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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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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If Standardized Tests Were Going to Succeed, They Would Have Done So By Now 


 
 
 
Standardized tests were supposed to be the magic remedy to fix our public schools.  


 
 
They were supposed to make all students proficient in reading and math.  


 
 
They were supposed to ensure all students were getting the proper resources.  


 
 
They were supposed to ensure all teachers were doing their best for their students.  


 
 
But after more than four decades, standardized tests have not fulfilled a single one of these promises.

 
 
 
In fact, all they’ve done is make things worse at public schools while creating a lucrative market for testing companies and school privatization concerns.  


 
 
So why haven’t we gotten rid of them? 


 
 
To answer that question, we have to understand how we got here in the first place – where these kinds of assessments came from in the US and how they became the guiding policy of our public schools. 


 
Standardized testing has been around in this country since the 1920s.  


 
It was the product of the pseudoscientific eugenicist movement that tried to justify white supremacy with bad logic and biased premises.  


 
Psychologists Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham invented these assessments to justify privileging upper-class whites over lower class immigrants, Blacks and Hispanics. That was always the goal and they tailored their tests to find that result. 


 
From the very start, it had serious consequences for public policy. The results were used to rationalize the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool.  


 
However, Brigham’s greatest claim to fame was the creation of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. These tests were not central to school curriculum and mainly used as gatekeepers with the SAT in particular still in wide use today. 


 
The problem then – as now – is that standardized tests aren’t very good assessments. They work okay for really simple things like rudimentary math. However, the more complex a skill you’re assessing, the more inadequate the tests. For example, imagine just trying to have a conversation with someone where your only choices of reply were limited to four canned responses. That’s a multiple-choice assessment. The result is a testing system that selects against the poor and minorities. At best, it reproduces the economic and racial disparities of society. At worst, it ensures those disparities will continue into the next generation. 


 
That isn’t to say the system went unchallenged. By the 1960s, the junk science and leaps of logic behind standardized testing were obvious and people began fighting back in court. Black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry.  


 
 
Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middleclass group. 


 
 
Nevertheless, just as the tests were beginning to disappear, radical economists like Milton Friedman saw them as an opportunity to push their own personal agenda. More than anything, these extreme capitalists wanted to do away with almost all public services – especially public schools. They hoped the assessments could be repurposed to undermine these institutions and usher in an era of private education through measures like school vouchers. 


 
 
 
So in the 1980s, the Reagan administration published “A Nation at Risk,” a campfire tale about how America’s public schools were failing. Thus, the authors argued we needed standardized testing to make American children competitive in a global marketplace. 


 
 
However, the report, which examined test scores from the past 20 years, was misleading and full of statistical and mathematical errors.  


 
 
For instance, it concluded that average student test scores had decreased but didn’t take into account that scores had actually increased in every demographic group. It compared two decades worth of test scores, but failed to mention that more students took the test at the end of that period than at the beginning, and many of the newer students were disadvantaged. In other words, it compared test scores between an unrepresentative group at the beginning of the comparison with a more representative group at the end and concluded that these oranges were nothing like the apples they started with. Well, duh. 


 
Most people weren’t convinced by the disaster capitalism at work here, but the report marks a significant moment in the standardization movement. In fact, this is really where our modern era began.

 
 
Slowly governors and state legislators began drinking the Kool-aide and mandating standardized testing in schools along with corporate-written academic standards the tests were supposed to assess. It wasn’t everywhere, but the model for test-and-punish was in place. 


 
It took an additional two decades, until 2001, for President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation to require standardized testing in ALL public schools.  


 
With bipartisan support, Bush tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress. And from then on, the die was cast. This policy has been upheld through both Republican and Democratic regimes.  


 
In fact, standardized testing intensified under President Barack Obama and was continued with few changes by Donald Trump and even Joe Biden. Far from changing course, Biden broke a campaign promise to discontinue the tests. Once in office, he thought testing was so important that he forced schools to give the assessments during the Covid-19 pandemic when districts had trouble even keeping school buildings open. 


 
And that brings us to today.  


 
From the 1980s to 2022 we’ve had wide scale standardized testing in our schools. That’s roughly 40 years where the entirety of what is done in public school has been organized around these assessments. They drive the curriculum and are the ultimate benchmark by which success or failure is judged. If this policy was ever going to work, it would have done so by now.  


 
 
However, it has achieved NONE of its stated goals.  


 
NCLB specifically stated that all children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. That has not happened. Despite spending billions of dollars on remediation and completely reorganizing our schools around the assessments, test scores have remained mostly static or even decreased. 


 
The law also justified its existence with claims to equity. Somehow taking resources away from districts with low test scores was supposed to increase funding at the neediest schools. Unsurprisingly this did not happen. All it did was further increase the funding gap between rich and poor schools and between wealthy and disadvantaged students.  


