The perils of conflating testing and accountability

Everyone wants a great education. And our city deserves a great community college. To do that, City College has to stop trying to keep everything the same as it’s always been and start finding what really works. We have to embrace our responsibility to our community and accept accountability. That isn’t easy, but it’s a fight worth having.

Teachers all over the nation and at every level decry the wrongs they see perpetrated by the so-called “testing” movement in public education. They explain that teaching and learning are complex activities, eluding simple tests of effectiveness. People do not usually learn in linear, easily monitored ways – the true result of a semester’s work may not be realized for a year or more. In addition, standardized tests have been repeatedly shown to be biased to people from different socio-economic groups, ethnicities, first-languages, and other issues of identity. And many teachers object to being evaluated based on students’ test results, because of the complexities mentioned above.

While I agree with much of the criticism of standardized tests (see also The Coming Revolution in Public Education in the Atlantic), I also see that the move toward greater accountability, which is at the root of the testing movement, is positive. More accountability means more information for students, parents, and the public in general. More accountability means there is less chance of failing systems and schools continuing to function without change. More accountability is good for students.

Conforming to the national trends toward greater accountability in education, the California legislature and our accrediting commission (ACCJC) are asking community colleges to be more transparent in our work, to assess our selves and our students more effectively, and to provide data to the public about our success and failures with students. They are also asking us to be more efficient with public dollars and to concentrate on job training, transfer to four-year institutions, and basic skills. Despite my belief that money spent on education is almost always a good investment, this is a reasonable request. More importantly, we are public servants in a public institution and we have to listen to what our society is telling us.

Unfortunately, some community college faculty don’t want to be more accountable. Some want desperately to protect the status quo at our colleges, even though we fail, both metaphorically and literally, way too many of our students, especially if those students are African-American, Latino/a, Filipino/a, or Pacific Islander (see the Student Success Scorecard for data). Those faculty sometimes conflate the testing movement with the trend toward increased accountability. Whether the conflation is intentional or not, the effect is to scare other faculty into fighting against both testing and accountability – that is, into fighting for the status quo – even though many of them believe change in higher education is needed.

At no community college in California is the conflation and fear of the testing movement and the trend toward more accountability stronger than at City College of San Francisco, where many faculty have been fighting the statewide Student Success Task Force, the subsequent Student Success Act of 2012, and now the ACCJC sanctions. There has been less protest about the standardized testing movement, but it comes up occasionally as an example of what’s wrong with the reforms being asked for by the ACCJC.

But it is false to equate the testing movement with the accountability movement. No one, neither the ACCJC nor the California state legislature, is trying to force community colleges to administer the kinds of standardized testing that K-12 public schools must use or to be penalized for how students do on them. Community college faculty are not in danger of losing our jobs or of having our salaries based on student test performance.

On the other hand, community colleges are in danger of losing some state funding if students don’t want to take our classes or if students don’t stay in our classes through the whole semester. Community colleges are also in danger of losing accreditation if we plan and prioritize poorly and don’t have clear links between our finances and our plans.

Being more accountable, more transparent, and more responsible is a good thing. We are public employees and we are paid through public funds, so we are and should be accountable to the public. Information about how classes are taught, what students learn, and how well students do should be generally available and we as teachers and as institutions should be held responsible for our work. If we’re not responsive to the needs of our students and community, we should be penalized.

When we conflate standardized testing with accountability, fighting both, we fight the good of accountability rather than just the bad of standardized tests.

So rather than fighting to save a failing status quo, CCSF and community colleges broadly should be fighting to save our students by providing really great classes they want to take, with excellent support both in and out of the classroom. Many at CCSF and at other colleges understand that if students come to our colleges and succeed, the state will be happy to fund our work. If students don’t come or don’t succeed, the state has every right to put the money somewhere else.

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