Trust Tests, Not Teachers – Accountability for Dummies


This week, the American Federation of Teachers decided – after years of opposing high-stakes testing – to embrace it.

That’s right. The second largest teachers union in the country took everything their constituent educators hate and gave it a big old sloppy wet kiss.

They call it grade span testing. Tests would still be given almost every year, but only three – one in elementary, one in middle and one in high school – would be high-stakes. The rest would just be “informational.”

Why not get rid of all high stakes tests?

Why not at least get rid of the “informational” ones and reduce the total to three?


The idea goes something like this. We have to ensure our schools are serving the needs of all our students. And the ONLY way to do that is through standardized tests!

Huh!? The ONLY way!?

That’s what they’re saying. Anything else – unless it is coupled with test scores – is unreliable.

Classroom grades? Insufficient!

Portfolios of student work? Insufficient!

A sworn affidavit by classroom teachers on the lives of their firstborn children!? Probably insufficient, too!

To be fair, one could argue at least the AFT is trying to reduce the number of high-stakes tests. But the total number of tests will remain the same as it is now – ridiculously high! Kids will still test just about every year – much more than any other comparable country. Test prep will remain the de facto curriculum at most schools.

Moreover, the very idea that all the other non-high stakes tests could somehow remain purely informational is naive at best!

Even if the terrorists only put the gun to your head occasionally, that still perverts the whole process.

Why would the AFT change its long-held position now?

It’s no accident. The law that governs our entire K-12 school system is about to be rewritten.

Congress is trying to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). When the law went through its last rewrite, it was called No Child Left Behind – a classic Bush era euphemism to hide that the legislation did exactly the opposite of its name.

Simply put: it was a disaster.

It made annual standardized testing the centerpiece of our whole school system. We couldn’t do anything without it. Bubble tests became the only measure of success.

Forget that all the evidence shows standardized tests don’t actually measure student learning. They show parental income. Rich kids generally score high and poor kids score low.

Forget that they’re based on highly subjective cut scores that fluctuate each year and are determined by temporary workers most of whom have no education degree and have an incentive to fail the most students they can.

Forget that they steal time from actual learning, create an environment of fear and are the prime excuse to punish and close schools serving minorities and the poor.


Standardized tests return a score, yes. And if you ignore how that score is subjective and educationally inaccurate, you can pretend it’s a universal measure of learning. Then you can use it to justify almost anything as being educationally necessary.

Skimp on education funding? They deserved it because Accountability.

Privatize a school? They deserved it because Accountability.

Bust a union? They deserved it because Accountability.

That’s nonsense!

We used to know better.

Students used to be accountable to teachers and parents. If you didn’t do your homework or try your best in school, you’d earn a failing grade.

Teachers used to be accountable to their principals. Administrators would observe their teachers throughout the year and determine if they were doing a good job.

Principals were then accountable to superintendents who were, in turn, accountable to the school board and finally the community of voters.

The buck stopped at the voting booth. But not anymore!

Now the student, teacher, principal, superintendent, etc. are all at each others throats being held accountable to the standardized tests.

Who’s accountable for the tests? The for-profit corporation that developed them. And who is the corporation accountable to? It’s shareholders.

So we’ve gone from a system where the buck stopped at the community to one where it stops at investors.

Does no one else see a problem with this? Communities are made up of people many of whom have a vested interest in the children who live and go to school there. We’re talking about parents, teachers and taxpayers who want to live among other educated people.

But shareholders only care about getting a return on their investment. They don’t care about the quality of the service they’re providing – only that they can make money providing it. And if lowering the quality will raise the payout, so be it!

So when people justify standardized testing based on accountability, they’re really deifying the bottom line – profits.

But, of course, you can’t say that aloud.

The move is being cloaked in the costume of Civil Rights and progressive politics. The AFT partnered with the Center for American Progress – a privatization cheerleader that poses as a bastion of liberalism. Likewise, 19 Civil Rights organizations including the ACLU and NAACP were convinced to sign on.

Silly me. I thought Dr. King had a dream that everyone would be judged by the content of their character – not the results of their bubble tests!

But – say-it-with-me – Accountability.

There can be no alternative but standardized tests.

We can’t trust classroom grades. We can only trust cut scores.

We can’t trust teachers. We can only trust corporations.

We can’t trust the school board. We can only trust the shareholders.

And thank goodness! Otherwise, Congress might listen to what ordinary folks have to say!

Heck! Congress is starting hearings on it next week! They could vote to stop mandating annual standardized testing! Can you imagine how that would hurt the testing industry!? Billions of dollars might be lost! Imagine the kickbacks and political favors at risk!

So raise your glass to the bottom line, and say a prayer that the parents, teachers and taxpayers don’t do anything to hold us accountable…

Like, for example, emailing testimony against testing to the US Senate at by Monday, Feb. 2.

-Special thanks to Aixa Rodriquez and Owen Jackman for being extra sets of eyes when my own couldn’t stay open anymore. If there are remaining errors, they are mine alone.

-This article also appeared in the LA Progressive, Public School Shakedown and the Badass Teachers Association Blog.


38 thoughts on “Trust Tests, Not Teachers – Accountability for Dummies

  1. My dream for my children is to see common core demolished ! They are individuals who deserve a solid education not this back door money making mess for a few. Arne Duncan,us parents care !

