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Five Questions For … David Berliner on High-Stakes Testing

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Educational psychologist David Berliner, the Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University, spoke with EWA about high-stakes testing, accountability and why he’s concerned about other states following Florida’s lead in school reform. The interview was conducted and edited by Emily Richmond.

1. In your 2007 book Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools, you and co-author Sharon Nichols detail the effect of putting increasing pressure on educators to meet ever-increasing benchmarks. Is there anything surprising about the latest wave of cheating scandals?

Sadly, there’s nothing surprising at all. We know every time we raise the stakes on an indicator, the indicator gets corrupted. They’re talking about using test scores to fire people who generally believe they are doing a good job – and, in many cases, they probably are. Teachers are being made scapegoats for a society that is both unequal and unfair. If my job and my family’s livelihood were at stake, I might change a few student scores myself.

2. Much of the discussion about accountability in public education does seem to be focused on the school’s end of the bargain – to keep test scores high and to turn out enough graduates. Is this shortsighted?

We have to recognize that education isn’t the school’s job – it’s society’s job. Accountability works both ways. Schools have to be accountable to the community, but the community must also be accountable to schools. That means parents have to provide schools with students who are well fed, loved, and that their homework is taken care of.

If parents don’t have the skills or capability to carry out those responsibilities, then you do what Geoffrey Canada (founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone) does. You find ways to stabilize the families and educate parents on how to raise successful students. The notion that we need real partnerships is a good one, and I’m sorry we ever lost that kind of thinking and started believing schools could do it all.

3. There was considerable hand wringing when the most recent PISA scores were released, showing the United States lagging behind many other nations. Is this our “Sputnik” moment?

The problem for America is the huge gap in achievement among our students in poverty and those coming from more affluent households. For our kids in schools with a 75 percent poverty rate, their scores are so low that only one nation in the world is lower.

At the same time, we have 15 million students in public schools where the average poverty rate is either fewer than 10 percent, or under 25 percent. Of the students at schools where the poverty rate is under 10 percent, their scores on the PISA reading test are the highest in the world. Of our students at schools where the poverty rate was between 10 and 25 percent, their scores were the third highest in the world, beaten by only two nations. We have more students taking math and science and those scores continue to climb. We’re not as good as the Chinese or the Koreans yet, but all the trends are really quite positive. Why don’t the papers ever report that?

4. Many states are following Florida’s lead in education reform initiatives, specifically focusing on the reading abilities of third graders and holding them back from fourth grade if they are not deemed proficient. What are your thoughts on the reform initiative?

My home state of Arizona is doing the same thing. It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental.

Everybody supports the idea that if a student isn’t reading well in third grade that it’s a signal that the child needs help. If you hold them back, you’re going to spend roughly another $10,000 per child for an extra year of schooling. If you spread out that $10,000 over the fourth and fifth grades for extra tutoring, in the long run you’re going to get a better outcome.

Each year about 1 million students are left back, and my guess is it’s the wrong thing for 990,000 of them. There are stories where it was clearly the right thing, and the student moves up to the next grade more confident. I don’t want to negate that. But it’s the wrong move for the vast majority of students. And since we don’t know in advance which kids won’t benefit, it’s simply the wrong policy decision.

5. How can education reporters do a better job reporting on test scores, particularly when it comes to tying them to teacher evaluation models?

Teachers are public employees and it’s reasonable to evaluate them. But there are two issues that strike me as important in this discourse.

The first is the notion that we can hold a person – the teacher – accountable for the performance of another individual. If a student comes to school with a host of problems, or is simply disinterested in learning, it’s very difficult for a teacher to overcome that.

The second point is one I’ve been arguing for many years. The tests that are used across the country are actually designed to weed out the items where teachers are showing effects. You try out a bunch of questions, and if 80 percent of the kids get a question right, you throw it out as too easy. But the reverse of that logic is that it’s an item where the teachers have shown instructional effects. The tests end up containing a whole bunch of items that reflect a social class effect, and hardly any teacher effect. When it comes to using test scores to rate teachers’ effectiveness, the deck is stacked against them.