Test-Based Accountability – Smokescreen for Cowardly Politicians and Unscrupulous Corporations

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There is no single education policy more harmful than test-based accountability.

 

The idea goes like this: We need to make sure public schools actually teach children, and the best way to do that is with high stakes standardized testing.

 

It starts from the assumption that the problems with our school system are all service-based. Individual schools or districts are not providing quality services. Teachers and administrators are either screwing up or don’t care enough to do the job.

 

But this is untrue. In reality, most of our problems are resource-based. From the get-go, schools and districts get inequitable resources with which to work.

 

This is not a guess. This is not a theory. It is demonstrable. It has been demonstrated. It is a fact.

 

No one even disputes it.

 

What is in question is its importance.

 

However, any lack of intention or ability on the part of schools to actually teach is, in fact, pure conjecture. It is a presumption, an excuse by those responsible for allocating resources (i.e. lawmakers) from doing their jobs.

 

Any time you hear senators or representatives at the state or federal level talking about test-based accountability, they are ignoring their own duties to properly provide for our public school children and pushing everything onto the schools, themselves.

 

That is the foundation of the concept. It’s hard to imagine more unstable ground from which to base national education policy.

 

But it gets worse.

 

With our eyes closed and this assumption swallowed like a poison pill, we are asked to accept further toxic premises.

 

Next comes the concept of trustworthiness.

 

We are being asked to question the trustworthiness of teachers. Instead, we are pushed to trust corporations – corporations that manufacture standardized tests.

 

I have no idea why anyone would think that big business is inherently moral or ethical. The history of the world demonstrates this lie. Nor do I understand why anyone would start from the proposition that teachers are inherently untrustworthy. Like any other group of human beings, educators include individuals that are more or less honest, but the profession is not motivated by a creed that specifically prescribes lying if it maximizes profit.

 

Business is.

 

Test manufacturers are motivated by profit. They will do that which maximizes the corporate bottom line. And student failure does just that.

 

Most of these companies don’t just manufacturer tests. They also provide the books, workbooks, software and other materials schools use to get students ready to take the tests. They produce the remediation materials for students who fail the tests. And they provide and grade the tests in the first place.

 

When students fail their tests, it means more money for the corporation. More money to give and grade the retests. More money to provide additional remediation materials. And it justifies the need for tests to begin with.

 

Is it any wonder then that so many kids fail? That’s what’s profitable.

 

There was a time when classroom teachers were not so motivated.

 

They were not paid based on how many of their students passed the test. Their evaluations were not based on student test scores. Their effectiveness used to be judged based on what they actually did in the classroom. If they could demonstrate to their administrators that they were actually making good faith efforts to teach kids, they were considered effective. If not, they were ineffective. It was a system that was both empirical and fair – and one to which we should return.

 

In fact, it was so fair that it demonstrated the partisanship of the corporations. Laws were changed to bring teacher motivation more in line with those of big business. Their evaluations became based on student test scores. Their salaries were increasingly tied to student success on these tests. And when some teachers inevitably felt the pressure to cheat on the tests, they were scapegoated and fired. There is no mechanism available to even determine if testing corporations cheat less than penalties for it.

 

After all, what is cheating for a testing corporation when they determine the cut score for passing and failing?

 

Yet this is a major premise behind test-based accountability – the untrustworthiness of teachers compared to the dependable, credibility of corporations.

 

Next, come the scores, themselves.

 

Time-after-time, standardized test scores show a striking correspondence: poor and minority students often do badly while middle class and wealthy white students do well.

 

Why is that?

 

Well, it could mean, as we’ve already mentioned, that poor and minority students aren’t receiving the proper resources. Or it could mean that teachers are neglecting these children.

 

There is a mountain of evidenceundisputed evidence – to support the former. There is nothing to support the later.

 

I’m not saying that there aren’t individual teachers out there who may be doing a bad job educating poor and minority children. There certainly are some. But there is no evidence of a systemic conspiracy by teachers to educate the rich white kids and ignore all others. However, there IS an unquestionable, proven system of disinvestment in these exact same kids by lawmakers.