 
NCLB also championed the idea that competing for test scores would result in better teachers. However, that didn’t happen either. Instead, educators were forced to narrow the curriculum to cover mostly what was assessed, reduce creativity and critical thinking, and teachers who served poor and minority students were even punished for doing so.  


 
If the purpose of standardized testing was all the things the law purported, then it was a decades long failure. It is the policy equivalent of slamming your head into a wall repeatedly and wondering why you aren’t moving forward. (And where did this headache come from?) 


 
If, however, the purpose of standardized testing was to fulfill Friedman’s privatization dreams, then it was a resounding success. Public schools still persist, but they have been drained, weakened and in many ways subverted.  


 
Look at the evidence. 


 
Standardized testing has grown from a $423 million industry before 2001 to a multi-billion dollar one today. If we add in test prep, new text books, software, and consultancy, that figure easily tops the trillion dollar mark.  


 
Huge corporations make the tests, grade the tests and then sell remediation materials when students fail. It’s a huge scam. 


 
But that’s not the only business created by this policy. Test and punish opened entirely new markets that hadn’t existed before. The emphasis on test scores and the “failing schools” narrative stoked unwarranted distrust in the public school system and a demand for more privatized alternatives. 


 
 Chief among these was charter schools. 


 
The first charter school law was passed in 1991 in Minnesota. It allowed for the creation of new schools that would have special agreements (or charters) with states or districts to run without having to abide by all the usual regulations. Thus, the school could go without an elected board, pocket public money as private profit, etc. The bill was quickly copied and spread to legislatures across the country by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). 


  
Today, there are charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia educating nearly three million students. Charter schools enroll about 6% of the students in the country.  


 
 
However, charter schools are rife with fraud and malfeasance. For instance, more than a quarter of charter schools close within 5 years of opening. By year 15, roughly 50% of charter schools close. That’s not a stable model of public education. It’s a get rich quick scheme. And since these types of schools are free from the kinds of regulations, democratic governance and/or transparency that keeps authentic public schools in check, another charter school scandal pops up almost every day. 


 
 
But let’s not forget school vouchers. Before high stakes testing, the idea of using public money to pay for private or parochial schools was widely considered unconstitutional. Now about 4% of US students go to private and parochial schools some of which are funded with school vouchers. This is an option in 32 states and the District of Columbia, and more than 600,000 students participated in a voucher, scholarship tax credit or education savings account program last school year, according to EdChoice, a pro-voucher and school choice group.  


 
There is little evidence that school vouchers actually improve student performance, however, and there’s even evidence that students who receive vouchers to attend private schools may do worse on tests than they would have if they had stayed in authentic public schools.  


 
Moreover, the cost of attending one of these private or parochial schools isn’t completely covered by the voucher. On average, vouchers offer about $4,600 a year, according to American Federation for Children, which supports voucher programs. The average annual cost of tuition at a private K-12 school nationwide is $12,350, according to Educationdata.org, though that can be much more expensive in some states. In Connecticut, for example, the average tuition is almost $24,000. So vouchers only REDUCE the cost of attending private or parochial schools for a few kids while siphoning away tax dollars that should go to educating all kids.  


 
In short, they’re subsidies for wealthier kids at the expense of the middle class and disadvantaged. 


 
Without standardized testing, it is impossible to imagine such an increase in privatization.

 
 
 
High stakes testing is a Trojan horse. It is a way to secretly undermine and weaken public schools so that testing corporations, charter schools and voucher schools can thrive. 


 
 
Judged by its own metrics of success, standardized testing is an abject failure. Judged by the metric of business and school privatization it is a rousing success.  


 
And that’s why it has been so hard to discontinue.  


 
This is corporate welfare at its finest, and the people getting rich off our tax dollars won’t allow us to turn off the flow of funding without a fight.  


 
 
On the right, policymakers are often boldly honest about their goals to bolster privatization over public schools. On the left, policymakers still cling to the failed measures of success testing has not been able to meet time-and-again.  


 
However, both groups support the same system. They only give different reasons.  


 
 
It is past time to wake up and smell the flowers.  


 
 
If we want to ensure education dollars go to education and not profiteers, we need to end standardized testing. 


 
 
If we want to help students learn to the best of their abilities, we need to stop gaslighting them with faulty measures of success or failure. 
 


 
If we want to allow teachers to do the best for their students, we need to stop holding them back with antiquated eugenicist shackles. 


 
 
And if we truly want to save our public school system, we have to stop propping up privatization.  


 
 
In short, we need to end standardized testing.  
 


 
The sooner, the better. 


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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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Lawmakers Backing Standardized Tests Should Practice What They Preach

When it comes to the whip, one side is definitely better than the other.

Everyone wants to hold it by the stock. No one wants to get hit by the lash. 

That’s why politicians as diverse as Donald Trump and Joe Biden have struggled so desperately to defend standardized testing.

