Do as We Say, Not as We Do

There is a fascinating trend in policy these days that is related to the “decision-based evidence making” that I wrote about a few months ago.  It appears that Texas, the state where standardized testing beatification began in the late 1980s (thanks to Ross Perot), reversed course.  For better or worse, however, the “Texas miracle” led many other states, advocacy organizations and the federal government to make standardized tests the lynchpin of education reform efforts, most notable No Child Left Behind and other “accountability” systems at the state level.

This article from the Texas Observer in 2014 discusses the work of Dr. Walter Stroup, an education professor whose research played a role in motivating groups of parents, business leaders and legislators to ultimately push for Texas to undo many apparently misguided efforts around standardized testing, as detailed in a series of three articles here, here and here in the Dallas News.  Stroup’s research challenged the conventional wisdom that standardized tests provide good information about how much students learn in school.  His research indicated that standardized tests ultimately tell us about how well students take tests.  If his research is correct, it should give policymakers pause in their quest to increase the scope and type of consequences that are attached to standardized tests within the accountability “systems” that are currently the policy vogue.

The Observer article suggests, and makes a good case that, the largest player in the standardized testing industry, Pearson Education, took exception to Stroup’s research.  This should not be surprising when you consider that if the research holds true it would ultimately put a huge dent in Pearson’s current business model.  According to the article Pearson tried inflict death by a thousand small cuts on Stroup’s research, critiques and professional career.

Critics of the Observer’s piece will no doubt say that the piece reflects the conspiracy-theory mindset of individuals like Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn and many other well-qualified and thoughtful critics of today’s current accountability regime.  However, the fact that a coalition of advocates, including previous supporters of the Texas system, found Stroup’s work compelling enough to cause a shift in policy should have (but didn’t) mute that critique.

What I find fascinating is that the Texas reversal of policy did not make much of a splash nationally.  Certainly, as states like Colorado currently debate the merits of standardized testing and the validity and usefulness of accountability systems that rest primarily on standardized tests, the reasons behind the Texas reversal of course are not frequently cited as an event worthy of serious consideration.

Why is it that pro-reform efforts like educator effectiveness legislation, which had no data to back them up (merely a theory of action developed by advocacy organizations on the basis of isolated statistical analyses published by independent researchers) spread like wildfire while the reversal of policy by the state that was the epicenter of initial reform efforts receive very little attention?  We might like to think that policy today is driven by critical examination and thoughtful conversation about actual research but as the Dallas News concluded in the third article of its series:  “As inevitable as it may look in retrospect, however, the shift was anything but at the time. Politics, policy and more than 30 years of history pushed hard against the change in course. As House Speaker Straus put it recently: ‘We got as close as we could to something not happening, but it happened.’”

I find it ironic that policymakers and advocates who ignore new data, and try to shut down critical thinking and critical conversations are the same people who condemn the current education system for producing graduates who are supposedly not critical thinkers themselves.  Perhaps students are more influenced by what is done than what is said.

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