 

If we used standardized tests to shine a light on the funding inequalities of the system, perhaps they would be doing some good. But this is not how we interpret the data.

 

Finally comes the evidence of history.

 

Standardized testing is not new. It is a practice with a past that is entirely uncomplimentary.

 

These kinds of assessments are poor indicators of understanding complex processes. Answering multiple choice questions is not the best way to determine comprehension.

 

Moreover, this process is tainted by the eugenicist movement from which it originates. Standardized testing is a product of the belief that some races are better than others. It is a product of white supremacy. It was designed by racist psychologists who used it to justify the social structure of past generations and roundly praised and emulated by literal Nazis.

 

It is therefore not surprising that test scores show privileged white kids as superior to underprivileged students of color. That is how the system was designed.

 

Why any educated person would unquestionably accept these scores as valid assessments of student learning is beyond me.

 

Yet these are the assumptions and premises upon which the house of test-based accountability is built.

 

It is a smokescreen to protect politicians from having to provide adequate, equitable, sustainable resources for all children. It likewise protects unscrupulous business people so they can continue to cash in on the school system without providing any real value for students.

 

We must no longer allow policymakers to hide behind this blatant and immoral lie.

 

Not only should voters refrain from re-electing any lawmakers whose constituents children are receiving inequitable school resources, they should not be eligible for re-election.

 

Not only should corporations not be trusted more than teachers, they should be barred from determining success or failure while also profiting off of that same failure.

 

In short, we need to stop worshipping at the altar of test-based accountability.

 

Schools can and should be held accountable. But it cannot be done with standardized tests.

 

Moreover, we must stop ignoring the role of policymakers and business in this system. They must also be responsible. We are allowing them to get away with murder.

 

It’s time to wake up and make them answer for what they’ve done to our nation’s children.

The Problem With Public Schools Isn’t Low Test Scores. It’s Strategic Disinvestment

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Imagine you’re settling in to enjoy an article on-line or in your favorite print newspaper and you come across this headline:

 

U.S. Schools Ranked Low Internationally!

 

Or

 

Out of X Countries, U.S. Places Far From the Top in Math!

 

You feel embarrassed.

 

Soon that embarrassment turns to anger.

 

Sweat starts to break out on your brow.

 

And then you start to grasp for a solution to the problem – something major, something to disrupt the current system and bring us back to our proper place in the lead.

 

TWEEEEEEEET!

 

That was me blowing a gym teacher’s whistle. I’ll do it again:

 

TWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEET!

 

Hold it right there, consumer of corporate media. You’ve just been had by one of the oldest tricks in the book.

 

It’s the old manipulate-the-data-to-make-it-look-like-there’s-a-crisis-that-can-only-be-solved-by-drastic-measures-that-you-would-never-approve-of-normally.

 

We also call it disaster capitalism or the shock doctrine.

 

It’s been used to get people to agree to terrible solutions like preemptive wars of choice, warrantless wiretapping of civilians, torturing prisoners, defunding public health programs and scientific research – just about everything the Koch Brothers, the Waltons, the Broads, Gateses and other billionaire hegemonists have on their fire sale wish list.

 

In the case of the American educational system, it’s the impetus behind high stakes standardized testing, Common Core, Teach for America, and charter and voucher schools.

 

And they’re all justified by misinformation about student test scores.

 

The argument goes like this: Our Kids Are Failing!? Quick! Standardize and Privatize Their Schools!

 

First, education isn’t a race.

 

There is no best education system followed by a second best, etc. There are only countries that meet their students needs better than others.

 

And if you really wanted to determine if our country was meeting student needs, you wouldn’t appeal to test scores. You’d look at specific needs and assess them individually.

 

But you rarely see that. You rarely see an article with the headline:

 

U.S. Schools More Segregated Than Any In The Industrialized World!

 

Or

 

Out of X Countries, U.S. Spends Most on Rich Students and Least on Poor Ones!

 

Second, we need to ask ourselves if standardized test scores are really the best way to assess (1) student learning and (2) the education system as a whole.