They want to keep control of the torture device they’ve inherited from their predecessors without feeling its sting, themselves.

Take the current Covid crisis in our public schools.


 
Educators are scrambling to teach safely and most lawmakers stand aside unsure how to help.

We can’t figure out which students to assist, they say, without first giving them all a batch of standardized tests.


 


It’s absurd, like paramedics arriving at a car crash, finding one person in a pool of blood and another completely unscathed – but before they know which person needs first aid, they have to take everyone’s blood pressure. 


 
I mean come on! We’re living through a global pandemic.  


 
Nearly every single class has been majorly disrupted by it. 


 
So just about every single student needs helpBUT SOMEHOW WE NEED DATA TO NARROW THAT DOWN!?  


 

Our duly-elected decision-makers seem to be saying they can only make decisions based on a bunch of numbers


 


The fact that they have so little imagination that they can’t visualize the problem without a bar graph is truly disturbing. 


 
But this isn’t rocket science. They don’t HAVE TO be creative thinkers.  


 


Just use class attendance to see which students have received consistent instruction and which have been absent all year.


 
Look at classroom grades, which outline students’ academic performance from day to day.  


 
Those are numbers. And they clearly show which kids have been impacted the most by Covid-19. 


 
But for some reason actually using the data we already have is just crazy talk! 


 


Scores on a standardized test are the ONLY data that counts


 
Okay.

Then I have a suggestion for these legislators. 


 
Why don’t you practice what you preach? 


 
If the only logical way to make decisions is based on test scores, you should provide those scores to the greatest decision-making body in the country: voters.  


 
Every lawmaker who CHAMPIONS standardized tests should have to TAKE standardized tests.  


 
I don’t mean the same tests as the students.  


 
That would be silly.  


 
After all, student tests are designed to favor answers from privileged white people. Most of these lawmakers are the target demographic already. They passed a standardized test (or paid someone to pass the test for them) as a smokescreen getting into whichever prep school or ivy league college where they were legacy enrollments, anyway.  


 
I’m talking about a new series of standardized tests designed to show how much these lawmakers adhere to the principles of their respective political parties. 


 
So there’d be two versions – one for Republicans and one for Democrats.  


 
A high score means the test taker is a bona fide example of their party’s ideals. A low score means they should probably be booted out on their butts. 


 
For example, a question for Democrats might be: 


 


Which policy is progressive? 


 
A) School privatization 
B) Fracking on native lands 
C) Drone strikes 
D) Universal healthcare 


 


And an example for Republicans: 


 
Which policy is fiscally responsible? 


 
A) School privatization 
B) Tax cuts for billionaires 
C) More unnecessary wars  
D) Investing in infrastructure  


 
The answers are both D and that’s because this test would be in high De-mand! Get it? 


 
Think of what we could do with these scores! 


 
Lawmakers could tout their assessment achievements as they campaign. 


 
They could say, “Vote for Sam Smith. He got an Advanced Score on the Democratic System of Statesperson Assessments (DSSA).”  


 
Or “Don’t vote for Megan Mission. She only scored a Satisfactory on the Partnership for Assessment of Republicanism for Congress or Klan (PARCK).” 


 
What an improvement that would be! 


 
Finally, we wouldn’t have to rely on a politician’s voting record or campaign contributions or platform….  We could just look at the score and vote accordingly. 


 
But who would we get to make and grade the tests? 


 
It couldn’t be the politicians, themselves, or even their respective political parties. That wouldn’t be standardized somehow.  


 
If we can’t let teachers create tests for their own students, we certainly can’t trust politicians to do the same for their fellow campaigners. 


 
I guess we could task the testing corporations with making these assessments, but that’s a conflict of interests. We should instead rely on the educational experts, people with the credentials and the most experience actually giving standardized tests. 


 
And that would be…. Classroom teachers


 
So these tests should be written by the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  
 


But, of course, this isn’t free. We’ll have to pay these test-creators, and pay them handsomely.  


 
That’s billions more dollars spent on assessment. What an expense! What a waste of tax dollars! 


 
Still, can we really afford not to?  


 
I’m sure would-be lawmakers would like a leg up on the competition, so the teachers’ unions could make workbooks and software packages and apps and teach remedial courses to help folks pass the tests. That would probably bring in more money than the tests, themselves.  


 
And since the teachers would get to grade the assessments, they could make sure the scores are curved so only a very limited number pass each year. We can’t have grade inflation, after all.  


 
What would the teachers do with this money, I wonder?  


 
Well, they could reinvest it in our schools.  


 
See? We’ve just solved two problems at once.  


 
No more under-resourced schools. No more educational inequality. Every school in the country could be like the Taj Mahal!  


 
And all of this just because of standardized testing! 


 
Maybe the lawmakers have the right idea in prioritizing high stakes testing! 


 
Or maybe they understand the value of benefiting from the testing industrial complex and not being subjected to it. 


