A Private Equity Firm, The Makers of the MAP Test, and an Ed Tech Publisher Join Forces

 
 
Prepare to watch more of your tax dollars spiral down the drain of standardized testing. 


 
A year after being gobbled up by private equity firm Veritas Capital, ed tech company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) is acquiring K-12 assessment giant Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). 

Let me put that in perspective – a scandal-ridden investment firm that made billions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bought one of standardized testing’s big four and then added the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to its arsenal.

This almost certainly means the cost of state testing is going to increase since the providers of the tests are shrinking. 

“It used to be if you put out a [Request for Proposal] RFP for state assessment, you get five, six, 10 bidders,” said Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment. “Now you’re lucky to get three. When you’re doing that, there’s maybe not as much expertise and certainly the cost will go up” (emphasis mine).

Under the proposed deal announced in January, the testing company’s assessments and the ed tech company’s test prep materials will become intimately entwined. 

NWEA, best known for its MAP assessment, will operate as a division of HMH. And NWEA’s tests will be aligned with HMH’s curriculum.

You can just imagine how this will affect the marketplace. 

NWEA serves about 10,000 school districts and HMH estimates it works with more than 50 million students and 4 million educators in 150 countries, according to a press release about the proposed acquisition. 

So we can expect districts and even entire states which rely heavily on the MAP test to be encouraged to buy as much HMH curriculum as possible. That way they can teach directly what is on their standardized tests.

That is assuming, of course, the acquisition agreement is approved after a 90-day regulatory review period. 

To be honest, I would be surprised if there are any objections. 


 
Such cozy relationships already exist with other education companies. For example, Curriculum Associates provides the aforementioned curriculum for its own i-Ready assessment.

It’s ironic that an industry built on standardization – one size fits all – continues to take steps to create books, software and courses aligned with specific tests. It’s almost like individuating information to specific student’s needs is beneficial or something. Weird!

After all, if these sorts of assessments can be gamed by increased access to materials created by the same corporate entities that create and grade the tests, are we really assessing knowledge? Aren’t we just giving students a score based on how many books and software packages their districts bought from the parent company? Is that really education

I remember a time when curriculum was determined by classroom teachers – you know, experts in their fields, not experts in the corporate entity’s test du jour. 

But I guess no one was getting rich that way…

NWEA used to be focused more on formative assessments – tests that you took several times a year before and sometimes even after the big summative state assessment to determine if you were progressing toward passing the high stakes goal. However, in 2021, the company acquired assessment-related technology from Educational Testing Service (ETS) and took over several state contracts from Questar Assessments. This includes contracts for New York, Georgia, Mississippi, and Missouri.

This made NWEA attractive to HMH which had, itself, consolidated into mostly educational technologies and sold off most of its interests in book publishing and assessments. In fact, various versions of the company from Harcourt to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt used to be considered one of the big 4 standardized testing companies until only a decade ago. With revenues of $1.37 billion in fiscal year 2014, for example, the company held a 44% market share including Common Core instructional resources.


 
However, in 2018 it divested its Riverside clinical and standardized testing (Riverside) portfolio to Alpine Investors, a private equity firm based in San Francisco, for a purchase price of $140 million, and then sold its publishing assets in 2021 to HarperCollins.


 
Then in February of 2022, New York-based private-equity firm Veritas Capital acquired HMH at a price of $21 per share, or about $2.8 Billion. And under Veritas, HMH acquired NWEA and the two companies will work together to do many of the things that HMH used to do by itself – like a golden dragon perched atop the standardized testing treasure trove.

All for the benefit of Veritas Capital.

Make no mistake, the investment firm wouldn’t have become involved if it couldn’t make a profit off the situation. That’s what it does – through scandal after scandal.

Founded in 1992 by the late investment banker Robert McKeon (who died by suicide after mounting improprieties came to light), Veritas Capital began its life buying up government contractors and forming close ties with former senior government officials. Of the company’s many defense-related investments, the most infamous was its 2005 purchase of DynCorp International, a shady company involved in the US’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars.


 
Under Veritas ownership, DynCorp benefited from lax oversightfrequently billed the government for work that was never requested, and was embroiled in a sex-trafficking scheme, according to reports. 

Veritas also made headlines when a company it bought in 2008, Global Tel-Link, a telecommunications company that provides telephone services for prison systems, racked up exorbitant fees on calls to inmates

In 2006, the firm acquired MZM Inc., an intelligence contractor, which was investigated for providing bribes to Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., in exchange for help obtaining Pentagon contracts. 

Throughout its history, Veritas has fostered close ties to government officials. Campaign finance records show executives at the investment firm have given over $100,000 to various politicians, mostly Republicans. In 2014, Veritas paid Bill Clinton $250,000 for a speech.

The New York Times reported in 2001 that numerous retired generals were on Veritas’ payroll and the company used such ties to the Pentagon and frequent appearances in the media to boost Veritas-owned military contractors, including DynCorp.

And now the little investment firm that could has its sights on the standardized testing game.

Why?  

Because there’s gold in them thar tests!

Taxpayer money, that is.

Current Veritas’ CEO and Managing Partner Ramzi Musallam has taken the firm from $2 billion in investments in 2012 to $36 billion in 2021 doing things just like this.

Musallam focuses on technology companies like HMH that operate in sectors dominated by the US federal government such as standardized testing. After all, the only reason public schools throughout the country have to give these assessments is federal law. It’s a captive market paid for by tax dollars.  

We could just let teachers teach and then assess their students in whatever ways seem most accurate and fair. Or we could continue to rely on corporations to do it for us without any real proof that their products are better or even as good as what your local neighborhood educator could provide.

Veritas is banking on the latter.


 
America spends $6.8 trillion a year on defense, health care and education – markets dominated by the government. 


 
 
“These are government-influenced markets, no doubt about it, and being close to how the government thinks about those markets enables us to understand how we can best invest,” Musallam said. 


 
So this merger of two of the most influential education companies in the US is great news for investors – and terrible news for taxpayers who will be paying the bill. 


 
For students and teachers – it’s more of the same


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Standardized Test Scores are Incompatible with Your School’s Equity Plan  

 
 
The primary goal of public education is to teach all children fairly.  


 
But since its inception, the system has never been set up to actually accomplish this.  


 
So these days you hear a lot of talk about fixing the problem – of how we can ensure students of color and other historically underserved children get the same high-quality education racially and economically privileged kids always have received.


 
This almost always concludes with two types of plan.  


 
First, there is the serious venture made up of things like increasing spending to meet student need, wraparound services, early intervention, reducing class size, redistributive justice and cultural competence – a plan that looks the reality in the face and makes bold attempts to come to terms with it. 


 
Then there is the cheap knockoff proposition – a buzzword-laden scheme where someone is trying to convince you their half hearted proposal is actually a solution to the very real problem of educational inequality. 


 
 
And the number one thing you can use to tell the difference between the two is this – standardized test scores


 
 
The first plan that is centered around actually fixing disparities makes no mention of test scores – or at least relegates them to obstacles. The second is built all around them – as an essential component of the overall scheme. 


 
 
This is because the second feel-good-accomplish-nothing plan is essentially performative.  


 
 
Therefore, it is constructed around standardized test scores as a metric of success.  


 
Planners think: We’re going to do A, B and C to make our schools more equitable. And how will we know we’re doing it right? We’ll use our standardized test scores! 


 
That’s not accuracy. It’s ostentation. These scores don’t demonstrate anything at all about equity. True, they purport to show readily apparent increases or decreases in academics.  


 
However, even this is an illusion.  


 
A rise or fall in test scores is not, in fact, based on authentic academic success but merely success at taking standardized tests designed for very different purposes.  


 
And anyone who understands the history of these types of assessments and how they still work will know that this mirage is built at the cost of genuine equity.  


 
In fact, the inequalities plaguing our public school system are due in large part to our national insistence that standardized test scores be the ultimate measure of success.  


