Simplicity vs Simplistic

The major problem of the current model of assessing students and schools is not tests; it is the misuse of tests.

Children are complex. The situations children live in are complex. The skills and knowledge students need to master are complex. The desires of children and their families are complex. The needs of a community are complex. You are complex. I am complex. Life is complex.

Elegant simplicity in design is something all engineers aspire to. People admire the simple and effective over the complex and unwieldy. The iPod and iTunes are great, the Zune and MSN Music weren’t.

If the complexity of a situation is not fully considered in designing a solution, trying for simplicity is neither elegant nor effective; it is just simplistic. Simplistic is inadequate and just plain bad. No Child Left Behind forced schools to use tests for purposes tests were never designed for. It ignored complexity, and ended up creating simplistic solutions.

Those who have backed tough accountability measures argue tests are an easy way to measure student achievement, student growth, and teacher performance. They argue, “Why can’t there just be one grade for a school? People would understand that.” Their arguments are simple and seductive. They sound elegant and reasonable.

However, when confronted by the complexity of the world, the accountability systems developed have proven to be inadequate and just plain bad. The high stakes attached to them have necessitated an ever-increasing amount of security, stress and cost. While the argument “it’s just not that simple” might sound obstructionist or even whiny, that doesn’t make it any less true. What sounded simple has become an expensive, highly complex, house of cards.

Any minimal research into the history of standardized tests reveals the dangers of placing too much value on them, and the difficulty in trying to simplify the complex. Anya Kamenentz’s bestseller, The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing–But You Don’t Have to Be, has a very accessible summary of this history.

In spite of what some say, an exit test near the end of high school does not cause some students to succeed nor does it guarantee they will go to jail. One measure does not define anyone’s past or future. However, a large number of those test scores can give us information to help answer how well the school system as a whole is working and where it can improve. Just as a batting average gives you an idea of a baseball player’s career, it cannot predict the result of any one at-bat. None but the most aggressive gamblers would place a large wager on any one at-bat. Why do we ask students, parents and teachers to wager on one at-bat?

With the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces No Child Left Behind, Indiana has an opportunity to develop a system of continuous improvement for its schools that also lets parents, taxpayers and business know how schools are performing. This system must account for our complexity, and in order to do that,

• the system should identify who should hold schools accountable and how;
• the system must be focused on continuous improvement, not punishment, as well as the use of multiple measures of performance;
• the system should broaden the view of education beyond tested subjects to “21st Century Skills” like communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking;
• the system must provide ways for parents, students, teachers, and business to provide feedback to schools on research-based factors of successful schools;
• the system must ask all schools, especially in the lower 5% of performance, to measure how well they are removing barriers to education and re-engaging disconnected students, particularly though community partnerships;
• a group of trusted, expert practitioners should be at the center of designing such a system; and
• those creating the system must work diligently to de-politicize the education of children.