor Walter Haney inflates dropout figures by stealthily employing a highly irregular definition, whereby he counts anyone who fails to graduate on time with his age group as a “dropout,” and then leaps to the baseless conclusion that the fictional dropouts were caused by standardized testing. Noting that it would be irresponsible not to teach to the test, Phelps responds to that charge, “So, they should instead teach material that the test will not cover? They should ‘teach away from the test’?”
Kill the Messenger could have been called “Coloring Education News,” since it does for education reporting what William McGowan’s Coloring the News did for journalism in general. Phelps’ analyses of media bias, including statistical breakdowns showing how the media let test-bashers dominate the testing debate, provide a quantitative model for media criticism. He also reports on the undisguised hostility some reporters and producers show scholars who fail to tow the party line. (Full disclosure: Phelps praises my education reporting.)
Phelps suggests that the most insidious test-bashers of all, are those who claim to support testing – just not any existing test. For such people, “more research” is always required. “Given all the variety and all the experience, anyone who cannot be satisfied by any current testing program can never be satisfied with any testing program.”
Ultimately, Phelps writes, “Most of the attacks on student testing, indeed, are attacks on measurement – of any kind – or, more specifically, any measurement made by groups ‘external’ to the group being measured.” Phelps cautions the reader, however, that any test is only as good as the curriculum and instructional theory it is tied to.
Written largely in a conversational style, notwithstanding its staggering scholarship, Kill the Messenger casts much needed light on a public policy issue that affects us all, but which those holding the public’s trust have kept shrouded in darkness. As Phelps argues, “the debate on testing … is part of a war for the control of our country’s schools … The booty is our children’s futures. The stakes are enormous.”