Pennsylvania’s Broken Testing Promise – We Don’t Assess Students Less If We Demand Constant Diagnostic Tests

Jelani Guzman

Downcast faces, dropping eyes, desperate boredom.

 

That’s not what I’m used to seeing from my students.

 

But today they were all slumped over their iPads in misery taking their Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) test.

 

It’s at times such as these that I’m reminded of the promise made by Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf.

 

He pledged that this year we’d reduce the amount of time public school students spend taking standardized assessments.

 

“Students, parents, teachers and others have told us that too much time in the classroom is used for test taking,” he said.

 

“We want to put the focus back on learning in the classroom, not teaching to a test. Standardized testing can provide a useful data point for a student’s performance, but our focus should be on teaching students for future success, not just the test in front of them.”

 

So at his urging we made slight cuts to our Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – the assessment for grade 3-8 students.

 

We removed two sections of the PSSA – one in math, one in reading – and reduced the number of science questions.

 

This can cut testing by as much as 48 minutes in math, 45 minutes in reading, and 22 minutes in science.

 

And that’s good news.

 

But it’s not exactly the kind of sea change the state claims, given the Department of Education’s recommendations for additional tests on top of the PSSA.

 

That’s right. The state wants schools to give the CDT assessment an additional 3 to 5 times a year in reading, math and science.

 

Unlike the PSSA, this is a voluntary assessment. Districts can decide against it, but the department’s flunkies are crisscrossing the Commonwealth advising we all give the CDT as much as possible.

 

So that’s between 50-90 minutes for each assessment. A district that follows the state’s guidelines would be adding as much as 270 minutes of testing every seven weeks. In a given year, that’s 1,350 minutes (or 22.5 hours) of additional testing!

 

Pop quiz, Governor Wolf. Cutting testing by 115 minutes while adding 1,350 minutes results in a net loss or a net gain?

 

The answer is an increase of 1,235 minutes (or more than 20 hours) of standardized testing.

 

In my classroom, that means students coming in excited to learn, but being told to put away their books, pocket their pencils and put their curiosity on standby.

 

The folks who work at the Department of Education instead of in the classroom with living, breathing children, will tell you that these CDT tests are a vital tool to help students learn.

 

They provide detailed information about which skills individual students need remediation on.

 

But who teaches that way?

 

Billy, you are having trouble with this kind of multiple-choice question, so here are 100 of them.

 

We don’t do that. We read. We write. We think. We communicate.

 

And if somewhere along the way, we struggle, we work to improve that while involved in a larger project that has intrinsic value – such as a high interest book or a report on a hero of the civil rights movement.

 

When learning to walk, no one concentrates on just bending your knees. Even if you have stiff joints, you work them out while trying to get from point A to point B.

 

Otherwise, you reduce the exercise to boring tedium.

 

That’s what the state is suggesting we do.

 

Make something essentially interesting into humdrum monotony.

 

Teachers don’t need these diagnostics. We are deeply invested in the act of learning every day.

 

I know if my students can read by observing them in that act. I know if they can write by observing them doing it. I know if they can communicate by listening to them arguing in Socratic seminar. I read their poems, essays and short stories. I watch their iMovies and Keynote projects.

 

I’m a teacher. I am present in the classroom.

 

That tells me more than any standardized diagnostic test ever will.

 

It’s ironic that on a Department of Education “CDT Frequently Asked Questions” sheet, the assessment is described as “minimizing testing time.”

 

That’s just bad math.

 

And my student’s know it.

 

The district just sent out a letter telling parents and students they could take advantage of a school voucher to go to a local parochial school at public expense.

 

When presented with the prospect of another day of CDT testing in my room, one of my brightest students raised his hand and asked if kids in the local Catholic school took the test.

 

I told him I didn’t know – though I doubt it. They COULD take the test. It is available to nonpublic schools, but do you really think they’re going to waste that much instruction time?

 

Heck! They don’t even take the same MANDATORY standardized testing! Why would they bother with the optional kind!?

 

It is the public schools that are hopelessly tangled in the industrial testing complex. That’s how the moneyed interests “prove” the public schools are deficient and need to be replaced by privatized ones.

 

It’s an act of sabotage – and with the CDT it’s an act of self-sabotage.

 

School directors and administrators need to be smarter. The only way to beat a rigged game is not to play.

 

And the only way to reduce testing is to TAKE FEWER TESTS!


 

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 State Penalized My School Because We Tried to Integrate

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The original sin of American education is segregation.

 

Yet in Pennsylvania, taking steps to integrate can result in a penalty from the state legislature.

 

That’s what happened to my school this year.

 

After years of innovation and academic growth, my school added a new program to bring in struggling students from another institution – and the state rewarded us by putting us on a list of “failing” schools and forcing us into a voucher program.

 

I teach in a racially diverse, high poverty district in the western part of the state, just outside of Pittsburgh.

 

Charter schools have been leeching off us for years.

 

But today was the first day school vouchers sunk their teeth into us, too.

 

It’s called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (OSTCP) – a ridiculous bit of legislation that allows children in struggling public schools to use public tax dollars to pay for tuition at a private or parochial school.

 

I’d say they could use that money at a participating public school, too, but in Pennsylvania the public schools taking part in the program can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare.

 

And why does my school now qualify for this dubious distinction? Because of our standardized test scores.

 

Not our test scores from this year. They won’t be released until at least June – more likely August or September.

 

This is based on test scores from last year – 2016-17.

 

Moreover, it’s not district wide. It’s just the middle school and one elementary school.

 

In previous years, the middle school was the district powerhouse. We had the highest test scores and the most innovation. So what happened?

 

In short, we integrated.

 

From a state-wide standpoint, my district is hugely segregated.

