Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools

Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools by Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner (Harvard Education Press, 250 pages, $24.95)

Collateral Damage will recommit you to the Common Principles like a drowning person recommits to respiration. Nichols and Berliner provide a satisfyingly reasoned critique of high-stakes standardized tests, a tight, research-based, evidence-rich argument that creates urgency for the widely held conviction that our education system must shift toward more human-scale ways of measuring what students know and can do.

Collateral Damage will infuriate you with its train-wreck accounts of cheating, student neglect, data misrepresentation, distortion, corruption, and corrosive damage affecting not only individual students, teachers, and schools, but the entire enterprise of American public education. We all live with the compromises, wasted time, anxiety, anger, and losses that accompany the ubiquitous high-stakes standardized tests. Collateral Damagepulls together hundreds of such instances, revealing the horrifying parameters.

The authors reinforce their assertions with Campbell’s law, the social scientist’s version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Campbell’s law stipulates that the more a social indicator is used for decision-making, the more likely it will be corrupted and the social processes it is meant to measure will be distorted. Nichols and Berliner argue that the current over-reliance on testing creates a frighteningly ideal environment in which Campell’s law can operate.

We know the insidious effects. Educators view certain kinds of students as liabilities. To improve scores, the system pressures educators to ignore these young people and push them out, creating a cruel world in which the students who most need help are most likely to be denied it. We have drastically narrowed the curriculum while undermining teachers.

Collateral Damage serves as a validation of demonstration of mastery, emphasizing the integrity and validity of exhibitions and other incorruptible authentic work completed over time. Nichols and Berliner endorse such assessment work as one of the likely alternatives to the current situation; sharp eyes will note that all examples in this section are all CES schools (and CES is mentioned by name). Even in this nearly airless climate, CES educators can inhale, at least a bit. We know that we must collectively demand a different system, and we who are in CES schools are, in fact, at the forefront of creating that better system.