Everywhere everyone is talking about testing in public education: testing to evaluate students, testing to evaluate teachers, testing to evaluate schools. Tests, tests, and more tests. Why? That basic question no one asks or answers. So I start with fundamentals.
The purpose of testing is to collect data. The purpose of that data, often combined with data from other sources and methods, is to generate information to guide action. Yet the advocates of more testing have neither asked nor answered three fundamental questions. One, what data or information do we not have but need? Two, for what purposes do we need more data or information? Three, what action will we take when we have it? By not asking or answering these questions, advocates may be suspected of serving other than educational purposes.
New Mexico has collected data and information on student academic performance for two traditional purposes. The first purpose, at the classroom and school level, is to evaluate student performance, both individual and collective, to improve instruction to individual students or entire classes. When tests have been used to collect data and information (along with the results of class quizzes and tests, and graded work) for this purpose, the now heated issue of “teaching to the test” has rarely arisen.
The second purpose, at the school and state level, in the aggregate and over time, is to identify and evaluate strengths and weaknesses of educational programs and help educational officials and legislators manage resources and develop programs to improve the quality of education. When test results have been used for these purposes (and not teacher and school evaluation), controversies have largely resulted from different opinions about effectiveness and cost.
To serve these two traditional purposes, New Mexico has been collecting data from tests and other sources for decades. It has enormous amounts of annual data on proficiency tests, grade point averages, SAT scores, dropout and graduation rates, college matriculation rates, and college remediation rates. If the state needs more data or information to serve these purposes, it must be different data or information, and it must identify what that different data or information is. What is certain is that more testing of essentially the same kind cannot provide it. What is equally certain is that the state has refused to justify its need for more testing by identifying different data and information which can lead to constructive action to improve public education.
From all sources of data and information, New Mexico has had remarkably consistent results for decades. State standardized proficiency testing in reading and math in the fourth and eighth grades have hovered around 50 percent. State graduation rates have recently risen from about 50 about 65 percent; Las Cruces graduates rates have risen to about 70 percent. Graduate remediation rates have hovered around 50 percent. The national ranking of New Mexico’s K-12 public education system has long been in the bottom 10 percent of the states; it has recently dropped to 50th, or last place. UNM and NMSU, the two largest state universities, rank in the lower tiers of state universities. Their graduation rates range between 40 and 50 percent, depending on the number of years to degree; at other state universities, they are much lower. At state community colleges, the average graduation rate is about 15 percent; at DACC, it is about 7 percent.
These results lead to one finding about the quality of public education at all levels in New Mexico. If percentages from just above to well below 50 percent mean anything, by these measures, the quality of education in the state is mediocre at best.
These results clearly indicate the need for legislative, administrative, and educational action to change them. However, the sorry fact is that New Mexico has made no use of already existing available data and information, at least not to any evident beneficial educational effect. The sorry inference is that the state would make no use of additional data and information for beneficial educational effect.
The question is why the state collects data and information which it does not use to improve public education, and squanders state resources in the process. The answer is that, despite a decades-long record of persistent mediocrity in public education, citizens, their elected representatives, and appointed officials are tolerant of, even satisfied with, the benefits of public education as it actually operates. In a state mired in poverty, its effects of poor education and poor health, and their effects on employment, public education is oriented to support immediate, though non-educational, purposes: employment and revenues from enrollments to sustain employment.
New Mexico supports these purposes and gets results. The state has more post-secondary schools per capita than any other state in the union because they provide large numbers of administrative and teaching positions. To sustain and increase such employment, New Mexico markets higher education to generate ever more enrollments to increase revenues to pay for this swollen and swelling staff. To meet growth targets, 2- and 4-year colleges have low or no admissions standards and accept from 60 to 100 percent of applicants, regardless of whether they are likely capable of doing college-level work, completing an educational program, and graduating—a point elaborated below. New Mexico prefers these short-term purposes of public education to the longer-term purpose of an education of quality serving the needs of the state and its citizens.
The unstated fear is that changes which would improve public education at all levels would probably reduce enrollments and thereby reduce employment and revenues. So no one wants changes. Yet the costs of doing nothing are very great.