 

Multiple choice tests are written by large corporations that profit more off of student failure than success. That’s not exactly an objective measure.

Students are considered passing or failing based on an arbitrary cut score that changes every year. That’s not exactly unbiased.

 

Moreover, standardized tests are always graded on a curve. That means no matter how well students do, some will always be considered failing. We cannot have No Child Left Behind when our assessments are designed to do just the opposite – it’s logically impossible.

 

But whenever the media turns to these international rankings, they ignore these facts.

 

They pretend it’s a horse race and we’re losing.

 

I kind of expect this from the corporate media. But when so-called progressive writers fall into this trap, I have to wonder if they’re just lazy or ignorant.

 

At best, these test scores are a second hand indication of structural inequalities in our public education system. It’s no accident that student from wealthy families generally score higher than those from poor ones. Nor is it pure misadventure that minority children also tend to score lower than their white counterparts.

 

These tests are economically, racially and culturally biased. They are completely unhelpful in determining root causes.

 

Thankfully, they’re unnecessary. It doesn’t take a standardized test to determine which students are receiving the least funding. Nor does it take a corporate intermediary to show us which schools have the largest class sizes and lowest resources.

 

The sad fact is that there are an awful lot of poor children attending public school. The U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the industrialized world. And despite spending a lot on our middle class and wealthy students, we’re doing next to nothing to actually help our neediest children.

 

A large portion of U.S. public schools have been left to their own devices for decades. What’s worse, when they struggle to meet students’ needs, we don’t swoop in with help. We level blame. We fire teachers, close buildings and privatize.

 

There’s absolutely zero proof that changing a public school to a charter school will help, but we do it anyway. There’s not a scrap of evidence that sending poor kids to a low end private school with a tax-funded voucher will help, but we do it anyway.

 

Think about it: why would getting rid of duly-elected school boards help kids learn? Why would allowing schools to spend money behind close doors with zero public accountability boost children’s ability to learn?

 

Yet our policymakers continue to push for these measures because they have no intention of helping poor and minority public school students. They just want to enrich their friends in the school privatization industry. They just want to divert public money to testing corporations and book publishers.

 

THAT is the problem with America’s education system.

 

Not test scores.

 

It’s time our nation’s journalists give up this old canard.

 

We must be honest about why our public schools struggle. That’s the only way to find real solutions.

 

We must acknowledge the increasing segregation – both racially and economically. We must acknowledge the blatant funding disparities. And we must acknowledge how the majority of education policy at the federal, state and local level has done little to help alleviate these problems – in fact it has exacerbated them.

 

We need to stop testing and start investing in our schools. We need to stop privatizing and start participating in our neighborhood schools.

 

And most of all, we need to stop the lies and disinformation.

The Joy of Opting Out of Standardized Testing

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Testing season is a gray period in my classroom.

 

But it’s a joy in my house.

 

As a classroom teacher with a daughter in the public school system, I’m always struck by the difference.

 

In school I have to proctor the federally mandated standardized tests. But I’ve opted my own daughter out. She doesn’t take them.

 

So at home, I get to see all the imaginative projects she’s created in her class while the other kids had to trudge away at the exam.

 

“Daddy, daddy, look!” she squeals.

 

And I’m bombarded by an entire Picasso blue period.

 

Or “Daddy, will you staple these?”

 

And I’m besieged by a series of her creative writing.

 

My daughter is only in second grade and she loves standardized test time.

 

It’s when she gets to engage in whatever self-directed study strikes her fancy.

 

Back in kindergarten I missed the boat.

 

Even as an educator, myself, I had no idea the district would be subjecting her to standardized tests at an age when she should be doing nothing more strenuous than learning how to share and stack blocks.

 

But when I found out she had taken the GRADE Test, a Pearson assessment not mandated by the state but required by my home district in order the receive state grant funding, I hit the roof.

 

I know the GRADE test. I’m forced to give a version of it to my own 8th grade students at a nearby district where I work. It stinks.

