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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A New Children’s Fund – Reducing Student Inequality Through Allegheny County Council

Public schools are not funded fairly.

Every child does not receive equitable resources or even close to what they need.

The state and federal government provide some funding, but they leave it up to each neighborhood to take the brunt of the burden.

So the majority of funding comes from local tax revenues – rich communities give their kids more than enough and poor ones struggle to give them enough to even get by.

This means things like class size, access to tutoring and remediation, extracurricular activities, advanced placement courses, field trips, counseling, even access to a school nurse often depends on how rich of a community kids live in.

It’s a backward and barbaric way of supporting children – a kind of economic Darwinism that gives the richest kids the most advantages from the very start while holding back everyone else.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but don’t look to the state or federal government to fix it.

No matter who has been in power in the Oval Office or held majorities in Congress, national lawmakers don’t seem to care much about public schools unless it has to do with standardized testing or school privatization – policies that only make things worse.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has been working his entire tenure to make the system more fair, but the Republican controlled legislature has blocked him at nearly every turn. And given our hopeless gerrymandered legislative districts, this isn’t about to be rectified anytime soon.

So what are we to do? Give up?

No.

In the Pittsburgh area, we have a solution ready at hand to at least reduce the inequality among rich and poor kids. All we have to do is reach into the trash.

Three years ago we had a ballot initiative called The Children’s Fund. It would have created a voluntary 5% property tax hike to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids. It was defeated by voters.

And for good reason.

The proposal was an absolute mess.

As a local teacher, education activist and blogger, I advised against the plan because it raised taxes without stipulating where the money would go, it was unclear who would have been in charge of the money and other reasons.

But that doesn’t mean there was nothing of value there.

The idea of county tax revenues being used to help balance the scales of public school funding is not a bad one.

We could fix the problems with the original children’s fund and create a new one.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m running for county council. I want to increase our local investment in children and the future.

Here’s how we do it.

The 2018 Children’s Fund would have raised taxes by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value. This would have generated an estimate $18 million a year and gone to a newly created government office under the supervision of the county manager. There would have been an advisory commission but it was really left under the discretion of the County Executive to figure out how all this would work. He’d get to pick who was in charge of the money and where it went.

This was a terrible idea.

We don’t need a big pot of money that a king gets to dole out as he chooses. Nor do we need to created unnecessary bureaucracy.

All we need is a funding formula. Collect X amount of tax revenues and send it to Y schools according to these guidelines prioritizing Title I schools and other institutions serving needy children.

Moreover, the fund doesn’t even need to include a tax increase. Council should first look to cut wasteful spending already in the budget to generate the money needed.

We already have a $2 billion budget. We spend $100 million of it to keep people locked up in the county jail, and 80 percent of them are nonviolent offenders who haven’t been convicted of anything. Many simply can’t pay cash bail, failed a drug test for something like marijuana or violated our ridiculously long parole period.

Finding $18 million might not be too difficult if we took a hard look at our finances and our priorities. And even if we couldn’t find the full amount, we could propose a lower tax increase. And if we do have to increase revenues, we can look to do so by making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share before putting more burden on residents.

We should at least explore these options before jumping on another across the board tax increase even if the cause is a good one.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it was too broad. For instance, it suggested some of this money be used to offer meals to children in school. However, much of that need has been met by a program called the Community Eligibility Provision which is available nationwide as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010.

While food insecurity remains a problem for low income students and their families, I think there are better solutions such as increasing the minimum wage and creating more well-paying union jobs.

We should limit the new children’s fund to increasing pre-K access to needy children, offering funding to school districts to create or fund existent after school tutoring programs, reduce class size and increase teacher salaries at low income schools.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it worked around instead of with local government.

Though almost everyone agreed with the stated goals of the proposal, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

There’s an easy fix for that.

Before enacting any new legislation, County Council should seek input from school districts and pre-K programs. That way, the legislation can be best crafted to meet need.

I care about schools, students and families, but I don’t know everything and neither does County Council or the County Executive. We should be humble enough to listen to what stakeholders tell us they need and then find a way to meet it.

Finally, there’s the question of fraud and mismanagement of funds.

One of the biggest red flags around the 2018 campaign is that it was not grass roots.

Financial documents show that the whole initiative had been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.

We have to make sure that the money is going to help children, not corporate raiders or profit-obsessed philanthrocapitalists.


To ensure this does not happen, we should put some restrictions on how the money can be used.

For example, the federal government is infamous for offering money to schools with strings attached. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, for example, was a huge corporate welfare scheme to enrich standardized testing and school privatization corporations. Schools could compete for limited funds by increasing test scores, and then if they won, they’d have to spend that money on test prep or privatization.

We don’t need any of those shenanigans in Allegheny County.

The new Children’s Fund should be barred from use in standardized testing preparation programs, it should not be available to buy new technologies or apps, and it should be used at the K-12 level ONLY at strictly public schools.

County residents cannot afford to bankroll people’s kids to private schools.

This money should not be available at any private schools even if those schools use school vouchers, Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs or other tax scholarship programs that function like school vouchers.

Moreover, county residents shouldn’t be pouring our tax dollars into schools that don’t have the same high fiscal accountability requirements as our fully public schools even if these schools claim to be fully public.

Unlike public institutions, charter schools do not have to be run by elected school boards, do not have to have school board meetings open to the public or even open their budgets to annual public review.

That’s why this new funding should be available at charter schools ONLY if those schools charters are in good standing AND if the charter schools will admit to a yearly public audit of how the money has been spent. Any misappropriation or unaccounted for funding would disqualify the charter school from further funding and prompt an immediate full state audit.

I think if we enacted legislation along those lines, we could really make a difference for the children of our county.

We have to face the facts.

Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to educational equity for poor and non-white students.

The commonwealth ranks 47th in the nation for the share of K-12 public education funding that comes from the state.

The state ranks 48th nationally in opportunity gaps for high school students of color compared with white students and 47th for Hispanic students, according to a 2018 report from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action.

A separate 2016 study found that Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps between students along racial and socioeconomic divides in the country.

And the list goes on and on.

Only the federal and state government can truly fix the problem long term. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

We can sit idly by as our children get left behind or we can stand up and do something about it.

If elected to county council, I will do everything in my power to right this wrong.

Our kids deserve more than governmental dysfunction, class warfare and de facto racism.

Please stand with me to enact a new children’s fund that helps support our kids.

Please help me gain a seat on Allegheny County Council.


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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.


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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!