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Standardized Tests Increase School Segregation

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Let’s say your community has two schools.

 

One serves mostly white students and the other serves mostly black students.

 

How do you eliminate such open segregation?

 

After all, in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education as essentially separate and unequal.

 

It’s been nearly 70 years. We must have a recourse to such things these days. Mustn’t we?

 

Well, the highest court in the land laid down a series of decisions, starting with Milliken vs. Bradley in 1974, that effectively made school integration voluntary especially within district lines. So much so, in fact, that according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, school segregation more than doubled nationwide.

 
But let’s say you did find some right-minded individuals who cared enough to make the effort to fix the problem.

 

What could they do?

 
The most obvious solution would be to build a single new school to serve both populations.

 

So if you could find the will and the money, you could give it a try.

 
Unfortunately, that alone wouldn’t solve the problem.

 

Why?

 

Standardized tests.

 

Even when students from different racial or ethnic groups aren’t physically separated by district boundaries or school buildings, the way we rate and sort these students within the same space causes segregation.

 

This is because our manner of placing kids into classes, itself, is discriminatory.

 

We have exactly this situation in my own western Pennsylvania district, Steel Valley. We have two elementary schools – Barrett and Park – one of which serves mostly black kids and the other which serves mostly white kids. However, even when the children get to our single middle and high schools, segregation persists.

 

They may finally be in the same building, but they aren’t in the same classes.

 

Most academic tracks have at least a lower and a higher level of each course. The former is invariably organized around remediation and basic skills, the latter around critical thinking and creativity.

 

Moreover, being in the higher level course comes with increased opportunities for mentoring, field trips, special speakers, contests, prizes, and self esteem. And the lower courses can degenerate into mindless test prep.

 

Which would you rather your child experience?

 

We don’t enroll students in one or the other at random. Nor do we place them explicitly based on their race or ethnicity.

 

Increasingly schools enroll students based primarily on their test scores.

 

Classroom grades, student interest, even teacher recommendations are largely ignored. Kids who pass their state mandated standardized assessments generally get in the higher classes and those who fail get in the lower classes.

 

And – Surprise! Surprise! – since test scores are highly correlated with race and class, most of the black kids are in the lower classes and most of the white kids are in the higher classes.

 

Let me be clear.

 

This isn’t because there’s something wrong with the poor kids and children of color or something right about higher socioeconomic status and white kids.

 

It’s because of (1) economic inequality, and (2) implicit bias in the tests.

 

In short, standardized assessments at best show which kids have had all the advantages. Which ones have had all the resources, books in the home, the best nutrition, live in the safest environments, get the most sleep, don’t live with the trauma of racism and prejudice everyday.

 

However, even more than that is something indisputable but that most policymakers and media talking heads refuse to acknowledge: standardized testing is a tool of white supremacy.

 

It was invented by eugenicists – people who believed that white folks were racially superior to darker skinned people. And the purpose of these tests from the very beginning was to provide a scientific (now recognized as pseudo scientific) justification for their racism.

 

A standardized test is an assessment where the questions are selected based on what the “standard” test taker would answer. And since this norm is defined as a white, middle-to-upper-class person, the tests enshrine white bias.

 

I don’t mean that 2+2=4 has a racial bias. But most questions aren’t so simple. They ask test takers to read passages and pick out certain things that are more obvious to people enculturated as white than those enculturated as black. They use the vocabulary of middle to upper class people just to ask the questions.

 

This is white supremacy. Using these tests as a gatekeeper for funding, tracking, and self-respect is educational apartheid.

 
Black students make up almost 17 percent of American students nationwide. If all things were equal, you’d expect them to make up a similar percentage of advanced courses. However, they account for only 10 percent of students in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) classes.

 
In some areas it’s worse than others.

 

For example, according to a Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report from 2014, black students in the northern California city of Sacramento make up 16.3 percent of the population but only 5.5 percent of GATE programs. Meanwhile, in the south of the state, in San Diego, 8 percent of students are black, but make up just 3 percent of GATE classes.

 

Those are big disparities. In fact, the phenomenon is so common that social scientists created a term to describe it – racialized tracking.

 

But it has also been the subject of civil rights complaints.

 
In New Jersey the imbalance was so extreme the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint in 2014 against the South Orange–Maplewood School District. In a statement, the ACLU said racial segregation across academic tracks “has created a school within a school at Columbia High School.” More than 70 percent of students in lower classes were black while more than 70 percent of students in advanced classes were white.

 

Even so there wasn’t much that could be done. The matter ended with the Office for Civil Rights ordering the district to hire a consultant to fix the problem, but it still persists to this day.

 

This “school within a school” went from metaphor to reality in Austin, Texas. In 2007, a city school, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Early College High School, split into two different entities existing within the same building. And the main factor separating the two was race.

