Aug 21, 2009

negating the exit exam resolution

Regarding the September / October LD resolution, one of my readers asks,
Ok so aff seems pretty easy. it seems like the only neg argument is that we need one test that holds all students to the same level. Are there any other, better neg arguments we can think of?
That claim shows the basic instrumentality of standardized tests: they're not intrinsically good, but are only worth the goods they bring to those who take them, or those who administer them, or the society that requires them.

What are those goods?

A standardized test, when properly designed to eliminate subtle biases, levels the playing field in several ways. It exposes deficiencies in particular classes, schools, districts, or states, which allows educators or policymakers to allocate resources, change teaching strategies, etc. It can also expose inequalities across relevant demographic factors--race, gender, socioeconomic status, and the like. (The last, in educational research, is usually the most powerful determiner of one's educational fate.) Standardized tests have sparked real educational reforms, and an overall interest in overcoming the "soft bigotry of low expectations," in George W. Bush's memorable phrase.

A standardized test is more objective than a teacher's gut feeling or a parent's pride. Administered in a tightly controlled environment, it's arguably less amenable to cheating or other kinds of corruption.

A healthy democracy depends on an informed citizenry; the foundation is public education. Standardized tests in subjects that society, through democratic processes, has deemed educationally essential--math, science, history, letters--ensure a "floor" of democratic competence.

National Security / Economic Stability
Educationally, the U.S. lags behind other nations. The Neg can argue that this is because of the U.S.'s disparate, hodgepodge system of "local control," and that the use of standardized tests is a remedy.

That's great, I can hear you saying. So taking a test is important. Let's require everyone to take the test, then, but not require it be passed for graduation.

Two responses.

First, passing the test helps guarantee the worth of the diploma to cautious or skeptical observers, including employers and college admissions officers.

Second, and perhaps more important, it ensures the test is taken seriously. Consider Washington state. The WASL has four components: reading, writing, math, and science. Reading and writing are required for passing since 2006; as this handy chart shows (comparing my school's results to the state average), scores improved significantly after that year. (Yes, there are several counterarguments, and I'm glad you're already thinking about them.) In contrast, the math test has been an on-again, off-again requirement over its history, and scores have reflected that, including a significant dip this past year when students were able to graduate after failing, provided they continued taking math courses. Science has never been required, and our scores are abysmal.

Not only is the passage requirement essential for students to take it seriously, but it adds an extra layer of accountability for teachers. (The Aff might say, "merit pay would work better," but the Neg could respond that merit pay without an objective measure, like test scores, is susceptible to cronyism.)

For all the arguments listed above, accountability is the linchpin to the entire Negative case.

Last, a word about strategy. DO NOT let the affirmative pin you into defending the status quo, or tests in their present incarnation. Tests vary from state to state, in quantity, breadth, and quality. If needed, create a resolutional analysis or overview that makes this as distinct from a policy debate as possible. It's likely that the affirmative will try to present evidence that testing has failed; you can argue that those failures aren't inherent to tests, but to the lack of political will to implement them. Or you can try to sidestep the empirical debate altogether, arguing the proposal on an entirely moral plane. (This is LD, lest this resolution make you think otherwise.)

Some responses to Aff arguments

1. This will make teachers "teach to the test."
"Teach to the test" is only as bad as the test. Make the test an accurate reflection of what students have learned, measuring it against what they should have learned, and teaching to the test can be a positive thing.

2. What about students with test anxiety, or who through no fault of their own fare poorly on tests? And is it fair to have such a limited slice of time represent a student's work and worth?
Think of an analogous situation: written (or, these days, computer-based) tests for driver's licenses. Nobody complains that they're somehow unjust, even though they cause much anxiety and are not always a fair representation of a person's true ability. The key is to allow retakes, and to remediate--to help students who struggle to succeed. Failure is just a speed bump on the road to success.

3. Tests are biased.
Not well-designed tests. And even a slightly biased test that helps "raise the bar" and improve education is better than a system free of individual accountability that leaves children behind. (See what I did there?)

This post in no way exhausts the options for the Negative. If you have other brilliant ideas for negating the resolution, or questions about my initial efforts, share them in the comments.


MTGAP said...

These are some good points. It may be tricky, but they can pretty much all be rebutted by making the case that no standardized test is perfect. A lot of what you said only works in an ideal world.

Jim Anderson said...

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the Negative, right?

