When Will the Testing Bubble Burst?

The following is commentary from Anthony Cody, a science teacher in inner-city Oakland, California who works with a team of science teacher-coaches to support novice teachers in his school district. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

In the mid-1920s our economy boomed. The stock market, then relatively new, soared to amazing heights, as the middle class invested their money and saw their wealth grow. But there was a problem. The stock market prices had inflated beyond the intrinsic worth of the companies they were based upon. This came to be known as a stock market bubble, because when the inflation of value stopped, the bubble burst and the economy collapsed.
The nation experienced another bubble recently with the rising value of real estate, which blew up in our faces a few years ago, and is still costing many of our communities dearly.

Take a look at the dynamics of these bubbles. In each case we had something with some intrinsic value, which people began obsessing over. The future value was projected to be far greater than the current value, and investors started pouring money into the market, bidding up the prices. The phenomena started to feed itself – as the price rose, people saw others making their fortunes, and more money flowed in.

In the case of the housing market, government policies fed the boom. Lax regulations allowed financiers to create “innovative” loans requiring no documentation of earnings or collateral. Loans were packaged and sold so the risk was passed on to investors. And those who stood to profit worked to inflate the bubble as much as they could, spinning projections of wealth, saying that growth is inevitable, and denying the dangers even as they grew. Real estate speculators, investment bankers and loan agents all saw their fortunes grow as money poured into the market. And very few saw what was coming, and even fewer raised any alarm.

But at some point reality began to set in. The bubble expanded to its limits, tottered, and when the money available to feed its irrational expansion dried up, the collapse was inevitable. And prices returned to earth, to some proximity to the intrinsic value of the stock or property. Our economy is still reeling, and millions have lost their homes and jobs.

We are now in the last upward push of the testing bubble.

Just like real estate, test scores have some intrinsic worth. They can be used to see how students at a given school are performing in some important areas of basic skills. We have had tests available for this purpose for decades, and they allow us to see patterns at the whole school or district level, and to judge the effectiveness of different curricula or instructional programs. But the value of these tests is being vastly inflated as a result of the phony imperative that we are in an “education crisis,” and the only cure for this is “accountability” for test scores.

Corporate education reformers are so happy to have introduced “market forces” into the education arena, they have overlooked the fact that they are creating the most destructive dynamic of the marketplace — the unsustainable bubble — which is inevitably followed by a calamitous crash. And as with all of these bubbles, the longer it takes to burst, the greater the damage it will inflict.

Here are the things tests are supposed to accomplish for us:

Exit exams ensure high school diplomas “mean something.” However research has revealed they do little good.

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