Q&A with Anya Kamenetz, Author of The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing - But You Don't Have to Be

Anya Kamenetz is a staff writer for Fast Company magazine, a columnist for Tribune Media Services and lead education blogger at NPR. Her book, "The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing - But You Don't Have To Be,” addresses the high stakes testing in American public schools. She will be speaking at Book Passage in Corte Madera March 22nd at 4pm and at The Institute for the Future in Palo Alto on March 26 at 6pm. I am excited to share an exclusive interview with Anya Kamenetz.

What is the purpose of standardized testing in our schools today? 

Standardized tests are being used for at least 23 distinct purposes, including diagnostics, benchmarking, and simply monitoring learning, but the purpose that is causing all the trouble is for accountability. By federal law tests are tied to consequences--not just for individual students but for schools, districts, states, and increasingly for teachers. 

Why are our public schools obsessed with standardized testing?  

A lot of that obsession traces back to the high stakes assigned by the 2002 law, No Child Left Behind. The preparation and anxiety are a natural outgrowth of the threat of schools being reorganized or closed and teachers and principals losing their jobs. But in a broader sense, our society is obsessed with standardization, data, and metrics. This is the age of Big Data and the "Quantified Self." We love counting everything that can be counted and lots of things that can't. 

What surprised you about researching this book?

I was genuinely surprised to discover that so many of the figures associated with the early science of psychometrics were committed eugenicists and racists. I was left believing that the concept of intelligence itself that they have passed on--a fixed, hereditary, and unitary quality--is flawed, limiting, and discriminatory.

The public school system in America has always been deeply intertwined with political agendas, such as local versus federal control. What are the main political agendas involved with our public school system today?  What is public education today?

Wow, that's a huge question. 

On a basic level, there is little enthusiasm for a welfare state in this country but public education is a major exception. We don't have free public hospitals or free housing for the poor, and we tolerate widespread poverty and inequality. But in every neighborhood in this country there is a building where children can go and, at a minimum, be watched over for a few hours a day, 180 days a year. They can get one or two meals and if they're lucky they might learn something. Sometimes they have their entire lives transformed. Public education is an exception to the no-welfare-state rule because it feeds conservative (and increasingly bipartisan) ideas about hard work leading to opportunity. But its exceptionalism also makes it vulnerable to attack from those who prefer that all services be rendered by the market.

The tactics districts and governments used towards implementation of Common Core on a local level has resulted in a movement of objections from families who choose to “opt-out.” You recommend it too. Why do you recommend this and does opting out impact schools or teachers instead of taking the test? Why is the onus on individual families to advocate for their child inside the system? 

I don't necessarily recommend opting out. I outline the nuts and bolts as an option for families who are concerned about the broader impact of these tests as well as those who want to spare their individual child from an individual test for individual reasons. Some families have lots of other options, like private school and homeschooling, and other families have no choice but to advocate within the system. 

What tips do you suggest for students and parents to reduce the anxiety of standardized testing? 

I use the acronym TEST : 

Manage the Test: Realize what the tests are for,how they work, and come up with good test-taking strategies.

Manage Emotions and Energy: Mindfulness practices, a good night's sleep, and other healthy habits.

Manage Self-motivation:Successful children set their own goalposts instead of abiding by external marks. Motivation and effort matter most. For these, the child has to take the lead.

Manage your Tone: Instead of focusing on preparing your child, focus on your own attitude and the messages you’re sending as a parent.Oftentimes kids are internalizing our anxiety.

Can you briefly describe the 10 major problems with standardized testing as defined in your book?

1) We’re testing the wrong things.--only math and reading, when kids need to learn so much more.

2) Tests waste time and money.

3) They are making students hate school and turning parents into preppers.

4) They are making teachers hate teaching. Morale is at the lowest point since 1987.

5) They penalize diversity--diverse schools have more chances to fail.

6) They cause teaching to the test.

7) The high stakes tempt cheating.

8) They are gamed by states until they become meaningless.

9) They are full of errors.

10) The next generation of tests will make things even worse--the Common Core aligned tests are harder but not nneccessarily better designed.

Do the international rankings of The Timms Study reflect a failure of our reform efforts or is that due to other circumstances?

I think the jury's still out. 

Public schools have become big business. Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw Hill are the three main corporations benefiting from this $13 Billion in prep and tutoring. Then there are the high stake test SBAC and PARCC testing, each state has added tests on top of the surmounting tests of CC and with over $200 million, the CC is not only funded by The Gates Foundation but they also built up bilateral political support across the country. Is this shift in big business and politicians calling the shots in public education positive for students and staff? What influence has the Gates Foundation's research and interest in defining a good teacher had on all of this? Tell me about the role that the Gates Foundation plays in all of this?