I really hope the Nov/Dec resolution is fairer.

James Stripes said...

Society has determined that history is "educationally essential"? I wish it were true. American democratic society favors requiring a few items of superficial civics, to wit, most states require the study of the Constitution of the nation and that particular state. Notwithstanding this requirement, many government teachers in Washington state have never read the Washington State constitution, and prove woefully ignorant of the federal document upon close examination.

What passes for history in most classrooms nevertheless is a catalog of dry facts, generally skewed towards a bias that the best teachers attempt to hide. But the study of history as the cultivation of historical thinking is almost entirely unknown. One gets the impression that it is anathema to democratic society as it currently exists.

Standardized tests are most useful because they interfere with the teaching of history, while helping to winnow the available facts down to an almost trivial core.

croc_drag33 said...

Didn't W. also say "I am the master of low expectations"?

And yes, I agree this is really skewed towards the aff because of the status quo, and that the negative needs to stay as far away from the status quo as possible.

I like the jury nullification one for nov/dec

Jim Anderson said...

James Stripes, I agree almost entirely with your argument, but a Neg has to bring something to the debate. LD is about the world of ideals, so the Neg has to focus on principles describing how the world ought to be, not necessarily how it is--because that way lies loss.

captain princess said...

I have a neg case outline that's a little unsympathetic, but I think insightful. I will admit that it is more policy oriented than it should be for an LD round.

Value(s): Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Individual autonomy is the way in which we pursue these values. However, in a complex American society, it takes an education to pursue material and spiritual goods. Education enables us to live these values.

Value criterion: Institutional improvement. Education is provided by schools. Many factors go into a quality education--budgets, quality of teachers and quality of students for example. However, it's hard to measure what goes into socializing institutions. Standardized tests, regardless of quality, provide one of the few clear measures of outputs (students). As an instrument for mapping school performance, even lousy standardized tests are more useful than nothing.

Contentions forthcoming.

Jim Anderson said...

Even more unsympathetically, you could argue that standardized tests are a social sorting mechanism necessary to keep America running at peak efficiency.

James Stripes said...


Thanks for the reply. I stumbled across your blog from a linking one that I follow almost regularly. I confess that I'm not entirely cognizant of your rules. The closest I get to any involvement in LD is coaching a HS chess team where a couple of my key players only show up for competition only if there are no debate events scheduled. Even so, I'm happy to have found your blog, and plan to look in from time to time.

Buried in my ungrounded criticism of education in Washington state was a "principle describing how the world ought to be": an assertion that might recommend an approach to history teaching that does not lend itself to standardized tests (unless we think along the lines of the Bar Exam as the testing model). That is, teaching "historical thinking" is a focused and flexible alternative to current practices. See "Reflective Thinking, Teaching and Learning" for one of my forays into this enterprise.

As they say in Congress, if I might revise and extend my remarks to include that other text (or certain portions), you might read what I wrote a bit differently. Of course, all this talk of history seems peripheral to the main argument, especially as history is one of the "core" subjects with the weakest public support.

Jim Anderson said...

James, I'm glad you've stumbled into the conversation, then, because in that parenthetical about the Bar Exam, you've pointed to a little hope for the Negative (which I think has to do all the heavy lifting for this resolution, it seems). Some standardized tests can adequately measure important kinds of thinking. The key is to make the tests meaningful and design them well, rather than abandon the concept because some tests are inadequate. (Even some high school tests, like my state's WASL, include written / short answer portions, to address critical thinking rather than mere regurgitation.)

Of course, such standardization undermines local control of education, which has always been a hallmark of this nation's unique educational system. But the Neg can argue that local control is a relic of a past, industrial age, when lacking a high school diploma wasn't a serious hindrance to employment.

captain princess said...


That is kind of where I am headed. I mean, my worry is that the Aff is going to stand up and "show" that no test is perfect and that testing therefore creates an unfair burden on the Children or the Teachers or the Taxpayers TM.

I suppose that before I made a "perfect efficiency" case, I would want a clear definition of what schools are supposed to do. Schools are obviously education facilities..but to what end?

melissa said...

Hello, I have two questions concerning the resolution.

First, if i were to structure my neg case around accountability, would quality of education also fall under that? And what is a good definition for accountability?

Lastly, where can I find definitions concerning this resolution?

Thanks. (:

michael said...

Hey jim i have a question, can you please explain how exactly you attack the aff on the argument of "tests are bised"