 
So constructing your plan to fix this problem around one of its root causes is like claiming you can fix a sinking ship by drilling more holes in its hull.  


 
At best, it’s naive. At worst, it’s self-defeating and disingenuous.  


 
 
The problem centers around the difference between standardized tests and assessments created by classroom teachers. 


 
 
Both types of assessment are supposed to measure what students have learned. But not all learning is equal


   
For example, a beginning chef needs to know how to use the stove, have good knife skills and how to chop an onion. But if you give her a standardized test, it instead might focus on how to make foie gras – something that would only come in handy at a high end French restaurant.


   
That’s not as important in your everyday life, but the tests make it important by focusing on it.  


   
The fact of the matter is that standardized tests do NOT necessarily focus on the most important aspects of a given task. They focus on obscurities – things that most students don’t know.  


   
This is implicit in the design of these exams and is very different from the kinds of tests designed by classroom teachers.  


   
When a teacher makes a test for her students, she’s focused on the individuals in her classes. She asks primarily about the most essential aspects of the subject and in such a way that her students will best understand. There may be a few obscure questions, but the focus is on whether the test takers have learned the material or not.  


   
When psychometricians design a standardized test, on the other hand, they aren’t centered on the student. They aren’t trying to find out if the test taker knows the most important facts or has the most essential skills in each field. Instead, there is a tendency to eliminate the most important test questions so that the test – not the student – will be better equipped to make comparisons between students based on a small set of questions. After all, a standardize test isn’t designed for a few classes – it is one size fits all.  


   
New questions are field tested. They are placed randomly on an active test but don’t count toward the final score. Test takers aren’t told which questions they’ll be graded on and which are just practice questions being tried out on students for the first time. So students presumably give their best effort to both types. Then when the test is scored, the results of the field test questions determine if they’ll be used again as graded questions on a subsequent test.  


   
According to W. James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, standardized test makers take pains to spread out the scores. Questions answered correctly by too many students – regardless of their importance or quality – are often left off the test.  


   
If 40 to 60 percent of test takers answer the question correctly, it might make it onto the test. But questions that are answered correctly by 80 percent or more of test takers are usually jettisoned.  


   
He writes:  

   “As a consequence of the quest for score variance in a standardized achievement test, items on which students perform well are often excluded. However, items on which students perform well often cover the content that, because of its importance, teachers stress. Thus, the better the job that teachers do in teaching important knowledge and/or skills, the less likely it is that there will be items on a standardized achievement test measuring such knowledge and/or skills.”  


   
Think about what this means.  


   
We are engaged in a system of assessment that isn’t concerned with learning so much as weeding people out. It’s not about who knows what, but about which questions to ask that will achieve the predetermined bell curve.  


 
This is important when it comes to equity.  


 
 
If we are guided in large part by standardized test scores, we aren’t guided by authentic learning. We’re guided by a false picture of learning. Therefore, the most effective way – perhaps the only practical way – of raising test scores is to teach directly to a specific test. And not only the test, but the specific version of the test being given that year.

So if we do somehow manage to raise test scores, we haven’t improved academics at all but a mere semblance of it. And thus the equity we might celebrate in such a situation would be just as false. 


 
You got a good score on the MAP test. Hurrah! But that doesn’t mean you know anything of real value except how to take this particular MAP test which, itself, will change after the next round of questions are field tested.


 
 
 
This has huge implications for the quality of education being provided at our schools. Since most administrators have drunk deep of the testing Kool-Aid, they now force teachers to educate in just this manner – to use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests doesn’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction. 

And if we insist on evaluating the equity of our schools on these test scores, we will only make things that much worse. 


   
We end up chasing the psychometricians. We try to guess which aspects of a subject they think most students don’t know and then we teach our students that to the exclusion of more important information. And since what students don’t know changes, we end up having to change our instructional focus every few years based on the few bread crumbs surreptitiously left for us by the state and the testing corporations.  


   
That is not a good way to teach someone anything. It’s like teaching your child how to ride a bike based on what the neighbor kid doesn’t know.  


   
It’s an endless game of catch up that only benefits the testing industry because they cash in at every level. They get paid to give the tests, to grade the tests and when students fail, they get paid to sell us this year’s remediation material before kids take the test again, and – you guessed it – the testing companies get another check!  


   
It’s a dangerous feedback loop, a cycle that promotes artificially prized snippets of knowledge over constructive wholes. 


 
And let’s not forget where these tests come from


 
They were created in the 1910s and 20s by eugenicists to prove the supremacy of white Europeans over other racial and ethnic groups.  


 
While these original tests are no longer in circulation, the assumptions behind them are an essential part of our modern day standardized tests. 
 


The very method of question selection in today’s tests builds economic and racial bias into the very fabric of the enterprise.  


   
According to Prof. Martin Shapiro of Emory University, when test makers select questions with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers, they are selecting against minorities. Think about it – if they pick questions based on the majority getting it right, which minority got it wrong? In many cases, it’s a racial or ethnic minority. In fact, this may explain why white students historically do better on standardized tests than black and Hispanic students.  


   
This process may factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. They are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children.  


   
So when we continually push for higher test scores, not only are we ultimately dumbing down the quality of education in our schools, but we’re also explicitly lobbying for greater economic and racial bias in our curriculum trickling down from our assessments.  


   
As Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” puts it:  


   
“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”  


 
This is incompatible with any enterprise aimed at increasing equity.  


 
You are engaged in a never-ending cycle of teaching to the test at the expense of authentic learning. You’re engaged in making minorities think like their privileged peers – of overcoming who they are just to be accepted into a game.

 
 
This is not education. It is assimilation, and it will always put the assimilated at a disadvantage to the majority – those they are being forced to imitate.  


 
Equity and standardized testing do not go together.  


 
 
They CANNOT go together. They are anathema.  


 
Those who suggest otherwise are either well-meaning fools or duplicitous malefactors.  


 
There is a multi-billion dollar standardized testing industry dependent on keeping us testing our kids.  


 
But we can no longer continue feeding that beast and pretending that we can somehow provide equity to our underserved children, too.  


 
We have to choose – equity or testing.  Fairness or unrestrained capitalism.


 
Do not believe anyone who tells you to support a plan built on both. 

It does not exist.


 

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The Racist Origins of Standardized Testing Still Matter

Would you walk across a bridge that was designed to break?

Of course you wouldn’t.

But what if someone told you the bridge had been fixed?

Would you trust it – especially if people were still falling off of it all the time?

That’s the situation we’re in with standardized testing.

The tests were explicitly created more than a century ago to fail minorities and the poor.

And today, after countless revisions and new editions, they still do exactly the same thing.

Yet we’re exhorted to keep using them.

A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON

Modern testing comes out of U.S. Army IQ tests developed during World War I.


 In 1916, a group of psychologists led by Robert M. Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association (APA), created the Army Alpha and Beta tests. These were specifically designed to measure the intelligence of recruits and help the military distinguish those of “superior mental ability” from those who were “mentally inferior.” 


These assessments were based on explicitly eugenicist foundations – the idea that certain races were distinctly superior to others.

Colleague Lewis Terman made the goal clear in his book, The Measurement of Intelligence, that these “experimental” tests will show “enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture.” 

In 1923, another psychologist, Carl Brigham, took these ideas further in his seminal work A Study of American Intelligence. In it, he used data gathered from these IQ tests to argue the following: 


 
“The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.”


 
 Thus, Yerkes, Terman and Brigham’s pseudoscientific tests were used to justify Jim Crow laws, segregation, and even lynchings. Anything for “racial purity.” 


People took this research very seriously. States passed forced sterilization laws for people with “defective” traits, preventing between 60,000 and 70,000 people from “polluting” America’s ruling class. 

The practice was even upheld by the US Supreme Court in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision. Justices decided that mandatory sterilization of “feeble-minded” individuals was, in fact, Constitutional.