The heavy influence of wealthy philanthropists on our education system--and our political system--dates to the Gilded Age of Carnegie and Rockefeller. I believe what's really new here is the phenomenon of entrepreneurs seeing the transition toward digital technology as an opportunity to divert a huge amount of public spend on education into private coffers. Why are venture capitalists investing in educational technology? Because they see a huge growth potential. The K-12 textbook and assessment industry used to be relatively small, the testing and materials industry grew it bigger, and as Bill Gates said in 2013, "“When you add textbooks, supplements, and assessments together, you’re talking about a $9 billion market that’s wide open for innovation."

I interviewed Jeramy Stewart, director of Class Dismissed  which follows 2 girls transitioning from public to homeschooling. He said, "Schools are so entrenched in politics and big money that there is no room for change. I personally don’t think schools are reformable." Do you believe our public schools are not reformable?

I don't agree. I admit that in intending to send my own child to public school next year I am invoking the categorical imperative. If parents with wealth and social capital all pull their kids out of public schools, the future of the institution is bleak. 

He continued to say, "There’s a lot of data being collected on every student for all kinds of reasons and that's scary in itself.” Is there a big data collection of our student crossing into the private business sector that we should be concerned about or is there an honest philanthropic support in the interest of improving public education?

Both motivations exist. The growing collection of student data is happening for a whole bunch of reasons and is at the forefront of a larger debate over data, privacy, and identity that affects us all as citizens, consumers, patients, etc. 

There was the story leaked out on the Common Core test which even stumped Jeopardy! star Ken Jennings, called, "The Pineapple and the Rabbit." NPR did a story on it. Additionally, the people doing the grading are earning $10 per hour. Without accountability or review of the test before or after, obscure questions like this, and the low wage people hired to correct tests, is it fair that these high stakes standardized tests are closely tied to the proficiency of a student and consequences to school districts and teachers?

That's a very good question. 

The rights and needs of the children have not been at the center of reform. Teachers unions are worried about the implications for the adults implementing this, big business is interested in securing their financial future. This is all about adults. As a parent, I want to advocate for children and expertise in education would ideally be involved but the political nature of the Common Core movement has left parents out. What is the appropriate role of parents in this?

I believe it's important for parents to be informed and get involved where and when they think it's necessary. It's parents who are providing insight into the actual experiences and interests of students who are too young to advocate for themselves. I'm also inspired by examples of students getting involved directly in Providence, Colorado, Seattle, and elsewhere.

Common Core theory standards appear clear, simply laid out and unifying, however, Common Core testing does not appear to take a developmental approach or the process of the test taking itself. For example, in 3rd grade, many kids cannot sit still and focus on 3 hour exams over 3 consecutive days. Plus, online testing for elementary children requires a couple of different skills that they have not learned. Are we testing proficiency in use of computers or the acquisition of the knowledge? Is this the skill set we want to test? 

Standardized, largely multiple-choice tests can measure only a small subset of skills and they do that in limited ways. The activity of stopping school to take a high stakes test creates anxiety that in 25-40% of students is severe enough that you're not getting an accurate measure of their knowledge even in the skills that you are testing. 

There are many ways children can communicate mastery of knowledge, test is only one way that rewards children with specific skill sets or capabilities. If the focus is on the testing skills, how does that help the original goal? This particularly effects children with and IEP or special needs. The testing consortia set the bar so high an they knew most students were sure to fail, and they did. They claim the tests were designed to fail 70% of students and 90% of students with special needs. Since this test greatly affects the students' future, what is the value added to anyone with more and rigorous testing standards in Common Core? What are we measuring here? What message does this send to children? Where is the emphasis on growth in learning? Who are these tests for? Why isn't testing part of a larger evaluation--portfolios of work, teacher observations, other approaches to gauging progress? How can those be included in a system of such large scale?

These are all excellent points that I cover in great detail in the book. I believe that multiple, full spectrum measures of student learning and related outcomes can, should, and will be included in accountability systems. I see it happening in schools and districts across the country. Even before the law changes--practice is changing. 

Are there any studies that have come out since you published your book that you wish you could have included?

The Council of the Great City Schools is currently surveying large urban districts to find out exactly how much testing is going on. They have found so far that students are taking 113 tests from kindergarten to graduation, and that most tests are required by districts, not states or the federal government. This is important information for rolling back testing requirements. 

Anya Kamenetz will be speaking at Book Passage in Corte Madera March 22nd at 4pm and at The Institute for the Future in Palo Alto on March 26 at 6pm. You can also connect with her at anyakamenetz.net or on Twitter at @anya1anya.