 

The second floor became the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA), a public magnet high school serving mostly white and Asian students. Meanwhile, the majority black and Latino students stayed on the first floor taking regular education courses.

 

How can that be legal? Because too many people want it that way.

 

LASA is ranked the best Texas high school and the 11th-best high school in the United States. In fact, whenever you see those lists of the best schools in the country, they are often the result of a wealthy local tax base combined with how many poor and minority kids they were able to keep out.

 

It’s a matter of priorities.

 

Many people – especially white people – talk a good game about equity but what they really want for their own children is privilege.

 

It’s what happens when you let scarcity dominate public education, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

 

We can invest in our schools so that all children have what they need – so that they aren’t in competition for dwindling resources.

 

But this must go hand-in-hand with an emphasis on social justice. Black lives matter. We cannot continue to treat black children as disposable.

 

Being gifted, talented or advanced can’t be reduced to a score on a standardized test. In fact, I’d argue that such measures should be banished from our conception of excellence altogether as the tests, themselves, should be discontinued.

 

This doesn’t mean we can ignore the centuries of racist policies that keep our children of color down – housing segregation, inequitable funding, over policing, a lack of resources, being left out of specialized programs. Nor does it mean that we can ignore implicit bias white teachers invariably have about black students.
But we have to dismantle the systemic racism enshrined in our school policies. The most well-meaning individuals will make little headway if the system, itself, is corrupt.

 

The two must be accomplished hand-in-hand, at the micro and macro level.

 

Integration is absolutely essential. We must ensure that all of our students get to go to school together – but not just in the same buildings, in the same classes.

 

This requires an end to standardized testing but maybe also an end to advanced placement courses as we know them. Why focus on higher order thinking only for the privileged kids – do it for all. Individual student needs can be met with dual teachers in the room, pullout resources and the like.

 

It is important to meet the needs of every student, but we cannot in doing so allow unspoken bias to be the gatekeeper of opportunity.

 

Equity is not just a pretty word. It has to be one of our most cherished goals.

 

Otherwise our policies and our people will leave many children behind.


 

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Public Schools Can Recover from the COVID-19 Quarantine by Skipping High Stakes Tests

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There is one plus from being sick during a global pandemic.

 

You get perspective.

 

While all the schools in Pennsylvania are closed for at least the next two weeks to help stop the spread of COVID-19 (colloquially known as the Coronavirus), I self-quarantined a day early.

 

No, I don’t think I have the virus, but I’m not taking any chances.

 

Still, sitting here at my laptop with a steaming mug of tea, I’m filled with optimism.

 

My symptoms don’t match those of the virus – no fever, no dry cough, no difficulty breathing, no runny nose or sore throat. I just sneeze occasionally, have an intermittent wet cough and feel a bone deep fatigue.

 

Probably not the culprit sending the world into shutdown mode. But best to rest up anyway.

 

I’m also filled with a deep sense of gratitude that I’m a public school teacher.

 

My last class was a rough one – 7th graders running around the room with half written poetry demanding instruction, guidance, reassurance. My morning 8th graders were likewise rushing to complete a poetry assignment – frantically asking for help interpreting Auden, Calvert, Henley, Poe, Thomas.

 

What a privilege it has been to be there for them! How much I will miss that over the few next weeks!

 

Who would ever have thought we’d go into self quarantine to stop people from getting infected?

 

It says something about us that what seemed impossible just a few days ago has become a reality. We actually saw a problem and took logical steps to avoid it!

 

I know – we could have done a better job. We could have acted more quickly and in many areas we haven’t done nearly enough (New York, I’m looking at you).

 

But what we have done already shows that human beings aren’t finished. We have massive problems waiting to be solved – global climate change, social and racial inequality, the corrupting influence of money in politics, etc. However, we CAN do the logical thing and solve these problems!

 

No matter how crazy it seems now, tomorrow could be filled with rational solutions. If only we allow ourselves that chance.

 

So my spirits are high here in my little hollow nestled in with my family.

 

But being a teacher I can’t help thinking about what’s to come next.

 

Eventually this whole ordeal will be over.

 

Schools will reopen. Things will get back to normal. Or try to, anyway.

 

The challenge will be attempting to overcome the month or more of lost schooling.

 

Some will be thankful they relied on virtual schooling to fill in the gaps. When this whole crisis began, officials chided us to make preparations for “teleschool” in case of just this eventuality.

 

I’m glad we didn’t.

 

Frankly, (1) it would have been a huge cost that schools don’t have the money to meet and (2) it would have been money down the drain.

 

There is nothing innovative about sending kids on-line to do their assignments. The majority of work that can be done that way is of the lowest quality.

 

That’s workbook nonsense that the laziest and most checked out educators of generations past gave to their students to keep them quiet.

 

We see students in China who are being educated that way finding ways around it – giving their education apps low star reviews in the app store so that they’ll be removed, etc.

