Blaming Schools for Student Absences is Like Denouncing Doctors for Disease

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If something is wrong with children, it must be the school’s fault.

 

Right?

 

If kids can’t read, write and do ‘rithmetic, the teachers must not have taught ’em right.

 

It couldn’t have anything to do with home life, generational poverty, economic inequality and systemic racism.

 

Except that it almost always does.

 

Inextricably.

 
The fact is children who don’t live in safe, loving homes have much greater difficulty concentrating and caring about academics. Kids with impoverished parents are much more likely to go to underfunded schools and sit in classrooms that are racially segregated.

 

None of that is under the control of teachers or schools, but a focus on high stakes standardized testing, school privatization and dangerously unregulated ed tech hides the problem.

 
It’s not that teachers don’t teach. Inequality, prejudice and privatization – these are the root causes and the reason we do nothing about them generation after generation is that we have an easy scapegoat in the public schools in general and public school teachers in particular.

 
Take student absences.

 

It’s a huge problem.

 

When kids don’t show up to school, they learn less. It’s a simple concept.

 

Yet just four years ago when we had a chance to rewrite the federal law governing public education to actually DO SOMETHING about the problems we’re facing, we dropped the ball. Again!

 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include five indicators measuring school performance: four based on academic achievement, and a fifth, “non-academic” measure of student success.

 

Most states have adopted chronic student absenteeism as this “fifth indicator.”

 

So we take those five indicators, weight them and combine them together to get overall school scores that are used to sort and rank educational institutions. That way we can prioritize funding to the highest performers and withhold it from the lowest.

 

It’s the same supply side nonsense we’ve been doing for years with a few numbers moved around and given a different name.

 

Schools overflowing with resources serving rich white kids get a sticker. Schools starving for resources serving poor brown kids get a kick.

 

And somehow that’s supposed to help things get better.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Absenteeism is important.

 

Nearly 8 million students missed 15 or more days of school in 2015-16 — an increase from the 6.8 million who missed the same amount in 2013-14, when the federal Department of Education began tracking the data. And there’s a mountain of research that links chronic absenteeism with poor academic performance, delayed graduation, and increased dropout rates.

 

But putting it all on neighborhood schools and local districts is a huge abrogation of responsibility.

 

By and large, public schools do not cause students to be absent. Nor do they have the resources to ensure these students start attending.

 

But we’ve found someone to blame and that’s really all this whole exercise was about in the first place.

 

It’s like denouncing your doctor for your disease. It won’t cure you, but it might make you feel justified as you die.

 

The reasons students are chronically absent have little to do with individual schools.

 

According to Attendance Works, a non-profit focusing on ways to improve student attendance, the main causes of chronic absences are:

 

•Chronic disease or lack of health care and/or dental care.

 

•The need to care for siblings or other family members.

 

•Unmet basic needs: transportation, housing, food, clothing, etc.

 

•Trauma.

 

•Feeling unsafe getting to school.

 

•Academic or social struggles.

 

•Being teased or bullied.

 

•Poor school climate or unsafe schools.

 

•Parents had negative school experience.

 

•Lack of engaging and relevant instruction.

 

•Peer pressure to be with peers out of school vs. in school.

 

•No meaningful relationships with adults in school.

 

•High suspension rates and disproportionate school discipline.

 

Certainly some of these things are under the control of school directors, administrators, and teachers.

 

Schools can and should provide safe ways for students to get to and from school. They should work to reduce bullying and make school a welcoming place for all children. They should provide engaging instruction, fair discipline policies and reach out to parents and the community.

 

But most schools are already doing that – or certainly trying to do that within the confines of their budgets.

 

My own Western Pennsylvania district has been flagged by the Commonwealth for increasing chronic absences. In the state, this is defined as students with 10 or more unexcused absences. We’ve been put on an improvement plan – which basically means an employee at the state Department of Education wagging his finger and telling us to get better or else.

 

However, the overarching problem and solution are easy to see. We are a district without busing.

 

The high school and middle school sit on top of a hill. Students who live in the poorer sections of town at the bottom of the hill have to walk or take public transportation daily to get to school.

 

It’s no wonder that some of them don’t do that every day and stay home instead.

 

However, we serve a mostly impoverished population. Decades ago, school directors decided it would be more cost effective to save money on busing so they could provide greater services for students. Yet as the economy has continued to stagnate and funding has become even more hard to come by, attendance has worsened.

 

So what are we to do? Cut services and add buses?

 

Doing so would mean we’d have to bus students to local charter schools as well, increasing the burden on taxpayers and the amount of muscle and bone we’d have to cut from our own academic programs.