 

About 60% of our students are poor and/or minorities. Yet if you go a few miles north, south, east or west, you’ll find schools serving every flavor of white privilege. Beautiful big buildings with the best of everything and a tax base to pay for it. My district, on the other hand, is made to do the best it can with what we’ve got, which isn’t much.

 

To make matters worse, the structure within our district, inherited from decades of unenlightened social planning, doubles down on that segregation.

 

Though we only have one middle school and one high school where all our students rub shoulders, we have two elementary schools – one for the middle class white kids and one for the poorer black ones.

 

This has dramatic academic consequences. Kids at the better-resourced white school flourish scholastically more than kids from the crumbling black school. So the racial and economic skills gap becomes entrenched by the time kids move to the middle school in 6th grade.

 

If only we could integrate the elementaries.

 

However, we can’t bus kids from one neighborhood to the other because we can’t afford it. We have a walking district. Moreover, parents would revolt at the idea of elementary kids having to trudge long distances or take a city bus to school.

 

The only long-term solution is to create a new, centrally located elementary center serving both populations. However, that takes money we don’t have.

 

So last year we tried a partial solution – move the 5th grade up to the middle school. That way, we can at least integrate our students a year earlier.

 

Of course, this means taking kids from the black school with terrible test scores up to the middle school. This means adding more struggling students from the school that already is on the state’s bottom 15% list and making them the middle school’s responsibility. It means a new program, new trials and challenges.

 

You’d think we’d get praise or at least understanding for tackling such a problem. But no.

 

Taking on the 5th grade tipped the middle school’s test scores over the edge.

 

Now we’re in the bottom 15%, too. Now we have to let our students go to a private or parochial school with public tax dollars.

 

Why? Because we tried to right a wrong. We tried to correct a social and academic injustice. And the result was a kick in the gut.

 

Thanks, Harrisburg legislators! Way to support students of color!

 

This is just another way that school vouchers support white supremacy. They make it harder to battle segregation.

 

Why would anyone integrate if doing so could mean losing funding and looking like a failure in the press?

 

Moreover, forget all the junk you hear from the state about growth.

 

This penalty is based on whether we hit testing benchmarks – what percentage of students we have earning proficient or advanced on the tests. It doesn’t matter how much they’ve improved. It doesn’t matter if they’ve gone from the lowest of the low to scratching at the ceiling of proficient.

 

My 8th graders last year (the year we’re being penalized for) experienced tremendous growth just like my students this year are doing. From where they came in to where they’re leaving, the difference is phenomenal!

 

But apparently that doesn’t count in Pennsylvania.

 

A poor school serving mostly underprivileged minorities needs to meet the same benchmarks as schools with Cadillac resources serving kids who have everything money can buy. There’s certainly no need for the state or federal government to do anything about equitable resources (At least, not until the result of a lawsuit is handed down where local districts are suing the state over just such strategic disinvestment).

 

Instead, we’ve got to offer our student the “opportunity” to go to a private school on the public dime.

 

And what an opportunity it is!

 

The chance to send your child to a cooperating private or parochial school at public expense.

 

The opportunity to lose your duly-elected school board. The opportunity for decisions about how your money is spent being made behind closed doors with little to no input from you. The opportunity to send your child to a school with fewer resources and fewer certified teachers. The opportunity to send your child to (an often) religious school on the public dime.

 

Wow! I can’t imagine why so few parents take advantage of that opportunity! My district has had a few schools on the OSTCP list before, and families overwhelmingly opt to stay put.

 

Let’s not forget the justification for this “opportunity” is low test scores.

 

Wait a minute. These cooperating private and parochial schools don’t even take the same standardized tests, if they take any at all.

 

In our community, there is only one cooperating private school – a catholic school located right next door.

 

Students enrolled there don’t take the PSSA or Keystone Exams. I believe they take the Terra Nova test. And the school must do a great job because its Website is three years out of date about the results of those tests.

 

What a great way to improve test scores for our students – comparing apples-to-pears or, to be honest, actually making no comparison at all.

 

This OSTCP law is based on an unjustified assumption that private schools are always better than public ones. The reality is that if the resources both schools receive are similar, the public school usually greatly outperforms the private or parochial one.

 

I’ve seen this first hand. I’ve toured our next door Catholic institution. A few years ago, we relocated our students there temporarily during an emergency drill.

 

It’s a quaint school. Cobblestones and a shaded green campus.

 

But the buildings are crumbling – especially on the inside. Watermarks on the walls and dirt collecting in the corners.

 

It’s also much smaller than my school. They only have less than 300 students from K-8. We have about 1,500 from K-12.

 

I can see why parents who graduated from that school and have a history with it might want to send their kids there to continue that legacy. But anyone else would be giving up much better facilities, a much wider curriculum, much better trained and experienced teachers and even smaller classes!

 

The OSTCP bill has nothing to do with providing better opportunities for children and families.

 

It’s a public tax giveaway to private businesses.

 

The private/religious schools benefit and so do the businesses who “donate” their taxes to these programs.

 

In 17 states you can get substantial tax credits for contributing to this scam.

 

Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia, for example, all provide tax credits worth between $65 and $95 on every $100 donated. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina go even further by reimbursing 100% of the donation. You read that right. Donate $100, get $100 back.

 

Oh, but it gets much worse. Since these are considered donations, you can also claim them as charitable deductions and get an additional 35% off your taxes. So you donate $100 and get back $135! Yes. You actually make money off this deal!

 

In Pennsylvania, investors can even “triple dip” receiving a state tax credit, a reduction in their state taxable income, and a reduction in their federal taxable income. And, yes, that means they sometimes get back more in tax breaks than they provide in contributions.

 

Meanwhile all of these “savings” come from money stolen from local public schools like mine. Businesses and individual investors are profiting off the industrial testing complex.

 

In the Keystone state, we have the OSTCP and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC).