 

Here in the USA, all children don’t even have access to the Internet. They rely on the local libraries to get online – not a good idea in a pandemic.

 

So most schools have had to do without.

 

School is cancelled for about a month or so, and then – hopefully – it will return.

 

The question remains – what do we do when we get back to class?

 

We could extend the school year, but families have vacations planned and other obligations. This wouldn’t solve much and frankly I don’t think it will happen unless we’re out for longer than expected.

 

I anticipate being back in school by mid April or so. That would leave about a month and a half left in the year.

 

This really leaves us with only two options: (1) hold our end of the year standardized tests and then fit in whatever else we can, or (2) forgo the tests and teach the curriculum.

 

If we have the tests, we could hold them shortly after school is back in session. That at least would give us more time to teach, but it would reduce the quality of the test scores. Kids wouldn’t be as prepared and the results would be used to further dismantle the public school network.

 

Much better I think is option two: skip the tests altogether.

 

Frankly, we don’t need them. Teachers observe students every day. We give formal and informal assessments every time we see our kids. We’re like scientists engaged in a long-term study taking daily measurements and meticulously recording them before coming to our year end conclusions called classroom grades.

 

In my classes, I think I could teach just about the same material in the remaining time if I didn’t have to worry about the high stakes tests.

 

In 7th grade, this would mean finishing up our almost completed poetry unit – having kids put together their poetry portfolios and sharing them. Then we’d begin our final novel of the year, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg, talk about mystery stories, reader perspectives and how truth impacts fiction.

 

In 8th grade, we could likewise finish up poetry with some presentations on students’ favorites from the assigned group. Then we could read the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and selections from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”We could discuss propaganda, prejudice and compare the historical perspective of Europe and the United States.

 

In both cases, we might have to forgo a year-end project, but at least we’d cover the majority of what we proposed at the beginning of the year.

 

Students would leave their respective grades with just about everything we set out to give them. They’d be prepared and ready to meet the challenges of the coming grade.

 

That seems a worthy goal to me.

 

But I hear someone ask – what about the standardized testing? Won’t students be less prepared having skipped over those assessments?

 

The answer is no. They would not be less prepared.

 

They would be better educated without a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

 

The shame is that this alteration in schedule would probably only last one year.

 

In 2020-21, we’d probably reinstate these standardized assessments.

 

This is at least a month of wasted schooling. If we got rid of all the pretests and administrator required teaching-to-the-test, we could clear up a good 9-weeks of extra class time.

 

Imagine what teachers could do with those surplus days!

 

My 8th graders could read the whole of “Mockingbird,” for one. instead of just selections. My 7th graders could read another entire novel – probably Paul Zindel’s “The Pigman.” Not to mention the addition of more women and writers of color, the extra time for creative writing, an emphasis on finding your own point of view.

 

And for me that’s the benefit of this COVID-19 crisis. It shows us what could be – what we could do if we were only brave enough to try.

 

Happy self-quarantine, everyone!


 

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Teachers Are Not Responsible for Student Growth or Achievement

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Earlier this week, I was rushed to another urgent early morning staff meeting at my school.

 

I had my laptop with me and was frantically trying to get everything ready that I’d need for the day.

 

Text dependent analysis question? Check.

 

Discussion guide to introduce the concept of science fiction? Check.

 

Questions on literacy, analogy, vocabulary and sentence structure suitable for 7th grade? Check.

 

The same suitable for 8th grade? Check.

 

And as I was anxiously trying to get all this together in time for me to rush to my morning duty when the meeting was over, I quickly took a sip of my tea and tried to listen to what my administrator was saying from the front of the room.

 

He handed out two white sheets of paper with a compilation of standardized test scores – last year’s and those from the year before.

 

He asked us what we noticed about these two sets of scores and I almost spit out my tea.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU BROUGHT US HERE FOR!?” I wanted to shout.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE STOPPING US FROM DOING OUR WORK TO DISCUSS!?”

 

But I choked down my response and waited for someone to tell him what he wanted to hear.

 

The scores have gone down in the preceding year.

 
 
Nothing drastic but enough.

 

When he got his answer – actually he had to say it himself because none of us were ready to play this game so early in the morning – he offered us an olive branch.

 

Isn’t that the way of it? Shame then reconciliation. Blame then peace.

 

Those are just the achievement scores, he said. Admin. generously doesn’t expect us to be able to do much about those. They go up one year and down the next.

 

But look at these growth scores!

 

That’s where we can have an impact!

 

And again I felt my throat convulse and a mouthful of Earl Grey came back up my gullet.

 

Growth!?

 

It doesn’t make that much difference whether you look at growth or achievement. If you’re holding teachers accountable for either, you’re expecting us to be able to do things beyond our powers as mere mortal human beings.

 

I hate to break it to you, but teachers are not magical.

 

We cannot MAKE things happen in student brains.

 

Nothing we say or do can cause a specific reaction inside a human mind.

