After reading my previous post, “The First Bite of the Elephant,” some of you may have thought to yourself, “Rob, what’s the big deal? Haven’t you been arguing for Congress to reauthorize ESEA for years? Why are you being such a Debbie Downer?”

Well, let me say this for clarification. I am very happy ecstatic that NCLB, RttT, and the ridiculous ESEA waivers have now been added to the very large trash bin of failed federal interventions. I am shedding no tears.

I also get pleasure from listening to President Obama and Arne Duncan try to rationalize and even walk back their seven years of failed policy by implying, “Yah, you bet, this is what we wanted to do all along. We’re glad Congress finally listened to us.”

Uh, beg your pardon? Nope…no you didn’t! I raise the BS flag.

When it comes to this new federal education legislation, I would call myself a skeptical optimist, or an optimistic skeptic, whichever you prefer This sounds contradictory, but it’s not.

An optimist is not the opposite of a skeptic, it is the opposite of a cynic. Optimists are positive thinkers while cynics are non-believers.

Know one likes to listen to cynics for very long. Cynical people operate with a doom and gloom energy, an outlook that shuts down ideas before they can even start. Debbie Downer is a cynic.

On the other hand, a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing. Skeptics are critical thinkers. They look beyond the surface and dig deeper.

To me, one of the reasons we endured the last 15 years of failed reforms was the lack of healthy skepticism on the part of parents, teachers, administrators, union leaders, and lawmakers. Even as the harmful effects of NCLB became readily obvious, very few took the time to truly analyze why and offer an alternate pathway. (A notable exception–the incomparable Diane Ravitch!

Skeptical optimists believe that there’s always a bright side or a light at the end of the tunnel. Further, that we all can change and have the capacity to do good far beyond what we could ever imagine. We’re also aware that asking “why?” and “how come?” aren’t negative, but rather necessary questions to gain more clarity and achieve better results.

So, as the Geico commercial says, digging in and asking hard questions is just what I do.

I have to admit this is one of the more unsavory chunks of leftover meat scraped from the NCLB/RttT carcass.

This document, the Every Student Succeeds Act ESSA Primer, is from the Alliance for Excellent education and provides a decent synopsis of the flexibility changes to assessments.

The bad news is ESSA maintains the NCLB requirement of annual math and reading testing for all students in grades 3 through 8, and then once again in high school. It also requires at least one science test in elementary, middle and high school.

However, ESSA also provides flexibility to states in how and when they administer those tests. For example, a single annual assessment can be broken down into a series of smaller tests. States also have some freedom on developing and using different types of assessments (e.g. projects, portfolios, or performance tasks) to more accurately measure what students are learning.

The potential logistics here concern me.

First, there is a reason why we have relied on multiple choice tests built on superficial recall of low-level knowledge for as long as we have. They are relatively inexpensive, easier and less time-consuming to administer, and (theoretically) allow for faster grading.

To be brutally honest, we don’t have a lot of secondary teachers relying on alternative assessments in our schools as it is. I suspect that the vast majority of final exams given to students over the next few weeks will follow traditional formats, that can be given in a set amount of time and are quick to grade.

I’m not even sure how our state would be able to develop an assessment system to meet the needs of all schools and students without increasing time and logistical requirements.

Plus, ESSA retains the requirement for states to use test results in evaluating school performance. This pretty much guarantees a one-size-fits-all type of assessment to ensure validity and test security.

What the authors of ESSA have missed is the fundamental criticism leveled by parents and educators for the past decade, namely that testing should not be driving reform.

So the real problem is not how to do testing correctly. Some argue today’s standardized assessments are probably the best they’ve ever been. Instead, the problem is a system that favors a largely automated accounting of a narrow slice of students’ capacity and then attaches huge consequences to that limited information.

Therefore, the problem isn’t with the assessments, per se; it is the worship of these tests by policy makers. It is the belief that assessments will magically drive improvements in teaching and learning.

Remember the rhetoric when NCLB became law in 2002? The government entrusted the education of an entire generation of children to an unproven but ambitious belief that if we test children and hold educators responsible for improving test scores, we would have almost everyone scoring as “proficient” by 2014. Thus, we would achieve “equality.” This approach has been nothing less than an abject failure.

As a result, we need to end the focus on whether test scores are good measures of learning, whether growth modeling captures what we want it to, or even whether test scores are increasing.

Instead, we need to analyze the overall efficacy of test-based accountability on improving education for children. We have seen that increasing test scores can be accomplished in many different ways, some of which focus on real learning but many of which do not.

An incremental increase (or decrease) in reading or math scores means almost nothing, particularly if it means we lose student engagement; diminish focus on non-tested subjects; and cause the  focus of education to shift from one of learning to one of testing.

It is odd how some lawmakers fight tooth-and-nail to protect the independence and autonomy of private schools. They claim that by forcing these schools to test their students would detract from the overall learning experience. The message is that this “private school” model works well for the well-to-do, but we “commoners” need government testing to hold us accountable.

Regrettably, it’s likely that annual testing will be the main course on the education plate for years to come. It’s really too bad because there are many alternatives that would do much more to nourish the minds and spirits of our youth.

“Eat your testing, kids. It’s good for you!”