 

This blatant swindle is championed on both sides of the political aisle.

 

We already waste $200 million in business taxes to these programs in the Commonwealth, yet both Democrats and Republicans keep trying to pass another bill to increase that sum by another $50 million.

 

In Allegheny County, where I teach, that includes Democratic State Reps. Dom Costa, Daniel J. Deasy, William C. Kortz II (who represents part of my school district) and Harry Readshaw.

 

Because of this bogus philanthropy, there will always be a bottom 15% of state schools – approximately 400 “failing schools” – that are ripe for the picking from private and parochial school vultures.

 

I’m sorry, but this just isn’t right.

 

That money should be going to public schools not private or religious institutions many of which espouse fundamentalist or racist teachings.

 

There is a reason our founders legislated a separation of church and state. We’d do best to remember it.

 

We could be using our resources to help solve our problems, alleviate segregation and increase equity.

 

Instead our lawmakers are too interested in giveaways to business and corporations even if that means stealing the money from our children.

Kiss My Assessment – A High Stakes Testing Poem

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Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.

 

 

Little Laquan, Empty belly

Reading passages by Maichiavelli

Does he know what the author thinks

Last night did he get forty winks

Drive-by shooting in his neighborhood

Answer questions that he should

Interrogated by the cops

Took away and locked his pops

Now he sits slumped in school

Testing, testing, it’s a rule

Will he – this time – make the grade

A debt to society he has paid

 

 

For being poor and his black skin

Success and riches, let me in!

But not unless you answer right

Like wealthy kids whose hue is white

Not two plus two or three and four

Context implied when you ask for

European culture and white society

If you know it, you’re in propriety

If not, take a longer road

Hurdles to jump and words to decode

 

 

But do not label the test unfair

Rich folks will blast you with hot air

Testing makes them bundles of billions

Leaching off of us civilians

Test prep, grading and remediation

Never mind that it keeps you in your station

Need new books, here’s Common Core

So big corporations can make some more

Money off your starving schools

The funding is drying up in pools

 

 

As politicians vote to gut

So they can give bankers another tax cut

Hotels and yachts and Maltese vacations

Touring havens in other nations

To hide their money and avoid paying

Anything to keep preying

On little kids and their moms

So long as they aren’t forced to pay alms

 

 

No nurses, no librarians, no psychologists

Nothing to feed a tummy or an esophagus

No fancy buildings, no small class sizes

Nothing to match the suburban enterprises

Fewer resources, fewer tutors,

Crumbling classrooms, archaic computers

Just give them tests as charity

And pretend it means populace parity

When he fails, we’ll blame Laquan

Fire his teacher and make her move on

 

 

Close his school and open a charter

And then his services we can barter

To turn his funding into profit

Democracy melts like warm chocolate

Private boards get public voice

Deciding who to enroll and calling it choice

Spending tax money behind closed doors

Filling classrooms with Americorps

Instructors who never earned a degree

But cheap trumps any pedigree

For teachers to teach the darkest of humans

As long as they don’t form any pesky unions

Reformers they’re called, really just hypocrites

Wolves with sheep skin in their identity kits

 

 

They might refuse to come out of the closet

But don’t burn this humble prophet

Who tells you the truth about high stakes tests

About the school system and the unholy mess

We’ve made for kids so hedge funders

Can bark and rave and push for blunders

To make money off of kids misery

And a better world – not for you, not for me.

Am I obsessed and distressed by oppressive divestment?

Oh who cares? Kiss my assessment!

 

 

Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.


NOTE: I wrote this poem during and after proctoring this year’s PSSA test for my 7th grade students. Can’t imagine where the inspiration came from! I’ll just say that the opposite of standardized testing has always seemed to be poetry. I hope you enjoyed my verses.  It was either that or spit curses!


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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Absurd Defense of Standardized Testing in Jacobin Magazine

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A bizarre article appeared in this Month’s issue of Jacobin – a left-leaning, even socialist magazine.

 

It was titled, “The Progressive Case for the SAT” and was written by Freddie DeBoer.

 

In it, the author attempts to explain why the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) – though flawed – is a more unbiased way to select which students deserve college admissions than indicators like K-12 classroom grades.

 

It’s all convoluted poppycock made worse by a baroque series of far left think tank connections, intellectual bias and mental illness.

 

In short, DeBoer argues that our schools are unfair, so we should embrace unfair high stakes tests.

 

I know. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

 

Let me slow it down a bit, premise by premise so you can see his point – or lack thereof.

 

The current education system privileges white affluent children, says DeBoer, so they have an easier time getting into college than poorer children of color.

 

Check so far.

 

Richer whiter kids often go to schools that are better funded than those that teach mostly impoverished minorities. Therefore, the privileged get smaller classes, wider curriculums, more extracurricular activities, more counselors, better nutrition, etc. – while the underprivileged… don’t.

 

Then DeBoer says that classroom grades are often dependent on the resources students receive. Richer whiter kids get more resources, so they often get better grades.

 

Still with you so far.

 

Therefore, he concludes, we need standardized tests like the SAT to help equalize the playing field. We need so-called “objective” assessments to counteract the “subjective” classroom grades.

 

But DeBoer admits standardized tests aren’t objective! They are also the result of resources – that’s why richer whiter kids tend to score better on them than poorer blacker kids!

 

The argument makes no logical sense.

 

Justifying one unfair system with another unfair system is beyond bonkers.

 

Plus DeBoer contends out of nowhere that classroom grades are more easily manipulated than the tests and thus the tests are more valid.

 

Wrong again.

 

Classroom grades are based on roughly 180 days of instruction a year for 12 plus years. The SAT is roughly one day. More if you retake it.

 

It is MORE difficult to influence 2,160 days worth of grading than 1 or 2 or 3. Not the other way round.