 Of the ruling, which has never been explicitly overturned, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” 


Eventually Brigham took his experience with Army IQ tests to create a new assessment for the College Board – the Scholastic Aptitude Test – now known as the Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT. It was first given to high school students in 1926 as a gatekeeper. Just as the Army intelligence tests were designed to distinguish the superior from the inferior, the SAT was designed to predict which students would do well in college and which would not. It was meant to show which students should be given the chance at a higher education and which should be left behind. 


And unsurprisingly it has always – and continues to – privilege white students over children of color. The same as nearly every standardized test still does.

HAS IT CHANGED?

None of this can be challenged. These are historical facts. They are simply what happened justified in the words of the people who perpetrated them.

However, champions of continuing the practice of standardized testing most often defend the practice by appealing to time.

This was all a long time ago, they say. Much has changed between now and then.

But has it? Really?

We certainly don’t use the editions of the tests written by the original eugenicists, but the practices used to create them and the results of these assessments are extremely similar.

In 1964, a Department of Education report found that the average black high school senior scored below 87% of white seniors (in the 13 percentile) on standardized assessments. Fifty years later, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that black seniors had narrowed the gap until they were merely behind 81% of white seniors (scoring in the 19th percentile).

Is that really the kind of progress you want to champion?

The reason for the disparity has nothing to do with the learning students of color (and the poor whose scores are similar) achieve nor their worth as human beings.

It is in the very concept of standardized testing.

Discrimination is purposefully built in to the standardization process, according to W. James Popham, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles and former test maker. He explained in an interview with Frontline:

“Traditionally constructed standardized achievements, the kinds that we’ve used in this country for a long while, are intended chiefly to discriminate among students … to say that someone was in the 83rd percentile and someone is at 43rd percentile. And the reason you do that is so you can make judgments among these kids. But in order to do so, you have to make sure that the test has in fact a spread of scores. One of the ways to have that test create a spread of scores is to limit items in the test to socioeconomic variables, because socioeconomic status is a nicely spread out distribution, and that distribution does in fact spread kids’ scores out on a test.”

The scores have to fall into categories – Below Basic, Basic, Proficient and Advanced, for instance. If too many students cluster in the middle, the results are invalid. We need the scores spread out – even if we must resort to non-educational factors to get there.

Family income is not something the tests ignore, says Popham. It is an essential component specifically tested for in question construction. In fact, he claims that between 15-80% of the questions (depending on the subject area) on norm-referenced exams are linked to socio-economic status (SES).

Thus minorities with higher percentages of impoverished people are selected against. Not because of any explicit racist ideology – but to get the pretty bell curve standardized assessments require.

Young Whan Choi, Manager of Performance Assessments at Oakland Unified School District in Oakland, California, agreed.

“Too often, test designers rely on questions which assume background knowledge more often held by White, middle-class students. It’s not just that the designers have unconscious racial bias; the standardized testing industry depends on these kinds of biased questions in order to create a wide range of scores.”

For example, Choi recalled a 10th grade student in his class asking him about a standardized test question. “With a puzzled look, she pointed to the prompt asking students to write about the qualities of someone who would deserve a “key to the city.” Many of my students, nearly all of whom qualified for free and reduced lunch, were not familiar with the idea of a ‘key to the city.’”

So when they get such a question wrong, it isn’t necessarily because they don’t know the concept being tested, but they don’t understand what was being asked in the first place.

Test makers could work to eliminate such instances but that would reduce the spread of answers. It would destroy the bell curve – and thus invalidate the goal of the test which ultimately is not assessing learning but sorting and ranking students.

Jay Rosner, a national admissions test expert, explained how this bias is built-in to the process for each revision of assessments like the SAT:


“Compare two 1998 SAT verbal [section] sentence-completion items with similar themes: The item correctly answered by more blacks than whites was discarded by the Educational Testing Service, whereas the item that has a higher disparate impact against blacks became part of the actual SAT. On one of the items, which was of medium difficulty, 62% of whites and 38% of African-Americans answered correctly, resulting in a large impact of 24%…On this second item, 8% more African-Americans than whites answered correctly…”


 In other words, the criteria for whether a question is chosen for future tests is if it replicates the outcomes of previous exams – specifically tests where students of color score lower than white children. And this is still the criteria test makers use to determine which questions to use on future editions of nearly every assessment in wide use in the US.

Public schools have no control over these factors. That’s why schools serving poor and minority students invariably have lower test scores. Popham concludes there will always be a testing gap because that’s the way the system is designed.

He says it’s “A game without winners.” Or more likely a game where the poor and minorities cannot win.

And that’s how the system was designed.

Whether it’s the 1920s or the 2020s.

Standardized tests came from racists assumptions about human intelligence.

And that still matters today.

We no longer profess eugenicist ideas of racial purity embedded in our assessments as self evident or based on science. But they’re there none-the-less.

Today, the very concept of intelligence being quantifiable remains in question.

In “The Mismeasurement of Man,” evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould challenged many of these ideas – in particular those of Terman. Rather than see intelligence as a genetic trait, Gould envisioned it more abstractly and thus shattered the idea that any mere number could capture human value.

Complex instances of learning cannot be accurately standardized. They have to be measured in context of the students and the learning community where they were acquired.

But this is a relatively new idea. Accepting it requires us to turn the page on a rather dark passage of our national history.

We must move on from the original test makers narrow-minded, racist ideas about intelligence and human worth.

And to do that we must leave standardized testing far, far behind.

We can’t just give a faulty bridge a new coat of paint. We must demolish it and rebuild an entirely new structure to carry us into the future.


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When Good Students Get Bad Standardized Test Scores 

 
 
Ameer is a good student.  


 
He takes notes in class, does all his homework and participates in discussions.  


 
He writes insightful essays and demonstrates a mastery of spelling and grammar.  


 
He reads aloud with fluency and inflection. He asks deep questions about the literature and aces nearly all of his classroom reading comprehension tests. 


 
However, when it is standardized test time, things are very different.  


 
He still arrives early, takes his time with the questions and reviews his work when he’s done – but the results are not the same.  


 
His grades are A’s. His test scores are Below Basic. 


 
How is that?  


 
How can a student demonstrate mastery of a subject in class but fail to do the same on a standardized test?  


 
And which assessment should I, his teacher, take seriously?  


 
After all, they can’t BOTH be correct. 


 
This is a problem with which most classroom teachers are forced to contend.  


 
Bureaucrats at the administrative or state level demand teachers assess students with standardized tests but the results often contradict a year or more of observation. 


 
Take the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.  


 
This year at my Western Pennsylvania district, administration decided to use this computer-based standardized assessment as a pre-test or practice assessment before the state mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). 


 
I’ve already written about what a waste of time and money this is. A test before the test!? 


 
But after reluctantly subjecting my classes to the MAP and being instructed to analyze the results with my colleagues, we noticed this contradiction. 


 
In many cases, scores did not match up with teacher expectations for our students.  


 
In about 60-80% of cases, students who had demonstrated high skills in the subject were given scores below the 50th percentile – many below the 25th percentile.  


 
These were kids with average to high grades who the MAP scored as if they were in the bottom half of their peers across the state. 


 
 Heck! A third of my students are in the advanced class this year – but the MAP test would tell me most of them need remediation! 


 
If we look at that data dispassionately, there are possible explanations. For one, students may not have taken the test seriously. 


 
And to some degree this is certainly the case. The MAP times student responses and when they are input fast and furious, it stops the test taker until the teacher can unlock the test after warning them against rapid guessing. 


 
However, the sheer number of mislabeled students is far too great to be accounted for in this way. Maybe five of my students got the slow down sloth graphic. Yet so many more were mislabeled as failures despite strong classroom academics. 


 
The other possibility – and one that media doom-mongers love to repeat – is that districts like mine routinely inflate mediocre achievement so that bad students look like good ones.  