 

It’s all very well and good to have the federal government tell us that attendance is important – but where is the help to improve it?

 

As with everything else in education, we get threats and the promise of economic sanctions but nothing in the way of assistance, aide or intervention.

 

We could be working together to try to solve this and other social issues. We could pool resources and construct social programs to help parents get jobs, set up stable homes, fund robust systems of public transportation, and a host of social services for students and their families such as tutoring, counseling, child care, and continuing education classes. We could end discriminatory policies such as school segregation, school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

But doing so would mean abandoning the blame game and nothing has worked better to shield the rich from paying their fair share than pointing fingers at the less privileged and those who dedicate their lives to help them.

 

In truth, the problems with public schools are rarely the teachers.

 

It’s that society has written them off and refuses to take responsibility for its own role in supporting the next generation.

 


 

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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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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Standardized Tests Are Not Objective Measures of Anything

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When it comes to standardized tests, most people are blinded by science.

 

Or at least the appearance of science.

 

Because there is little about these assessments that is scientific, factual or unbiased.

 

And that has real world implications when it comes to education policy.

 

First of all, the federal government requires that all public school children take these assessments in 3-8th grade and once in high school. Second, many states require teachers be evaluated by their students’ test scores.

 

Why?

 

It seems to come down to three main reasons:

 

1) Comparability
2) Accountability
3) Objectivity

 

COMPARABILITY

 

First, there is a strong desire to compare students and student groups, one with the other.

 

We look at learning like athletics. Who has shown the most success, and thereby is better than everyone else?

 

This is true for students in a single class, students in a single grade, an entire building, a district, a state, and between nations, themselves.

 

If we keep questions and grading methods the same for every student, there is an assumption that we can demonstrate which group is best and worst.

 

ACCOUNTABILITY

 

Second, we want to ensure all students are receiving the best education. So if testing can show academic success through its comparability, it can also be used as a tool to hold schools and teachers accountable. We can simply look at the scores and determine where academic deficiencies exist, diagnose them based on which questions students get incorrect and then focus there to fix the problem. And if schools and teachers can’t or won’t do that, it is their fault. Thus, the high stakes in high stakes testing.

 

Obviously there are other more direct ways to determine these facts. Historically, before standardized testing became the centerpiece of education policy, we’d look at resource allocation to determine this. Are we providing each student with what they need to learn? Do they have sound facilities, wide curriculum, tutoring, proper nutrition, etc.? Are teachers abiding by best practices in their lessons? Many would argue this was a better way of ensuring accountability, but if standardized assessments produce valid results, they are at least one possible way to ensure our responsibilities to students are being met.

 

OBJECTIVITY

 

Third, and most importantly, there is the assumption that of all the ways to measure learning, only standardized testing produces objective results. Classroom grades, student writing, even high school graduation rates are considered subjective and thereby inferior.

 

Questions and grading methods are identical for every student, and a score on the test is proof that a student is either good or bad at a certain subject. Moreover, we can use that score to keep the entire education system on track and ensure it is functioning correctly.

 

So this third reason for standardized testing is really the bedrock rationale. If testing is not objective, it doesn’t matter if it’s comparable or useful for accountability.

 

After all, we could hold kids accountable for the length of their hair, but if that isn’t an objective measure of what they’ve learned, we’re merely mandating obedience not learning.

 

The same goes for comparability. We could compare all students academic success by their ability to come up with extemporaneous rhymes. But as impressive as it is, skill at spitting out sick rhymes and matching them to dope beats isn’t an objective measure of math or reading.

 

Yet in a different culture, in a different time or place, we might pretend that it was. Imagine how test scores would change and which racial and socioeconomic groups would be privileged and which would suffer. It might – in effect – upend the current trend that prizes richer, whiter students and undervalues the poor and minorities.

 
So let’s begin with objectivity.

 

ARE STANDARDIZED TESTS OBJECTIVE?

 
There is nothing objective about standardized test scores.

 

Objective means something not influenced by personal feelings or opinions. It is a fact – a provable proposition about the world.

 

An objective test would be drawing someone’s blood and looking for levels of nutrients like iron and B vitamins.

 

These nutrients are either there or not.

 

A standardized test is not like that at all. It tries to take a series of skills in a given subject like reading and reduce them to multiple choice questions.

 

Think about how artificial standardized tests are: they’re timed, you can’t talk to others, the questions you’re allowed to ask are limited as is the use of references or learning devices, you can’t even get out of your seat and move around the room.  This is nothing like the real world – unless perhaps you’re in prison.

 

Moreover, this is also true of the questions, themselves.

