PA Officials Want to Replace Bad Keystone Exams with Bad College Entrance Exams

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Pennsylvania officials are scandalized that the Commonwealth is wasting more than $100 million on unnecessary and unfair Keystone Exams.

 
They’d rather the state spend slightly less on biased college entrance exams.

 
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and State Sen. Andy Dinniman held a joint press conference last week to introduce a new report compiled by DePasquale’s office on the subject which concludes with this recommendation.

 

Replacing bad with bad will somehow equal good?

 
Under the proposal, elementary and middle school students would still take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. However, instead of requiring all high school students to take the Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Literature and Science, the report proposes the same students be required to take the SAT or ACT test at state expense.

 

This is certainly an improvement over what the state demands now, but it’s really just replacing one faulty test with another – albeit at about a $1 million annual cost savings to taxpayers.

 

The report does a good job of outlining the fiscal waste, lack of accountability and dubious academic merits of the Keystone Exams, but it fails to note similar qualities in its own proposal.

 

From 2008 to 2019, the state already paid Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp. more than $426 million for the PSSAs, Keystone Exams and Classroom Diagnostic Tools (an optional pretesting program). The federal government paid the company more than an additional $106 million. Officials wonder if this money couldn’t have been better spent elsewhere, like in helping students actually learn.

 

DePasquale, who recently launched a congressional bid, puts it like this:

 

“When the federal law changed in 2015, why didn’t Pennsylvania begin to phase out Keystone Exams? I could understand if they use them for a short period of time after that, but it’s been four years, and will cost taxpayers nearly $100 million by the end of the contract for tests our students do not even need to take.”

 

The federal government dropped its mandate four years ago and the state legislature did the same last year.

 

Originally, state lawmakers intended to make the Keystone Exams a graduation requirement, but in 2018 they passed legislation to make the assessments one of many avenues to qualify for graduation starting in 2021-22. Students can instead pass their core courses and get into college among other things.

 

“The Department of Education itself said they [the Keystone Exams] are not an accurate or adequate indicator of career or academic readiness,” Dinniman said. “So what I’m always surprised about is, they said it and then they continue to use it. These tests have faced opposition from almost every educational organization that exists. And when we got rid of the requirement and put in [more] pathways to graduation, this was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House.”

 

The federal government also changed its testing mandate. It used to require all public school students to take state-specific assessments in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

When Congress reauthorized the federal law overseeing education in 2015, it offered states more flexibility in this regard. Elementary and middle school students still have to take a state-specific test. But now the high school portion can be fulfilled with college admissions tests – and, in fact, a dozen other states legislate just such a requirement.

 
Democrats DePasquale and Dinniman think the SAT and ACT test are an improvement because students who taken them are more likely to go to college. But that’s a classic case of confusing correlation and causation.

 

Students motivated to go to college often take these exams because they are required to get in to a lot of these schools. Taking these tests doesn’t make students MORE motivated and determined to enroll in post-secondary education. They’re ALREADY motivated and determined.

 

Moreover, one of the faults the report finds with the Keystone Exams is that the assessments measure student’s parental income more than children’s academics.

 

Kids in wealthier districts almost always do better on the Keystone Exams than those in poorer districts. In fact, the report notes that of the 100 state schools with the highest scores, only five were located in impoverished districts —where the average household income is below $50,000.

 

Yet the report fails to note that this same discrepancy holds for the SAT and ACT tests. Poor kids tend to get low scores and rich kids get the highest scores.

 

In fact, the College Board – the corporation that makes and distributes the SAT – recently started adjusting scores on its test in an attempt to counteract this effect thereby accounting for high schools and neighborhoods “level of disadvantage.”

 

Does this creative scoring actually work? Who knows – but it’s kind of like being forced to swallow poison and an antidote at the same time when any sensible person would simply refuse to swallow poison in the first place.

 

And that’s the best solution state officials have for our children.

 

They’re suggesting we replace discriminatory Keystone Exams with discriminatory college entrance exams.

 

To be fair, DePasquale and Dinniman are somewhat constrained by boneheaded federal law here.

 

Though the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is an improvement over No Child Left Behind, it still requires all high school students to take standardized tests.

 

Given what we know about the limits and biases of these assessments, policymakers should remove that hurdle altogether. But until the federal government gets its act together, one could argue that DePasquale and Dinniman’s policy suggestion may be the best available.

 

When you can’t do right, maybe it’s best to do less wrong.

 

But we must acknowledge that this isn’t the ultimate solution, it’s only a stopgap. We must continue to push for intelligent assessment policy that’s best for our children.

 

Standardized testing should be eliminated altogether – especially in high stakes situations. Instead we should rely on classroom grades, portfolios of student work and/or other authentic measures of what children have learned in school.

