Pennsylvania Wants YOU to Give Standardized Tests to Your Kids at Home

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A multi-million dollar corporation wants to make sure Pennsylvania’s children keep getting standardized tests.

 
Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) and the state Department of Education are providing the optional Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) assessments for use in students’ homes.

 

 

Students are not required to take the CDT in the Commonwealth unless their district decides to give it. The test is encouraged by the state as a way of telling how students will do on the required tests.

 
With this new option, parents finally can give multiple choice standardized tests to their own children on-line.

 
Which is kind of hilarious because no one really asked for that.

 
In fact, many parents, teachers and students breathed a sigh of relief when the requirement that students take high stakes assessments was waived this year nationwide.

 
With the Coronavirus pandemic closing most school buildings and students transitioning to on-line classes created from scratch by their teachers, there hasn’t been much time for anything else.

 
But the folks at DRC, a division of CTB McGraw-Hill, have been busy, too.

 
The Minnesota-based corporation sent out an email written by Matthew Stem, Deputy Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education at the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) to district contacts from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia encouraging the use of this newly available online CDT.

 
“I am pleased to announce that PDE is providing the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) as an optional additional resource for your Continuity of Education Plan,” Stem began.

 
“We anticipate that this option will be available through the reopening of schools in 2020.”

 
So if school boards and administrators choose, districts could assign the CDT at the end of this school year, during the summer or at the start of next school year even if school buildings are not yet open due to lingering pandemic problems.

 
This is the kind of academic continuity we should be rethinking not finding new ways to force on children.

 
For some state officials and testing executives perhaps it’s comforting that no matter what happens in this crazy world, at least we’ll still be able to sort and rank kids into Below Basic, Basic, Proficient or Advanced.

 
The rest of us would prefer more authentic education and assessment.

 

 

EVERYDAY USAGE

 

 

It should be noted that the CDT is not, in itself, a high stakes test.

 
It’s an optional test districts can assign to students in reading, math and science to predict how well they’ll do on the actual high stakes tests.

 
Normally, districts are encouraged (but not required) to give the CDT to students multiple times a year to determine where they’ll struggle on DRC’s other fine products like the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests given to children in grades 3-8 and the Keystone Exams given to high schoolers.

 
Of course this data is often used to determine which classes students are placed in, so it can play a huge role in deciding which resources and opportunities kids have.

 
A child who scores well can get in the advanced courses and gain access to all the field trips, guest speakers, pizza parties and other perks. Kids who score badly are often placed in remedial courses where they forgo all the glitz for extra test prep and the abiding label that they’re inferior to their classmates in the higher academic tracks.

 
However, you don’t really need the CDT to make such placements. Just put all the kids from wealthier families in the higher courses and kids living in poverty in the lower courses and you’ll have pretty much the same distribution.

 
Because standardized testing doesn’t really measure academics. It appraises socio-economics. And race. Let’s not forget race!

 
The Coronavirus pandemic actually leveled the playing field for the first time in nearly a century. Everyone – rich and poor – had their education disrupted.

 
But at least now with the reintroduction of the CDT, we can continue to discriminate against the poor black kids while privileging the richer whiter ones.

 
In some ways, that’s just the everyday injustice of American school policy.

 
However, the method DRC and PDE are using to clear the way for this particular scheme is truly spectacular.

 

 

A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN

 

 

They’re enlisting parents as test proctors.

 
Normally, as a classroom teacher when my administrator demands I give the CDT to my students, I have to block out a few days and give the tests, myself.

 
I have to pass out entry tickets with each student’s username and password so they can login to the DRC app on their iPads and take the test.

 
If there’s a problem signing in, I have to try and fix it.

 
If kids are kicked out of the testing program and can’t sign back in, I have to deal with it.

 
If there’s a problem with the Internet connection…. I think you get the idea.

 
And all of these problems are extremely common.

 
In the last five years of giving the CDT, I have never had a single day go by when I didn’t experience multiple technological snafus, disruptions or downright clusters.

 
And that’s not to say anything of the times students read a question, don’t understand what it’s asking, wave me over and I’m just as dumbfounded as they are.

 
In fact, the only positive I can imagine from such a situation is that parents will finally get to see how badly written and full of errors these tests truly are. Even the guidance materials are full of misspellings and confusing verbiage.

 
When presented with this nonsense, many kids simply zone out, clicking random answers so they can be done as soon as possible and then put their heads down for the remainder of the time.

 
This is the lions den the state wants to throw parents into.

 

 

PARENTS AS CORPORATE DEFENSE

 
Admittedly, parents won’t have a full class of 20-30 students to deal with, but complications are guaranteed.

 
However, the good folks at DRC are prepared for that.

