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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NAEP Test Scores Show How Stupid We Are… To Pay Attention to NAEP Test Scores

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Brace yourselves!

 

America’s NAEP test scores in 2019 stayed pretty much the same as they were in 2018!

 

And the media typically set its collective hair on fire trying to interpret the data.

 

Sometimes called the Nations Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test is given to a random sampling of elementary, middle and high school students in member countries to compare the education systems of nations.

 

And this year there was one particular area where US kids did worse than usual!

 

Our scores went down in 8th grade reading!

 

To be honest, scores usually go up or down by about one or two points every year averaging out to about the same range.

 

But this year! Gulp! They went down four points!

 

FOUR POINTS!

 

What does that mean?

 

Absolutely nothing.

 

They’re standardized test scores. They’re terrible assessments of student learning.

 

You might as well compare the relative body temperatures of randomly selected students and wonder why we aren’t bridging the body warmth gap with the somber hummingbird! I mean it has an average  temperature of 114 F! And the best we can do is a measly 98.6 F! Why won’t enough kids get a fever for America!?

 

If test scores have any meaning at all – it’s parental wealth. Rich kids tend to score higher than poor kids. That’s partially because of the inequality of resources each receive, but also because of racial, cultural and economic bias embedded in the questions.

 

So the NAEP shows us what any study of parental income would show. America has a lot of poor kids and underfunded schools.

 

Thanks, NAEP! There’s no way we could ever have figured that out without you!

 

But having this information come to us via test scores allows us to deflect from the real problem and instead continually blame the victim.

 

Why can’t these poor kids from impoverished schools score as well as kids from richer countries with more well-funded schools?

 

I can’t imagine!

 

Typically politicians used the results to push their pet policies.

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used the scores to wash her hands of the entire public education system. I know – isn’t her job to safeguard public schools? It’s like a zoo keeper complaining that the penguins aren’t bringing in enough visitors and then refusing to feed them.

 

DeVos proposed we improve test scores by cutting $4.8 billion from public schools in 2020 and instead pumping $5 billion to a tax credit school voucher scheme that props up private schools.

 

I know that sounds dumb, but before you judge her, realize she also proposed cutting federal funding for afterschool programs, teacher professional development, student support and enrichment programs.

 

So there.

 

Education Blogger Peter Greene claims that this move is based on a reading comprehension problem the Education Secretary is having, herself.

 

She says that the NAEP results mean that 2/3 of American students read below grade level. However, Greene points out that she is conflating two different things – grade level proficiency and NAEP proficiency.

 

Here’s what the NAEP wrote:

 

“The NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent grade-level proficiency, but rather competency over challenging subject matter. NAEP Achievement levels are to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted and used with caution.”

 
Which kind of begs the question of why we need these scores in the first place.

 

There is much clearer data out there.

 

A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that 29 states spent less per student in 2015 than they had before the Great Recession.

 

And the federal government has done little to help. Since 2011, spending on major K-12 programs – including Title I grants for underprivileged students and special education – has been basically flat.

 

According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, today’s public schools employ at least 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by at least 800,000 students.

 

So to ensure our students had the same quality of service children received only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

That’s how you cut class size down from the 20, 30, even 40 students packed into a room that you can routinely find in some districts today.

 

If we looked at realities like these instead of test scores – which at best provide us data at several removes – we might actually be motivated to reach solutions.

 

For instance, the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world – if not probably the ONLY country – that funds schools based largely on local taxes. Other developed nations either equalize funding or provide extra money for kids in need. In the Netherlands, for example, national funding is provided to all schools based on the number of pupils enrolled. But for every guilder allocated to a middle-class Dutch child, 1.25 guilders are allocated for a lower-class child and 1.9 guilders for a minority child – exactly the opposite of the situation in the U.S.

 

If we want to compare the US to other countries, this is a perfect place to start.

 

But a focus on test scores obscures the differences.

 

Virtually all of the top scoring countries taking these exams have much less child poverty than the U.S. If they had the same percentage of poor students that we do, their scores would be lower than ours. Likewise, if we had the same percentage of poor students that they do, our scores would go through the roof! We would have the best scores in the world!