 

Accountability – the typical reason given behind these assessments – should be determined by the resources provided to students, not a highly dubious score given by a corporation making a profit off of its testing, test prep and ed tech enterprises.

 

The most we can expect from DePasquale and Dinniman’s program if it is even considered by the legislature is a band-aid on a gaping wound.

 


Read the full report, Where Did Your Money Go? A Special Report on Improving Standardized Testing in Pennsylvania.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Will This Be On The Test?

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As a public school teacher, I’m confronted with an awful lot of urgent questions.

 

Sometimes all at once and in rapid fire succession.

 

But perhaps the most frequent one I get is this:

 

“Mr. Singer, will this be on the test?”

 

Seriously?

 

Will this be on the test?

 

In 8th grade Language Arts, we’re discussing the relative merits of the death penalty vs. life imprisonment – or the history behind the Nazi invasion of Holland – or the origin of Dill Harris’ obsession with Boo Radley — and this little kid wants to know if any of it is going to be on the test!?

 

What in the almighty universe does he think we’re doing here!?

 

 

I pause, take a deep breath and reflect.
After all, it could be worse. The kiddo could have interrupted the flow just to ask to go to the bathroom.

 

So I try to put a positive spin on the inquiry.

 

It does give me some important information about this student. It tells me that he is really concerned about doing well in my class.

 

The kids that don’t care about that, the ones who are more preoccupied with survival or fear or malnutrition or a thousand other adult cares foisted too early on childish shoulders – those are the ones I really worry about.

 

But this kid isn’t like that at all. He just wants to know the rules.

 

On the other hand, it also tells me that he really doesn’t care about what we’re talking about.

 

Oh, this student cares about getting a good grade, to be judged proficient and to move on to the next task in a series of Herculean labors. But does he care about the tasks or does he just want to end the labor?

 

He sees school like a tiger sees a circus – a series of hoops to jump through in order to get a juicy hunk of meat as a reward at the end of the day.
For him, our class contains no magic, no mystery – it’s just a pure extrinsic transaction.

 

I tell you X and then you spit it back up again. Then I’m supposed to give you a gold star and send you on your way to do things that really matter.

 

And I suppose it bothers me this much because it’s a way of looking at things that ignores the larger context of education.

 

If we must see things as either assignments or tests, as either work toward a goal or a reward for working toward a goal – well, then isn’t everything in life a test, really?

 

After all, every action has its own rewards and significance.

 

Looked at from that vantage point, one can feel almost sorry for these sorts of students. Because in a matter of minutes the bell will ring and they will leave the classroom to encounter this awesome experience we call life.

 

It’s a collection of majesty and the mundane that will be unfiltered through bell schedules and note taking, homework and assignments.

 

It will just be.

 

And no matter what it consists of these children will be tried, tested and judged for it.

 

Some of it will be tests of skill. They’ll encounter certain obstacles that they’ll have to overcome.

 

Can they express themselves in writing? Can they compose an email, a text, a Facebook post that gets across what they’re really trying to say?

 

Presumably, they’ll want to apply for a job someday. That requires typing a cover letter, a resume, and being able to speak intelligently during an interview.

 

But even beyond these professional skills, they’ll come into contact with other human beings. And what they say and how they interact will be at least partially determined by what they’ve learned both in and out of the classroom.

 

People will judge them based on what kind of person they think they are – is this someone knowledgeable about the world, do they have good judgement, can they think logically and solve a problem, do they have enough background knowledge about the world to be able to make meaning and if they don’t know something (as inevitably everyone must) do they know where to find the answers they seek?

 

When they come into social contact with others, will they have digested enough knowledge and experience to form interesting, empathetic characters and thus will they be able to experience deep relationships?

 

Will they be victims of their own ignorance, able to be pushed around and tricked by any passing intellect or will they be the masters of their own inner space, impervious to easy manipulation?

 

Will they be at the mercy of history and politics or will they be the captains of consciousness and context molding educated opinions about justice, ethics and statecraft?

 

Because for these students all of that, all of their lives really, is an assessment in a way. And the grades aren’t A, B, C, D or F. There is no Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below Basic. It is not graded on a curve.

 

It’s a test that’s timed in the minutes they breath and in each pump their hearts push blood throughout their bodies.

 

This exam will assess everything they do, everything they think, everything that’s done to them and every action they do or think in response.

 

This is an evaluation with the highest stakes. They will not get to take it again. And if they fail, their grade will be final.

 

But what they don’t seem to realize is that no matter how they score, the result will be the same as it is for everyone who’s ever been born – it will be terminal.