 
In other words, they resolve the contradiction by throwing away the work of classroom teachers and prioritizing what standardized tests say


 
Nice for them. However, I am not some rube reading this in the paper. I am not examining some spreadsheet for which I have no other data. I am IN the classroom every day observing these very same kids. I’ve been right there for almost an entire grading period of lessons and assessments – formative and summative. I have many strong indications of what these kids can do, what they know and what they don’t know.  


 
Valuing the MAP scores over weeks of empirical classroom data is absurd.  


 
I am a Nationally Board Certified Teacher with more than two decades experience. But Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a testing company out of Portland, Oregon, wants me to believe that after 90 minutes it knows my students better than I do after six weeks! 


 
Time to admit the MAP is a faulty product. 


 
But it’s not just that one standardized test. We find the same disparity with the PSSA and other like assessments.  


 
Nationally, classroom grades are better than these test scores.  


 
In the media, pundits tell us this means our public school system is faulty. Yet that conclusion is merely an advertisement for these testing companies and a host of school privatization enterprises offering profit-making alternatives predicated on that exact premise.  


 
So how to resolve the contradiction? 


 
The only logical conclusion one can draw is that standardized assessments are bad at determining student learning.  


 
In fact, that is not their primary function. First and foremost, they are designed to compare students with each other. How they make that comparison – based on what data – is secondary.  


 
The MAP, PSSA and other standardized tests are primarily concerned with sorting and ranking students – determining which are best, second best and so on. 


 
By contrast, teacher-created tests are just the opposite. They are designed almost exclusively to assess whether learning has taken place and to what degree. Comparability isn’t really something we do. That’s the province of administrators and other support staff.  


 
The primary job of teaching is just that – the transfer of knowledge, offering opportunities and a conducive environment for students to learn.  


 
That is why standardized tests fail so miserably most of the time. They are not designed for the same function. They are about competition, not acquisition of knowledge or skill. 


 
That’s why so many teachers have been calling for the elimination of standardized testing for decades. It isn’t just inaccurate and a waste of time and money. It gets in the way of real learning.  


 
You can’t give a person a blood transfusion if you can’t accurately measure how much blood you’re giving her. And comparing how much blood was given to a national average of transfusions is not helpful. 


 
You need to know how much THIS PERSON needs. You need to know what would help her particular needs.  


 
When good students get bad test scores, it invariably means you have a bad test.  


 
 
An entire year of daily data points is not invalidated by one mark to the contrary.  


 
Until society accepts this obvious truth, we will never be able to provide our students with the education they deserve.  

Good students will continue to be mislabeled for the sake of a standardized testing industry that is too big to fail.


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Classroom Grades Show Learning Better than Standardized Test Scores

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

William Bruce Cameron

This summer my family suffered a tremendous blow.

My grandmother, Ce Ce, died.

She was in her 90s and had been unwell since before COVID. But she was also our matriarch, the point around which so much of our interrelations orbited and met.

After the funeral, I found myself at my uncle’s house somehow tasked with watching over several young cousins who had had just about enough of sitting around quietly in itchy suits and dresses.

To get a moment to myself, I set them a task: go downstairs among the assorted relatives and ask them to tell you a story about Ce Ce. Best story wins.

They went off like an explosion. And when they came back, they each had a touching tale about Ce Ce.

One was about how she defended a niece who wanted to marry someone of another faith. Another story was a fond recollection of the sweet and sour spaghetti sauce she used to make, the recipe of which is lost forever.

I was even surprised to hear some stories I had never known like that after my grandfather died, a semi-famous painter had asked Ce Ce on a date!

When my little cousins’ recitations were done, they were united in one thing – wanting to know who won.

I stumbled. I stammered.

I really had no way of judging such a thing.

They had all brought back such wonderful stories. Who won? We were ALL enriched by hearing them.

And that’s kind of how I feel about learning.

It is a fool’s errand to try and compare one person’s acquisition of knowledge with another. But that’s exactly what our current education system is built on.

Unless opted out by a parent or guardian, every public school child in America is required to take standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

And the results of these tests are used to make high stakes decisions about which classes the students can enroll in, which enrichments, field trips or remediation they require, and even how much funding will be given or withheld from the schools and districts where they attend.

As a result, the social effects of poverty and racial discrimination end up being transformed into numbers. Thus, instead of being seen as indictments of the economic and racist status quo, they are viewed as the problem of schools and the individual students, themselves.

Standardized tests purport to show that poor children and/or children of color aren’t learning at the same rate as other children. So by the end of 12th grade they have learned less. When they are discriminated against in the job market then, that discrimination is justified – because it is not based on economics or race; it is based on numbers.

However, to perform this alchemy, we have to ignore the fact that standardized assessments are not the only way to determine whether students have learned anything. In fact, for the majority of students’ school experience that learning is assessed by something else entirely – classroom grades.

What if we took classroom grades as seriously as we take standardized test scores?

What if we valued them MORE?

The world would be a very different place.

The entire narrative of failing students and failing schools would turn on its head. After all, graduation rates have steadily increased over the last decade.

Students are completing more courses and more difficult courses. And students are even getting higher grades in these classes!

Yet at the same time, standardized test scores on national exams have remained at about the same level or gone down.

How is that possible?

The new analysis comes from the U.S. Department of Education, and tracks transcripts of a representative sample of high school graduates in 1990, 2000, 2009, and 2019.

It does not include scores from 2020 and 2022 when both classroom grades and national test scores fell. But that’s clearly because of the pandemic and the fact that most students educations and testing schedules were disrupted.

Before COVID, students increasingly were taking higher-level courses, and their Grade Point Averages (GPAs) were steadily rising — from an average of 2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000, 3.0 in 2009, and 3.11 in 2019. 

This is true of students from all backgrounds, but disparities still existed. On average, white and Asian students had higher GPAs than Black and Hispanic students. Though girls, overall, had higher GPAs than boys.

However, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), given to a sample of students across the country, test scores during the same period did not show a similar increase. Math and reading scores in 2019 were slightly lower than in 2009 and unchanged from 2005. Science scores haven’t budged since 2009. 

Why the disparity?

It seems that either teachers are making it too easy to get good classroom grades or standardized testing does not assess student learning accurately.

Scholars, teachers, parents and students have been complaining about the validity of standardized testing for more than a century. But business interests make billions of dollars off the industry it creates. Guess which group policymakers continue to heed over the other.

It doesn’t take much to show why classroom grades are better at assessing student learning. Compare them with standardized test scores.

Students earn grades based on a wide range of assessments, activities, and behaviors – quizzes, class participation, oral and written reports, group assignments, homework, and in-class work.

Standardized tests, on the other hand, are not assigned on such a multifaceted range of factors. Instead, they are designed to obtain a measure of student proficiency on a specified set of knowledge and skills within limited academic areas, such as mathematics or reading.

Classroom grades are tapestries sown from many patches showing a year’s worth of progress. Standardized tests are at best snapshots of a moment in time.

In class, students can speak with teachers about grades to get a better sense of how and why they earned the marks they did. They can then use this explanation to guide them in the future thus tailoring the classroom experience to individuals.

The value seen in standardized test is its apparent comparability. Scores are supposed to reflect student performance under roughly the same conditions, so the results can be equated and analyzed.

So the biggest difference isn’t a matter of validity, it is pragmatism. Test scores can be used to rate students from all over the country or the world. They can be used to sort kids into a hierarchy of best to worst. Though why anyone would want to do that is beyond me. The purpose of education is not like the National Football League (NFL). It’s to encourage learning, not competition based on a simulation of learning.

And there is evidence that classroom grades are more valid than standardized test scores.

After all, high stakes assessments like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) do NOT accurately predict future academic success as classroom grades, in fact, do.


 
Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or American College Testing (ACT) tests don’t achieve more than kids who received lower scores or never took the tests in the first place.