 

These scores just mirror back to us our child poverty rate – that more than 1/3 of our students live below the poverty line and more than half of public school students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

 

But this myopic focus on standardized tests also blinds us to the ways our system is superior to that of many other countries.

 

We do something that many international systems do not. We educate everyone! Foreign systems often weed children out by high school. They don’t let every child get 13 years of grade school (counting kindergarten). They only school their highest achievers.

 

So when we compare ourselves to these countries, we’re comparing ALL of our students to only SOME of theirs – their best academic pupils, to be exact. Yet we still hold our own given these handicaps!

 
This suggests that the majority of problems with our public schools are monetary. Pure and simple.

 

At least House Democrats passed a Labor-HHS-Education funding bill to increase public school funding by $3.5 billion. Even if it were somehow passed by the Republican controlled Senate, that’s a drop in the bucket after decades of neglect – but it’s something!

 

It’s certainly better than DeVos who claims that funding somehow doesn’t matter for public schools – only for her pet charter and voucher schools.

 

A 2018 review by Northwestern University found that in 12 out of 13 studies increased spending had a positive effect on student outcomes. And that result has been verified by studies since then in California, Texas, Wisconsin and other states.

 
Money makes a difference.

 

Money spent on students – not more testing.

 

So why the drop in this year’s 8th grade reading scores?

 

Who knows? It could be a spike in the rate or effect of child poverty in the middle school years.

 

It could be the impact of decades of high stakes testing on middle school curriculum – narrowing what is taught and muscling out authentic instruction.

 

Frankly it doesn’t matter because the data is suspect.

 

Standardized testing will never give us an accurate picture of what is going on with our students or our schools.

 

And until we, as a society, finally realize that and focus on things that actually matter, we will continue to fail the only test that matters – how well we provide for our children.

 

 


 

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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Greater Test Scores Often Mean Less Authentic Learning

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The main goal of schooling is no longer learning.

 

It is test scores.

 

Raising them. Measuring growth. Determining what each score means in terms of future instruction, opportunities, class placement, special education services, funding incentives and punishments, and judging the effectiveness of individual teachers, administrators, buildings and districts.

 

We’ve become so obsessed with these scores – a set of discrete numbers – that we’ve lost sight of what they always were supposed to be about in the first place – learning.

 

In fact, properly understood, that’s the mission of the public school system – to promote the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Test scores are just supposed to be tools to help us quantify that learning in meaningful ways.

 
Somewhere along the line we’ve misconstrued the tool for the goal. And when you do that, it should come as no surprise that you achieve the goal less successfully.

 

There are two kinds of standardized assessment – aptitude and achievement tests. Both are supposed to measure scholarship and skill – though in different ways.

 

Aptitude tests are designed to predict how well a student will do in the future. Achievement tests are designed to determine how much a student knows now.

 

There is, of course, intense overlap between these two types because aptitude tests base their predictions on assessment of achievements. So they’re basically achievements tests that go one step further. They ask questions designed to give more information than just the present state but also about whether a student has progressed to a state which is most likely to then give way to another state in the future.

 

Either way, standardized assessments are supposed to be based on what students have learned. But the problem is that 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 long to stir the risotto.

 

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.

 

We talk about leaving no child left behind, and making sure all students do better on standardized tests, but these tests are norm-referenced. By definition, all students cannot score well no matter how great their knowledge or skills. If you gave a standardized test to a class of genius-level intellects, there would still be the same percentage of failures and outstanding scores with the majority clustered in the middle. That’s how the tests are designed.

 

And if this highly suspect method of question selection, alone, doesn’t achieve that end, the test companies have a way to correct the scores at the end of the process through the way they grade them.

 

These tests are graded with cut scores. In other words, the state or the testing company or the graders, themselves, decide anew each year which scores are passing and which failing.

 

One year a 1200 might be proficient. Another year it’s basic. It all depends on what the decision makers come up with on a given year.

 

What do they base this on? No one has ever given a definitive answer. In fact, I doubt there is one. In each case, the deciding body just makes it up.