 

Moreover, classroom grades are tabulated by numerous teachers, many of whom have little or no contact with each other. Standardized test scores are tabulated by a handful of temporary summer workers who often collaborate on the scores.

 

Whether students get good or bad grades generally doesn’t affect a given teacher. However, low test scores are actually beneficial to testing corporations because they allow the company to make additional money by retesting and selling remediation materials to the district.

 

If one group is more subject to bias, it is those grading the standardized tests, not the classroom teachers.

 

He has a point that getting rid of standardized testing won’t by itself eliminate inequality. But doubling down on it certainly won’t either.

 

That’s just logic.

 

DeBoer seems to be ignorant of history, as well.

 

The SAT test didn’t just spring up out of the ground. It was written by people –  Psychologist Carl Brigham building on work by U.S. Army Psychologist Robert Yerkes to be exact.

 

Brigham devised the SAT in the early half of the 20th Century based on Yerkes’ and his own deeply racist eugenicist theories.

 

And when I say they were eugenicists, I’m not speaking in hyperbole. They truly believed that some races were just smarter, more moral and downright better than others.

 

“American education is declining and will proceed… with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive,” wrote Brigham in his seminal A Study of American Intelligence.

 

“No citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration,” wrote Yerkes in 1922.

 

And this idea was the foundation of their application of standardized testing, as Yerkes  noted a year later:

 

“The contrasting intellectual status of the white versus the negro constituents of the draft appear from table 3. Few residents of the United States probably would have anticipated so great a difference. That the negro is 90 per cent. [sic] illiterate only in part accounts for his inferior intellectual status.”

 

Yerkes eugenics Table 3

 

Brigham was basing his ideas on another test created by Yerkes, the Army Alpha and Beta tests.

 

As noted above, Yerkes  used test scores to “prove” black soldiers in WWI were inferior and thus more suited to menial service and the trenches while whites should be given better positions.

 

And Brigham continued this practice with his SAT test.

 

In both cases, the psychologists used standardized testing to back up a racist and classist status quo.

 

Yet it is this same SAT test that DeBoer is suggesting we keep because it reduces racial and economic bias!

 

Certainly the SAT has changed some since Yerkes time, but it hasn’t changed THAT much!

 

And that brings us to DeBoer, himself.

 

Who is this guy and why did an allegedly respectable publication like Jacobin print his crap theory?

 

DeBoer appears to be a very troubled individual.

 

Back in December of 2017, he published a blog post about his mental illness, almost being committed to an institution, the antipsychotic drugs he was taking and the break he would have to take from being a “public intellectual.”

 

I don’t mean to shame anyone who suffers from mental illness. But when someone offers such a bizarre policy suggestion, questions of stability arise.

 

Next, there’s DeBoer’s think tank connections.

 

On the same Website, DeBoer talks about “My anti anti-SAT take for the People’s Policy Project” – the same theory he expanded upon in his Jacobin article.

 

People’s Policy Project (3P) is a left-leaning think tank created by another frequent Jacobin contributor, lawyer and policy analyst, Matt Bruenig.

 

You may recall Bruenig. In 2015, he criticized schools that provide more resources to impoverished children by dubbing them “welfare schools.” He saw the inclusion of free healthcare, free meals, free pre-K, and other wraparound services as increasing the welfare state and making children and families dependent on the government for survival.

 

And, yes, like DeBoer, this is a guy who claims to be a far left Democrat.

 

This is all very troubling.

 

Sometimes we fall into the lazy attitude that high stakes testing, charter schools and other corporate education reforms are only championed by the right.

 

Certainly the left – or at least the far left – is immune to this neoliberal agenda.

 

You definitely wouldn’t expect to get a heaping helping of top down supply side school policy in Jacobin!

 

It just goes to show you how little policymakers on both sides of the aisle understand education and how ignorant they can be when we don’t force them to include the experts in the conversation.

 

I am, of course, talking about real, live classroom teachers.

 

Until we prize what they can tell us about education, we will continue to be led in circles by the ignorant.


 

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 Lone Voice of Dissent Against Standardized Testing

Businesswoman shouting through the megaphone in the open air.

 

Everybody wants to fight the good fight.

 

Until the battle begins.

 

Then many of us are all too ready to give in to what was intolerable just a moment before.

 

To paraphrase Thomas Paine:

 

 

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in times of crisis, shrink from service, but those who stand up in time of need deserve the love and thanks of every man and woman.

 

I see this almost every day in our schools.

 

Ask nearly any teacher what they think about high stakes standardized testing, and they’ll complain until they’re blue in the face.

 

They’ll give you gripes and grievances galore.

 

The tests take too long. They’re not valid assessments. They narrow the curriculum. They’re dumbing down the teaching profession and ripping away our autonomy.

 

To which I say – Amen, Sister!

 

Standardized tests more accurately measure economics than academics – poor kids generally fail and rich kids pass. They’re culturally biased, poorly put together, unscientifically graded and demonstrate a gobbsmacking conflict of interest.

 

Two conflicts of interest, actually.

 

First, the people who make the tests, grade the tests and thus have a financial interest in failing the most students possible because that means we have to buy more remediation material which they also conveniently sell.

 

Second, these test scores are used by the school privatization industry to unfairly label public schools failures so they can more easily sell fly-by-night charter and voucher schools.

 

So, yeah. Almost all of us agree standardized testing sucks.

 

But when there’s an administrator present, I too often find I’m the only one willing to speak that truth. My colleagues, who are pleased as punch to gripe in private, suddenly go quiet in the presence of their superiors.

 

What’s worse, some of them don’t just stay quiet – they offer arguments to support whatever nonsensical test-based solution our boss has in mind today.

 

Let’s say an administrator suggests we do something about the handful of students who opt out of standardized tests.