 

That’s just not how learning and teaching works.

 

We can INFLUENCE learning.
 
We can try to create some kind of optimum condition that is most likely to spark learning.

 

But we cannot make it happen like turning on a switch or lighting a candle.

 

Let me give you a real world example.

 

The day before the meeting I was conferencing with a student about his essay on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” I pointed out that he had misspelled Christmas as “Crismist.”

 

He refused to fix it.

 

Literally refused.
 
I pointed out that the word was already typed out and spelled correctly in the prompt. All he had to do was erase what he had written and rewrite it correctly.

 

He said he didn’t care – that it didn’t matter.

 

So I tried to explain how people who don’t know him would read this paper and make snap judgments about him based on simple mistakes like this.

 

I told him that I knew he was smart, that I had heard his verbal discussion of the story and was impressed by his arguments about Scrooge’s character. He had made good points about Scrooge’s guilt being motivated by fear and that once the ghosts were gone he might return to his old ways.

 

But no one was going to get that far or give him the benefit of the doubt if he didn’t even try to spell Christmas correctly!
 
And he still wouldn’t do it.

 

That is literally where I was yesterday – yet today my administrator wanted to hold ME accountable for this kid’s growth!

 

As this child’s teacher, it IS my responsibility to try to reach him.

 

I am responsible for providing him with every tool I know how that can help him succeed.

 

I am responsible for trying to motivate, inspire and explain. I am responsible for knowing what are best practices and using them.

 

By all means – evaluate me on that.

 

But I can do nothing about what a student actually does with all I give him.

 

To paraphrase the old adage about horses, I can lead a student to knowledge, but I can’t make him think.

 

And, moreover, I shouldn’t be forced, myself, only to be able to acknowledge certain kinds of thinking. If a student’s ideas don’t fit neatly into a multiple choice framework, I shouldn’t be impelled to ignore or constrain them.

 

That may seem simple or even obvious with reflection, but it also goes counter to nearly every teacher evaluation system in practice in the United States.

 

Because that’s really what’s motivating my administrator’s directives here.
 
He’s just being real, he said. This is what we’ll be evaluated on and it’s something we can impact.

 

Then he asked us what each of us can do to better impact student growth.

 

Hands went flying into the air to offer suggestions about how administration could help us better accomplish these goals.

 

How about some consistency in which courses we’re instructed to teach from year-to-year?

 

How about not splitting up classes so that students leave one room to have a special and then return to finish a course already in progress?

 

How about mandating fewer diagnostic tests so there’d be more instruction time?

 

Well that last one was just too much. We were told that Admin. planned to do just the opposite – to make the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) tests MORE invasive by changing the schedule to make them appear more like the end of the year state mandated tests.

 

He said eventually we could look at some of these other ways to change things administratively, but he wanted to put the onus on us. What can WE do to increase growth?

 

A hand went up.
 
If we help a student grow this year, won’t there be less room for him to grow next year – at least within a given academic standard? Don’t we reach a point of diminishing returns?

 

To which I wanted to add – where are we measuring growth from? One standardized test to another? That’s not authentic learning – it’s assessing how well students take a test and how well they think like the corporation that makes and grades it.

 

But the meeting was already over.

 

The bell rang and we had to rush to our duties.

 

I scrambled back to my classroom to deposit my computer before getting to the cafeteria just as student breakfast began.

 

This is madness, I thought.

 

Growth and achievement. It’s all just gas lighting educators for not being superhuman.

 

The decision makers either don’t understand how learning works or they don’t care to understand.

 

They are putting everything on teachers and students without providing either of us with the tools we need to succeed.

 

Students need more than another standardized test. And they need more than another teacher who only cares about their test scores – regardless of whether you measure them in growth or achievement.

 

These kids are stressed out, living under immense pressure, coping with poverty, prejudice, an unstable society, climate change, an uncertain future and an economy that promises them little more than crushing debt as a best case scenario.

 

Educators are supposed to wade into all that, say a few incantations and it will all just go away?

 

Many parents are struggling so much to provide for their kids they don’t have time to help with homework, provide guidance or support. And you think I’ve somehow got the secret sauce in my teacher’s bag?

 

Wake up, America.

 

It’s time we faced a truth about our schools.

 

Teachers can’t do it all alone.
 
Growth, achievement, whatever.

 

Until society commits to supporting its children with equitable resources, social justice and an evaluation system that’s more valid than standardized testing, the next generation will continue to struggle.

 

If you want to make an impact, a good place to start would be a realistic conception of what it means to be a teacher and what we actually can and should be held responsible for.

 


 

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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Are Teachers Allowed to Think for Themselves?

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As a public school teacher, I am often told what to do and how to do it.

 

Go teach this class.

 

Report to lunch duty at this time.