 

We’ve seen countless times when state scores are criticized for being too low one year, and then they miraculously bounce up the next. It’s not that students score differently, it’s that the cut score was raised. Why? Perhaps to stifle questions about the test’s validity. After all, people are less angry when more students pass.

 

The goal is always getting the bell curve. That is what validates the tests. But it’s a human construction, not a function of assessment. It says less about the test takers than the test makers and their enablers.

 

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 use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests don’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction.

 

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. But this degradation of education isn’t even the worst part.

 

The same method of question selection also 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 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.”

 

 

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Popham is less critical of high stakes testing. He sees more of a problem in using student test scores to assess teacher performance. But even he thinks the tests and the scores are being over valued and misunderstood in a wider context.

 

He writes:

 

“Merely because these test scores are reported in numbers (sometimes even with decimals!) should not incline anyone to attribute unwarranted precision to them. Standardized achievement test scores should be regarded as rough approximations of a student’s status with respect to the content domain represented by the test.”

 

I’d go even further.

 

Standardized test scores are tools used by big business to make money. That is as far as their validity goes.

 

And the fact that we make so many vital educational decisions on them is nothing less than criminal.

 

The tests are bogus nonsense at best and a conspiracy against the poor and minorities at worst.

 

When well-meaning people let themselves get wrapped up in knots over low scores and what that means for student learning, they are actually hurting the very thing that they value.

 

Student learning is not bettered by higher test scores. It is often made worse by them.

 

High test scores don’t mean greater learning. They often mean learning the knowledge du jour to the detriment of what’s really important. They mean biased education against the poor and minorities.

 

And they make those with real concerns complicit in a sham being perpetrated on our children and our society.

 


 

 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Absurdity of Standardized Testing: Caught Between Prediction and Assessment

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Standardized testing is truly absurd.

 
It’s both a prediction and an assessment.

 

You take a test to determine what you’ve learned and that will in turn predict what you will be able to learn in the future.

 

We hardly ever do this anywhere else in life.

 

We don’t measure babies’ leg muscles to predict whether they’re ready to walk. We let them do what they do, possibly with some encouragement and positive models of locomotion, and they do it.

 

There are cognitive and developmental benchmarks we look for, and if children don’t hit them, we provide help. But no further prediction is necessary – certainly not based on artificial markers put together by corporate interests.

 

In most situations, predictions are superfluous. We just assume that everyone can learn if they so desire – unless something happens to make us think otherwise. And whether someone actually learns something is demonstrated by doing the thing, itself.

 

The only time we link prediction and assessment so closely is when the consequences of failure are irreversible – like when you’re going solo skydiving for the first time. If you jump out of an airplane and don’t know how to pull the ripcord to get your parachute to work, you probably won’t get a second chance to try again.

 

But most things in life aren’t so dire.

 

The world of standardized testing is very different. The high stakes nature of the assessments are what ramp out the consequences and thus the severity.

 

Testing looks at learning like two points on a map and sets up a gate between points A and B.

 

In order to cross, you have to determine if you’ve passed through the previous gate. And only then can you be allowed to progress on to point C.

 

But this is wrong on so many levels.

 

First, you don’t need a test to determine which point you’re at. If Point B is the ability to add, you can simply add. If it’s the ability to write a complete sentence, you can simply write a sentence.

 

There is no need to fill out a formal multiple-choice assessment that – depending on the complexity of the task being considered – is completely inadequate to capture the subtleties involved. The task, itself, is enough.

 

Imagine if you were testing whether someone had learned how to drink a glass of water. You could just give them a cup filled with H2O and see if they can gulp it down. Or you could have them sharpen their number 2 pencil and answer questions about how their throat works, their digestive and excretory systems and the chemical composition of agua – all answers predetermined to A, B, C or D.

 

Observation of a skill, we are told, is not enough to determine success because it relies on the judgment of an observer. A standardized test replaces the observer with an impersonal, distant testing corporation which then assesses only predetermined markers and makes decisions devoid of any situational context.