The most egregious example of the unwillingness to make changes despite clear evidence of the deficiencies of public education at all levels is the indifference to the high rates of remediation. As noted above, 50 percent of New Mexico public high-school graduates who enroll in New Mexico 2- or 4-year colleges or universities require remediation. This fact alone indicates deficiencies of K-12 education in the public schools. This implication is ignored because, the primary purposes of education being employment and revenues, remediation is a two-fer. Remedial classes require instructors and charge students tuition and fees; the numbers of additional employees and the amount of additional revenues are significant. In addition, the more remediation which these students require, the less likely they are to graduate. This fact suggests that many remediation courses fail to remediate.
The results are grotesque. Parents of college-bound students requiring remediation, or the students themselves, should be outraged. After providing a shoddy education, New Mexico requires them to pay for often shoddy repairs. Indeed, the more time and effort students devote to remediation, and the more money they spend on tuition, fees, and books, the more likely students are to fail. By tolerating high remediation rates, New Mexico not only disregards data indicating widespread educational deficiencies, but also sanctions a swindle: two payments (taxes and tuition) for one education.
Taxpayers should be angry. Their taxes pay for a mediocre education of students. The diminished prospects of dropouts and graduates for career employment, college education, and quality of life create a need for greater “safety-net” programs from state and federal governments. Poorly educated people constitute a less productive workforce and a less constructive citizenry. The inadequate or misdirected investment of public revenues in public education ensures a diminished future return. In short, New Mexico is educating itself for continued third-world status across the board.
For taxpayers, their taxes also pay for the more immediate financial consequences which result from the ill-prepared who try but fail to get a college education. Like many other students, they incur debt in the form of education loans; when they withdraw, they often default on those loans. The higher the withdrawal rate, the higher the default rate. With a graduation rate of only 7 percent, Dona Ana Community College leads its peers in student debt forfeiture. Taxpayers pay for those defaults, so they, too, pay twice for poor education.
If data and information in so egregious a case as remediation can prompt no change, data and information in other cases will more than likely prompt no change. Since the quality of education matters little, the problems which cause academic mediocrity also matter little. In any event, testing solves none of the problems, and adds little to what teachers know about students, principals know (or can know) about teachers, and the public knows about the schools.
The case against more testing rests on four conclusions. One, given the abundance of existing or easily obtained data and information, New Mexico already knows everything which it needs to know about the systemic failures of public education in the state. Two, since New Mexico knows everything which it needs to know to make changes but does not make them, the state is not going to makes changes in response to yet more, even different, data and information. Three, more testing will not identify new problems or new solutions or, in themselves, lead to improvements in public education. And four, New Mexico should not squander resources to test students even more frequently to collect superfluous data adding nothing to what is already known and available for use.
So why more testing? Because advocates of more testing are advancing an agenda based on a business-oriented ideology committed to undermining, if not destroying, public education. The record of mediocrity of public education in New Mexico is clear enough; more testing merely gives more publicity to this mediocrity. The purpose of this publicity is to diminish confidence in, and support of, public education. In addition, more testing has other adverse effects on public education which will further diminish public confidence and support. More testing weakens education by stressing students, harassing teachers, and badgering principals and superintendents. More testing of students to evaluate teachers, and grade schools dilutes and degrades the quality of education because it inevitably leads to constricting the curriculums and teaching to the test (as well as manipulation of the testing and the data). Increased attention to student test scores and school grades distracts from analyses of problems and proposals of solutions. Notably, advocates of more testing have offered no proposal to improve the existing K-12 and college public school system.
Instead, advocates are playing a duplicitous game. They pretend to want more testing to improve public education, but they really intend more mediocre test results to transfer support—in particular, to scare and stampede parents—from public schools to non-public alternatives. The sequences is clear: first, publicly funded, independently operated charter schools; then, vouchers for any, including religious, schools; and, finally, privatization. In the end, the state would collect and transfer taxpayer dollars to companies which cannot otherwise create for-profit schools, and would thereby preclude any public voice or role in state-funded education. Privatization would make public education a case of taxation without representation.
More testing is testing public education in a free society. The alternative, company schools, is a detestable alternative to this fundamental democratic institution.