Christopher Tienken, Seton Hall University

A few days ago I wrote about a debate between testing enthusiast Patty Leveseque and testing skeptic David Wellner. Wellner said that not only were the tests not necessary,but that they actually did more harm than good. I dared to suggest that “why don’t we stop spending money on the annual tests and have districts merely report the average family income of their student population in order to receive federal funds?”  That radical idea now has hard numbers to support it.

A team, led by Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall University, examined US census data, and predicted with statistical accuracy the percentage of students who would score proficient on standardized testing in various content areas. His report is due out soon. He explained his methodology in an announcement for the report.

“We use basic multiple linear regression models along with factors in the US Census data that relate to community social capital and family human capital to create predictive algorithms. For example, the percentage of lone parent households in a community and percentage of people in a community with a high school diploma are two examples of community social capital indicators that seem to be strong predictors of the percentage of students in a district or school that will score proficient or above. The percentage of families in a community with incomes under $25,000 a year is an example of a family human capital indicator that has a lot of predictive power”

What Tienken’s study did not look at, but everyone else does in attempts to explain differences in test scores, was any school-specific information such as length of school day, teacher mobility, computer-to-student ratio, etc. That information does not provide the consistent correlation coefficient to predict student performance.  Tienken predicted with between 62-80% accuracy what percentage of students would score proficient on a given test using his SES data.

As a result, others are joining with me in saying, “Let’s cut out the middle man and drop the unnecessary testing.”  Peter Greene on Curmudgucation said, “[S]tates can cut out the middle man and simply give schools scores based on the demographic and social data. We don’t need the tests at all.”

It is important to keep this, and other corroborating reports in mind, because the civil rights community is gearing up to paint parents who are fed up with the tests and are opting out, and tax payers who are tired of their money being wasted as “racists.”

A statement signed by twelve civil rights groups said,

“…the anti-testing efforts that appear to be growing in states across the nation, like in Colorado and New York, would sabotage important data and rob us of the right to know how our students are faring. When parents ‘opt out’ of tests—even when out of protest for legitimate concerns—they’re not only making a choice for their own child, they’re inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child… abolishing the tests or sabotaging the validity of their results only makes it harder to identify and fix the deep-seated problems in our schools.”

When you break down their statement you see that they need other students to take the tests and continue to prove that poorer students don’t score as well.

The Network for Public Education, led by Diane Ravitch, said this in their response to the letter.

“[W]e know that high-stakes standardized tests, rather than reducing the opportunity gap, have been used to rank, sort, label, and punish students of color. This fact has been amply demonstrated through the experience of the past thirteen years of NCLB’s mandate of national testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school…

Further, the focus on test score data has allowed policy makers to rationalize the demonization of schools and educators, while simultaneously avoiding the more critically necessary structural changes that need to be made in our education system and the broader society.”

Behind all of this furor over testing are the unspoken assumptions; that teachers working with students every day have no idea how much they are learning or where their particular troubles lie, that without standardized testing we would have no idea where best to spend our limited education dollars, and that with standardized testing we will be able to overcome all the factors Tienken looked at that really do influence educational outcomes even though the tests never look at those factors directly.

So if following what the data tell us and wanting to save money that is wasted on testing which could be used to provide extra services for the neediest populations makes me a racist, then so be it. I’m a racist. Now can we talk about the policy?


Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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