 

This is done to remove observational bias but it doesn’t avoid bias altogether. In setting up the markers and deciding which elements of the task are to be assessed (or in fact can be assessed in such a distant manner), the testing corporation is inserting its own biases into the process. In fact, in any assessment conducted by human beings, this would be inevitable. So going through this maze of perceived objectivity is really just a matter of subterfuge meant to disguise the biases of the corporation.

 

Second, assessing people in this way is extremely unnatural because very few fields of knowledge can be divided and subdivided into two or more discrete points.

 

When writing a complex sentence, for example, you need to know not just spelling and grammar but logic, handwriting, subject matter, colloquialisms, literary devices, and a plethora of other cultural and linguistic artifacts.

 

Moreover, there is not always a natural progression from Point A to B to C. Sometimes A jumps directly to C. Sometimes B leads directly to A. Sometimes A leads to Z.

 

Knowledge, skills and human cognition are far too complex a web to ever hope to be captured by such a reductive enterprise. But by insisting that we make this complexity fit into such a small box, we end up depriving people of the right to move on. We say predictive models show they aren’t ready to move forward and so we bury them in remediation. Or we deny them access to important opportunities like advanced classes, electives, field trips, extracurricular clubs or even post-secondary education.

 

Third, this emphasis on knowledge as discrete bits of information or skills (often called standards) leads to bad teaching.

 

Assessment expert W. James Popham provides a helpful distinction: “curriculum teaching” vs. “item teaching.” Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions. For instance, if the test is expected to include questions about decimals, the teacher will cover the full range of knowledge and skills related to decimals so students understand what they are, know how to manipulate them, understand how to use them to solve more complex problems, and are able to communicate about them.

 

By contrast, item teaching involves narrowing instruction, organizing lessons around look-a-like questions that are taken directly from the test or represent the kinds of questions most likely to be found on the test. In this way, the teacher only provides the chunks of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams. For instance, item teachers might drill students on a certain set of vocabulary words that are expected to be assessed rather than employing instructional strategies that help students build a rich vocabulary that best contributes to strong reading comprehension.

 

A focus on standardized testing or even trying to educate in a system where these tests are attached to high stakes, results in an increase in item teaching. We often call it teaching to the test.

 

I’m not saying that item teaching is always bad. But curriculum teaching is to be much preferred. It is a best practice. The problem is when we resort to endless drills and give students innumerable questions of the exact type we expect to be on the test.

 

So when we find students who have made dramatic improvements on standardized tests, we often don’t find equal improvements in their over all knowledge or ability.

 

Test scores are often a false positive. They show students have mastered the art of taking the test but not necessarily the knowledge or skills it was meant to assess.

 

They are more like trained circus animals who can jump through flaming hoops but would be lost in the wild.

 

That’s why certain computer modeled artificial intelligences are able to pass standardized tests but would fail preschool.

 

These reflections have troubling implications for our system of standardized testing.

 

The false curtain of objectivity we’ve set up in our assessments may also be hiding from us what authentic learning is taking place and it may even hinder such learning from taking place at all.

 

Any sane society would halt such a system with these drawbacks. It would stop, regroup and devise a better alternative.

 

To continue with such a pedagogical framework truly would be the most absurd thing of all!


 

 

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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Six Problems with a Growth Mindset in Education

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Sometimes the truth is not enough.

 

Especially if you misunderstand its meaning.

 

That seems to be the main problem with a growth mindset.

 

It’s one of the trendiest concepts in education today, and – though it’s based on an authentic insight into how kids learn – it’s been shackled and monetized into an excuse to support a sterile status quo.

 

The basic idea goes like this: academic ability isn’t something students have or do not have. It’s a skill that gets better depending on how hard they work at it.

 

And up to that point, it’s correct and valuable.

 

But when we try to take that insight and weave it into current education policies, it becomes a shadow of itself.

 

As a middle school language arts teacher, I’m confronted with this most often in the context of standardized test scores.

