Pennsylvania’s Keystone Exam – the Monster We Refuse to Let Die

 

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 12.16.27 PM

 

Let’s say there was a monster loose in Pennsylvania and you caught it.

 

Its days of wandering loose causing chaos and destruction were over.

 

But what would you do with such a beast now?

 

Would you kill it outright? Stop it from ever hurting anyone ever again?

 

Or would you simply neutralize it – place it perhaps in the center of a labyrinth, continue feeding it, and in fact create a whole religion based on worshipping it?

 

In the keystone state, we have just such a creature, and we’re going with the second option – the maze, nourishment and a cult.

 

The monster is, of course, the Keystone Exams. And like the Minotaur of ancient myth, we’re building a bureaucratic prison in which to house it.

 

Sure, we’ve spent billions of dollars on these unnecessary, badly written and biased graduation assessments.

 

And, heck, it would just make more sense to stop doing something that isn’t working, wastes money and causes legitimate problems for students.

 

But this is Pennsylvania! We’re not going to admit we made a mistake. Better to bury it under red tape and pretend like this is what we meant all along. Nothing to see here, folks. Nothing to see…

 

When lawmakers originally came up with this plan… correction: when testing companies bribed federal lawmakers to force state lawmakers to enact this cockamamey plan – it was supposed to function as a graduation requirement.

 

Pass these tests or no diploma for you.

 

However, somehow Harrisburg politicians couldn’t get up the nerve to actually bar tens of thousands of worthy students from graduating when they had already proven they deserved it by passing 12 years of grade school.

 

So after kicking the can down the road for more than 6 years, they came up with this solution. Make it a graduation requirement, but include a whole truckload of other options that could count instead.

 

In short, we’re creating endless corridors of paperwork, placing the tests in the center and going on with our day.

 

The good news: if students can make it through the labyrinth, they never need to take or pass the Keystone Exams!

 

The bad news: we’re still paying millions of dollars to support these tests and we’re still forcing our teachers to make all instruction about them.

 

And that’s what we in the Commonwealth call a “victory.”

 

Yippee!

 

The bill to circumvent the Keystone Exams by providing multiple means of getting a diploma was passed by the state house and senate. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign it into law this week.

 

If he does, students will still be given the Keystone Exams (unless opted out) and could demonstrate they’re worthy of a diploma by passing them. But students will have many additional ways to prove they’re worthy of a cap and gown, such as:

 

  • Show proficiency on the SAT, PSAT or ACT;
  • Pass an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam;
  • Complete a dual-enrollment program;
  • Complete an apprenticeship program;
  • Get accepted to an accredited four-year nonprofit institution of higher education;
  • Complete a service-learning project;
  • Secure a letter of full-time employment;
  • Achieve an acceptable score on a WorkKeys assessment, an exam administered by the ACT which assesses workplace skills including math, reading comprehension and applied technology.

 

To sweeten the pot even further, this won’t even go into effect until the 2021-22 school year.

 

So in four years, high school seniors will be racing to submit their letters of college admission, or letters of employment or SAT scores or whatever to prove they actually deserve that diploma.

 

But that will not be the end of it.

 

Just because victims thrown into the labyrinth have an easy path to avoiding the monster doesn’t mean the monster won’t affect them.

 

Teaching evaluations are still based on test scores. Schools evaluations are still based on test scores.

 

This continues the tremendous state pressure for local districts to make instruction all about testing.

 

Kids don’t have to pass the test, but their everyday classroom experiences will still be largely determined by these test.

 

Heck, many districts will probably “voluntarily” decide to make passing the test a graduation requirement just to force their students to take them seriously.

 

So anyone who’s out celebrating that the Keystone Exams are dead is premature.

 

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, at least, understands this.

 

“Remember, the Keystones have been delayed and the graduation requirement associated with them has been stopped, but they will still be required in Pennsylvania schools for federal accountability,” he said in statement.