 

If you’re asking something simple like the addition or subtraction of two numbers or for readers to pick out the color of a character’s shirt in a passage, you’re probably okay.

 

However, the more advanced and complex the skill being assessed, the more it has to be dumbed down so that it will be able to be answered with A, B, C or D.

 

The answer does not avoid human influences or feelings. Instead it assesses how well the test taker’s influences and feelings line up with those of the test maker.

 

If I ask you why Hamlet was so upset by the death of his father, there is no one right answer. It could be because his father was murdered, because his uncle usurped his father’s position, because he was experiencing an Oedipus complex, etc. But the test maker will pick one answer and expect test takers to pick the same one.

 

If they aren’t thinking like the test maker, they are wrong. If they are, they are right.

 

MISUNDERSTANDINGS

 
Yet we pretend this is scientific – in fact, that it’s the ONLY scientific way to measure student learning.

 

And the reason we make this leap is a misunderstanding.

 

We misconstrue our first reason for testing with our third. What we take for objectivity is actually just consistency again.

 

Since we give the same tests to every student in a given state, they show the same things about all students.

 

Unfortunately, that isn’t learning. It’s likemindedness. It’s the ability to conform to one particular way of thinking about things.

 

This is one of the main reason the poor and minorities often don’t score as highly on these assessments as middle class and wealthy white students. These groups have different frames of reference.

 

The test makers generally come from the same socioeconomic group as the highest test takers do. So it’s no wonder that children from that group tend to think in similar ways to adults in that group.

 

This isn’t because of any deficiency in the poor or minorities. It’s a difference in what they’re exposed to, how they’re enculturated, what examples they’re given, etc.

 

And it is entirely unfair to judge these children based on these factors.

 

UNDERESTIMATING HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY

 

The theory of standardized testing is based on a series of faulty premises about human psychology that have been repeatedly discredited.

 

First, they were developed by eugenicists like Lewis Terman who explicitly was trying to justify a racial hierarchy. I’ve written in detail about how in the 1920s and 30s these pseudoscientists tried to rationalize the idea that white Europeans were genetically superior to other races based on test scores.

 

Second, even if we put blatant racism to one side, the theory is built on a flawed and outmoded conception of the human mind – Behaviorism. One of the pioneers of the practice was Edward Thorndike, who used experiments on rats going through mazes as the foundation of standardized testing.

 

This is all good for Mickey and Minnie Mouse, but human beings are much more complicated than that.

 

The idea goes like this – all learning is a combination of stimulus and response. Teaching and learning follow an input-output model where the student acquires information through practice and repetition.

 

This was innovative stuff when B. F. Skinner was writing in the 20th Century. But we live in the 21st.

 

We now know that there are various complex factors that come into play during learning – bio-psychological, developmental and neural processes. When these are aligned to undergo pattern recognition and information processing, people learn. When they aren’t, people don’t learn.

 

However, these factors are much too complicated to be captured in a standardized assessment.

 

As Noam Chomsky wrote in his classic article  “A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior,” this theory fails to recognize much needed variables in development, intellectual adeptness, motivation, and skill application. It is impossible to make human behavior entirely predictable due to its inherent cognitive complexity.

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

So we’re left with the continued use of widespread standardized testing attached to high stakes for students, schools and teachers.

 

And none of it has a sound rational basis.

 

It is far from objective. It is merely consistent. Therefore it is useless for accountability purposes as well.

 

Since children from different socioeconomic groups have such varying experiences, it is unfair.

 

Demanding everyone to meet the same measure is unjust if everyone isn’t given the same resources and advantages from the start. And that’s before we even recognize that what it consistently shows isn’t learning.

 

The assumption that other measures of academic success are inferior has obscured these truths. While quantifications like classroom grades are not objective either, they are better assessments than standardized tests and produce more valid results.

 

Given the complexity of the human mind, it takes something just as complex to understand it. Far from disparaging educators’ judgement of student performance, we should be encouraging it.

 

It is the student-teacher relationship which is the most scientific. Educators are embedded with their subjects, observe attempts at learning and can then use empirical data to increase academic success on a student-by-student basis as they go. The fact that these methods will not be identical for all students is not a deficiency. It is the ONLY way to meet the needs of diverse and complex humanity – not standardization.

 

Thus we see that the continued use of standardized testing is more a religion – an article of faith – than it is a science.

 

Yet this fact is repeatedly ignored by the media and public policymakers because there has grown up an entire industry around it that makes large profits from the inequality it recreates.

 

In the USA, it is the profit principle that rules all. We adjust our “science” to fit into our economic fictions just as test makers require students to adjust their answers to the way corporate cronies think.