 

Because each of these students, and only these students, as they grow and mature will have the power to determine ultimately what that score will be.

 

We are all judged and evaluated, but it is our own judgements that we have to live with – and this passive acceptance of being tested and this petty goal of grade grubbing your life away, it denies your individual agency, your freedom of thought.

 

So, you ask if this will be on the test?

 

The answer is yes.

 

Everything is on the test.

 

But you’re asking the wrong question.

 
That’s what I really want to say.

 
That’s what I want to shout at a world that sees learning as nothing but a means to a job and education as nothing but the fitting of cogs to a greasy machine.

 

Yet invariably, when the question comes I usually narrow it all down to just this simple answer.

 

“Yes.

 

It will.”

 


NOTE: This article owes a debt to the author and YouTube personality John Green. It was partially inspired by a speech he gave to introduce his video about The Agricultural Revolution:

 

“Will this be on the test?
The test will measure whether you’re an informed, engaged, productive citizen of the world.

 

It will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and in dorm rooms and in places of worship.

 

You will be tested on first dates, in job interviews, while watching football and while scrolling through your twitter feed.

 

The test will test your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages, whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty political rhetoric and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context.

 

The test will last your entire life and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that when taken together make your life, yours.

 

And everything, everything will be on it.

 

I know right, so pay attention.”


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Busing and School Segregation Used for Politics not Policy

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If children of all races went to the same schools with each other, it would be harder to treat them unequally.

 

Moreover, it would be harder for them to grow up prejudiced because they would have learned what it’s like to have classmates who are different from them.

 

And though most people agree with these premises in principle, our laws still refuse to make them a reality in fact.

 

Perhaps that’s why it was so astounding when Kamala Harris brought up the issue of school segregation and busing at the first Democratic debates.

 
If you’re anything like me, for the first time these debates made Harris look like a viable contender for the party’s Presidential nomination to face Republican incumbent Donald Trump in 2020.

 

But then she immediately contradicted herself when people actually started to take her seriously.

 

During the debates, Harris called out front runner and former vice president Joe Biden for opposing court-ordered busing in the 1970s as a way of combating school segregation.

 

The California Democrat and former federal prosecutor rightly said that 40 years ago there was a “failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” so “that’s where the federal government must step in.”

 

But her star-making moment was when she made the whole matter extremely personal.

 

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day,” Harris said. “That little girl was me.”

 
The tactic was so successful that Biden has been fumbling to apologize and explain away a history of obstructing desegregation ever since.

 

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after the debate showed Biden had lost half of his support among black voters since earlier in June.

 

Meanwhile, the Harris campaign was quick to cash in on the political capital she earned by selling t-shirts with a picture of herself when she was in school with the emblem “That Little Girl Was Me.”

 

It could almost be a masterclass in how to make a political point to both boost your own campaign and change the narrative to improve national policy.

 

That is if Harris actually backed up her rhetoric with action.

 
Unfortunately, she has been tripping all over herself to keep this a criticism of Biden and not let it become a policy prescription for today.

 
While perfectly happy to support busing as a measure to stop segregation in the past, she seems much less comfortable using it to stop our current school segregation problems.

 

Because even though the landmark Supreme 
Court decision that found racial segregation to be unconstitutional – Brown v. Board of Education – is more than 60 years old, our nation’s schools are in many places even more segregated now than they were when this ruling was handed down.

 

So the question remains: in some areas should we bus kids from black neighborhoods to schools located in white ones and vice versa to ensure that our classrooms are integrated?

 

Since the debates, Harris has waffled saying busing should be “considered” by school districts but she would not support mandating it.

 

In subsequent comments, she said she’d support a federal mandate for busing in certain situations where other integration efforts have not been effective or when the courts have stepped in to provide the federal government that power. However, she does not believe that either of these conditions have been met.

 

Frankly, it sounds a whole lot more like someone desperately making things up as she goes along than someone with a true plan to fix a deep problem in our public education system.

 

She rightly attacked Biden on his record but then came up short trying to prove that she would be much different, herself, if elected.

 

However, that doesn’t mean all Democratic candidates are so unprepared. A handful have detailed integration policy proposals.

 

The most obvious is Bernie Sanders.

 

In fact, it is a cornerstone of his “Thurgood Marshall Plan for Education.” Not only would he repeal the existing ban on using federal transportation funding to promote school integration, he would put aside $1 billion to support magnet schools to entice more diverse students. However, the most ambitious part of his desegregation effort goes beyond legislation. Sanders promises to “execute and enforce desegregation orders and appoint federal judges who will enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act in school systems.”

 

Sanders understands that the courts have largely sabotaged most desegregation efforts in the last 40 years.

 

At least two Supreme Court rulings have taken away the federal government’s power to enforce Brown v. Board. The first was 1974’s Milliken v. Bradley ruling which established that federal courts could not order desegregation busing across school district lines. They could only do so inside districts. So in big cities like Detroit – where the case originated – you have largely black city schools surrounded by mostly white suburban ones. The ruling forbids busing from city to suburban districts and vice-versa thereby destroying any kind of authentic desegregation efforts.

 

More recently, in 2007, the Supreme Court’s Parent’s Involved decision put even more constraints on voluntary busing programs.

 

Sanders is acknowledging these problems and promising to select judges to the bench who would work to overturn these wrongheaded decisions.

 

To my knowledge, no one has yet offered a more comprehensive plan.

 

However, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro comes in at a close second.

 

As you might expect, his school integration plan focuses on real estate and housing issues. According to his Website, Castro’s plan includes:

 

“Fulfill the promise of Brown v Board of Education through a progressive housing policy that includes affirmatively furthering fair housing, implementing zoning reform, and expanding affordable housing in high opportunity areas. These efforts will reduce racial segregation in classrooms.”

 

In other words, Castro hopes to work around the courts by incentivizing integration in neighborhoods which would also increase it in our schools.

 

It’s a good plan – though perhaps not enough in itself.

 

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt Castro’s sincerity here. Unlike Sanders’ plan, Castro’s education policy statement is littered with jargon right out of the school privatization, edtech and high stakes testing playbook. These are, after all, the same people who have worked to increase segregation with the promotion of charter and voucher schools.

 

For instance, the second point of his plan is called “Reimagining High School” – a monicker stolen from the XQ Superschools program, a philanthrocapitalist scheme to rebrand school privatization funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs.

 

This shouldn’t be surprising coming from 
Castro. In 2013, the mayor went on a tour of cities sponsored by Education Reform Now – an arm of Democrats for Education Reform, a school privatization lobbying network. In the same year, he was also a featured guest at a ribbon cutting ceremony for IDEA charter schools. In 2010, he admitted he had no problem taking money with strings attached – a reference to the Obama administration’s chief education initiative of offering education grants if states increased reliance on high stakes testing and charter schools. In particular, Castro said: “I would have taken the Race to the Top money if I was mayor, dogcatcher, or whatever.”

 

And speaking of standardized testing and edtech, there are other telling hints that he’s on the neoliberal bandwagon in his current education plan:

 

“Provide educators and public schools flexibility in defining success, including competency-based assessments and support for transitions away from seat-time requirements. Provide maximum flexibility for school leaders, teachers, and students to work together to develop rigorous, competency-based pathways to a diploma and industry recognized credentials,” [Emphasis mine].

 

These terms “competency-based” and “rigorous” have strong associations with the privatization industry. “Competency-based” education programs usually mean making kids do daily mini-standardized tests on iPads or other devices and other untested cyber education programs. “Rigorous” has been associated with topdown academic standards like the Common Core that provide students with few resources or even taking them away and then blaming kids for not being able to meet arbitrary and developmentally inappropriate benchmarks.

 

Castro has some good ideas, but his troubling associations and language give any person familiar with these issues reason to pause.

 

Of course, Castro has not yet made a real mark among those Democrats seeking their party’s nomination.

 

Perhaps more important is the relative silence of a more popular candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

 

She hasn’t spoken much about integration efforts on the campaign trail. Along with Sanders, she is a co-sponsor of the Strength in Diversity Act, the leading congressional vehicle for school integration. However, that legislation is deeply flawed because it not only increases grant money for desegregation but also gives a big chunk of change away to charter schools.

 

In the past, Warren has supported a kind of school voucher program to separate where a student is enrolled in school from where they live entirely, but you can add it to the list of education issues she has not seen the need to clarify as yet.

 

It’s no surprise that so few Democratic hopefuls want to address the issue of desegregation – especially doing so through busing.

 

White middle class and wealthy people generally don’t support it.

 

They simply don’t want their kids going to schools with large numbers of black and brown students.

 

And this is a real moral weakness in white culture.

 

I went to an integrated school from Kindergarten to high school. My daughter goes to the same district. I teach at another integrated school.

 

The benefits of attending such a school far outweigh any negatives.

 

If students have to spend more time getting to and from school via buses to reach this goal, it wouldn’t matter if we valued the outcome.

 

In fact, many white parents don’t mind putting their kids on buses or driving them to get away from minority children.

 

Certainly we should try to minimize the time it takes to get to and from school but that shouldn’t be the only consideration.

 

They say we get the leaders we deserve.

 

If white people really want to defeat Trump, they may have to start by defeating the bigot inside themselves first.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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