High-Stakes Testing Promoter Accidentally Shows How Insane They Are

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a piece yesterday entitled "Temperatures Rise, and We’re Cooked," which discusses how climate change will have a significant impact on our physiological well-being. The main exhibit in the piece is a working paper purporting to show that high daytime temperatures have an adverse effect on the performance of New York City students on the New York State Regents exam, a high-stakes test that affects most New York students' high school graduation and potentially their college admissions. Based on that paper, Kristof tweeted the following:


I saw the tweet and found it incredibly striking—not because I'm surprised about how high temperatures can affect us, but because of how insane it shows high-stakes tests to be. I replied, but I don't think Kristof paid it any attention:


Unfortunately, Kristof is a high-stakes testing advocate. He has praised China's deplorably test-centered education system (though he was open-minded enough to host this excellent rebuttal), and he has repeatedly promoted "weeding-out of poor teachers" through the use of tests. Four years ago, while still in college, I criticized Kristof's take on the Chicago Teachers Union strike, in which the striking teachers protested all the tests their students were being subjected to.

Apparently Kristof didn't catch the implications of the findings he shared today. If factors like daytime temperature can have such a drastic impact on how many students fail a high-stakes exam, how could anyone believe that such an exam should profoundly impact the rest of a student's life or determine a teacher's employment?

No standardized test, no matter how long, how carefully written, or how "rigorous," will ever be able to accurately represent the intelligence or skill set of a young person, let alone the abilities of their teachers. It's an injustice in the U.S. today that so many students' high school diplomas and prospects for college ride on an experience as volatile, variable, and unfair as a high-stakes standardized test. Even more insane is the idea that it's possible to judge a teacher's quality and hard work through the results of such tests—results so unreliable they swing dramatically with the temperature outside.

The type of education I strive to promote is holistic; I want to help my students become mature adults who will continue to read, write, think critically, and work hard to develop the skills they need for their futures. I don't ever teach them how best to tackle multiple-choice questions. Thankfully I don't need to: During this year, high school students in Alaska have no mandated tests to take and there is no test tied to high school graduation as there used to be. Next year there may be a new test chosen because of federal requirements, but I truly hope we'll never go back to using such a test for granting or withholding diplomas. If a student earns their required high school credits, no arbitrary set of bubbles should stand between them and graduation.

Don't think for a minute that I oppose tests because I don't want to be held "accountable." I sincerely appreciate whenever a principal comes into my classroom, observes my work, and evaluates it. I welcome anyone else to come observe me at work too—colleagues, administrators, parents, even other students. If anyone sees a problem with what I'm doing, I'll gladly listen to them and seek to improve. If there are unredeemable problems with my teaching, I should be fired. Maybe instead of pushing to measure a teacher's value with unpredictable results of multiple-choice questions, Kristof should go observe some classrooms himself. If he sees poor teachers who need to be "weeded out," he should report it to their principals. I'd love to see a column about that—but somehow I doubt I will.

I hope anyone who's favored high-stakes standardized testing in the past considers how unfair and unreliable it is to judge students and teachers through singular high-stakes measurements. Until then, I'll be trying to keep it cool outside, just in case my students take any tests.

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