 

In a land that truly was brave and free, we’d allow our children freedom of thought and not punish them for cogitating outside the bubbles.

 


 

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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Tying Kids’ Lunch Money to Test Scores? It’s No Crueler Than High Stakes Testing

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UPDATED

 

Most people agree that the best way to get kids to read isn’t by threatening to take away their lunch.

 
But an Arkansas state Representative is threatening to do just that – sort of.

 

Rep. Alan Clark, a West Memphis Republican, proposed a bill that would cut “Lunch Funding” for impoverished children in state schools where students struggle with standardized reading tests.

 

However, he’s not proposing we take away kids’ food.

 

If passed, the bill would reduce a district’s National School Lunch funding – a state mechanism that distributes extra resources to schools with high concentrations of students who qualify for free lunch programs – if student test scores don’t rise over a period of time. This would cut things like professional development and tutoring.

 

However, this has been confused with the federal program of the same name and drawn almost universal condemnation.

 

“I would never starve kids,” Clark said. But he would starve their schools of resources.

 

Either way, his proposal is obviously unfair.

 

Only a monster would think you can incentivize reading comprehension by threats and coercion.

 

It’s like saying “You’d better understand this complex puzzle OR ELSE!

 

Learning doesn’t work that way.

 

But Clark sees things from a different perspective – that of business and industry. He told KTHV, a state television network:

 

“In most businesses I would be laughed at for suggesting such a small goal. But sadly many educators act like I have asked them to storm the beaches at Normandy… It appears I have much more faith in our schools than many of our educators do.”

 

This is what happens when you elect people without empathy or intelligence to public office.

 

I wonder if Clark would do a better job representing the people of his state if they threatened to lower his salary based on his popularity polls.

 

It says a lot about us that people react so viscerally to the inaccurate idea that Clark is suggestion we withhold food from bad test takers. That’s unthinkable. But it isn’t really that much more cruel than the way we actually treat students.

 

Our entire federal education policy is based on just such inhuman treatment of children.

 

After all, we still hold kids, schools and teachers “accountable” by student test scores. The consequences though aren’t an empty belly. They’re crowded classrooms and fewer tutors.

 

In every state of the union, students are required to take high stakes standardized tests in reading and math. If they don’t do well, we take away their resources.

 

Sure, we don’t deny them food, but we deny them many other things they need to learn.

 

We lower funding to their schools so that they have larger class sizes, fewer teachers, narrowed curriculum, etc. We threaten to withhold their diplomas and any chance of ever earning more than minimum wage. In many cases we tie teachers salaries, reputations and even employment to these same scores. Sometimes we even take away their parents right to govern their children’s schools so that all administrative decisions are made by state flunkies. Or we force their authentic public schools to become charter institutions so that spending decisions happen behind closed doors without accountability and even whether a student can enroll or not becomes a decision of the private management company and not simply something that is the students’ by right of living in the district.

 

It may not be as severe as the idea of Test Scores for Food, but it’s the same in kind.

 

In both cases, we tell kids – “Increase test scores, OR ELSE!” It’s just a difference of consequence.

 

Call me crazy, but that’s nearly as cruel and wrongheaded.

 

Keep in mind, all of this takes for granted that standardized tests are adequate and fair assessments of student learning in the first place. This has never been proven. In fact, it has been cast in serious doubt after more than a century of academic study. Ask anyone to narrow their thinking down to four prepackaged choices and you’ll find them trying to guess what the test-maker wanted more than what the truth is. Critical thinking, analysis, innovation – these escape any multiple choice exam.

 

But even if we go with this empty assumption, it flies in the face of everything we know about the way human beings acquire knowledge and demonstrate skills.

 

When kids struggle with learning, you can’t get them to do better with threats. Or at least you can only do that if those children are doing poorly on purpose.

 

Kids who just aren’t trying hard enough might be incentivized by threats. But even then it transforms learning into a means to an end. Once you do that, you destroy their natural curiosity. Learning will never again be an end in itself. It will be a menial task you only do to get something else that you really want.

 

However, in most cases kids don’t struggle because they’re just lazy. They don’t need an incentive. They need help. They need resources.

 

It’s no wonder that children in rich and middle class neighborhoods have less trouble getting higher test scores. They have lower class sizes, more teachers, wider curriculum, more extra curricular activities, access to tutors, counselors, nurses and after school programs.

 

Poor kids don’t. THAT’S why they struggle.

 

And what do we do when that happens? We take away the meager resources they have!

 

If a teacher tried any of this crap in her classroom, she’d be fired for dereliction of duty – and she’d deserve it!

