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You are here: Home Newsroom Our Ideas Themes in the News Archive April 2013 Not going to say, 'We told you so,' but ...

Not going to say, 'We told you so,' but ...

  • 04-12-2013
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Week of April 8-12, 2013


Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates recently cautioned in the Washington Post against using standardized test scores as the primary way of gauging teaching and learning (Education Week, Education Week, School Finance 101). 


Briefly, these are some of Gates’ newly expressed concerns about the use of testing. Gates worries that schools are over-saturated with high-stakes testing that leads to harmful practices, inefficiencies, and inane classroom experiences like simplified learning goals and rote learning. He recognizes that schools have used tests to unfairly and narrowly evaluate teachers, thus limiting the range and potential of their professional contributions and growth. (For example, value-added measures, or VAM, can create competitive teaching environments that undermine collaboration and far outweigh other important reform metrics and methods, like student surveys, classroom observations, teacher collaboration, and leadership.) Gates calls for greater attention on improving teaching and learning through collaboration, trust and professional development for teachers. 


This is a remarkable piece of reflection, especially given the emphasis that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had placed earlier on value-added measures as a strategy to drive improvement and to make teacher evaluation the key lever for change. It is hard to overstate the impact of the Gates Foundation’s efforts in this area. As the world’s major philanthropic power, it has extraordinary influence over school systems, local schools, and on government offices including the White House.


The Los Angeles Times was one of the many media outlets to comment on Gates’ backtracking on his position on testing. A Times editorial decried the rush-to-reform approaches, generally, but clearly had standardized testing in mind when writing, “When philanthropists have potentially useful ideas about education, they should by all means try them out, establish pilot programs, put their money where their mouths are. But before government officials incorporate those ideas into policy, they must study them carefully and make sure that what sounds reasonable in theory works in practice.”


Noticeably absent in the Times’ critique was its own role in the VAM frenzy. In 2010, the Times was the first major newspaper to publicly release test score data on individual teachers and rank their effectiveness. The Times vigorously defended both the evaluation methodology (though conceding it hadn’t been perfected) and the paper’s role in amplifying the consequences of the policy. Other media outlets followed. In the rush to publicize individual teachers’ value-added rankings, the Times and other papers failed to heed experts’ concerns about invalid and unreliable methodologies and negative consequences for the teaching profession (Huffington Post, Education Week).


In a closely related case, the New York Times reported on powerful reformers failing to heed the cautions of thoughtful and experienced education and testing experts. Referring to Texas, it recently reported, “In this state that spawned test-based accountability … lawmakers are now considering a reversal that would cut back … standardized testing.” The article also identifies long-known limits to using tests as educational tools or as policy levers to influence education improvement.


We can hope that we are seeing a small trend for highly influential people (e.g., philanthropies, media, governments at all levels) to think more carefully about standardized testing. And while they're at it, they might save some space for reflecting on other reform favorites (school takeovers, online learning, etc.) that are sure to disappoint if these leaders’ enthusiasm crosses the line to hubris.

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Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.