 

We could just respect the rights of parents who have handed in their written intention to opt their children out under a religious exemption – the only option in Pennsylvania. Or we could do as the administrator suggests and force kids who’ve been opted out to take a standardized look-a-like assessment.

 

I hear something like that, and I’m on my feet ready to fight.

 

But I find myself standing there alone.

 

“You can’t do that,” I say.

 

“It violates state law. In particular, Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4.

 

(Okay, I had to look up the particulars later, but I made sure the administrator got them.)

 

Consider subsection (d) (4). And I quote:

 

If upon inspection of a State assessment parents or guardians find the assessment to be in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied…”

 

Or how about subsection (d) (3):

 

“School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians [have]… (3) The right to have their children excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt by the school entity of a written request from the parent or guardians.” (Emphasis mine)

 

In other words, parents have a right to excuse their children from the tests and/or instruction such as test look-a-likes.

 

If we go forward with requiring students who are opted out to take tests that are just like the ones their parents instructed us NOT to give, we will be violating parents’ rights under state law.”

 

That seems pretty airtight to me.

 

But the administrator disagrees.

 

And I look around at the assembled mass of workaday teachers for support.

 

Not a peep.

 

Instead I get this:

 

-We’re being evaluated on these standardized tests, we have to make sure kids take them seriously.

 

-I see where you’re coming from but we have to do something about these kids who are opting out just to get out of doing the work. They don’t have any real intellectual objection. They’re just lazy.

 

-We’ve got to do something about grade inflation.

 

Oh. Em. Gee.

 

Yet after the meeting, some of them cautiously walk up to me asking my opinion of what went down.

 

YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR MY OPINION RIGHT NOW!

 

Take my word for it.

 

Tomorrow or the next day or the next week, they’ll be complaining again.

 

I’ve seen some of these people reduced to tears by administrators unfairly manipulating them based on their students’ test scores.

 

Yet none of them have the guts to stand up and be counted when the moment comes.

 

I say again – everyone wants to fight. But no one wants to do the fighting.

 

They want someone else to do it for them.

 

Does that make you angry?

 

It makes me furious.

 

But if you feel that way, you’ve got to do something about it.

 

You think teachers are too cowardly? What have YOU done to fight corporate education reform today?

 

You think too many administrators are quislings. You think the lawmakers are bought and sold. You think the public schools are under attack.

 

Well, get off your ass and do something.

 

I am tired of being the lone voice of dissent here.

 

All across the country there are people like me – people willing to stand up and fight.

 

But it’s a big country, and we’re usually spread pretty thin.

 

We need people willing to put their money where their mouths are – right here, in our hometowns.

 

Put up or shut up, America.

 

Do you want a school system that serves the needs of children?

 

You’ve got to make it happen.

 

I can’t do this all by myself.

Few Kids in the World Can Pass America’s Common Core Tests, According to New Study

chinese-children-crush-americans-in-math-thanks-to-a-mindset-americans-only-display-in-one-place-sports

 

Could you jump through a hoop?

 

 

Probably if it were lying on the ground.

 

 

But what if it were held slightly higher? Let’s say waist high? Sure.

 

 

Shoulder height? Maybe with some practice.

 

How about if we raised the hoop to the rafters of a three story auditorium? Could you jump through THAT?

 

 

No. Of course not.

 

 

You could train with the world’s greatest coach, with the best equipment, 24-hours a day and you still couldn’t jump that high.

 

 

Yet that’s kind of what the U.S. has been expecting of its public school students – minus the resources.

 

 

We hold the hoop ridiculously out of reach and then blame them when they can’t jump through it.

 

 

But don’t take my word for it.

 

 

This is the conclusion of a new study that came out in January called “How High the Bar?” by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League.

 

 

They found the benchmarks for passing the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and American Common Core tests put success out of reach for most students the world over.

 

To do so, they linked the performance of foreign students on international tests of reading, mathematics, and science to the proficiency benchmarks of NAEP and thus Common Core aligned tests which use NAEP benchmarks to determine passing or failure.

 

The difference is the NAEP is only meant to compare how students in various states stack up against each other. Common Core tests, on the other hand, apply exclusively to kids within states.

 

 

No one’s actually expected to pass the NAEP. It’s only given to a sample of kids in each state and used to rank state education systems. The U.S. government, however, gives almost all its students Common Core tests and expects them all to pass – in fact, failure to do so could result in your public school being closed and replaced with a charter or voucher institution.

 

 

However, in both cases, the study concluded the score needed to meet the bare minimum of passing was absurdly too high – so much so that hardly any group of children in the entire world met it.

 

 

It’s important to note that these aren’t standardized testing skeptics.

 

 

They believe in the assessments. They even believe in Common Core. What they don’t believe in is the benchmarks we’re expecting our kids to meet to consider them having passed.

 

 

And this has massive consequences for the entire education system.

 

 

The media has uncritically repeated the lie that American public schools are failing based almost exclusively on test scores that show only one third of our students passing.

 

 

But if the same tests were given to students the world over with the same standard for success, even less would pass it, according to the study. If we drew the red line on international tests at the same place we draw it on the NAEP and  Common Core tests, almost every child in the world would be a dunce.

 

 

Kids from Singapore would fail. Kids from South Korea would fail. Kids from Japan would fail. You name a country where kids do nothing but study for high stakes standardized tests, and even they couldn’t meet our uniquely American criterion for passing.

 

 

In fact, the percentage of our students who do pass under these ridiculous benchmarks often exceeds that of other countries.

 

 

So when you hold kids up to impossible standards a few actually make it – and more of our kids do than our international peers.

 

 

That doesn’t mean the benchmarks are good. But it doesn’t mean the American education system is failing either. In fact, just the opposite.

 

 

We have a high stakes standardized testing system that not only does not assess kids fairly, but it actually hides their success!