 

“Meanwhile, we know they are expensive, redundant and unnecessary and I will continue to work to end them once and for all.”

 

Dinniman, a Democrat, is minority chair of the Senate Education Committee.

 

It’s a problem all too typical in the state.

 

Most lawmakers are too timid to take any type of real stand. They’d rather support some half-measure so they can claim to be in favor of either or both sides of an argument.

 

For instance, consider the time it takes to finish the tests.

 

Parents, teachers and students have complained about how these assessments waste academic time that could be better used to teach the necessary skills needed to pass.

 

So Gov. Wolf cut the Keystone Exams and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test by a total of almost 2 hours a year.

 

However, at the same time, his administration suggests students take a series of additional pretests that are supposed to predict success on the PSSA or Keystone Exams – tests such as the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) assessment.

 

If schools follow the state’s instructions and give students this exam in reading, math and science 3 to 5 times a year, that’s an additional 50-90 minutes per test. That comes to 22.5 hours of additional testing!

 

So 22.5 hours minus 2 hours equals… NOT A REDUCATION IN TESTING!

 

But it gives lawmakers plausible deniability.

 

They can claim to be cutting testing while actually suggesting we increase it.

 

And we see the same sort of thing here.

 

Lawmakers can claim to be reducing the power of the Keystone Exams while still enshrining it as the driving force behind all instruction in the state.

 

What we need are leaders and not politicians.

 

We need people willing to take a stand and do what’s right even if that puts them at odds with the moneyed special interests.

 

That takes more than polls and market analysis.

 

It takes moral courage.

 

But there’s no test for that.


 

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!

book-3

Don’t Worry About Grade Inflation. Worry About Grading Fairly.

your-childs-grades-go-down-1494627682

 

Hard work should be rewarded.

 

If you earn an A in a given class, you should get an A on your report card.

 

And this is true no matter how many of your classmates work just as hard as you do.

 

If everyone in class gives it their best shot, they should all get A’s. It is not the teacher’s job to split hairs and sort kids into arbitrary categories in order to preserve a monetary myth about grades’ value based on a model of scarcity.

 

Those who demand otherwise are under the spell of one of the oldest myths in academia – grade inflation.

 

It goes like this: You can’t give all your students excellent marks! That would devalue what it means to get an A!

 

To which I reply: Bullshit.

 

Almost every plane that leaves an airport lands safely. Does that devalue what it means to travel? When you arrive at your destination, are you upset that everyone else has arrived safely or would you feel better if some of the planes crashed?

 

According to the American Journal of Public Health, 93% of New York City restaurants earn an “A” from the health department. Does that shake your faith in the food service industry? Would you feel better if more restaurants were unsanitary? Would your food digest more efficiently if there were more people going home with stomach pain and food poisoning?

 

Of course not! In fact, these stats actually reassure us about both industries. We’re glad air travel and eating out is so safe. Why would we feel any different about academia?

 

The idea of grade inflation is a simple imposition of the concept of economic value onto learning. It has no meaning in the field of academics, psychology or ethics. It is just some fools who worship money imaging that the whole world works the same way – and if it doesn’t, it should.

 

It’s nothing new.

 

Conservatives have been whining about grade inflation for at least a century. It’s not that the quality of teachers has declined and they’re letting all their students pass without doing the work. It’s that certain types of curmudgeons want to justify their own intelligence by denying others the same privilege.

 

It’s the “I’ve Got Mine” philosophy.

 

We see the same thing with Baby Boomers who grew up in the counter culture and pushed for progressive values in their youth. Once they got everything they wanted for themselves, they became conservatives in their old age and worked to deny the same things for subsequent generations.

 

It’s the very definition of Age scoffing at Youth – a pathology that goes back at least to Hesiod if not further. (Golden age of man, my foot!)

