Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on the Cornel West NPR radio show recently, and I just wanted to point to one snip that I think clearly shows that problem we’re having when it comes to how we define learning. Here’s Duncan:
Secondly, on the test scores, it’s a really, really important point. We could spend a whole conversation on it. I think if test scores are the only things people are focused on, that’s a real problem. I think test scores should be part of a balance. We think “no child left behind” was broken. There was far too much reliance on a single test score. We wanted Congress to fix “no child left behind” and work in a bipartisan way.
That didn’t happen so you know we actually went out and partnered directly with states and provided waivers to give them more flexibility. [They’re] accountability systems, Dr. West, they’re moving way beyond a focus on an absolute test score. They’re looking at growth and gain; they’re looking at how much students are improving each year.
But very importantly, they’re looking at increasing graduation rates and reducing dropout rates and looking at what percentage of students who graduate from high school are going on to college. And are they going to college having to take remedial classes, meaning they’re not ready, or are they really ready? And are they persevering.
I always talk everywhere I go whether it’s evaluating a child or a teacher, which is your question, or a school or just a core state, I always say we have to look at multiple measures. If anyone thinks 100 percent of a teacher evaluation should be based on test score, I will always fight that. But I will also say that a piece of a teacher’s evaluation has to be upon whether those students are learning or not. [Emphasis mine.]
And there you have it, in those last two sentences, the huge problem that we are facing when it comes to changing the conversation around reform. The Secretary doesn’t understand that learning is much more than what is indicated on the test, and that learning is a much more complex interaction that is not easy to test for in a standardized, common way.
Equally problematic is how he defends the idea that waivers are providing flexibility. True, it’s not just “an absolute test score” that’s used to grade schools or teachers or custodial services. (Joke.) It’s “growth and gain” and “improvement”…as measured by the absolute test score year to year. So now instead of just focusing on test scores, states can focus on test scores. There’s a switch.
I know it’s a huge undertaking to try to get politicians and parents to unlearn and relearn what learning is and the ways it can most effectively be assessed. That it’s different from “knowing” in the sense that we know the answer to the test. That it’s more about learning dispositions and practices than anything else. But I think we have to continue to push back against those who are trying to simplify it for the sake of efficiency and economics. Test scores do not equal learning.