 

 

In the words of the study’s authors, “…the analysis suggest the U.S. has established benchmarks that are neither useful nor credible.”

 

 

How did this happen?

 

 

It comes down to one word – proficient.

 

 

If you’re proficient, it’s thought you’re competent, you are able to do something. You might not be incredible at it, but you can get the job done.

 

 

Kind of like this:

 

 

Hey. Did you hear about my leaky faucet? The plumber fixed it after three tries because he’s proficient at his job.

 

 

Oh really? My plumber fixed my leaky faucet in only one try and didn’t even charge me because she’s advanced at her job.

 

 

That sort of thing.

 

 

There are only four scores you can achieve on most standardized assessments: Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic. The first two are considered passing and the last two are failing.

 

 

However, this doesn’t line up with the five general grades most public schools give in core subjects:

 

 

A – Excellent

B – Very good

C – Average

D – Poor

F – Failing

 

 

A-D is usually considered passing. Only F is failing.

 

 

So you might expect them to line up like this:

 

 

Advanced – A and B

Proficient – C

Basic – D

Below Basic – F

 

 

However, that’s not how they line up on NAEP. According to Diane Ravitch, who served on the National Assessment Governing Board, the federal agency that supervises NAEP, they line up like this:

 

 

Advanced – A+

Proficient – A

Basic – B and C

Below Basic – D and F

 

 

This is important, because saying someone scored a proficient on the NAEP doesn’t mean they’re just okay at it. It means they’re excellent but have room to improve.

 

 

The problem is that when developers of Common Core tests set their benchmarks, they used almost the same ones as the NAEP. Yet the NAEP benchmarks were never meant to be the same as grade level ones. Confounding the two puts mere passing out of reach for most students.

 

And that’s not just out of reach for most American students. It’s out of reach for international students!

 

In short, American students are doing B work on their Common Core tests and failing with a Basic. Yet in other countries, this would be passing with room to spare.

 

Moreover, when you hear that only one third of American students are Proficient or above, that means only one third are doing A or A+ work on their Common Core tests. That’s actually rather impressive!

 

According to the study:

 

“National judgments about student proficiency and many state Common 
Core judgments about “career and college readiness” are defective and misleading… 
According to NAEP officials, Proficient does not mean grade level performance. The misuse of the term confuses the public. The effects of this misuse are reflected in most Common Core assessments…

 

NAEP’s term “Proficient” does not even mean proficient. “Students who may be proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

 

The report even cites other independent analysts that have come to similar conclusions such as the U.S. General Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Brookings Institution.

 

In short:

 

“Advocates who push for school improvement on the grounds of questionable benchmarks are not strengthening education and advancing American interests, but undermining public schools and weakening the United States.”

 

Some specifics.

 

 

The study was conducted by comparing performance of foreign students on international tests of reading, mathematics, and science with the NAEP and American Common Core tests.

 

 

Very few foreign students were able to score high enough to meet what is considered proficiency on the NAEP and Common Core tests.

 

 

 

In fact, in 4th grade reading, not a single nation was able to meet the benchmark.

 

 

In 8th grade math, only three nations (Singapore, South Korea and Japan) had 50 percent or more students who could meet the criterion.

 

 

In 8th grade science, only one nation (Singapore) had 50 percent or more students meeting the benchmark.

 

 

But wait.

 

 

Even though the benchmarks are unfair and few nations children could meet them, the percentage of U.S. children who did meet them was higher than most other nations.

 

 

Take 4th grade reading.

 

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No one had 50% or more of its kids scoring a proficient or advanced. But 31% of U.S. kids actually met the benchmark, putting us fifth behind only Singapore, the Russian Federation, Finland, and England.

 

 

Only 31% of our kids could do it, but only four other nations out of 40 could do better.

 

 

That’s kind of impressive. Yet judging our scores in abstraction solely on this unrealistic proficiency standard, we’re failures. The whole process hides how well our kids actually do.

 

 

Bottom line, Common Core benchmarks are too high and paint an unfair picture of our education system, according to the study:

 

 

“When citizens read that “only one-third” or “less than half” of the students in their local schools are proficient in mathematics, science, or reading, they can rest assured that the same judgments can be applied to students throughout most of the world…

 

Globally, in just about every nation where it is possible to compare student performance with our national benchmarks, the vast majority of students cannot demonstrate their competence because the bars are set unreasonably high.”

 

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At very least, this invalidates the scores of the NAEP and every Common Core test yet given in this country. It demands we set new benchmarks that are in line with grade level performance.

 

At most, it casts doubt on the entire process of high stakes standardized testing.

 

It demonstrates how the data can be manipulated to show whatever testing corporations or other interested parties want.

 

Standardized testing is a gun, and we have been demanding schools shoot themselves in the foot with it.

 

Instead of trying to hold our schools to impossible standards, we should be holding our lawmakers to standards of common decency. We should concentrate on equitable funding, reintegration, and supporting our public school system and public school teachers. Not enriching private testing corporations so they’ll paint a misleading picture of student performance to justify pro-privatization schemes.

 

When will our policymakers rise to meet the benchmarks of honesty, empathy and caring about the well-being of children?

 

In the final analysis, that may be bar they are simply incapable of reaching.

What’s the Buzz? A Crown of Gadflies! Top 10 Articles (by Me) in 2017

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We made it, Readers.

 

Somehow we survived 2017 – the first year of the Trump Presidency.

 

What a monstrosity that has been so far!

 

Republicans have stolen more than $1 trillion from our pockets to give to their mega-wealthy donors in the form of tax cuts. A 3-2 GOP majority on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed Net Neutrality. And the party of Lincoln endorsed and funded a child molester for US Senate – though he thankfully lost.