 

Just imagine if you told the kids who were struggling in your class that they didn’t deserve tutoring. Instead you were going to give extra help to the kids who got the best scores on the exam!

 

And if the struggling children continued to do poorly, you took away their desks. Now they had to sit on the floor!

 

THIS is the kind of thing we’re doing to our children nationwide.

 

It’s called TEST AND PUNISH, and it’s federal policy – often backed up by state and local law.

 

Moreover, it’s supported by both Republicans and Democrats alike.

 

We may not be  denying poor kids a meal, but we are denying them an equal opportunity at an education just the same.

 

It’s way past time that we wake up and see that.

 

We can point and jeer at what we thought this regressive Arkansas nitwit was doing, but we’re really pointing and jeering at ourselves.

 


NOTE: An earlier version of this story – like many in the state and national press – wrongly suggested that Clark wanted to withhold lunches from poor children based on test scores.


Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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Pennsylvania’s Keystone Exam – the Monster We Refuse to Let Die

 

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Let’s say there was a monster loose in Pennsylvania and you caught it.

 

Its days of wandering loose causing chaos and destruction were over.

 

But what would you do with such a beast now?

 

Would you kill it outright? Stop it from ever hurting anyone ever again?

 

Or would you simply neutralize it – place it perhaps in the center of a labyrinth, continue feeding it, and in fact create a whole religion based on worshipping it?

 

In the keystone state, we have just such a creature, and we’re going with the second option – the maze, nourishment and a cult.

 

The monster is, of course, the Keystone Exams. And like the Minotaur of ancient myth, we’re building a bureaucratic prison in which to house it.

 

Sure, we’ve spent billions of dollars on these unnecessary, badly written and biased graduation assessments.

 

And, heck, it would just make more sense to stop doing something that isn’t working, wastes money and causes legitimate problems for students.

 

But this is Pennsylvania! We’re not going to admit we made a mistake. Better to bury it under red tape and pretend like this is what we meant all along. Nothing to see here, folks. Nothing to see…

 

When lawmakers originally came up with this plan… correction: when testing companies bribed federal lawmakers to force state lawmakers to enact this cockamamey plan – it was supposed to function as a graduation requirement.

 

Pass these tests or no diploma for you.

 

However, somehow Harrisburg politicians couldn’t get up the nerve to actually bar tens of thousands of worthy students from graduating when they had already proven they deserved it by passing 12 years of grade school.

 

So after kicking the can down the road for more than 6 years, they came up with this solution. Make it a graduation requirement, but include a whole truckload of other options that could count instead.

 

In short, we’re creating endless corridors of paperwork, placing the tests in the center and going on with our day.

 

The good news: if students can make it through the labyrinth, they never need to take or pass the Keystone Exams!

 

The bad news: we’re still paying millions of dollars to support these tests and we’re still forcing our teachers to make all instruction about them.

 

And that’s what we in the Commonwealth call a “victory.”

 

Yippee!

 

The bill to circumvent the Keystone Exams by providing multiple means of getting a diploma was passed by the state house and senate. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign it into law this week.

 

If he does, students will still be given the Keystone Exams (unless opted out) and could demonstrate they’re worthy of a diploma by passing them. But students will have many additional ways to prove they’re worthy of a cap and gown, such as:

 

  • Show proficiency on the SAT, PSAT or ACT;
  • Pass an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam;
  • Complete a dual-enrollment program;
  • Complete an apprenticeship program;
  • Get accepted to an accredited four-year nonprofit institution of higher education;
  • Complete a service-learning project;
  • Secure a letter of full-time employment;
  • Achieve an acceptable score on a WorkKeys assessment, an exam administered by the ACT which assesses workplace skills including math, reading comprehension and applied technology.

 

To sweeten the pot even further, this won’t even go into effect until the 2021-22 school year.

 

So in four years, high school seniors will be racing to submit their letters of college admission, or letters of employment or SAT scores or whatever to prove they actually deserve that diploma.

 

But that will not be the end of it.

 

Just because victims thrown into the labyrinth have an easy path to avoiding the monster doesn’t mean the monster won’t affect them.

 

Teaching evaluations are still based on test scores. Schools evaluations are still based on test scores.

 

This continues the tremendous state pressure for local districts to make instruction all about testing.

 

Kids don’t have to pass the test, but their everyday classroom experiences will still be largely determined by these test.

 

Heck, many districts will probably “voluntarily” decide to make passing the test a graduation requirement just to force their students to take them seriously.

 

So anyone who’s out celebrating that the Keystone Exams are dead is premature.