 
Numerous studies have shown this to be true. The most recent one I’ve seen was from 2014.


 
Researchers followed more than 123,000 students who attended universities that don’t require applicants to take these tests as a prerequisite for admission. They concluded that SAT and ACT test scores do not correlate with how well a student does in college.


 
However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.

Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.

Classroom grades would not have such consistent predictive value if they were nothing but the result of grade inflation or lenient teachers.

In fact, of the two assessments – classroom grades and standardized tests – one is far more essential to the daily learning of students than the other.

We could abolish all standardized testing without any damage to student learning. In fact, the vacuum created by the loss of these high stakes tests would probably result in much less teaching to the test. Days, weeks, months of additional class time would suddenly appear and much more learning would probably take place.

Academic decisions about which classes students can enroll in or what remediation is necessary could just as easily be made based on classroom grades and teacher observations. And funding decisions for schools and districts could be made based on need and equity – not the political football of standardized testing.

However, getting rid of classroom grades would be much more disruptive. Parents and students would have few measures by which to determine if students had learned the material. Teachers would have fewer tools to encourage children to complete assignments. And if only test scores remained, the curriculum would narrow to a degree unheard of – constant, daily test prep with no engagement to ones life, critical thinking or creativity.

To be fair, there are mastery-based learning programs that try to do without grades, but they are much more experimental and require a complete shift in how we view learning. This is a more holistic system that requires students to demonstrate learning at one level before moving ahead to the next. However, it is incredibly labor intensive for teachers and often relies heavily on edtech solutions to make it viable.

I’m not saying this is an impossible system or even taking a stance on its value. But a large scale shift away from classroom grades would be chaotic, confusing and probably a failure without serious support, scaffolding and parental, teacher and student buy-in.

At the end of the day, classroom grades are the best tool we have to determine whether learning has taken place and to what degree. We should do everything we can to change the way policymakers prefer the standardized approach to the personalized one.

To return to a fuller quote by sociology professor Cameron with which I began this article:

‘It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Thus, the urge to quantify student learning seems predicated on the popular maxim: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Standardized testing is about managing students – sorting them into valuable and disposable for the workforce.

Classroom grades are actually concerned with the project at hand – assessment of learning.

Which brings me back to my little cousins.

When I told them I couldn’t possibly pick a winner between them based on their stories, there were lots of groans of annoyance.

They viewed the whole project as a competition and they wanted to win.

I hope on reflection they’ll see that we all won.

Everything isn’t a contest. We are not all opponents.

If they can grasp that, it would be the greatest lesson I could teach.


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I’ve also 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!

The MAP Test – Selling Schools Unnecessary Junk at Student Expense

School districts are easy targets for grifters.

Corporations everywhere are trying to sell them unnecessary junk and pocket wads of taxpayer cash.

The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test is a particularly egregious example of this, but let me begin with a more everyday example.

I’m a public school teacher in western Pennsylvania, and when I returned to school this week before classes started, I noticed my stapler was irreparably jammed from last year.

Normally, I’d just go out and buy another one. But I was running out of time to get things done, so I went to the office and asked if they had any staplers.

As luck would have it, they did.

The secretary lead me to a closet full of brand new Swingline staplers.

I thanked her, took one back to my room and started stapling.

Three staples in, it was irreparably jammed.

When I returned home that evening and complained to my family about the woes of the day, my sweet 13-year-old daughter offered me a stapler we had around the house.

When I brought it to school, it worked like a dream.

It wasn’t some top of the line model. It was another basic Swingline stapler. It was slightly less boxy and more modern than the kind I got from the office. But it worked. That’s the important difference.

So why did the office have a closet full of faulty staplers?

Because most teachers – unlike me – know the staplers the district buys are crap. You have to purchase your own supplies.

But think of the money wasted here!

The basic model sells for almost $14 on amazon.com.

Those staplers – that many staplers – probably add up to hundreds of dollars.

And they don’t even work!

Sadly, the full extent of the waste district-wide is much farther reaching than just the staplers.

Later that very day, teachers in my building were forced to sit through a virtual training on the MAP test.

This is an assessment made by Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a so-called non-profit organization out of Portland, Oregon.

The company claims its assessments are used by over 9,500 schools and districts in 145 countries – but none is more popular than the MAP.

Some states even require the MAP as part of their standardized testing machinery. However, in the Commonwealth, the MAP is used as a pre-test or practice assessment by districts that elect to pay for it.

My building – the middle school – used a variety of different assessments throughout the years for this purpose – IXL, CDT, etc.

However, things are changing this year. No, we’re not getting rid of these pretests altogether – why enact sane policy now after a decade of wrongheadedness!?

My district had used the MAP consistently for years at the elementary schools, so someone in administration thought it made sense to bring it to the middle school now and eventually institute it in the high school, as well.

Do we really need an assessment BEFORE the state mandated assessments?

Heck no!

Classroom teachers give enough assignments and tests of their own to know where their students are academically throughout the year. We grade them after all. What do you think that’s based on – guessing?

But certain administrators just love these pre-tests. They love looking at spreadsheets of student data and comparing one grading period to another. They think if the numbers go higher, it will be proof they’re good principals and functionaries.

It’s pathetic to be honest. What a waste of taxpayer dollars that could be used for actual learning! What a waste of class time that could be used for actual teaching!

And what a negative impact these assessment actually have on students and their learning!

For instance, at the MAP training, teachers were told the assessment’s job was to show how our students were doing in Reading, Math and Science compared with an average test taker.

How is that useful?

I don’t teach average test takers. I don’t even teach average students.

How is constantly comparing them to a norm going to help them improve?

If I went on a diet and stepped on the scale, learning that my weight loss wasn’t as high as an average dieter would not help me stay away from sweets. If anything, it would inspire me to go on a binge in the snack drawer.

It’s the same with my students. Constantly pounding into them how below average their scores are does not inspire them to do better. It teaches them that they cannot do what is being asked of them so they stop trying.

When learning a skill, it doesn’t help to know how well others are or are not learning that same skill. It matters how much you are learning in comparison to yourself. Yesterday I knew THIS. Today I know a bit MORE. Who cares what the so-called average learner can do!?

Students learn at their own rates – sometimes faster, sometimes slower. We don’t quicken the timescale with needless comparisons.

But no matter how many times I say such things to administrators or paid trainers from NWEA, they just don’t get it.

At this training, the instructor actually wanted to know what “elevator speech” teachers were going to give to parents about why the MAP was important!

It’s bad enough we’re being forced to give this crappy assessment, but now you want us to spout propaganda to the very people paying our salaries!?

Why not invite us to the school board meeting and ask us what we really think of this initiative? Why not have us submit comments anonymously and have them read publicly to the school board?

But of course not! That would be actually valuing the opinion of the people you’ve hired to teach!

It’s no wonder the trainer was anticipating blow back. Many parent and teacher groups across the country have opposed the MAP test. Most famously in 2013, teachers at several Seattle schools lead by Garfield High School actually refused to give the MAP test.

Having trusted teachers sooth community worry with corporate propaganda would be a big win for the testing company.

However, I’ll give the trainer one thing – she understood that the MAP assessment scores would not be useful unless students could be encouraged to take the test seriously. Nobody tries their best at something they think is unimportant.

Her solution was two-fold. First, NWEA has produced several propaganda videos to show students why the test is important.

I can imagine how much they’ll love that!

Second, the MAP is an adaptive test taken on a computer or iPad. And it actively monitors the students taking the test.

If its algorithm determines that students are answering questions too quickly or “rapid guessing,” the program pauses the student test.

Teachers are supposed to monitor all this on a screen and intervene when it occurs. We’re supposed to counsel kids not to just guess and then allow them back on the test. If the algorithm still thinks students are guessing, we’re supposed to suspend their test and make them take it all over again.

You know, I did not get a masters in education to become a policeman for a standardized testing organization.