 

 

We’re in new territory. Politics has always appealed to the best and worst of our natures: Good people who really want to make a difference and sniveling cowards willing to do whatever their sugar daddies tell them. But unfortunately our world has increasingly rewarded the latter and almost extinguished the former.

 

However, don’t lose heart. The cockroaches are all out in the open. They’ve become so emboldened by the words “President” and “Trump” voiced together that they no longer feel the need to hug a wall.

 

All it would take is a good boot and a series of stomps to crush them forever.

 

Someone get me my shoes.

 

In the meantime, I sit here at my kitchen table recovering from a turkey coma preparing for a nostalgic look back at everything that’s happened here at Gadfly on the Wall in the past year.

 

It was quite a 365 days! Most amazing was the publication of my book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform” from Garn Press. It’s a thorough reworking and “Best Of” this blog over the last three years.

 

Sales have been strong and reviews are starting to come in. I am absolutely floored when I get messages from people I admire telling me they got the book and appreciate this or that. It’s been my lifelong dream to publish a book, and now I’ve done it. The New Year will involve lots of promotion – hopefully I can get decision makers to read it!

 

Other than that, it’s been a busy year blogging. I wrote 118 articles! That’s about one every three days!

 

And people have been reading them.

 

I’ve had more than 364,000 hits – about the same as in 2016. This puts the total views over the 1 million mark at more than 1,216,000! That’s quite a landmark for a blog that’s only been around since July, 2014. And it doesn’t count all the readers I get from articles reposted on the Badass Teachers Association Blog, Huffington Post, Commondreams.org, the LA Progressive, Alternet, BillMoyers.com or other sites.

 

I’ve also gotten 1,510 more people to follow me for a total of 12,845.

 

I’m so honored that readers still like coming to this site for news and commentary. As long as you care to enter those virtual doors, I’ll be here, hunched over my computer, pounding away at the keys.

 

So without further ado, let’s take a look back at the top 10 articles from this blog that got the Inter-webs humming:


10) Teacher Appreciation Week is a Pathetic Joke!

Published: May 10, 2017 Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 3.38.28 PM

 

 

Views: 4,320

 

 

Description: At the end of every school year we get Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s nice. Educators get free donuts and cookies, a pat on the head and then the rest of the year we get all the blame for society’s problems without any additional funding, repealing terrible policies or even acknowledgement of what the real issues are in our schools. It’s a sham. Someone had to say it, so I did. Thanks for the snack, but it takes a village, folks! Get off your butts and take some responsibility!

 

 

Fun Fact: Some people, even teachers, were really upset by this article. They thought it was ungrateful. Don’t get me wrong, I am truly appreciative for any crumb the public wants to give us, teachers, but I’m not going to let it pass as if that counts as true support. Salving your conscience isn’t enough. We need true allies to get down in the mud and fight with us. Otherwise, it’s just an empty gesture.

 

 

 


9) White Privilege, Public Schools and Ugly Christmas Sweaters

 

Published: Dec 22 Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 1.02.56 PM

 

 

Views: 4,324

 

 

Description: This one’s hot off the press! It describes a situation at one of the schools were I’ve taught over the years and how dress code policies can support white privilege. They’re the broken windows policing of academia, and we need to put much more thought into them before laying down blanket restrictions.

 

 

Fun Fact: Some readers took exception to this piece because they thought I didn’t do enough to stop a wayward administrator despite the fact that I never said what I did or didn’t do. Some even complained that it was dumb to simply acknowledge racism and racist policies and actions. I don’t know what world they’re living in. White folks voted for Donald J. Trump to be President. We’ve got a long way to go, and acknowledging everyday prejudice seems a worthy goal to me.

 

 

 


8) America’s Founding Fathers Were Against School Choice

Published: Feb 16 3551131_f520

 

 

Views: 4,483

 

 

Description: The entire premise of school privatization goes against the founding principles of our nation. We were born out of the Enlightenment, not the profit motive. Our founders would look on in horror at charter and voucher schools. Though they aren’t perfect, only truly public schools embody the ideals of the Revolution. True conservatives and true patriots would support that system, not strive to blow it up for personal financial gain.

 

 

Fun Fact: Some people took issue with an appeal to the founders who were not exactly perfect. It’s true. In practice many of them did not live up to their own high ideals. However, who does? It is the ideal that matters, not the clay feet of our forebears.

 

 

 


7) Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

 

Published: July 24 Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 10.35.30 AM

 

 

Views: 5,800

 

 

Description: Teen suicides are up – especially among middle school age children. At the same time, we’ve been testing these kids into the ground. More standardized assessments – and these are unnecessarily more difficult to pass Common Core assessments. This is exactly what happens in countries that put such emphasis on testing – they have a higher suicide rate. It’s no wonder that this is happening here, too. Policymakers want us to be more like Asian countries? Be careful what you wish for!

 

 

Fun Fact: This article infuriated the good folks at the Education Post. Peter Cunningham had his flunkies attack me on Twitter complaining that I was an angry white dude making undue correlations. Yet every other explanation for the fact of increased middle school suicides was merely a correlation, too. Proving causation is almost impossible. It is just as reasonable – even more so – to conclude that testing is having an impact on the suicide rate as to intuit the cause being increased reliance on social media. The big money folks don’t want us making the connection I made here. All the more reason to believe there is truth behind it.

 

 

 


6) School Choice is a Lie. It Does Not Mean More Options. It Means Less.

 

Published: Oct. 6 fake1

 

 

Views: 7,880

 

 

 

Description: School choice is a misnomer. It’s school privatization. It has very little to do with providing more options for parents or students. It’s about allowing big corporations to avoid public school regulations and profit off your child swiping your tax dollars. School choice is merely a marketing term.

