We Are Being Played (So Fight On!)

I really, really hate to be a Negative Nancy.

Hopefully, in a few months time, anyone who likes will able to say, “Look, Emily, you were wrong about all this testing stuff,” and I will gladly – gladly – eat my words.

But… I think we are being played.

I think that what we heard from the White House today about limiting testing is but a bone we have been thrown as we are ushered into an era of next-gen ed reform, where testing is all formative, all the time.

For those not familiar with eduspeak, “formative” assessment refers to the tests students take on their way to the end-of-year test.  When they are crafted and analyzed thoughtfully, and made by the teacher who knows the child, they are a normal part of every day schooling.  You took formative tests when you were a kid.  They were called quizzes.

In the brave new world of next-gen ed reform, however, formative tests are corporate-designed and digital, and are part of a system of schooling called “competency-based,” (also “proficiency-based,” “mastery,” “customized,” etc.), in which students take “on-demand” tests to demonstrate mastery before being allowed to move on to the next skill in a sequence.

I’ve written about this at length on this blog.  It’s not new, and it’s a concept that’s no different than the one that lies at the heart of this quote that I’ve pulled from an article written in 1977:

“The materials will be standardized, the lessons will be standardized,” Guines said. “We’re taking the play out. We’re taking the guesswork out. We’re putting in a precise predicted treatment that leads to a predicted response.”

Guines said the new curriculum is based on the work in behavorial psychology of Harvard University’s B. F. Skinner, who developed teaching machines and even trained pigeons during World War II to carry bombs and detonate them.

The basic idea, Guines said, is to break down complicated learning into a sequence of clear simple skills that virtually everyone can master, although at different rates of speed.

As Morna McDermott writes in this blog post found on the National Education Policy Center website, the current shift to competency-based (personalized) education has been over a decade in the making.  Investors have been pouring billions into online and digital learning companies, while  policy has been carefully crafted behind the scenes to support the shift to “personalized” (digital) learning.

In this article, Tom Vander Ark (former executive at the Gates Foundation and now partner at Learn Capital which manages a giant portfolio of online and digital learning companies) spells out the shift from the big-test to many mini-tests that will be part of this transformation.

Go here  for a blog post I wrote several months ago, just after Maine pulled out of the Smarter Balanced Consortium.  As everyone celebrated, I had a deep sense of uneasiness, and was beginning to suspect that something else was already in the works.

Here is a portion from my piece below:

First, take one more look at that Michael Horn quote from a 2012 issue of Forbes which I’ve referenced in earlier blog posts:

“The behind-the-scenes buzz on Common Core touched on everything from how different the assessments really will be from what some states have today to whether Common Core will doom testing and the accountability movement more generally because of the length of the assessments to whether governors will stick with Common Core once the first year of assessment results come out and people see how students perform poorly on them.”

It’s pretty clear, isn’t it, that people “behind-the-scenes” knew well ahead of time that the new tests would be problematic?  Far enough ahead of time that you’d think they would have been able to make adjustments so that they weren’t quite so long, or quite so developmentally inappropriate?

Now, take another look at his alternative, while keeping in mind that this just so happens to match an idea that the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation began pouring millions of dollars into that same year:

“If there were instead systems of assessments in a competency-based learning system built for students to take an assessment on-demand when they were ready to demonstrate mastery on specific competencies, we would see a different picture develop with assessments that left no doubt that they were different.”

And now, notice that this is exactly what Senator Angus King and five other senators suggested in a recent letter to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee:

“Promote Next Generation Assessments: Many states are experimenting with new assessment systems that are tied to competency-based learning models. These tests are rigorous and designed to provide timely information to students, educators, and parents about the individual needs of learners. We encourage the Committee to provide a more clearly-defined and timely application process for states to pilot dynamic assessment systems.”

I hope I’m wrong.  I really do.

But I’m afraid I was probably right in this blog post I wrote a few months ago, and that the corporate reformers really will be laughing all the way to the bank.

I’ll be writing with updates as soon as they arrive.

In the meantime… fight on.



Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

One thought on “We Are Being Played (So Fight On!)”

  1. As I understand this the word “formative” is NOT a description of a particular test but a description of the purposes to which it is put. If any marks,scores or gades are passed on to anybody beyond the teacher then that test is properly described as summative, whenever it is taken. Are these people hell bent on destroying the meaning of yet another word?


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