 
I am constantly being told not to pay attention to the scores. Instead, I’m told to pay attention to growth – how much this year’s scores have improved from last year’s scores. And the best way to do this, I’m told, is by paradoxically examining the scores in the most minute detail and using them to drive all instruction in the classroom.

 

To me that seems to misunderstand the essential psychological truth behind a growth mindset.

 

Instead of focusing on the individuality of real human students, we’re zeroing in on the relics of a fixed mindset – test scores – and relegating the growth mindset to happy talk and platitudes.

 

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B leads to A, and if we really want A, we just need to emphasize B.

 

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the idea that learning is a skill that can be strengthened with hard work. I do, however, take issue with how that observation has been used to support the status quo of test-and-punish and strategic disinvestment in public schools. I take issue with the idea that growth is the ONLY factor in student learning and how we are ignoring the multitudinous ways the human mind works and what that means for education.

 

In short, I think making the growth mindset a magic bullet has ended up shooting us in the foot.

 

Here are six problems I have with the growth mindset model:

 

1) It Has Not Been Proven to Make an Appreciable Difference in Student Academic Achievement.

 

How exactly do you use growth to drive achievement?

 

You make the concept of growth explicit by teaching it. You actively teach kids this idea that anyone can learn with hard work, and the theory goes that they’ll achieve more.

 

Does it actually work?

 

The results have been pretty inconclusive.

 

It’s been tested numerous times in various ways – some showing success, some showing nothing or even that it hurts learning.

 

The best success has come from Carol Dweck, a Stanford education professor who’s made a name for herself promoting the growth mindset model in books and TED talks.

 

Just this month, she co-authored the largest nationwide study concluding that a growth mindset can improve student results.

 

About 12,500 ninth grade students from 65 public and private schools were given an online training in the concept during the 2015-16 school year.

 

The study published in the journal Nature concluded that on average lower-achieving students who took the training earned statistically significant higher grades than those who did not.

 

However, results were “muted” when students were less encouraged to seek challenges – such as when they had fewer resources and support.

 

Despite this success, Dweck’s peers haven’t been able to reproduce her results.

 

A large-scale study of 36 schools in the United Kingdom published in July by the Education Endowment Foundation concluded that the impact on students directly receiving this kind of training did not have statistical significance. And when teachers were given the training, there were no gains at all.

 

In a 2017 study, researchers gave the training to university applicants in the Czech Republic and then compared their results on a scholastic aptitude test. They found that applicants who got the training did slightly worse than those who hadn’t received it at all.

 

In 2018, two meta-analyses conducted in the US found that claims for the growth mindset may have been overstated, and that there was “little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students.”

 

A 2012 review looking at students attitudes toward education in the UK found “no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes, although there were several studies attempting to provide explanations for the link (if it exists)”.

 

In short, there is little evidence that any current approaches to turning the growth mindset into a series of practices that increase learning at scale has succeeded.

 

2) It Doesn’t Fit with Current Education Policies

 
We live in a fixed mindset world.

 

That’s how we define academic achievement – test scores, grades, projects, etc.

 

We tabulate data, compile numbers and information and pretend that draws an accurate picture of students.

 

It doesn’t.

 

But the concept that student achievement isn’t one of these things – is, in fact, something changeable with enough effort – runs counter to everything else in this world view.

 

If data points don’t tell us something essential about students but only their effort, connecting them with high stakes is incredibly unfair.

 

Moreover, it’s incoherent.

 

How can you convince a student that test scores, for example, don’t tell us something essential about her when we put so much emphasis on them?

 

It’s almost impossible for students in today’s schools to keep a belief in a growth mindset when test scores and our attitude toward them confirm their belief in a fixed mindset.

 

In a world of constant summative testing, analysis and ranking of students, it is nearly impossible to believe in a growth mindset. It’s merely a platitude between the fixed academic targets we demand students hit.

 

This doesn’t exactly take anything away from the concept, but it shows that it cannot be implemented within our current educational framework.

 

If we really believed in it, we’d throw away the testing and data-centricity and focus on the students, themselves.

 

3) It Ignores Student Needs and Resources

 

When we try to force the growth mindset onto our test-obsessed world, we end up with something very much like grit.