 

 

Fun Fact: I must have really pissed someone off when I wrote this one because it caused Facebook to block me for a week. No matter. Readers liked this one so much they shared it for me all over. Why was I targeted? It could be personal since charter school cheerleader Campbell Brown is literally the arbiter of truth at Facebook. Or it could be the social media site’s attempt to bully me into spending money on advertising. Either way, their attempted censorship didn’t work.

 

 


5) Dear Teachers, Don’t Be Good Soldiers for the EdTech Industry

 

Published: Sept 3 FullSizeRender

 

 

Views: 8,358

 

 

Description: As teachers, we’re often expected to use new technology in our classrooms. However, we’re rarely involved in the decision making process. We’re rarely allowed to decide which technology to use and sometimes even how to use it. Software packages are just handed down from administration or school board. However, the EdTech Industry is not our friend. More often than not it is unscrupulous in the ways it is willing to profit off of our students through data mining, competency based learning and a variety of privacy threatening schemes. It’s up to us to be brave enough to say, “No.”

 

 

Fun Fact: I was surprised by how much the piece resonated with readers. So many other educators said they felt they were being bullied into using apps or programs that they thought were of low quality or downright harmful. Sure, there were some who called me a luddite, but the fact remains: we shouldn’t be using technology for technology’s sake. We should be doing so only to help students learn. That requires us to use our best judgment, not follow orders like good soldiers.

 

 

 


 

4) Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

 

Published: June 23 26948475_l-too-much-data

 

 

Views: 12,459

 

 

Description: Administrators love to gift teachers with tons and tons of data. They bury us under reams of standardized test results and expect us to somehow use that nonsense to inform our teaching. It’s crazy. We already collect authentic data on our students for 180 days a year in the classroom in the course of our teaching. Yet they think these mass produced corporate evaluated snap shots are going to somehow change everything? That’s not how you help educators. It’s how you abdicate any responsibility yourself.

 

 

Fun Fact: This one really took off especially on the Huffington Post. Many readers seemed to be truly surprised that teachers felt this way. No authentic educator gives in to being data driven. We’re data informed but student driven. And if you want us to do something else, you don’t have the best interests of the kids at heart.

 

 


 

3) PA Legislature Plans Taking Away Teachers’ Sick Days

 

Published: Feb 2 thumbnail_teachers-sick-719435

 

 

Views: 17,702

 

 

Description: This was another tone deaf proclamation from the Republican majority in Harrisburg. It was pure meat for the regressive base in gerrymandered districts that if passed they knew would never be signed by our Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. It turns out the backlash was such that they didn’t even have the courage to put it to a vote.

 

 

Fun Fact: I never expected this one to be nearly as popular as it was. Usually articles about Pennsylvania get a few hundred local readers and that’s it. But this one infuriated everyone. How dare lawmakers propose this! Don’t they know how many bacteria teachers are exposed to!? Do they want us to come to school sick and spread the disease to our students!? I’d like to think that the article had something to do with this terrible piece of legislation disappearing, but I have no evidence to support it. However, I can say that it will probably be back when they think no one is looking, and it will still make me sick.

 

 

 


 

2) U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World

 

 

Published: Jan 29 surprised-kid-investor-050213

 

 

Views: 23,841

 

 

Description: Everyone says public schools are failing. I call bullshit. It depends on how you’re evaluating them, and – frankly – we’re not being fair to our American education system. Sure. There are plenty of ways we can improve, but there’s a lot we’re doing right, too. In fact, many of the things we get right, few other systems do around the world. We excel in our ideals. If we just had the courage of our convictions, our system would be beyond the moon! Even as it is, we have much to celebrate. And other nations would do well to emulate us in these ways.

 

 

Fun Fact: I’m quite proud of this one. It’s the only article in the Top 10 here that was included in my book. For the definitive version, you’ll have to go there. Some sections received major rewrites and clarifications. I think the published version is much better. But no matter which version you choose, I’m proud to have an answer for all those out there spreading the myth that our education system is an irredeemable mess. They want us to get rid of the good and replace it with more bad. I say we keep the good and build on it.

 

 


 

1) Ignorance and Arrogance – the Defining Characteristics of the Betsy DeVos Hearing

 

Published: Jan 18 betsydevos-png-crop-cq5dam_web_1280_1280_png

 

 

Views: 28,670

 

 

Description: Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing was an absolute horror show. It’s even worse when you consider she was confirmed by the Republican majority in a tie vote that was broken by Vice President Mike Pence (that still sends shivers down my spine). Here was someone who knows next to nothing about public education except that she wants to destroy it. She wouldn’t commit to protecting students rights even those under the umbrella of special education. There’s more I could say but I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Excuse me.

 

 

Fun Fact: I’m honored that so many readers turned to my blog for commentary about this. It was a moment of shared horror that hasn’t weakened much in the subsequent months. We’re all just waiting for sanity to return but at least we can do so together. We’re all in this side-by-side and hand-in-hand. We can defeat the Betsy DeVos’ and the Donald Trump’s of the world if we stay strong. It could happen any day now.

 

 


 

Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups

This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down my most popular articles (like the one you just read from 2017) and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look. Here are all my end of the year articles since I began this crazy journey in 2014:

 

2016

Worse Than Fake News – Ignored News. Top 5 Education Stories You May Have Missed in 2016

ignoring-wisdom

 

Goodbye, 2016, and Good Riddance – Top 10 Blog Post by Me From a Crappy Year

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 2015

Gadfly’s Choice – Top 5 Blogs (By Me) You May Have Missed from 2015

 

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Who’s Your Favorite Gadfly? Top 10 Blog Posts (By Me) That Enlightened, Entertained and Enraged in 2015

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2014

Off the Beaten Gadfly – the Best Education Blog Pieces You Never Read in 2014

Wonderfull illusion art painting

 

Top 10 Education Blog Posts (By Me) You Should Be Reading Right Now!

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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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