    Wake up Ohio and don’t let big business and government push us around. The carrot was nothing but a trick.


  2. What is happening Feb 2nd? I checked to see if the HELP Senate Committee is meeting and I can’t find future hearing dates, only past hearings. This sounds like an opportunity to give feedback that we should publicize and push in our groups but I need to find a reference to the hearing first. Thanks in advance.


  3. North Dakota legislature is having a hearing on stoping Common Core in ND on Feb 2nd. I will be there to support this bill.


  4. Here is what my teaching is reduced to; short presentations of topics I know will be on the test and little depth to any of them. Consequently, my students are getting only enough knowledge to answer test questions and insufficient time to actually learn material well enough to call on it in their futures. More time is spent reviewing than teaching. And when I do get to teach, it is to-the-test. I must, if that is what I am being judged on. I entered this profession to teach, not tutor.
    My accountability should be tied to the success of my students once they enter the real world, not on how they performed on a set of questions one afternoon. Get rid of the tests!


  5. Steven,

    Excellent post! I hope you don’t mind if I pass it around.

    Don’t know if you follow Ravitch’s blog or not, if you do then you will have seen this post. I believe it needs to be spread far and wide. Why all educational standards and standardized testing are COMPLETELY INVALID. Please feel free to use any of it and pass it around. If you have further questions you can contact me at: Just reference Wilson or standards, etc. . . in the subject line so I don’t automatically delete it.

    Take care,
    Duane Swacker

    “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” found at:
    Brief outline of Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” and some comments of mine. (updated 6/24/13 per Wilson email)

    1. A description of a quality can only be partially quantified. Quantity is almost always a very small aspect of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category only by a part of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as unidimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing the descriptive information about said interactions is inadequate, insufficient and inferior to the point of invalidity and unacceptability.

    2. A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place. The only correct logical thing that we can attempt to do is to describe that interaction (how accurately or not is a whole other story). That description cannot, by logical thought, be “assigned/attached” to the student as it cannot be a description of the student but the interaction. And this error is probably one of the most egregious “errors” that occur with standardized testing (and even the “grading” of students by a teacher).

    3. Wilson identifies four “frames of reference” each with distinct assumptions (epistemological basis) about the assessment process from which the “assessor” views the interactions of the teaching and learning process: the Judge (think college professor who “knows” the students capabilities and grades them accordingly), the General Frame-think standardized testing that claims to have a “scientific” basis, the Specific Frame-think of learning by objective like computer based learning, getting a correct answer before moving on to the next screen, and the Responsive Frame-think of an apprenticeship in a trade or a medical residency program where the learner interacts with the “teacher” with constant feedback. Each category has its own sources of error and more error in the process is caused when the assessor confuses and conflates the categories.

    4. Wilson elucidates the notion of “error”: “Error is predicated on a notion of perfection; to allocate error is to imply what is without error; to know error it is necessary to determine what is true. And what is true is determined by what we define as true, theoretically by the assumptions of our epistemology, practically by the events and non-events, the discourses and silences, the world of surfaces and their interactions and interpretations; in short, the practices that permeate the field. . . Error is the uncertainty dimension of the statement; error is the band within which chaos reigns, in which anything can happen. Error comprises all of those eventful circumstances which make the assessment statement less than perfectly precise, the measure less than perfectly accurate, the rank order less than perfectly stable, the standard and its measurement less than absolute, and the communication of its truth less than impeccable”

    In other word all the logical errors involved in the process render any conclusions invalid.

    5. The test makers/psychometricians, through all sorts of mathematical machinations attempt to “prove” that these tests (based on standards) are valid-errorless or supposedly at least with minimal error [they aren’t]. Wilson turns the concept of validity on its head and focuses on just how invalid the machinations and the test and results are. He is an advocate for the test taker not the test maker. In doing so he identifies thirteen sources of “error”, any one of which renders the test making/giving/disseminating of results invalid. And a basic logical premise is that once something is shown to be invalid it is just that, invalid, and no amount of “fudging” by the psychometricians/test makers can alleviate that invalidity.
    6. Having shown the invalidity, and therefore the unreliability, of the whole process Wilson concludes, rightly so, that any result/information gleaned from the process is “vain and illusory”. In other words start with an invalidity, end with an invalidity (except by sheer chance every once in a while, like a blind and anosmic squirrel who finds the occasional acorn, a result may be “true”) or to put in more mundane terms crap in-crap out.

    7. And so what does this all mean? I’ll let Wilson have the second to last word: “So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.”

    In other words it attempts to measure “’something’ and we can specify some of the ‘errors’ in that ‘something’ but still don’t know [precisely] what the ‘something’ is.” The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?

    My answer is NO!!!!!

    One final note with Wilson channeling Foucault and his concept of subjectivization:

    “So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”

    In other words students “internalize” what those “marks” (grades/test scores) mean, and since the vast majority of the students have not developed the mental skills to counteract what the “authorities” say, they accept as “natural and normal” that “story/description” of them. Although paradoxical in a sense, the “I’m an “A” student” is almost as harmful as “I’m an ‘F’ student” in hindering students becoming independent, critical and free thinkers. And having independent, critical and free thinkers is a threat to the current socio-economic structure of society.

    By Duane E. Swacker


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