Moreover, this is exactly the kind of test proctoring that would get me fired if I tried it during the state mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). I would be guilty of violating test security.

Teachers throughout the state have to take on-line classes every year about what we are and are not allowed to do during the PSSA test. Stopping students who seem to be guessing, is not allowed. I’m not even allowed to point out if a student skipped a question on the test!

I certainly can’t scrap a PSSA test that I think a student didn’t give his best effort on and make him do it again!

So how exactly is this MAP test a practice for the real thing!?

Even under the best of circumstances, it’s an artificial environment where scores are massaged to give an unrealistic picture of how students will do on the PSSA.

Of course, administration at my school has one more trick up its sleeve to get students to take the MAP test seriously.

Like the CDT, IXL and other assessments before it, administrators plan to use MAP scores to make decisions about which classes students can take in the next grade. Students in the advanced classes must test well on the MAP or be denied access to this class in subsequent years. Students who score badly on the MAP may have to take the remedial class.

And unlike the PSSA or Keystone Exams – assessments required by the state – administrators are trying to forbid parents from opting their children out of the MAP test.

State test – you can opt out.

Local assessment – you have to take it. Or else!

I wonder if enough parents will complain to the school board about such behavior or just give up and enroll their kids in the local charter school or the private parochial school located RIGHT NEXT DOOR!

As if this all wasn’t counterproductive enough, it’s also a huge waste of money.

Though NWEA claims to be a non-profit, the company posted $166,775,470 in revenue in 2020 – the most recent year available. Its CEO Chris Minnich made $397,582.

These people are making lots of money off this standardized testing baloney!

According to a 2015 brochure from NWEA about the MAP test, it costs $13.50 per student to take the test every year. And that’s just for the Reading and Math. It costs an additional $2.50 per pupil for the Science test.

So if we estimate 1000 students at the elementary and middle school level, that’s roughly $16,000 a year to take the test.

And that doesn’t include the price of trainings like the one I had to sit through this week.

According to that same brochure, the cost for a single days training is $4,000, though sometimes it can be reduced to $3,500 if you buy the right package.

Trainings can go up to $40,000 for multiple days and an in-person trainer.

I wonder how much money my district flushed down the toilet on this garbage.

I look in my classroom closet at the crumbling books, and wonder.

I look at my steadily increasing class sizes and wonder.

My district doesn’t need the MAP test.

We need a test of basic decency for decision makers.


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I’ve also 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!

Economists Worry Covid-19 May End Standardized Testing Altogether

The sky is falling for standardized test enthusiasts.

Economists Paul Bruno and Dan Goldhaber published a paper this month worrying that the Coronavirus pandemic may increase pressure to end high stakes testing once and for all.

The paper is called “Reflections on What Pandemic-Related State Test Waiver Requests Suggest About the Priorities for the Use of Tests.” It was written for The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) – a Walton funded, pro standardized testing policy concern.

It’s easy to see why Bruno (who also taught middle school) and Goldhaber (who did not) are distressed.

Last school year President Joe Biden forced districts nationwide to give standardized assessments despite the raging Covid-19 pandemic.

Schools could barely keep their doors open and conduct in-person classes. Many educators were still teaching their students on-line or both on-line and in-person at the same time. Hundreds of teachers died from the virus. Thousands of students have lost parents, relatives or became sick, themselves.

Yet the Biden administration refused to give them any relief from the burden of standardized testing as the previous administration had just a year before.

And if increasing cases of the even more contagious Delta Variant continue to spread in 2021-22 while the last 30% of American adults are reluctant to get the vaccine, the situation could be even worse this spring.

For a third year in a row, standardized testing could be yet another unnecessary hurdle for students already overburdened with trauma. Would Biden double down on last year’s mistake or finally see the error of his ways?

The result has been an overwhelming backlash against the already unpopular education policy.

In their paper, Bruno and Goldhaber looked at last year’s waiver requests asking for permission to cancel or modify statewide exams in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Only the District of Columbia’s waiver was granted. All other states had to give the exams, but there was much leeway in how and when.

In the most revealing part of the paper, the economists explain why they think the US Department of Education seems to have refused blanket waivers last year:

We speculate that there was concern that even temporarily waiving statewide tests would give momentum to those advocating for the elimination of testing all together. That is, [the US Department of Education] USDOE (and perhaps states that did not request that common assessments be waived) may be less interested in what happens with testing this year than worried about a slippery slope toward increasingly lax testing requirements.” [Emphasis mine]

So refusing testing waivers wasn’t about the need for last year’s scores. It wasn’t about making sure struggling students get resources. It was about ensuring that high stakes testing would go on for years to come.

In other words, it was about politics.

Speaking of which, the report then becomes focused on advice for standardized testing advocates to combat mounting pressure to end these mandated federal assessments.

If the public doesn’t see the value in the tests, Bruno and Goldhaber say, policymakers must explain why the tests are important, and not just in generalities. They must explicitly show how standardized test scores improve education and help specific students.

They write:

“We encourage policymakers to think carefully, explicitly, and publicly about how they have tailored their standardized testing policies to achieve various diagnostic, research, and accountability objectives. This will help to ensure that standardized tests have benefits for more schools and students and will bolster fragile political support for statewide tests.”

However, nowhere in the entire paper do Bruno and Goldhaber actually do this, themselves.

How do standardized tests help students?

That’s exactly the question at stake here.

In short, I would argue as I have countless times before that they DO NOT help students.

They DO NOT help allocate resources to struggling students.

They DO NOT help diagnose student learning difficulties.


They DO NOT even do a good job of showing what students have learned.

If the authors had good counterarguments, now would have been a good time.

The authors do say that standardized test scores are predictive of latter student outcomes but they ignore whether other assessments or factors are MORE predictive.

Yes, students with high test scores often graduate, excel in college or trade schools, etc. However, the same can be said with classroom grades. In fact, classroom grades are even more accurate.

This just makes sense. Classroom grades are based on at least 180 days of formal and informal assessment. Standardized tests are merely a snapshot of a few days work.

However, even more predictive is child poverty. The rich kids usually do much better than the poor kids. Same with race, class and the funding each student receives at his or her school.

If you want to help students, that’s where you need to begin – equitable resource allocation. Make sure all students have what they need to succeed, and realize that the more poverty you have, the greater the need, the greater the resources necessary.

Test scores are effectively useless.

If the only hope for testing is for cheerleaders to prove the policy’s efficacy, then have at it. Testing opponents have been demanding substantive answers to that question for decades.

To paraphrase Motown singer Edwin Starr:

“Testing! HUH!

What is it good for? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

And while you’re struggling to answer that question in the positive, make sure to explain why an assessment strategy designed by eugenicists is the best way to judge today’s children.

Standardized tests literally were invented to justify bias. They were designed to prove that higher income, higher class, white people were entitled to more than poorer, lower class, brown people. Any defense of the assessments today must explain how the contemporary variety escapes the essential racist assumptions the entire project is based on.

Standardized testing is a multi-billion dollar industry. The tests are written by huge corporations. They are graded by the same corporations. And when students fail, it is often the exact same corporations who provide the remediation materials, software and teacher training.

That is why the Biden administration didn’t waive the tests last year. That’s also why economists like Bruno and Goldhaber are sounding the alarm.

This is about saving an endangered cash cow. It’s protecting the goose that lays golden eggs.

It has nothing to do with helping children learn.

And there is no better image to prove that than forcing kids to take a meaningless test during a global pandemic.


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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Just CLICK HERE.

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I’ve also 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!

Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

Things are different in school these days.

The classes are smaller.

The kids are more subdued.

The teachers are exhausted.

But that’s life as we try to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic and somehow get back to normal.

I come into the room every day and sit behind a glass barrier.

My kids either stumble in from the hall wearing masks (often below their noses) or they log in to Zoom and participate on-line.