 

Moreover, there is no authentic way to prove grade inflation is actually happening. Grades are a subjective measure of student learning. They are human beings’ attempt to gauge an invisible mental process. At best they are frail approximations of a complex neural process that is not even bounded temporally or causally. If a student doesn’t know something now, they may come to know it later even without further academic stimulus. Moreover, isolating the stimulus that produced the learning is also nearly impossible.

 

The important thing is not grade inflation. It is ensuring that grades are given fairly.

 

If students work hard, they should be rewarded.

 

I am very upfront with my students about this. And doing so seems to have a positive and motivating effect on them.

 

This year, I had students who told me they had never read a book from cover-to-cover before my class. I’ve had students look at their report cards in shock saying they’ve never received such high marks in Language Arts before. And doing so makes them want to try all the harder next year to repeat the results.

 

They leave me excited about learning. They feel empowered and ready to give academics their all. Because the greatest lesson a teacher can instill is that the student is capable of learning.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t just hand out these grades. Students have to earn them. They have to demonstrate that they have actually learned something.

 

Everyone rarely measures up to the challenge. But that’s not the point. Everyone COULD. There is nothing in my design that prohibits that outcome. I don’t start with the assumption that I’ll only have 3 A’s, 4 B’s, 10 C’s, etc.

 

In fact, it is THAT scarcity model that dumbs down academics. If I grade on a curve like that, I have to give out a certain number of high marks regardless of achievement. I’m committed to giving out those 3 A’s regardless of whether that trio of students deserve it or not. However, in my abundance model, I give exactly the number of A’s that are deserved. If that’s zero, no one gets an A. If that’s everyone, then everyone gets an A. It all depends on what students actually deserve, not some preconceived notion about how the world works.

 

To do this, I give very few tests. I just don’t find them to be very helpful assessments.

 

A test is a snapshot of student learning. It has its place, but the information it gives you is very limited.

 

 

Most of my grades are based on projects, homework, essays, class discussion, creative writing, journaling, poetry, etc. Give me a string of data points from which I can extrapolate a fair grade – not just one high stakes data point.

 

This may work to some degree because of the subject I teach. Language arts is an exceptionally subjective subject, after all. It may be more challenging to do this in math or science. However, it is certainly attainable because it is not really that hard to determine whether students have given you their best work.

 

Good teaching practices lend themselves to good assessment.

 

You get to know your students. You watch them work. You help them when they struggle. By the time they hand in their final product, you barely need to read it. You know exactly what it says because you were there for its construction.

 

For me, this doesn’t mean I have no students who fail. Almost every year I have a few who don’t achieve. This is usually because of attendance issues, lack of sleep, lack of nutrition, home issues or simple laziness.

 

I only have control over what happens in the classroom, after all. I can call home and try to work with parents, but if those parents are – themselves – absent, unavailable or unwilling to work with me, there’s little I can do.

 

And before you start on about standardized testing and the utopia of “objectivity” it can bring, let me tell you about one such student I had who was not even trying in my class.

 

He never turned in homework, never tried his best on assignments, rarely attended and sleepwalked through the year. However, he knew his only chance was the state mandated reading test – so for three days he was present and awake. The resulting test score was the only reason he moved on to the next grade.

 

Was he smart? Yes. Did he deserve to go on to the next grade not having learned the important lessons of his classmates? No. But your so-called “objective” measure valued three days of effort over 180.

 

The problem is that we are in love with certain academic myths.

 

MYTH 1: Grading must be objective.

 

WRONG! Grading will never be objective because it is done by subjective humans. These standardized tests you’re so in love with are deeply biased on economic and racial lines. Whether you pass or fail is determined by a cut score and a grading curve that changes from year-to-year making them essentially useless for comparisons and as valid assessments. They’re just a tool for big business to make money off the academic process.

 

MYTH 2: Learning is Economics.

 

WRONG! Grades are not money. They don’t function in any way like currency or capital. They aren’t something to be bought and sold. They are an approximate indication of academic success. Treating them as a commodity only degrades their value and the value of students and learning, itself.

 

Treating grades economically actually represses the desire to learn, dispels curiosity and eliminates the intrinsic value of education.