 

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, at least, understands this.

 

“Remember, the Keystones have been delayed and the graduation requirement associated with them has been stopped, but they will still be required in Pennsylvania schools for federal accountability,” he said in statement.

 

“Meanwhile, we know they are expensive, redundant and unnecessary and I will continue to work to end them once and for all.”

 

Dinniman, a Democrat, is minority chair of the Senate Education Committee.

 

It’s a problem all too typical in the state.

 

Most lawmakers are too timid to take any type of real stand. They’d rather support some half-measure so they can claim to be in favor of either or both sides of an argument.

 

For instance, consider the time it takes to finish the tests.

 

Parents, teachers and students have complained about how these assessments waste academic time that could be better used to teach the necessary skills needed to pass.

 

So Gov. Wolf cut the Keystone Exams and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test by a total of almost 2 hours a year.

 

However, at the same time, his administration suggests students take a series of additional pretests that are supposed to predict success on the PSSA or Keystone Exams – tests such as the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) assessment.

 

If schools follow the state’s instructions and give students this exam in reading, math and science 3 to 5 times a year, that’s an additional 50-90 minutes per test. That comes to 22.5 hours of additional testing!

 

So 22.5 hours minus 2 hours equals… NOT A REDUCATION IN TESTING!

 

But it gives lawmakers plausible deniability.

 

They can claim to be cutting testing while actually suggesting we increase it.

 

And we see the same sort of thing here.

 

Lawmakers can claim to be reducing the power of the Keystone Exams while still enshrining it as the driving force behind all instruction in the state.

 

What we need are leaders and not politicians.

 

We need people willing to take a stand and do what’s right even if that puts them at odds with the moneyed special interests.

 

That takes more than polls and market analysis.

 

It takes moral courage.

 

But there’s no test for that.


 

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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Resistance to High Stakes Testing Persists as Media Celebrates Its End

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There has never been more opposition to high stakes standardized testing.

 

Yet the corporate controlled media is pretending that the resistance is over.

 

Parents are refusing to let their kids take these tests at the same or even greater numbers than ever.

 

Fewer states require high stakes tests as graduation exams and/or use them to evaluate their teachers. Across the nation, states are cutting the size of standardized tests or eliminating them altogether. And more state legislatures passed laws explicitly allowing parents to opt their children out of the tests.

 

Yet Education Week published an article a few days ago called “Anti-Test Movement Slows to a Crawl.”

 

I think we have different definitions of “Slows” and “Crawl.”

 

That may not be surprising since we also seem to have different definitions of “Anti-Test.”

 

The Opt Out Movement is not “Anti-Test.” It is anti-high stakes standardized test.

 

It is against the federal government forcing states to use corporate written, corporate graded and corporate remediated standardized assessments.

 

It is against the federal government requiring each state to participate in a corporate boondoggle that not only wastes billions of tax dollars that could be better spent to educate children but also unfairly assesses their academic progress and feeds the push to privatize public schools.

 

Most people against high stakes standardized testing, however, have no problem with authentic teacher-created assessments.

 

Calling these folks “Anti-Test” is like labeling those pushing for stricter gun regulations “Anti-Gun” or smearing those protesting government corruption as “Anti-Government.”

 

And that’s just the title!

 

The author Alyson Klein further misdirects readers by conflating opt out rates and test resistance.

 

She implied that the only measure of opposition was the percentage of students who opt out. However, as noted above, there are multiple measures of resistance.

 

 

Moreover, few states advertise their opt out rates. Especially after the movement began, states made that information harder to come by to dissuade more people from joining it.

 

Of those states where information is available, Klein puts the most negative possible spin on the facts in order to make her point – a point that it seems to me is not at all justified.

 

For instance, Klein writes:

 

“At least some of the steam has gone out of the opt-out movement in states such as New Jersey and New York, considered hotbeds of anti-testing fervor.”

 

Really?

 

In New York, Opt out numbers remained at approximately 20% – the same as they have for the past three years.

 

And New York is one of our most densely populated states. That percentage represents more than 225,000 parents across the Empire State who refused to let their children take the tests despite threats from many administrators and district officials for doing so.

 

 

In New Jersey, opt out rates were marginally lower this year than last year. They went from 7% to 5%. But once again New Jersey is a populous state. That percentage represents about 68,500 students.

 

In addition, this is after massive opt outs three years ago that forced the state to change its federally mandated assessment. Testing boycotts pushed the state education association to get rid of four PARCC assessments and allow students who fail the remaining two tests to take an alternative assessment. And this is in a state where there is no law explicitly allowing parents to opt out of the tests.

