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Fire Pearson

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It's getting to the point that politicians are going to have to face what every public-school parent, teacher and administrator in this country knows: high-stakes testing doesn't work.

"Has the public and media finally recognized that high-stakes testing has 'jumped the shark'?" asked Bob Schaeffer with the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest.

In June, University of Texas Professor Walter Stroup told a legislative committee about "a glitch embedded in the DNA of the state exams that, as a result of a statistical method used to assemble them, suggests they are virtually useless at measuring the effects of classroom instruction," according to Morgan Smith of the Texas Tribune/New York Times.

The "design flaw" has something to do with "item response theory." According to Smith, "Using I.R.T., developers select questions based on a model that correlates students' ability with the probability that they will get a question right." You're probably thinking that this doesn't make any sense. This is because it doesn't make any sense, and it gets worse.

"About 72% of the variance is this test taking ability. Now, it's been spun to be called college and career readiness, but it's essentially test-taking ability," Stroup testified. And when you attach high-stakes to the tests--teachers get fired, schools get closed, kids get held back--this creates a perverse incentive to teach test-taking skills instead of what we send kids to school to learn.

"Value-added assessment as it is used today is junk science," said education author Diane Ravitch at a teachers' union convention this weekend in Detroit.

Our testing misadventure started when then-Gov. George W. Bush had Sandy Kress, a Democrat on the Dallas school board, implement accountability reforms that relied upon standardized tests. When Bush moved to DC, Kress helped him sell No Child Left Behind to a Democratic Senate. Now Kress lobbies for Pearson, the company that has a $32-million contract with the state of New York, a $250-million contract in Florida, and an unfathomable $468-million contract in Texas.

At the same time, Texas schools took a $5.4-billion budget hit, and a lot of Texans decided they'd had enough. More than 500 school boards representing 3.2 million students passed anti-testing resolutions, leading a top business lobbyist named Bill Hammond to warn administrators against "scaring moms" lest he advocate further budget cuts. This did not quell the uprising.

"Texas is where all this craziness with testing started. And Texas is where it will end," said Ravitch.

I have argued -- occasionally with Kress -- that high-stakes testing is a false ideology that relies more on faith than evidence. Kress counters, not without logic, that passing tests is necessary in life.

"Stanford is right: we shouldn't make an idol of these tests, any more than the test to get a driver's license or the test to enter the military or the SAT or the test to get a license to practice law or any of the dozens of tests my children and Stanford's children will have to take in their lives," he wrote in response to my last column about him.

But if Stroup is correct, then we're doing the equivalent of judging drivers on their ability to pass the driving test and not on their ability to drive. No need, according to Kress' logic, to have stock car races. Let's just drink milk and do donuts in the DMV parking lot.

Stroup doesn't think testing advocates will care that science has debunked their theories.

"To be honest, I couldn't care less what Sandy Kress or Bill Hammond say.  They're not scientists in any meaningful sense and as partisans we might expect them to stay stuck in a rhetorical loop that is simply impervious to outside input," wrote Stroup. "By default, we tend to hold on to ideas that have seemed to worked for us in the past.  And it takes a lot of 'that doesn't make any sense' to get us to change our minds."

It doesn't make any sense to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to Pearson when we have to cut billions from schools. It doesn't make any sense to fire teachers to pay for tests that don't work. None of this makes any sense, and that might even be clear enough for the politicians.

It's time to fire Pearson.