 

Monitor this student’s progress in this way, that student’s progress in another way, differentiate the following, document this medical condition, write up this behavior, check for that kind of hall pass, post and teach these academic standards, etc., etc., etc.

 

Some of these directives I agree with and others I do not. But that is treated as an irrelevance because the one thing I’m never told to do is to think for myself.  The one thing that seems to be expressly forbidden – is that I think for myself.

 

 

 

In fact, it’s such a glaring omission, I often wonder if it’s actually prohibited or so obviously necessary that it goes without saying.

 

 

 

Am I expected to think or just follow directions?

 

 

 

Does society want me to be a fully conscious co-conspirator of student curiosity or a mindless drone forcing kids to follow a predetermined path to work-a-day conformity?

 

Most days, it feels like the later.

 

Every last detail of my job is micromanaged and made “foolproof” to the degree that one wonders if the powers that be really consider teachers to be fools in need of proofing.

 

Teaching may be the only profession where you are required to get an advanced degree including a rigorous internship only to be treated like you have no idea what you’re doing.

 

And the pay is entirely uncompetitive considering how much you had to do to qualify for the position and how much you’re responsible for doing once you get hired.

 

It makes me wonder – why did I take all those courses on the history of education if I was never supposed to have the autonomy to apply them? Why did I have to learn about specific pedagogies if I was never to have the opportunity to create my own curriculum? Why was I instructed how to assess student learning if I was never meant to trust my own judgment and rely instead solely on prepackaged, canned standardized tests?

 

And now after 16 years in the classroom, I’m routinely told by my principal to use student testing data to drive my instruction. And, moreover, to document how I am doing so in writing.

 

But what if I don’t trust the student testing data in the first place?

 

What if – in my professional opinion – I don’t agree that the state should have purchased this standardized assessment from some corporate subsidiary? What if I don’t think it does a good job evaluating a child’s aptitude as a prediction of subsequent achievement on the next test? What if I don’t think the test provides valuable data for actual, authentic learning? What if I want to do more than just improve test scores from one standardized assessment to another? What if I want to actually teach something that will affect students’ whole lives? What if I want to empower them to think for themselves? What if my goals are higher for them than the expectations thrown on me as shackles on an educator’s waist, hands and feet?

 

Because it seems to me that there is a bit of a mixed message here.

 

On the one hand, teachers are given so many directives there’s no room for thought. On the other, teachers can’t do their jobs without it.

 

So what exactly do they want from me?

 

The principal can’t educate classes from his desk in the administrative office. The school board director can’t do it from his seat in council chambers. Lawmakers can’t do it from Washington, DC, or the state capital. Only the teacher can do it from her place in the classroom, itself.

 

You have to see, know and interact with your students to be able to tell what their needs are. No standardized test can tell you that – it requires human interaction, knowledge and – dare I say it – discernment.

 

You need to gauge student interest, background knowledge, life skills, special needs, psychology and motivation. And you need to design a curriculum that will work for these particular students at this particular time and place.

 

That can’t be done at a distance through any top-down directive. It must be accomplished in the moment using skill, empiricism and experience.

 

The fact that so many lawmakers, pundits, and administrators don’t know this, itself, has a devastating impact on the education kids actually receive.

 

Instead of helping teachers do their jobs, policymakers are accomplishing just the opposite. They are standing in the way and stopping us from getting things done.

 

We’re given impossible tasks and then impeded from doing them. At least get out of the way and leave us to it.

 

It’s ironic. The act of removing teacher autonomy results in dampening our effectiveness.

 

So as many of these same bureaucrats complain about “failing schools” and “ineffective teachers,” it is these very same complaints and the efforts taken in their name that result in ineffectiveness.

 

If we trusted teachers to do their jobs, they would be empowered to accomplish more. And I don’t mean blind trust. I don’t mean closing our eyes and letting teachers do whatever they want unimpeded, unadvised and unappraised. I mean letting teachers do the work in the full light of day with observation by trained professionals that know the same pedagogy, history and psychology we do – trained administrators who are or were recently teachers, themselves.

 

That would be both accountable and effective instead of the present situation, which is neither.

 

Moreover, it might incentivize policymakers to realize teachers can’t do everything themselves. Hold us accountable for what we do – not what you’d like us to do but over which we have no control.

 

After all, home life has a greater impact on students than anything that happens in class. And helping students to self-actualize into mature, productive members of society requires we equip them with the ability to work things out independently.

 

However, that does not seem to be the goal.

 

We don’t want free thinking students just as we don’t want free thinking teachers.

 

We don’t want a school system that produces independent thinkers. We want it to simply recreate the status quo. We want the lower classes to stay put. We want social mobility and new ideas to be tightly controlled and kept only within certain boundaries.

 

And that is why our school system keeps teachers so tightly constrained – because we want status quo students.

 

Educators have always been the enemy of standardization, privatization and conformity. We are on the side of liberty, emancipation and release.

 

Which side are you on?

 


 

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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