 

I don’t know if I’d call that running out of steam.

 

Moreover, opt out rates have increased in other states for which we have data. For instance, test refusal is on the rise in heartland states like Minnesota.

 

And it nearly doubled in Utah over the past two years to about 6%. In some schools in the Beehive State, rates are much higher. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, 1 in 5 students in the Park City school district refused to take the tests.

 

 

Though my own state of Pennsylvania has been mum on last year’s opt outs, from my own personal experience as a teacher in suburban Pittsburgh, I never had more students boycott our federally mandated standardized test than I did last year.

 

There were so many they had to be quarantined in a special room.

 

Moreover, an increasing number of parents ask me about the issue, express concern and wonder about their rights.

 

So even when examining just the rate of opt out, I don’t see any reason to assume the movement is slowing down.

 

On the contrary, it is picking up steam with multiple victories.

 

As recently as 2012, half of all U.S. states required high school exit exams in order for students to graduate. Today that number has dropped to 12. The reason? Exit exams don’t raise student achievement – they raise the dropout rate. At least that’s what The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences tells us.

 

Another positive sign – seven states have stopped using value added measures (VAM) to judge teachers. This is the highly controversial practice of assessing educators based on their students test scores – a practice that has never been proven fair to teachers or effective in helping students learn. Six states have dropped this requirement altogether: Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma. Connecticut still gathers the information but cannot use it in the teacher’s “summative rating.” And other states like New Mexico still use value added measures but have reduced the weight given to student test scores.

 

Moreover, let’s not forget how many states have slashed the size of the high stakes tests they’re giving to students. After the recent wave of opt outs and public outcry, state education departments have ensured that testing at least takes up less time. This includes New York, Maryland, New Mexico, California, Minnesota, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Washington, Illinois, West Virginia, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. Some of this is because the PARCC test used in 21 states was slashed by 90 minutes.

 

And when it comes to opt out, two more states – Idaho and North Dakota – now have explicit laws on the books allowing parents to refuse the test for their children – in whole or in part. That brings the total number of states up to 10. It would have been 11, but Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, vetoed an opt-out bill. The federal government still wants us to penalize these districts for non-participation in flagrant violation of its authority. But as more states respect parents’ rights on this matter, it will be increasingly difficult for the U.S. Department of Education to continue trampling them.

 

And speaking of the federal government, some states are taking advantage of the wiggle room in the federal law that governs K-12 education – the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – to allow students to avoid standardized testing entirely. Some states are implementation performance assessments instead. Kids can use a portfolio of classwork to demonstrate learning instead of getting a grade on a corporate-written standardized test. New Hampshire, for instance, has pioneered this approach with a program that now involves half the state’s districts.

 

These are not the signs of a movement that is slowing to a crawl.

 

It just makes sense that some of the rhetoric of the movement may have become less forceful with the enactment of the federal ESSA.

 

Many had hoped for a better law – one that did away with federally mandated testing altogether.

 

And that could still happen sooner than many think. Next year it will be time to reauthorize the law again.

 

It took Congress six years to reauthorize the federal education law last time. Perhaps our duly elected representatives can be coaxed into doing their jobs a bit quicker this time.

 

There is already some proposed legislation to make positive changes. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) introduced legislation last year to replace annual assessments with grade-span tests. The United States is, after all, one of the only countries in the world – if not the only one – to require students be tested every year. These proposed changes are not nearly enough, but they’re a step in the right direction.

 

One of the biggest obstacles to abolishing federally mandated testing last time was that some of the oldest and most well funded civil rights organizations opposed it. Many of them get their money and support from the same billionaires who profit off of the standardized testing and privatization industries.

 

However, that support for testing was short lived. Already the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has revoked it returning to a call for opposition to testing.

 

If our nation survives the many crises of the Donald Trump administration, there is no reason our future cannot be bright.

 

We have the support, we have the tools, we just need the chance to do right by our children.

 

And the pendulum is swinging back our way.


 

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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The NAACP Once Again Opposes High Stakes Standardized Testing!

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The nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization has come out against high stakes standardized testing.

 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) distributed an issue brief yesterday at its national convention in San Antonio, Texas, titled “NAACP OPPOSES HIGH-STAKES EDUCATIONAL TESTING.”

 

The brief stated that the organization has concerns about using a single standardized test as a graduation requirement, as a prerequisite for advancement to the next grade or otherwise blocking students from receiving various educational opportunities. In its place, the organization favors the use of multiple measures, which may include standardized testing but should also include other assessments such as student grades and teacher evaluations.

 

In short, the brief concluded:

 

“Using a single standardized test as the sole determinant for promotion, tracking, ability grouping and graduation is not fair and does not foster equality or opportunity for students regardless of race, income, or gender.”

 

This is a huge policy shift from where the organization was just three years ago.

 

In 2015, the NAACP along with several other larger and older civil rights groups changed its position against testing to one in favor of it.

 

At the time, Congress was getting ready to pass a new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The civil rights organizations – many of whom had just asked Congress a year earlier to reduce standardized testing – suddenly demanded it be kept a federal accountability standard and that taking these tests was, itself, a civil right.

 

At the time, many education activists were shocked by the turnaround obviously coerced by the standardized testing and school privatization industry. For instance, see this email from Teach for America alum Liz King giving organizations an ultimatum to sign.

 

The new issue brief is more in-line with the NAACP’s history of opposition and activism against corporate education reform.

 

Once again we have the NAACP that advocated against standardized testing in the Debra P v. Turlington case (1981), where the Florida legislature made passing a single standardized test a graduation requirement. The NAACP supported black students who had a disproportionate failing rate on the test and claimed the Florida legislature was violating the Fourteenth Amendment. The courts eventually ruled against the plaintiffs but the issue has remained contentious to this day.

 

The new issue brief isn’t just a return to form. It builds on concerns that are still plaguing our schools.

 

Of particular note in the new issue brief is the caution that, “…when standardized tests are used by schools and school districts, that the tests be valid and reliable, measure what the student was taught and provide appropriate accommodations for disabled children.”

 

Many would argue that the new batch of Common Core aligned tests being used by states do not meet this requirement. They do not test what students have been taught – they test students’ ability to spit back the same kind of thinking of the person who wrote the test. Moreover, special needs students are rarely afforded the same accommodations on federally mandated standardized test day that they are allowed during every other assessment they take during the school year.

 

The brief continues:

 

“Furthermore, the NAACP is opposed to individual students being unfairly denied critical educational opportunities because of their performance on a single, standardized test.

 

This, itself, is a nationwide problem. Administrators are pressured to make district policies “data-driven” and thus deny students the chance to take advanced classes or go on special field trips because of performance on one multiple choice test.

 

The NAACP certainly could go farther in its criticism of high stakes testing.

 

Organizations like the Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, have never wavered in their opposition to high stakes standardized testing. In 2015 while the NAACP and other well established groups defended testing, JJA was joined by 175 other national and local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations asking Congress to stop requiring standardized tests at all.

 

Standardized testing violates students civil rights – especially the poor and students of color.

 

It is nice to see the NAACP returning to the activism on which it built its justly deserved reputation.

 

What follows is the full text of the new NAACP issue brief:

 

 

 

“ISSUE BRIEF

 

Date: Summer, 2018

 

To: Concerned Parties

 

From: Hilary O. Shelton, Director, Washington Bureau

 

NAACP OPPOSES HIGH-STAKES EDUCATIONAL TESTING

 

THE ISSUE

 

Many states are relying on a single examination to determine decisions (such as graduating from high school or promoting students to the next grade), despite the fact that leading education experts nationwide recommend multiple measures of student performance for such decisions. While these “high-stakes” tests serve an important role in education settings, they are not perfect and when used improperly can create real barriers to educational opportunity and progress. Furthermore, one-time, standardized tests may have a disparate impact on students of color, many of whom have not had the benefit of high quality teaching staff (urban school districts have the greatest challenge in attracting and keeping high qualified teachers), adequate classroom resources, or instruction on the content and skills being tested by the standardized tests. Considering additional measures of student achievement, such as grades and teacher evaluations, adds not only to the fairness of a decision with major consequences for students but also increases the validity of such high stakes decisions.

 

Due to our concerns about the fairness of such testing, as well as the potential impact these tests have on the lives of our children, the NAACP has supported legislation in the past that would require that States follow the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Specifically, the bills require that High Stakes decisions be based upon multiple measures of student performance and, when standardized tests are used by schools and school districts, that the tests be valid and reliable, measure what the student was taught and provide appropriate accommodations for disabled children. Furthermore, the NAACP is opposed to individual students being unfairly denied critical educational opportunities because of their performance on a single, standardized test.

 

The NAACP will continue to promote the initiatives that ensure equal opportunity, fairness, and accuracy in education by coupling standardized tests with other measures of academic achievement. Using a single standardized test as the sole determinant for promotion, tracking, ability grouping and graduation is not fair and does not foster equality or opportunity for students regardless of race, income, or gender.”

 

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Special thanks to Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig who first released the issue brief on his education blog.


 

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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

 

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