 

Ask any classroom teacher and they’ll tell you how useless it is. Giving it is at best a waste of class time. At worst it demoralizes children and teaches them that the right answer is arbitrary – like trying to guess what the teacher is thinking.

 

Then I found out my daughter was also taking the DIBELS, a test where she reads a passage aloud and is given a score based on how quickly she reads without regard to its meaning. In fact, some of the passages test takers are forced to read are pure nonsense. It’s all about how readers pronounce words and whether they persevere through the passage. It’s not so much about reading. It’s about grit.

 

No. My precious little one won’t be doing that.

 

I talked candidly to her kindergarten teacher about it. I trust her judgment, so I wanted to know what she thought. And she agreed that these tests were far from necessary. So I set up a meeting with the principal.

 

The meeting lasted about an hour. Sure, it was a little scary. No one wants to rock the boat. But even he agreed with most of what I had to say. He didn’t feel as strongly about it as I did, but he respected my wishes and that was that.

 

Ever since, my daughter hasn’t taken a single standardized test.

 

For me, it was a political statement as well as a parental one. I wanted to do my part to chip away at the corporate school reform movement. I know how much they rely on these test scores to justify closing poor schools like mine. I don’t want to give them a chance.

 

But little did I know what bliss I would be providing for my little one.

 

Beyond politics, I thought I was just protecting her from a prolonged period of boredom, unfair assessments and cognitively invalid measurements.

 

I wanted to shield her from adult woes. What I didn’t realize was I was opening a door for her creativity.

 

It’s amazing. All the other poor children sit there dutifully filling in bubbles while she pours her heart out onto the page.

 

She loves creating these illustrated books telling the wildest narratives: Colorful superheroes blast bad guys into oblivion. Game show hosts get lost in other dimensions. Even her Mommy and Daddy get in on the action riding Yoshi through Super Mario land.

 

Often she adds text to these adventures. Her spelling could use some work, but I’m impressed that an 8-year-old even attempts some of these words. Sometimes she writes more in her adventure books than my 8th graders do on their assigned homework.

 

I’ve even noticed a marked improvement in her abilities during this time. Her handwriting, sentence construction, word choice and spelling have taken a leap to the next level. While her classmates are wasting time on the assessments, she’s actually learning something!

 

I wish I could provide the same opportunities for my students that I have for my daughter.

 

It’s strange.

 

As a parent, I have the power to make educational decisions on behalf of my child. But as a trained education professional, I’m not allowed the same privilege.

 

Don’t teachers stand in loco parentis? Well this is loco, so let me parent this. Let me at least talk to their parents about it – but if I do that on school time, in my professional capacity, I’m liable to be reprimanded.

 

I have studied standardized testing. It was part of my training to become a teacher. And the evidence is in. The academic world knows all this stuff is bunk, but the huge corporations that profit off of these tests and the associated test-prep material have silenced them.

 

I have a masters in my field. I’m a nationally board certified teacher. I have more than a decade of successful experience in the classroom. But I am not trusted enough to decide whether my students should take these tests.

 

It’s not like we’re even asking the parents. We start from the assumption that children will take the tests, but if the parents complain about it, we’ll give in to their wishes.

 

It’s insanity.

 

We should start from the assumption the kids won’t take the test. If parents want their kids to be cogs in the corporate machine, they should have to opt IN.

 

As a teacher, I can try to inform my students’ parents about all this, but at my own peril. If the administration found me talking about this with parents, I could be subject to a reprimand. Giving my honest educational opinion could result in me losing my job.

 

As you can see, it hasn’t stopped me. But I teach in a high poverty, mostly minority district. My kids’ parents often don’t have the time to come up to the school or even return phone calls. They’re working two or three jobs. They’re struggling just to put food on the table. They don’t have time for standardized tests!

 

So every test season I sadly watch my students trudge away at their federally mandated bubbles. I see their anxiety, their frustration, their sad, sad faces.

 

And it breaks my heart.

 

But then I come home to my daughter’s exuberant creations!

 

You would not believe the joy of opting out!