Chris Powell: 'High-stakes tests' for high-stakes life

MANCHESTER, Conn. Connecticut's biggest teachers union, the Connecticut Education Association, is increasing its clamor against what it calls "high-stakes" testing of students and against the "Smarter Balanced" test in use by the state Education Department.

The union has complained that the test has technical problems. The union’s bigger objection is that there is too much standardized testing and that test preparation distracts from learning. But the union's definition of "high-stakes" testing shows that improving learning is not its objective at all.

As the union's executive director, Mark Waxenberg, explains it, a test is "high stakes" if its results can be compared and construed to mean that a student, teacher, or school is not proficient or, worse, is a failure, or if its results can jeopardize a school's funding.

By that definition any standardized test whose results are made public is a "high-stakes" test and the union can accept only tests whose results are secret. That is, the union's objective is, predictably enough, to deprive the public and its elected representatives of any independent measures of student, teacher, and school performance, making public only unstandardized and uncomparable measures provided by teachers and school administrators. In the CEA's system, all students and teachers, as in Lake Woebegon, will be above average.

As a practical matter there is no "high-stakes" testing in Connecticut's schools -- no testing whose results have serious consequences, none that determines student advancement from grade to grade and graduation from high school, none that figures in teacher evaluation, and none that determines school funding.

Instead, Connecticut's schools practice the social promotion of students. Nearly every student who shows up is given a high school diploma even if he has learned little.

While Gov. Dan Malloy once thought that student performance should be a factor in teacher evaluations, criticism from teacher unions caused him to back off. With its clamor against "high-stakes" testing -- that is, against any testing from which the public might draw meaningful conclusions -- the union seeks mainly to keep student performance out of teacher evaluations.

As for test results and school funding, the union has nothing to worry about. For state government's thinking long has been that the worse a school performs, the more funding it should get, on the mistaken premise that the main problem of education is schools rather than the growing neglect of children by their parents.

While the CEA's dissembling is tedious, teachers can't be blamed for not wanting to be judged by the performance of their students on tests when students themselves are not judged. Instead teachers can and must be blamed for not protesting the abandonment of academic standards, the results of which the CEA now strives to conceal lest they reflect unfairly on teachers.

For while there is no "high-stakes" testing of students in Connecticut, the stakes for the state itself could not be higher: Will we have an educated, self-sufficient, and civic-minded population or an increasingly ignorant proletariat unable to compete economically with the rest of the world, dependent on government income supports, and recognizing no obligation to sustain democratic institutions?

The costly consequences of Connecticut's abandonment of education standards are easy to see if hard to look at -- the failure of most students to master high school work before graduating and the growing number of unqualified students admitted to the state university system, which has institutionalized remediation. Connecticut now pays for 16 years of education but gets less than 12.

"High-stakes" testing in school is nothing to be disparaged. To the contrary, it will be crucial as long as life itself is for high stakes.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester.