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.

Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

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One of the most frustrating things I’ve ever been forced to do as a teacher is to ignore my students and concentrate instead on the data.

 

I teach 8th grade Language Arts at a high poverty, mostly minority school in Western Pennsylvania. During my double period classes, I’m with these children for at least 80 minutes a day, five days a week.

 

During that time, we read together. We write together. We discuss important issues together. They take tests. They compose poems, stories and essays. They put on short skits, give presentations, draw pictures and even create iMovies.

 

I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me whether these children can read, write or think. I know.

 

Anyone who had been in the room and had been paying attention would know.

 

But a week doesn’t go by without an administrator ambushing me at a staff meeting with a computer print out and a smile.

 

Look at this data set. See how your students are doing on this module. Look at the projected growth for this student during the first semester.

 

It’s enough to make you heave.

 

I always thought the purpose behind student data was to help the teacher teach. But it has become an end to itself.

 

It is the educational equivalent of navel gazing, of turning all your students into prospective students and trying to teach them from that remove – not as living, breathing beings, but as computer models.

 

It reminds me of this quote from Michael Lewis’ famous book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game:

 

“Intelligence about baseball statistics had become equated in the public mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats. What [Bill] James’s wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible; and that point, somehow, had been lost. ‘I wonder,’ James wrote, ‘if we haven’t become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result from them.'”

 

The point is not the data. It is what the data reveals. However, some people have become so seduced by the cult of data that they’re blind to what’s right in front of their eyes.

 

You don’t need to give a child a standardized test to assess if he or she can read. You can just have them read. Nor does a child need to fill in multiple choice bubbles to indicate if he or she understands what’s been read. They can simply tell you. In fact, these would be better assessments. Doing otherwise, is like testing someone’s driving ability not by putting them behind the wheel but by making them play Mariocart.

 

The skill is no longer important. It is the assessment of the skill.

 

THAT’S what we use to measure success. It’s become the be-all, end-all. It’s the ultimate indicator of both student and teacher success. But it perverts authentic teaching. When the assessment is all that’s important, we lose sight of the actual skills we were supposed to be teaching in the first place.

 

The result is a never ending emphasis on test prep and poring over infinite pages of useless data and analytics.

 

As Scottish writer Andrew Lang put it, “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts – for support rather than for illumination.”

 

Teachers like me have been pointing this out for years, but the only response we get from most lawmakers and administrators is to hysterically increase the sheer volume of data and use more sophisticated algorithms with which to interpret it.

 

Take the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS). This is the Commonwealth’s method of statistical analysis of students test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams, which students take in grades 3-8 and in high school, respectively.

 

It allows me to see:

  • Student scores on each test
  • Student scores broken down by subgroups (how many hit each 20 point marker)
  • Which subgroup is above, below or at the target for growth

 

But perhaps the most interesting piece of information is a prediction of where each student is expected to score next time they take the test.

 

How does it calculate this prediction? I have no idea.

 

That’s the kind of metric they don’t give to teachers. Or taxpayers, by the way. Pennsylvania has paid more than $1 billion for its standardized testing system in the last 8 years. You’d think lawmakers would have to justify that outlay of cash, especially when they’re cutting funding for just about everything else in our schools. But no. We’re supposed to just take that one on faith.

 

So much for empirical data.

 

Then we have the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT). This is an optional computer-based test given three times a year in various core subjects.

 

If you’re lucky enough to have to give this to your students (and I am), you get a whole pile of data that’s supposed to be even more detailed than the PVAAS.

 

But it doesn’t really give you much more than the same information based on more data points.

 

I don’t gain much from looking at colorful graphs depicting where each of my students scored in various modules. Nor do I gain much by seeing this same material displayed for my entire class.

 

The biggest difference between the PVAAS and the CDT, though, is that it allows me to see examples of the kinds of questions individual students got wrong. So, in theory, I could print out a stack of look-a-like questions and have them practice endless skill and drills until they get them right.

 

And THAT’S education!

 

Imagine if a toddler stumbled walking down the hall, so you had her practice raising and lowering her left foot over-and-over again! I’m sure that would make her an expert walker in no time!

 

It’s ridiculous. This overreliance on data pretends that we’re engaged in programming robots and not teaching human beings.

 

Abstracted repetition is not generally the best tool to learning complex skills. If you’re teaching the times table, fine. But most concepts require us to engage students’ interests, to make something real, vital and important to them.

 

Otherwise, they’ll just go through the motions.

 

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess,” wrote Economist Ronald Coase. That’s what we’re doing in our public schools. We’re prioritizing the data and making it say whatever we want.

 

The data justifies the use of data. And anyone who points out that circular logic is called a Luddite, a roadblock on the information superhighway.

 

Never mind that all this time I’m forced to pour over the scores and statistics is less time I have to actually teach the children.

 

Teachers don’t need more paperwork and schematics. We need those in power to actually listen to us. We need the respect and autonomy to be allowed to actually do our jobs.

 

Albert Einstein famously said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

 

Can we please put away the superfluous data and get back to teaching?

PA: Want to Get Rid of Keystone Exams? Then Let Us Evaluate Teachers More Unfairly

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It’s the classic Harrisburg switch.

 

Want something good passed by the legislature? Then let us pass something terrible – something you would never even consider unless something you cared about was on the table.

 

That appears to be the game being played by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee today as they consider SB 756.

 

On the one hand, the proposed bill would eliminate the state’s terrible Keystone Exams. On the other, it would force a new teacher evaluation system that is tremendously unfair.

 

Which one is more important?

 

The answer: both.

 

If lawmakers had any moral courage – and most don’t because they’re lawmakers after all – they would consider each of these measures one at a time on their own merits.

 

But if they did that, conservatives wouldn’t vote to help students by getting rid of unfair tests, and progressives wouldn’t vote to help corporations by installing unfair teacher evaluations. So they’ve apparently decided to compromise behind closed doors by putting both together in a huge omnibus bill.

 

Who knows what other treasures lurk in its pages!? Well if you have a limitless amount of time and energy, go ahead and read it!

 

THE GOOD

 

The bill would put an end to our costly, cruel and dishonest Keystone Exams. Not only would we no longer threaten to require these tests in Literature, Algebra and Biology as graduation requirements, but we would stop giving them altogether.

 

In their place to meet federal accountability regulations, the state would substitute the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT), Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), armed forces exam, competency assessment or certificate for technical students, or Pennsylvania Alternative Assessment for students with special needs.

 

But perhaps the best part is that the bill makes explicit and generous provisions for parents to opt their children out of high school standardized tests altogether. In this case, students would NOT be required to take a substitute assessment.

 

Here is the exact language from the bill:

 

“A school entity’s governing board shall adopt a policy that provides that the parent or guardian of a student may request that the student be exempt from taking an assessment that is required for the purpose of Federal accountability as permitted under ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act]. The policy shall provide that parents and guardians of students receive written notice of the option for a student to be exempt from taking the assessment and that the exemption shall be permitted upon the school entity’s receipt of a written request from the parent or guardian of the student. A substitute assessment or an alternative assessment, course or program may not be required of a student exempted under this section. Grounds for exemption in the school entity’s policy shall include, but not be limited to:
(1) Religious grounds.
(2) The basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction
similar to a religious belief.
(3) Philosophical grounds.
(4) Privacy concerns.
(5) Health concerns for the child, which may include stress and anxiety in preparation for the assessment.”

 

This is a huge improvement over our current opt out policy. At present, parents can opt out their children from the Keystone Exams but students must take an alternate assessment. This could include a project based assessment and not merely a standardized test. Also, it only allows these exemptions based on religious convictions. Parents needn’t explain these convictions in any detail, but this is the only option they are given with which to opt out.

 

The proposed legislation would go into effect during the 2018-19 school year, when the Keystone Exams would otherwise become a graduation requirement. Students would take the SAT or other assessment in 10th grade.

 

However, students in 3-8th grade would still be subjected to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. I assume parents could still opt out their children from these exams, but the wording is a bit murky there.

 

In addition, the law would require the state to establish a task force to reevaluate whether the Commonwealth should use the PSSA in the future and how to reduce the time it takes to give the assessment. If the task force concludes the PSSA is inappropriate, they must look for an alternative exam. They are required to issue a report in 6 months from passage of the bill.

 

This is particularly important since the PSSA has been rewritten to be closer to the Keystone Exam. It is Keystone Exam-lite. If the legislature is against the high school test, one would imagine they should be against a very similar test being given in elementary and middle school.

 

THE BAD

 

Despite all the good this proposed bill would do for our school children, it would drastically worsen the situation for our classroom teachers.

 

Half of a teacher’s current evaluation is based on classroom observations by district administrators. That just makes sense. The best way to tell if an educator is doing a good job is to observe what he/she is actually doing in the classroom.

 

This new system would reduce classroom observations to only 30% of a teacher’s annual score.

 

This would allow 10% to come from a “parental” score and 10% to come from “peer evaluation.” In a non-high stakes environment, input from both of these stakeholders is vital to a teacher’s success. But when you add that high stakes component, you pervert both relationships.

 

Having parents evaluate teachers puts them in kind of a touchy place. Teachers are required to push students to do their best. This requires them to often make calls home and ask for help from parents. If parents control a portion of a teacher’s evaluation, it incentivizes educators not to bother them with student misbehavior or failing grades. Instead teachers could be pressured to unfairly increase students grades or ignore misbehavior so as to better parental evaluations.

 

Moreover, peer observations can be extremely subjective when tied to teacher assessment. Administrators are discouraged from giving out distinguished evaluations to more than a handful of teachers. This incentivizes peers who are forced to compete for these few plum scores to unfairly suppress positive evaluations from their fellows.

 

But the worst is still to come.

The new evaluations require 50% of teachers’ evaluations to come from student growth and achievement measures. For math and English teachers, this largely means using standardized test scores to assess educators.

 

It’s a terrible practice that has been shown to be ineffective and downright damaging to student learning time and again. But it does help testing corporations by discouraging opt outs. Just imagine. If you have students who you think will score well on the tests but who may opt out, you are incentivized to discourage them from doing so. Otherwise, your teacher evaluation will drop.

 

This makes teachers the testing policemen. Learning doesn’t matter, only how well your students do on the tests. It dramatically tips the scale away from things the teacher has any control over. As such, it would cause serious harm to the quality of education students receive across the state.

 

CONCLUSION

We cannot support this bill in its present form. It should not go on to consideration by the full House and/or Senate. And if it somehow is passed by these Republican-controlled bodies, our Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf should not sign it.

 

This is unfortunate because there is much to like about it. However, you can’t save students from unfair assessments by forcing teachers to be evaluated by – drum roll please – unfair assessments.

 

This sets up an unsustainable and unfair relationship between students and teachers. It puts educators in the position of having to look out for their own interests and not those of their students. The interests of both should be interlinked, not separated. Teachers get into the profession to help kids learn – not to have to look out for an arbitrary score from their administrators that may require them to act against their students needs.

 

If legislators had any ethical fortitude, they would propose both of these measures in separate bills where they could be examined on merit. But I long ago gave up expecting such qualities from our politicians.

 

In my book, they almost all deserve a failing grade.

Standardized Testing Creates Captive Markets

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It’s easy to do business when the customer is forced to buy.

But is it fair, is it just, or does it create a situation where people are coerced into purchases they wouldn’t make if they had a say in the matter?

For example, school children as young as 8-years-old are forced to take a battery of standardized tests in public schools. Would educators prescribe such assessments if it were up to them? Would parents demand children be treated this way if they were consulted? Or is this just a corporate scam perpetrated by our government for the sole benefit of a particular industry that funnels a portion of the profits to our lawmakers as political donations?

Let’s look at it economically.

Say you sold widgets – you know, those hypothetical doodads we use whenever we want to talk about selling something without importing the emotional baggage of a particular product.

You sell widgets. The best widgets. Grade A, primo, first class widgets.

Your goal in life is to sell the most widgets possible and thus generate the highest profit.

Unfortunately, the demand for widgets is fixed. Whatever they are, people only want so many of them. But if you could increase the demand and thus expand the market, you would likewise boost your profits and better meet your goals.

There are many ways you could do this. You could advertise and try to convince consumers that they need more widgets. You could encourage doctors and world health organizations to prescribe widgets as part of a healthy lifestyle. Or you could convince the government to mandate the market.

That’s right – force people to buy your products.

That doesn’t sound very American does it?

In a Democratic society, we generally don’t want the government telling us what to purchase. Recall the hysteria around the Obamacare individual mandate requiring people who could afford to buy healthcare coverage to do so or else face a financial tax penalty. In this case, one might argue that it was justified because everyone wants healthcare. No one wants to let themselves die from a preventable disease or allow free riders to bump up the cost for everyone else.

However, it’s still a captive market though perhaps an innocuous one. Most are far more pernicious.

According to dictionary.com, a captive market is “a group of consumers who are obliged… to buy a particular product, thus giving the supplier a monopoly” or oligopoly. This could be because of lack of competition, shortages, or other factors.

In the case of government mandating consumers to buy a particular product, it’s perhaps the strongest case of a captive market. Consumers have no choice but to comply and thus have little to no protection from abuse. They are at the mercy of the supplier.

It’s a terrible position to be in for consumers, but a powerful one for businesspeople. And it’s exactly the situation for public schools and the standardized testing industry.

Let’s break it down.

These huge corporations don’t sell widgets, they sell tests. In fact, they sell more than just that, but let’s focus right now on just that – the multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble assessments.

Why do our public schools give these tests? Because peer-reviewed research shows they fairly and accurately demonstrate student learning? Because they’ve been proven by independent observers to be an invaluable part of the learning process and help students continue to learn new things?

No and no.

The reason public schools give these tests is because the government forces them. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires that all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school take certain approved standardized assessments. Parents are allowed to refuse the tests for their children, but otherwise they have to take them.

It wasn’t always this way. When the act was first passed in 1965, it focused almost entirely on providing students with equitable resources. That all changed in 2001, with the passage of No Child Left Behind, a reauthorization of this original bill. And ever since, through every subsequent reauthorization and name change, the federal law governing K-12 schools has required the same standardized testing.

The testing corporations don’t have to prove their products. Those products are required by law.

It’s one of the largest captive markets in existence. That’s some 50.4 million children forced to take standardized assessments. The largest such corporation, Pearson, boasts profits of $9 billion annually. It’s largest competitor, CBT/ McGraw-Hill, makes $2 billion annually. Others include Education Testing Services and Riverside Publishing better known through its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

If many of these companies sound like book publishers, that’s because they are or their parent companies are. And that’s no coincidence. It’s another way they bolster their own market.

Not only do many of these testing corporations make, provide and score standardized assessments, they make and provide the remedial resources used to help students pass.

So if your students are having difficulty passing the state test, often the same company has a series of workbooks or a software package to help remediate them. It’s a good business model. Cash in before kids take the test. Cash in when they take it. And if kids fail, cash in again to remediate them.

Ever wonder why our test scores are so low? Because it’s profitable! The money is all on the side of failure, not success. In fact, from an economic point of view, there is a disincentive to succeed. Not for teachers and students, but for the people who make and grade the tests.

But that’s not all.

Once you have a system in place, things can become static. Once districts already have the books and resources to pass the tests, the testing corporation has less to sell them, the market stagnates and thus their profits go down or at least stop growing.

The solution once again is to create yet another captive market. That’s why Common Core was created.

These are new academic standards written almost exclusively by the testing corporations and forced on districts by federal and state governments. Under President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, $500 million in federal education grants were tied to adopting these new standards. States were coerced to push Common Core on their districts or else lose out on much needed funding.

This resulted in the need for districts to buy all new materials – new text books, new workbooks, new software, etc. It also required the states to order brand new standardized tests. So once again the testing industry cashed in at both ends.

And these tests were more needlessly difficult so more children would fail and need costly remediation.

Was there a pressing academic need for these new standards? Was there any evidence that these standards would increase student learning? Were there even any independent studies conducted to attempt to prove a need?

No. This was a total money grab. It was naked greed from one industry completely enabled by our lawmakers at the federal and state levels.

Republicans made noises against it, and some still do. But consider this – the overwhelming majority of state houses are controlled by the GOP. They have the power to repeal Common Core at any time. Yet almost none of them did or do.

Ask yourself why. It has nothing to do with the Democrats. Republicans are owned by the same masters as the so-called liberals – these same test corporations.

You have to understand that our government is no longer ruled by the principle of one person, one vote. Money has become speech so wealthy corporations get a huge say in what our government does.

If an industry gets big enough and makes enough donations to enough lawmakers, they get the legislation they want. In many cases, the corporations write the legislation and then tell lawmakers to pass it. And this is true for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Standardized testing and Common Core are one pernicious example of our new captive market capitalism collapsing into plutocracy.

Our tax dollars are given away to big business and our voices are silenced.

Forget selling widgets. Our children have BECOME widgets, hostage consumers, and access to them is being bought and sold.

We are all slaves to this new runaway capitalism that has freed itself from the burden of self-rule.

How long will we continue to put up with it?

How long will we continue to be hostages to these captive markets?

Decolonizing Through Dialogue: Authentic Teaching in the Age of Testing and Common Core

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If you’re not careful, being a public school teacher can become an act of colonization.

 

This is especially true if you’re a white teacher like me with classes of mostly black students. But it’s not the only case. As an educator, no matter who you are or whom you teach, you’re a symbol of authority and you get that power from the dominant structures in our society.

 

Believe it or not, our schools are social institutions, so one of their chief functions is to help recreate the social order. Students enter as malleable lumps of clay and exit mainly in the shapes we decide upon. Therefore, as an educator, it’s hard not to fall into the habit of molding young minds into the shapes society has decided are appropriate.

 

In some ways this is inevitable. In others, it’s even desirable. But it also runs against the best potential of education.

 

In short, this isn’t what a teacher should be. My job in front of the classroom isn’t to make my students into anything. It’s to give them the opportunity, to generate the spark that turns them into their best selves. And the people who ultimately should be the most empowered in this process are the students, themselves.

 

But it’s easier said than done.

 

The danger is best expressed in that essential book for any teacher, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” where Paulo Freire writes:

 

“Worse yet, it turns them (the students) into ‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be filed by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.”

 

In most cases this means Eurocentrism – a kind of worship of all things white and denigration of all things black, brown and all pigments between.

 

We take the status quo and find every blind justification for it. In fact, this can become the curriculum, itself. Every counter-narrative, every criticism of the power structure then naturally becomes a danger. Revisionist history becomes history. European philosophy becomes the only accepted definition of rationality. Ideologies of empire become obvious and inescapable. White becomes the norm and racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia all become hidden and internalized.

 

You’ve heard the criticism of curriculums focusing exclusively on dead white males. This is why.

 

And not only does it silence minority voices, it reinforces a false view of the world. Folk singer Tom Paxton made that clear in this classic song:

What Did You Learn In School Today?”

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that Washington never told a lie,
I learned that soldiers seldom die,
I learned that everybody’s free,
And that’s what the teacher said to me,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned the policemen are my friends,
I learned that justice never ends,
I learned that murderers pay for their crimes,
Even if we make a mistake sometimes,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that war is not so bad,
I learned about the great ones we’ve had.
We fought in Germany and in France
And some day I might get my chance.
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned our government must be strong;
It’s always right and never wrong!
Our leaders are the finest men
And we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

 

We can see why this kind of teaching is valued. It reinforces the status quo. But at its core education is essentially subversive. It supports new ways of thinking. It is by definition revolutionary. When you encourage students to think for themselves, some may come to conclusions that differ from the norm. This is entirely healthy and the only way societies can grow and change. But it’s inimical to the people in power who often are in charge of the educational system. They don’t want new ideas if those ideas will challenge their hold on the reigns of power. Socrates wasn’t forced to drink hemlock, after all, because his lessons supported the Athenian elite.