It’s far from ideal, but we get things done.

Right now we’re reading the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

The kids were reticent at first.

With the unreliable schedules of in-person vs remote learning, it took us months to get through our last text, “The Outsiders.”

Now we’re speeding through scenes of the play with each person required to read a part aloud.

The results have been amazing.

In any normal year, I have to stop the class at various points to discuss what’s happening in the play.

This week, the students, themselves, stop us with questions, comments, and more curiosity than I’ve seen since the pandemic hit last year.

It’s as if they’re starving to learn something, and this play is nourishing their hearts and minds.

I laugh because my first thought was to come down on the shouting out and side commenting until a deeper part of me realized this was all okay. They were on-task, if unrestrained.

It’s something, going from the near silence of a Zoom chat room with its black boxes instead of student faces to a classroom full of rambunctious teenagers getting excited by the lesson.

We’re having a great time as we discuss WWII, parental relationships, racism, dating etiquette, and Hitler’s genitalia.


(Hey! They brought it up!)

We only have about a month or so left of actual instruction time because the Biden administration is demanding we take standardized tests.

That’s weeks of class I could be teaching and they could be learning.

But whatever.

I’m tired of fighting for things that make sense in the classroom.

No one listens to teachers. That’s why I’m running for office.

I figure as a member of Allegheny County Council, people will have to listen to me. And I’ll bring all of the concerns of those around me out in the open, too.

But that brings me to the title of this piece:

Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

As my students and I are racing to learn something in the classroom, the same folks who demand we waste that precious time on high stakes tests are also bemoaning kids learning loss.

“Oh, woe are the children!” They cry.

“How many years and months are they getting behind because of this pandemic!?”

It’s like a flat Earther complaining that we need to build a fence around the planet’s edges so no one can fall off.

What these fools fail to understand is that there is no learning loss.

Comprehension is not a race. There is no one ahead or behind. Everyone goes at their own pace. And if you try to force someone to go more quickly than is best for them, they’ll stumble and fall.

Or they’ll refuse to go forward at all.

These folks pretend that learning is all about numbers – test scores, specifically.

You need to hit this score before you’re ready for the next grade. That score’s required before high school. This one before college.

It’s all nonsense, and I can prove it with one question:

What do these numbers represent?

What are they measuring?

What is the basic unit of comprehension?

Okay. I lied. That was three questions. But you get the point.

Learning is not quantifiable in the way they pretend it is and teaching is not the hard science they want it to be.

You can’t look into someone’s mind and see what they’ve learned and what they still need to know.

You can give a test that tries to assess understanding of certain subjects. But the more complex the knowledge you’re testing for, the more tenuous the results of that test will be.

And an assessment made by someone miles away who never met the person taking it is less accurate – not more accurate.

But let’s be honest, these learning loss champions are not really worried about children. They’re representatives of the standardized testing industry.

They have a vested interest in selling tests, selling test prep materials, software, etc. It’s just a pity that so many of our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are persuaded by their arguments (or the hefty campaign contributions that come with that persuasion).

So as the school year rapidly comes to a close, I have a suggestion to make.

I know I’m not qualified to do so.

I’m just a public school teacher with 17 years experience. I’ve never sat on any think tank boards. No testing corporation has ever paid me a dime to hawk one of their high quality remediation products.

But being in the classroom with kids day-in, day-out for all that time, I have observed some things about children and how they learn.

Most importantly – children are people.

I know that’s controversial, but I believe it to be true.

As such, they need down time.

They need time to regroup and recharge.

This pandemic has been hard on everyone.

As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.

As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to USC research.

They have suffered through changes in routine, disruptions in learning, breaks in the continuity of their healthcare, missed significant life events like birthday parties, vacations and graduations. But worst of all they have suffered the loss of safety and security.

We should not be demanding they work harder at a time like this.

We should be providing them with kindness, empathy and love.

In the classroom, I no longer have a thing called “Late Work.”

If a student hands in an assignment passed the due date, there is no penalty. I just grade it. And if it isn’t done correctly, I give them a chance to redo it.

As many chances as they need.

I remediate. I tutor. I offer advice, counseling, a sympathetic ear.

It’s not that much different than any other year, except in how often children need it now.

Kids AND their parents.

I can’t tell you how many adults I’ve counseled in the last several months.

So when the last day of school arrives, I will close my books.

There will be no assignments over the summer from me.

No homework. No requirements. No demands.

The best things kids can do is go out and play.

Have fun.

Recharge.

The corporate testing drones will tell you that’s a waste of time. Our kids are getting behind doing things like that.

Nonsense.

Play is the best kind of learning kids can do.

It is an independent study in whatever they are curious to discover.

Play is the mind’s way of finding out how things work, what a person can do, how it feels to do this or that.

Honestly, there is not a second wasted in play.

Taken moment-by-moment, there is more learning done during play than in any classroom. Because play is self-directed and driven entirely by curiosity.

I want all of my students to go play this summer.

And I want the children who will be in my class next year to have had a fantastic summer of fun and excitement.

That way they’ll come into the classroom energized and ready to learn what I have to show them.

They won’t be ahead. They won’t be behind.

They’ll just be.

And that’s my prescription for a productive 2021-22.




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The Year Without Standardized Testing

Last year was the first in nearly two decades that the US did not give standardized tests to virtually every student in public school.

Think about that.

Since 2001 almost every child took the tests unless their parents explicitly demanded they be opted out.

For 19 years almost every child in grades 3-8 and once in high school took standardized assessments.

And then came 2019-20 and – nothing.

No multiple guess fill-in the bubble questions.

No sorting students into classes based on the results.

No evaluating teachers and schools based on the poverty, race and ethnicities of the children they serve.

And all it took to make us stop was a global pandemic.

What are the results of that discontinuity?

We may never really know.

There are so many variables at play.

The Covid-19 pandemic closed school rooms across the nation for various lengths of time. Some are still closed. Some are beginning to close again.

Many classes were conducted remotely through conferencing software like Zoom and file sharing programs like Google Classroom. Others were conducted through a hybrid model combining in-person instruction and cyber instruction. While still others met in-person with numerous mitigation efforts like masks, social distancing and air purifiers.

Many students were absent, struggled to learn and experienced countless traumas due to the isolation, sickness and deaths.

About 561,000 people are dead in the United States because of Covid-19.

That’s more than Americans who died in the attack on Pear Harbor (2,403), the 9/11 terrorists attacks (3,000), WWI (116,000) or WWII (405,000).

Only the Civil War (600,000 – 850,000) has a larger death toll. For now.

As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.

As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to USC research.

How do you sort through all these tragedies and traumas and say THIS was caused by a lack of standardized testing?

You probably can’t.

But you can ask questions.

For example, how many teachers really missed the data the standardized tests would have shown?

How many students and parents agonized over what last year’s test scores would have been?

How many government agencies really wanted to provide resources to schools but couldn’t figure out where they should go because they didn’t have test scores to guide them?

I’m not sure exactly how we could find answers.

We could survey teachers and staff about it.

We could survey parents and students.

We could even subpoena Congresspeople and ask them under oath if a lack of test scores determined their legislative priorities.

But we’re not really doing any of that.

It’s a prime opportunity to find out something valuable about standardized tests – mainly if people really think they’re valuable.

But we’re not going to stop and do it.

Instead we’re rushing back onto the testing treadmill this year while the Coronavirus pandemic still rages.

Is that logical behavior?

Not really.

We already have almost 20 years of data showing that annual testing did not improve student learning nationally. US kids were no better off from 2001-2019 having yearly tests than students in Scandinavia who were tested much less frequently. In fact, the countries with the highest academic achievement give far fewer assessments.

The effectiveness and fairness of standardized testing have come into question since before George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation enshrined them into law.

They were designed by eugenicists to justify racism and prejudice. Their partiality for wealthier whiter students and discrimination against poorer browner students has been demonstrated time and again.