 

So go ahead – inflate the “value” of your grades.

 

Give A’s to every student who deserves it.

 

That’s how you promote learning and fairly assess it.


 

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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

book-1

Prejudice of Poverty: Why Americans Hate the Poor and Worship the Rich

2children

 

Take a breath.

Take a deep breath. Let your lungs expand. Let the air collect inside you.

Hold it.

Now exhale slowly. Feels good doesn’t it? You’d never realize there are hundreds of contaminates floating invisible in that air. Dirt, germs, pollution – all entering your body unnoticed but stopped by your immune system.

If only we had such a natural defense against prejudice. Racism, classism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia – we take all that in with every breath, too.

It may not seem like it, but all these value judgments are inherent in American culture. They’re as much a part of life in the United States as the flag, football and apple pie. And to a greater or lesser extent, you have subconsciously accepted them to help construct your ideas of normality.

What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? How should black people be treated? To whom is it appropriate to be sexually attracted? What makes a person poor and why? All of these questions and so many more have been answered one way or another for us by the dominant culture. Not everyone accepts this perceived wisdom, but most of us have swallowed these solutions whole without thought, logic or criticism – and we don’t even know it’s happened.

Take our preconceptions about wealth and poverty.

Well paying jobs are drying up. Minimum wage work is becoming more common. Salaries are shrinking while productivity is increasing. Meanwhile the cost of living continues to rise as does the cost of getting an education.

Yet we still cling to the belief that all rich people deserve their wealth and all poor people deserve their poverty.

When we hear about someone on Welfare or food stamps, we sneer. The average conception is that this person is probably faking it. He or she could have earned enough to avoid public assistance, but he or she isn’t trying hard enough.

Moreover, we KNOW with a certainty that goes beyond mere empiricism that many of the poor still manage to buy the newest sneakers, have flat screen TVs and eat nothing but Porterhouse steaks.

You can hear this kind of story uttered with perfect certainty from the mouths of white, middle class people everywhere. They don’t mind helping people who are really in need, they say, but most poor folks are gaming the system.

Never once do they stop to consider that this story about impoverished individuals living better than middle class Americans is, itself, one of the most pervasive myths in our society. We know it the same way we know all Polish people are dumb, all Asians are smart and all Black people love fried chicken and watermelon.

However, none of this “knowledge” is supported by the facts. Look at the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). According to the New York Times:

Allegations of fraud, including an informal economy in which food stamps are turned into cash or used to buy liquor, gasoline or other items besides food have been used to argue that the program is out of control. In fact, the black market accounts for just over 1 percent of the total food stamp program, which is far less than fraud in other government programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

If you include erroneous payments because of mistakes on applications, overall loss to the food stamp program comes to 4%, according to the Department of Agriculture. Compare that to the 10% lost to Medicare and Medicaid – programs no one is calling to be cut or eliminated.

But figures like these don’t convince the average American. We’re so certain that all or most poor people are just lazy parasites. Everyone “knows” some low-income person they deem to be living too high for their circumstances.

And, yes, sometimes you do see an impoverished individual not wearing rags. Sometimes you do peek into an indigent person’s hovel and see new electronics or game systems.

How does this happen?

Debt.

Credit card companies are waiting in the shadows to extend a line of credit to just about anybody. It’s a safe bet for these businesses. If they give you money today, they can charge exorbitant rates of interest – even more so with the highest risk clientele. But there isn’t much risk to these corporations these days when almost anyone can take a job as a state constable or bail recovery agent to hunt down debtors and bring them to economic justice.

When you see a destitute child with new sneakers, his parents probably bought them with plastic. When you see an X-Box in a needy person’s house, chances are that wasn’t paid for in cash. They used the charge plate and will end up paying for that game system many times what it’s worth.