 

So we’re left with a real quandary. How do teachers remain free to inspire while being a part of a system that doesn’t value inspiration?

 

The natural forces of society work against authentic teaching like gravity pulling at a rocket. Unless you’re actively pushing against the ground, the most natural thing in the world is to just go with the flow. The textbook says this is the way. Teacher training programs often agree. Cooperating teachers who have been in the classroom for decades back it up. This is the best method. Just keep it up.

 

But it’s not. And you shouldn’t. There is another way even though it’s hard to see. And THAT’S often what you need to be doing for your students.

 

Let me pause at this point to make one thing clear: I don’t have all the answers.

 

I am no expert in how to do this. I have fallen victim to it, myself, more often than I’d like to admit. It may be next to impossible to avoid the accepted route much of the time. But if we want to be good teachers, we need to try.

 

If we really want to provide the best service to our students, their parents and the community, we have to break out of the mold. We have to allow our students the chance of seeing the world and not just our version of it.

 

The best ways I’ve found to do this are through selection of texts, use of Socratic Seminars and allowing as much choice as possible in assignments.

 

When selecting texts, you want to be as inclusive as possible. Provide students with the widest possible range of authors and opinions. In Language Arts, this means purposeful multiculturalism. It means authors of color being prized equally with the European cannon. It means women and transgender authors. It means authors subscribing to a wide range of beliefs and skepticisms. And it means accepting genres and forms that are often devalued like song lyrics, rap, Manga, graphic novels and anything that can be considered deep, substantial texts.

 

Finding such sources can be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating. Unfortunately, not all schools permit teachers to do this to the same degree. Some districts mandate teachers only use certain texts already approved by the school board. Others provide a list of approved texts from which teachers can pick.

 

Each educator will have to find ways to navigate the system. It’s best if you can find support from administrators and in the community for what you want to do and go from there. But this can be a challenging road especially in our era of high stakes testing and Common Core which values authentic teaching not at all.

 

Another essential tool is class discussion. You may or may not be able to broaden the texts being discussed, but you can usually provide space for students to discuss those texts in class.

 

My 8th graders and I use the Socratic Seminar method of discussion extensively.

 

With almost every piece of literature, I write guided open-ended questions for the students to consider. The questions come out of the text, but I try to focus on queries that will get students thinking about how the text relates to their lives, gender and economic issues, questions of theme, race and opportunities to make connections of every type. Eventually, I even allow students to begin writing these questions, themselves.

 

The way I see it, my role is essentially an opportunity maker. It isn’t about finding an answer that will please me, the teacher. It’s about exploring the subject. It’s not about what I think. It’s about what students think. And that makes all the difference.

 

Finally, I’ve found it beneficial to allow students choice in their assignments.

 

There are many ways for students to demonstrate knowledge. They can write essays, take a test, create a collage, design a power point presentation, make an iMovie, act out a scene, etc. I try to expose students to multiple formats the first half of the year and then give them increased choice in how they’d like to express themselves in the second half.

 

Not only does this free students to think, it encourages the deepest kind of learning. It makes the lesson vital, important and intrinsic.

 

All of these approaches share a common feature: dialogue. They put the student, teacher and the author in a vital relationship. They take steps to equalize that relationship so that one isn’t more important than the others. It’s not just what the author, teacher or student thinks – it’s the interrelationship of the three.

 

Ultimately, it’s up to the student to decide the relative value of the results. Sure, they get grades. Sure, the system will judge students based on those grades. But the value of those grades isn’t as important as the resultant learning and the value students place on the experience.

 

To me, that’s the best kind of learning. And it’s the result of authentic teaching and dialogue.

 

It is the most inimical thing to colonization. Students are not enslaved to a system. They aren’t in servitude to a prepackaged group of ideas and norms.

 

They are valued and empowered.

 

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing for them?

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!