 
They have a handy “Parent/Guardian Test Administration Guide.”

 
Here’s what it has to say on ASSESSMENT SECURITY:

 

 

“Parents/Guardians should remind their student that the CDT test content must remain secure at all times. None of the materials from the online test may be copied or recorded in any manner.”

 
That’s quite a step down from what the same company warns students on the PSSA:

 

 

“…Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq”

 
I guess that since the CDT questions are just the ones that prepare you for the REAL test questions, it doesn’t matter as much if their security is put at risk here. Or perhaps the risk of letting kids go without testing and having people realize how unnecessary these tests are is greater than any loss in test security or accuracy.

 

 

TECHNICAL ISSUES EXPECTED

 
The guide also cautions that the test only may be taken using a Google Chrome Internet browser. If students don’t have one installed, there is a link for parents to follow so they can install it for their kids.

 
For some parents, I’m sure this would be no problem. But many of my students’ parents have little access or knowledge of technology. They would pull out their hair at the very suggestion and come running to teachers and administrators for help.

 
Which is exactly what DRC suggests they do.

 
Here’s what the guide recommends for technical support:

 

 

“If technical issues arise during testing, parents/guardians are asked to contact the student’s teacher and/or the student’s school office for technical support. DRC customer service staff cannot directly support issues related to each home’s technology configurations.[Emphasis mine.]

 
And this is true even if the test, itself, directs parents to contact the corporation:

 

 

“If a student receives an error message during the test administration that includes instructions to contact DRC for technical support, the parent or guardian who is assisting with the test administration should contact the student’s teacher or school office for additional instructions. Parents or students should not attempt to contact DRC’s customer service directly for technical assistance.

 
Teachers and/or a school’s technology staff will have the information needed to provide parents/guardians with the level of support to resolve most technology issues. If additional support is required, a school or district representative will reach out to DRC to determine a resolution.”

 
This is certain to put quite a strain on districts since these technological problems will occur not as they normally do within school buildings but potentially miles away in students’ homes.

 
Moreover, one of the most common glitches with the CDT often occurs with the entry tickets. These are typically printed by administrators and distributed to teachers who give them to students on test day. Students use the logins and passwords to gain access to the tests.

 
Stem’s plan would have these tickets distributed digitally over Google Classroom or whatever file sharing service is being utilized.

 
So this requires yet another level of distance and technological competency from parents and students just to access the tests. And once that access is gained, these logins need to be readily available in the highly likely event that students get booted from the program and have to reenter this data.

 

 

I’m sure there will be noooooooo problems at all with this. It will run very smoothly.

 

 

PARENTS AS PRISON GUARDS

 
But let’s say parents are able to help their children login to the test and no technical problems arise.

 
Can parents let their kids simply take the test alone up in their rooms?

 
No.

 
As a test proctor, you are expected to watch your children every second they’re testing to ensure they aren’t copying any information or cheating.

 
You can let your child have scratch paper, highlighters and calculators. But no preprinted graphic organizers, cell phones, dictionaries, thesauri, grammar or spell checkers, other computers or devices.

 
One concession DRC makes is that parents are encouraged to give the shorter Diagnostic Category CDT and not the full version. I’m sure distinguishing between the two on your child’s screen will be no problem at all.

 
This would reduce the test to 35-45 minutes – about half of the full CDT. However, times may vary – my own students have taken more than 180 minutes sometimes to finish the full version.

 
Still, none of this comes close to my favorite part of this catastrophe in waiting.

 
If parents still are uncertain about how to do all this, there is a link to a series of training videos on the PDE Website.

 
These are pretty much the same videos teachers are required to watch every year before giving the CDTs.

 

 

As you can imagine, they are perhaps our favorite moments of the year. We sometimes watch them over and over again. Not because they’re so riveting but because we’re required to before we give these infernal tests!

 
Oh, parents, you are in for a treat if your district decides to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity!

 

 

AN IMPOSITION ON PARENT’S TIME

 

 

Speaking of which, I wonder when Stem thinks parents will have the time to do all this.

 
Parents are working hard just to make ends meet. They’re trying to earn enough money to support the household, cook dinner, clean house, do laundry, and a host of other things.

 
Teaching is a full-time job and most parents don’t have the privilege to set aside that kind of time nor are they disposed to do this stuff in the first place.

 
When I teach my students over ZOOM, I rarely see parents guiding their kids through the lessons.

 
If a kid falls asleep, it’s up to me to somehow prod him awake over the Internet. If a child isn’t paying attention or playing on her phone, it’s up to me to direct her back on task.

 
In class, that’s fine. It’s my job and I’m right there in front of the child.

 
On-line, I cannot do it nearly as effectively. But I do my best because I can’t realistically expect all parents to step in here.