It’s a problem not limited to the poor. Even middle class folks are drowning up to their eyeballs in debt. As wages have decreased, people have used their credit cards to keep a standard of living they expect. But they’re paying for it with huge portions of their paychecks going to these credit card companies. Yet even though we all do this, middle class folks look down their noses at people lower down the economic ladder for doing the same thing.

In fact, they refuse to even see that obvious truth. Instead they cling to the lie that poor folks are social parasites. We even begrudge them food. Those are my tax dollars going to pay for that penurious person’s free ride, they say.

Unfortunately, we don’t stop to consider how much of our taxes are actually going to help the less fortunate.

Let’s say you make $50,000 a year. That means, you pay $36 toward food stamps. That’s ten cents a day – the same amount many charities ask to help feed starving children in Africa.

If you add all safety net programs, the cost only goes up an additional $6 a year. That doesn’t seem like a huge chunk of my taxes. Honestly, do you begrudge needy people less than the price of a meal for a family of four at Bennigan’s?

By and large, your tax bill isn’t going to the poverty-stricken. It’s going to the wealthy. Over the course of a year, you pay $6,000 for corporate welfare.

You read that right. Six K. Six grand. Six thou. Those are your tax dollars at work, too. And it’s a much larger burden on your bank account than the $42 you shell out for the poor.

What do you get for that $6,000 outlay? It includes at least $870 to direct subsidies and grants for corporations. An additional $870 goes to offset corporate taxes. Another $1,231 goes to plug holes in the federal budget from revenue lost to corporate tax havens. Oh! And don’t forget a sizable chunk for subsidies to Big Oil companies that are polluting our skies and fueling climate change and global warming.

Most of your money isn’t going to feed hungry children. It’s going to recoup losses for giant transnational corporations like Apple and GE that hide their money overseas to boost profits and avoid paying taxes for things we all need like schools, police and fire departments.

This money subsidizes giant multi-national corporations that are already making billions and billions of dollars in profit each year. In the past decade alone, corporations have doubled their profits – all while reducing their American workforces and sending jobs overseas. Yet we only complain about poor folks using food stamps and buying new sneakers on credit.

Why is that? Why does it only bother us when poor people get help and not when huge corporations do?

Part of it is the media. We’ve been convinced that big business deserves its money and poor people don’t. Another part of it is that these facts often go underreported. Movies and TV shows love portraying the parasite poor person but rarely portray the corporate leech. Outside of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol,” the wealthy are usually portrayed in the most positive light possible and not as addicts hoarding cash they don’t need to compete with each other in a childish game of one-upmanship.

Finally, there is the racial and sexual element. By and large, corporations are run by white males. The poor are mostly black, brown and though women make up a slightly higher percentage than men, it is often conceptualized as uniquely female. Take the term Welfare Queen. Why is there no Welfare King? How telling that our conception only allows for one gender in this role!

The reality is much different. The true Welfare Queens are Big Businesses. They make unprecedented profits and avoid paying taxes on them. They have tons of cash on hand but never can seem to get enough. And if we increased the corporate tax rate to what it was in the 1950s when the Unite States was more prosperous than it has ever been, these same corporations would still be Filthy. Stinking. Rich.

So the next time you hear someone blaming the poor for gobbling up your taxes, remember the facts. First, it’s simply not true. There is no widespread fraud by the poor. They are not gaming the system. They are not putting an undue burden on the middle class. However, big business IS – in fact – cheating you out of income. Business people are getting fabulously wealthy on your dime – and even if we stopped subsidizing them, they’d still be fabulously wealthy!

Finally, don’t ignore the racial component. Would middle class Caucasians still complain so vehemently about the poor if they weren’t mostly talking about Black people, Latinos and women? I doubt it.

We may breath in these prejudices but we’re not helpless. It’s up to all of us to dispel these myths, not to let them stand, to confront them every time they come up. And, yes, I mean EVERY. TIME.

The only immune system we have as a society is education, knowledge, wisdom. And once you know the truth, don’t let anyone get away with this kind of racist, classist bullshit.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.