 

After all, if the only factor students need to succeed is effort, then those who don’t succeed must be responsible for their own failures because they didn’t try hard enough.

 

And while this is true in some instances, it is not true in all of them.

 

Effort may be a necessary component of academic success but it is not in itself sufficient. There are other factors that need to be present, too, such as the presence of proper resources and support.

 

And most – if not all – of these factors are outside of students’ control. They have no say whether they are well fed, live in safe homes, have their emotional needs met. Nor have they any say whether they go to a well-resourced school with a wide curriculum, extracurricular activities, school nurses, tutors, mentors, psychologists and a host of other services.

 

Putting everything on growth is extremely cruel to students – much like the phenomenon of grit.

 

Education policy should help raise up struggling students, not continue to support their marginalization through poverty, racism and/or socioeconomic disadvantages.

 

4) It Can Make Kids Feel Disrespected and Disparaged

 
No child wants to be remediated.

 

It makes them feel small, inadequate and broken. And if they’re already feeling that way, it reinforces that helplessness instead of helping.

 

Context is everything. Well-meaning educators may gather all the students with low test scores in one place to tell them the good news about how they can finally achieve if they put in enough effort. But students may recognize this for what it is and instinctively turn away.

 

The best way to teach someone is often not to lecture, not to even let on that you’re teaching at all.

 

David Yeager and Gregory Walton at Stanford claimed in 2011:

 

“…if adolescents perceive a teacher’s reinforcement of a psychological idea as conveying that they are seen as in need of help, teacher training or an extended workshop could undo the effects of the intervention, not increase its benefits.”

 

Teachers cannot set themselves up as saviors because that reinforces the idea that students are broken and thus need saved.

 

I don’t think this is an insurmountable goal, but many growth mindset interventions are planned and conceived by non-teachers. As such, they often walk right into this trap.

 

5) It is Not Suitable For All Kids

 
Everyone’s minds don’t work alike.

 

When you tell some kids that anyone can achieve with enough hard work, it makes them discouraged because they thought that their academic successes marked them as special.

 

According to a 2017 study published by the American Psychological Association, growth mindset training can backfire especially with high achieving students for exactly this reason.

 

Hard work just isn’t enough for some students. Their self-esteem relies on the idea that they are good at school because of fixed qualities about themselves.

 

When we take that belief away, we can damage their self esteem and thus their motivation to do well in school.

 

The point isn’t that a growth mindset is wrong, but that as an intervention it is not appropriate for all students. In fact, perhaps we shouldn’t be using it as an intervention at all.

 

6) It Should Not be a Student Intervention. It Should Be a Pedagogical Underpinning for Educators

 

We’ve got this growth mindset thing all wrong.

 

It’s not a tool to help students learn. It’s a tool for teachers to better understand their students and thus better help them learn. It’s a tool for administrators, parents and policymakers to better understand what grades and test scores mean.

 

If you want to teach a student any skill, let’s call it X, you shouldn’t begin by telling them that anyone can learn it with enough effort.

 

Just teach X. And when you succeed, that will become all the motivation students need to learn the next thing.

 

Education is an incremental process. Success breeds success just as failure breeds failure.

 

As every teacher knows, you start small, scaffold your lessons from point A to B to C and make whatever changes you need along the way.

 

If we really want to help students in this process, we can start by ridding ourselves of the fixed mindset that current education policy is rooted in.

 

Growth mindset is a psychological observation about how human minds work. It’s not pedagogy. It’s empiricism.

 

We can use it to help design policy, lessons and assessment. But it has limited value – if any – being taught directly to students.

 
The growth mindset model has value, but not in the way it has typically been used in our school system.

 

Instead of providing justification for equitable resources and tearing down the testocracy, it’s been used to gaslight educators into obeying the party line.

 

It is not a magic cure all, but one factor among many that provides insight into learning.

 

If we can disentangle it from the profit-driven mire of corporate education, perhaps it can help us achieve an authentic pedagogy that treats every student as an individual and not an economic incentive for billionaires to pocket more tax money.


 

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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