 
Yet DRC is expecting parents to do just that by becoming test proctors.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 
This is a terrible idea.

 
It will lead to fabulous disasters where teachers, administrators and parents fumble to make things work as DRC pockets our tax dollars.

 

 

Over the past decade, Pennsylvania and local school districts paid more than $1.3 billion for standardized testing. In particular, the state paid DRC more than $741 million for the PSSAs, Keystone Exams and CDT tests. Two of three DRC contracts were given sole source no-bid extensions.

 
Imagine what cash-strapped districts could do with that money.

 
Yet Stem, a former assistant superintendent in Berks County and former administrator in Lancaster, thinks we should give this money to corporations and then break our own backs meeting their needs.

 

 

Even if we could give the CDTs seamlessly online at home, it would hurt our most underprivileged children by taking away opportunities and unjustly labeling them failures.

 
No, if you ask me,it is not time to try to save standardized testing with a tone deaf plan to enlist parents as test proctors while kids are chained to the Internet.

 
It’s well past time to rethink the value of these tests in the first place.

 
We don’t need them.

 
Teachers can assess learning without the help of corporate America.

 

 

Our kids and their families deserve better than this.

 
Contact your local school directors and demand they NOT give the CDT – not now, not during the Coronavirus pandemic, not when the crisis is over, not ever again.

 
And if they won’t listen, opt your children out of standardized testing including diagnostics like the CDT. Then run for school board, yourself, with other likeminded parents and community members.

 
Write letters to the editor of your local paper, make some noise.

 

 

The people still hold the power. And we’re all being tested in more ways than one.

 

 

 

THE FULL EMAIL:

The following communication was initially broadcast by the Pennsylvania Department of Education on May 18, 2020. DRC is forwarding the same message to the district and school contacts on file in our databases.

 

 

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May 18, 2020

 
To: Superintendents, Principals, Charter School CEOs, and IU Directors
From: Matt Stem, Deputy Secretary
Subject: Availability of the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) for use by students at home

 

 

I am pleased to announce that PDE is providing the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) as an optional additional resource for your Continuity of Education Plan. The CDT is a set of online tools designed to provide diagnostic information to guide instruction and provide support to students and teachers. It is aligned with the content assessed on the PSSA and Keystone exams. We anticipate that this option will be available through the reopening of schools in 2020.

 

 

This at-home testing option will allow students to access the CDT from a “public” browser without having it installed on their computers or being configured to their District’s Central Office Services network. The test-setup tasks that teachers/school assessment coordinators routinely complete for classroom administrations of the CDT are the same for the at-home administrations. Test tickets (login credentials) will be distributed directly to the students by school staff. Teachers will have access to all CDT data/reports from the at-home administrations as usual. An overview of the at-home testing option and a guidance document for parents/guardians can be accessed from the following links (or directly from DRC’s INSIGHT Portal under General Information >> Documents >> 2019-2020 Classroom Diagnostic Tools >> Memos/Documents).

 

 

At-Home Testing Overview: https://pa.drcedirect.com/Documents/Unsecure/Doc.aspx?id=32997b8e-13cf-42f0-9c2c-af1689d89323 
Parent/Guardian Guidance: https://pa.drcedirect.com/Documents/Unsecure/Doc.aspx?id=cc242168-e06e-44d1-9fd4-ef859a519dab 

 

All CDTs (Full and Diagnostic Category) are available for use. However, it is highly recommended to only have students take the Diagnostic Category CDTs at this time. Students and their parents/guardians may benefit from a much shorter testing experience using the Diagnostic Category CDTs that are aligned to current instructional content. The shorter, more focused testing will still provide teachers and administrators with the same level of reporting and resources to adjust instruction and planning during distance learning.

 

Thank you for all your efforts to support students during this challenging time. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please contact the curriculum coordinator or CDT point of contact at your local Intermediate Unit. If you are interested in using CDT for the first time, contact PDE here.

 

 

Sincerely,

 

Matthew Stem
Deputy Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education
Pennsylvania Department of Education

 

 

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The Further You Get From Public Schools, the Greater the Chance of Child Abuse

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A California home-school where parents shackled, starved and abused their children is a symptom of a larger disease.

 

 

And that disease is privatization.

 

 

David Allen Turpin and his wife, Louise Anna Turpin, were arrested after police found the couple’s 13 children living in deplorable conditions in their Perris, California, home.

 

 

Some of the children were actually young adults but were so malnourished investigators at first mistook them for minors.

 

 

It is a situation that just could not have happened had those children been in the public school system.

 

 

Someone would have seen something and reported it to Child Protective Services. But school privatization shields child predators from the light and enables a system where minors become the means to every adult end imaginable.

