Today's David Brooks op-ed column ends with a mild zinger about overzealous test-prep being the choice of individual school officials rather than inevitable from high-stakes testing systems. That is precisely the argument I made in class yesterday with a handful of students, and it is absolutely in the capacity of school officials with authority to at least partially buffer teachers and students from inappropriate distortion of instruction. But it is not inherently at the level of the school where those choices are often made, despite the claims by Brooks. In Florida, a number of school systems put fairly extraordinary efforts and funding behind test-prep, inserting an additional layer of more intrusive varieties of testing and replication of test formats into the lives of schools. So it may be the fault of the teacher or principal if your child is subject to unreasoning test-prep. But it may also be the fault of the school district, and in Florida, that is nominally in violation of the law that requires school districts to set policies prohibiting test prep from interrupting real instruction. (Never mind that I have yet to see a school district with such an explicit policy, but that was something legislators did primarily to appease parents rather than to change behavior.)
There is a deep inconsistency in the arguments of high-stakes advocates that test-based accountability policies have absolutely no relationship to test-prep. To the advocates, test-based accountability is essential to hold teachers' and principals' feet to the fire for teaching children, and the theory of action requires that accountability create incentives to change behavior. But when it comes to complaints about test-prep, all the pressures of the tests disappear: don't look at me, it was the guy next to me whose fault it is! Or the guy below me in the bureaucracy... Fundamentally, dear high-stakes advocates, you have to decide: are high-stakes accountability policies supposed to change behavior or not?
One should also note that Brooks chose to highlight charter schools as examples of how one can respond to accountability without test-prep. It is as if he could not find a single example of a school overseen by a single regular school district that has escaped the pressures to engage in test prep. Or that he along with other pundits have a severe availability bias in favor of charter schools. It is an unfortunate bit of hype; while some charter schools do very well compared with local public schools (as would any random sample of schools), a good portion fall near or below the recorded achievement of local public schools. Yet Brooks and others continue to hype charter schools, much to the detriment of public debate. In the real world, meanwhile, silver bullets continue to be a rare commodity: Jacksonville's KIPP school fell in the lowest rating band in Florida this year. I take any state rating system with a few pounds of salt, but there will always be a consistency problem for overhyping school reformers and their fans: test score results are fragile. Maybe the Jacksonville KIPP school didn't engage in enough test-prep?
Addendum: One person reminded me this afternoon that Paul Tough describes an incredible test-prep focus in the HCZ Promise Academy in his book about Geoffrey Canada, who kicked out both employees and students when the first generation of charter-school students scored low on tests.