Friday, March 11, 2016

Testing All The Time?

McDermott, M., Robertson. P., and Krashen, S. 2016. Language Magazine, January 16.

The new education law, the "Every Student Succeeds Act," appears to us to be part of movement that may increase testing far more than ever and drastically narrow the curriculum: this will come in the form of Competency-Based Education (CBE). As described in a recent paper from the National Governor's Association, CBE is course-work based on the common core, provided  by and designed by commercial publishers, and delivered online to schools. Students work individually on computers, and are allowed to move from module to module only when they have "mastered" the current module. Mastery is determined by passing a test, also delivered online. 

CBE modules present skills and content knowledge as objectives that are "clear" and "measurable" (p. 3), that is, the modules only cover material that lends itself to straight-forward testing. This severely limits what can be included.  Students take the tests when they feel they are ready.
Demonstrated competence via these online courses will determine student success, teacher ratings and the ranking of the school. Thus, students will be in a perpetual cycle of working through packaged programs and being tested on their content. This could translate into test prep and testing all the time, with end-of-module tests perhaps even daily.

The new education law and CBE

The new education law is an important part of making all this happen. Sections 1201 and 1204  announce grants to for "innovative assessments" and explicitly mention competency-based education. Section 1204 discusses "computer-adaptive" assessments "that emphasize the mastery of standards and aligned competencies in a competency-based education model...".   To show that CBE is not just a supplement but is core, applicants for grants are required to include a plan "to transition to full statewide use of the innovative assessment system."

The lack of research

The following statement about CBE is from the National Governor's Association's paper, a document that aggressively promotes CBE: "Although an emerging research base suggests that CBE is a promising model, it includes only a few rigorous evaluations and analyses of current and ongoing CBE pilots and similar programs" (p. 6). Despite this admitted gap, "Efforts to start transitioning to CBE systems have begun in both K-12 and higher education through discussions at the federal, state, and local levels" (p. 4). And, we might add, these efforts are supported by the new education law.


President Obama's recent call for a limit on standardized testing may simply be a convenient first step toward something much worse than end-of-the-year testing: testing all the time, which makes end-of-the-year testing obsolete. It is interesting that the President's announcement took place on October 25, 2015, the National Governor's Association's position paper on CBE is dated October, 2015, and the new education law was signed by the President December 10, 2015, all very close in time.

Paying for the new technology
It has not escaped our notice that CBE will reduce the role of teachers. This might be deliberate, freeing up funds for more spending on technology and greater profits for the technology industry, the industry that will supply the computers, the software, the hardware, the content of the modules, and, of course, the tests.
The new education law greatly facilitates the introduction of CBE, a move that will limit what is taught to easily testable facts and concepts. The new law is considered by many to signal a reduction in testing, but its support for competency-based education promises to make the current testing burden, already the heaviest in the history of the planet, much much worse, as well as making corporate profits much much higher.

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