But in 2001 we created an industry. Huge corporations write the tests, grade the tests and provide the remediation for the tests. Billions of dollars in taxes are funneled into this captive market which creates monetary incentives for our lawmakers to keep the system going.

Yes, some civil rights organizations have waffled back and forth over this as big donors who value the tests make or withhold contributions. Meanwhile, many other more grassroots civil rights organizations such as Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, have continuously called for the abolition of high stakes testing.

It should be no surprise then that President Joe Biden – though as a candidate he promised to stop standardized testing if he were elected – did an immediate about face this year and insisted we reinstate the assessments.

A scientific mind would be empirical about this. It would examine the results as much as possible and determine whether moving forward made any sense.

This is especially true as the pandemic health crisis continues to make the act of giving the tests difficult at best and dangerous at worst.


There is no way a logical mind can look at the situation and not come to the conclusion that the status quo on testing is a triumph of capitalism over science and reason.

In a month or so, the year without testing will be just that – a single year.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill:

We shall go on to the end. We shall test during Covid, we shall test in the classes and on-line, we shall test with growing confidence and growing strength wearing masks, we shall defend our industry, whatever the cost may be. We shall test in the homes, we shall fill in bubbles on sanitized desks, we shall test in the fields and in the streets, we shall test in the hospitals; we shall never surrender!



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Standardized Testing During the Pandemic is Corporate Welfare Not Student Equity

We’ve got to be able to tell how badly the pandemic is affecting student learning.

So let’s give standardized tests.

That’s the rationale behind the Biden administration’s mandate that schools across the country still struggling just to keep buildings open somehow manage to proctor standardized assessments.

Nearly 29 million people have contracted Covid-19 in the United States. More than 514,000 people have died from the virus.

Only about half of the nation’s schools are open for in-person learning, and many of those are operating on a hybrid basis. The rest are completely virtual.

Children have lost parents, siblings, family members, friends, teachers. Families are struggling just to survive with some members still recovering from the longterm health consequences of contracting Covid.

It is absurd to claim that only standardized tests can show whether the pandemic has impacted student learning.

It has. Nearly everywhere.

Insisting on testing is like bringing a thermometer into a burning building to tell firefighters where to spray the hose.

But pay attention to the messenger.

In this case, it’s acting education secretary Ian Rosenblum, former executive director of pro-testing organization, the Education Trust.

He sent the letter to state superintendents on behalf of the Biden administration telling them that blanket waivers of the federal testing mandate would not be considered this year as they were in 2019-20.

Let’s be honest. Rosenblum is not an educator.

He is a corporate lobbyist given a government job where he has continued to lobby for his industry.

This has nothing to do with helping students overcome the problems of a pandemic.

It is corporate welfare. Plain and simple.

Standardized testing is a multi-million dollar business.

States spend more than $1.7 billion every year on testing. In 45 states, assessments at the primary level alone cost taxpayers $669 million.

This money isn’t going to mom and pop organizations. The four major testing companies are Wall Street heavy hitters – Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson.

In 2001 the first three agencies accounted for 96% of the tests administered, while Pearson was the leading scoring agency of those tests. And since then the market has exploded.

In 1955 the industry was valued at only $7 million. By 1997 it had ballooned to $263 million. This is a 3ooo% increase. Today the estimated worth of the industry is $700 million.

However, that only takes into account actual assessment.

When you consider that many of these companies (or their parent conglomerates) also provide remedial materials for students who fail the tests, the profits really start rolling in. It’s no coincidence that McGraw-Hill, for example, also publishes books and other materials many of which are used by schools to remediate the same students who fail the company’s tests.

It’s a captive market. The testing company makes and distributes the test (for a fee), scores the test so that a majority fail (for another fee), and then sells schools the materials it claims will help students pass next time (for an even further fee).

However, for the first time in two decades, the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the machine.

Last year, the Trump administration cancelled all standardized tests as schools were closed to protect students from Covid-19.

Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had already signaled that she would not cancel them again this year, but when Trump lost the election, many educators and families had hoped in-coming President Joe Biden would think differently.

He had, in fact, promised that if he were elected he would not continue forcing states to give standardized testing.

I was there at the Education Forum in Pittsburgh in 2020 when my friend Dr. Denisha Jones asked him about it point blank.

You can watch his full answer here, but the crux of it was “Teaching to a standardized test makes no sense.”

Unfortunately, caving to a powerful corporate lobby does. And that’s exactly what Biden has done here.

In fact, it goes a long way to explaining his perplexing rush to reopen schools in his first 100 days regardless of the level of community infection.

Biden, who ran on being friendly to teachers and that his wife Dr. Jill Biden was an educator, has pushed some extremely absurd education policies in his short time in office.

Not only has his administration decided to ignore community infections, he has insisted that schools can be opened safely if districts follow certain safety precautions like universal masking, contact tracing and social distancing.

However, many schools are not following these protocols and even more simply cannot because doing so would be exorbitantly expensive. For example, you can’t have all students return to a cramped school building AND have them be 6 feet apart. There simply isn’t the available space. Moreover, contact tracing doesn’t effectively track Covid cases since most students who contract the virus are asymptomatic.

Then there is the absurd prescription that schools don’t even have to prioritize teachers for the Covid vaccine before reopening. In many states educators aren’t even eligible yet to receive the vaccine. Yet the Biden administration expects them to enter the classroom without necessary protections to keep them, their families and students safe.

These are all perplexing policies until one looks at it from an economic vantage.

Waiting for all teachers to have the opportunity to take a two dose vaccine would take at least a month and a half – that’s if every teacher could start the process today.

In addition, if we wait for community infections of the virus to dissipate, testing season will be far from over. In fact, it’s likely the rest of the school year would be gone.

So if the Biden administration had prioritized safety, it would have been forced to cancel standardized tests again this year.

Instead, it has prioritized the testing-industrial complex.

The economy is more important to the powers that be once again.

As a compromise measure, Biden is allowing flexibility in just about every way the tests are given. They can be shortened. They can be given remotely. They don’t have to be given now – they can be given in the fall.

However, this completely erases any measure of standardization in the processes.

Standardization means conforming to a standard. It means sameness. A test taken by a student at home is not the same as one taken by a student in school. A short version of a test is not the same as a long one. A test taken with 180 days to prepare is not the same as one taken with 250.

And if standardization is not NECESSARY in this case, why can’t we rely on non-standardized assessments teachers are already giving to their students? For example, nearly every teacher gives her students a grade based on the work the child has done. Why isn’t that a good enough measure of student learning?

It’s based on a year’s worth of work, not just a snapshot. It’s in context. And it’s actually more standardized than the hodge podge of assessments the Biden administration is allowing this year.

Why isn’t that allowed?

Because the testing companies won’t make any money.

Moreover, it could ruin their future profits.

If student grades are enough to demonstrate student learning during a pandemic, why aren’t they enough at other times?

The very project of high stakes standardized testing is thrown into question – as it should be.

Educators across the country will tell you how worthless standardized tests are. They’ve been telling people that for decades but policymakers from Republicans to Democrats refuse to listen. It’s almost as if they’re distracted by another sound – the jingle of money perhaps?

Those who claim standardized testing is necessary to determine where students are struggling have the weight of history to overcome.

Standardized assessments were created as a justification of racism and eugenics. They have never shown learning gaps that couldn’t be explained by socio-economics. Impoverished and minority students score poorly on the tests while privileged and white students score well.

If one really wanted to invest more resources where these alleged deficiencies exist, one wouldn’t need standardized assessments. You could just look at the poverty level of the community and the percentage of minority students.

But even more telling is the fact that this has never happened. Testing has never resulted in more resources being provided to needy children other than providing more remedial test prep material purchased from – you guessed it – the testing industry.

Under normal circumstances standardized testing is a scam.

During a pandemic, it’s the most perverse kind of corruption imaginable.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also 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!