 

 

Let me be clear. Privatization is defined as the transfer of a service from public to private ownership and control.

 

 

In education circles, that means home-schools, charter schools and voucher schools – all educational providers that operate without adequate accountability.

 

 

We are taking our most precious population – our children – and allowing them to be educated behind closed doors, out of sight from those tasked with ensuring they are getting the best opportunities to learn and are free from abuse.

 

 

And since home-schooling operates with almost zero oversight, it is the most susceptible to child neglect and mistreatment.

 

 

Children who in traditional public schools would have a whole plethora of people from teachers to counselors to principals to cafeteria workers who can observe the danger signs of abuse are completely removed from the home-school environment.

 

 

Home-schooled children receive their educations almost exclusively from parents.

 

 

While most moms and dads would never dream of abusing their kids, home-schooling provides the perfect cover for abusers like the Turpins to isolate children and mistreat them with impunity.

 

 

It is a situation that at least demands additional oversight. And at most it requires we rethink the entire enterprise as dangerous and wrongheaded.

 

 

Charter and voucher schools at least utilize whole staffs of people to educate children. The chances of something like this happening at these institutions is much smaller. However, both types of school also are much less accountable for their actions than traditional public schools.

 

 

And that is the common factor – responsibility. Who is being held answerable when things go wrong? At traditional public schools, there is a whole chain of adults who are culpable for children. At these other institutions, the number of people in the hot seat shrinks to zero.

 

 

Much of that has to do with the regulations each state puts on privatized schools.

 

 

Just look at the regulations governing home-schooling.

 

 

In 14 states including Delaware, California and Wisconsin, parents don’t have to do anything but let the school district know they’re home-schooling. That’s it! And in 10 states including Texas, Illinois and New Jersey, you don’t even have to do that!

 

 

Kids just disappear without a trace. If no one reports them missing, we assume they’re being home-schooled.

 

 

But even in states that appear to be more exacting on paper, the reality is a virtual free-for-all.

 

 

Take my home state of Pennsylvania. To begin home-schooling, parents must notify the superintendent, have obtained a high school degree themselves, provide at least 180 days of instruction in certain subjects and maintain a portfolio of their child’s test results and academic records.

 

 

That sounds impressive. However, this doesn’t really amount to much in practice because these regulations have few teeth. Hardly anyone ever checks up to make sure these regulations are being met – and they’re only allowed to check up under certain circumstances and only in certain ways and at certain times!

 

 

Even when it comes to charter and voucher schools, most states, including Pennsylvania, go little further than that.  

 

 

Frankly, most of the time we don’t know what happens in charter and voucher schools, because few state governments insist on audits, unscheduled visits or reports.

 

 

For instance, though few charter or voucher schools starve, lock up or torture students, many have zero tolerance discipline policies. Few would claim even these controversial behavior management systems sink to the level of some home-school parents who have allegedly withheld food and bound children’s hands with zip ties. But adolescents being forced to sit silently with their eyes looking forward, hands on the table or else receive loud rebukes – as they are in many charter or voucher schools – may qualify as another kind of abuse.

 

 

Moreover, all privatized schools can withhold providing a proper education. Home-school parents can refuse to teach their children not just truths about science and history but the basics of reading, writing and math. Likewise, charter and voucher schools can cut student services and pocket the savings as profit. And no one is the wiser because the state has abrogated its responsibility to check up on students or even require they be taught much of anything at all.

 

 

Meanwhile, none of this is possible in the traditional public school setting because it must operate in the light of day. It is fully accountable to the public. Its documents are public record. Decisions about how it should be run and how tax dollars are spent are made at open meetings by duly-elected members of the community.

 

 

Some, including myself, would argue that the regulations required of public schools by the state and federal government are sometimes too onerous, unnecessary or even just plain dumb. But that doesn’t change the fact that regulations are necessary. It just leaves open the question of which ones.

 

 

The bottom line is this: Public school is the equivalent of teaching children in an open room with qualified educators that have proven and continue to prove they have no criminal record and are able and ready to educate.

 

 

Privatized schools are the equivalent of teaching children in a closed room with educators who may not deserve the name and may or may not have deplorable criminal pasts.

 

 

Looked at in the abstract, no one in their right mind would conceivably suggest the latter is a better educational environment than the former. However, we have been subjected to an expensive propaganda campaign to make us think otherwise.

 

 

Look. I’m not saying public schools are perfect. Certainly students can be abused there, too. The media salaciously reports every doe-eyed teacher who stupidly has a sexual relationship with a student – whether it be at a public or privatized school. But in comparison with the worst that can and often does happen at privatized schools, these incidents at public schools are extremely rare (1 in 800,000) and of much less severity.

 

 

Though both are bad, there is a world of difference between the infinitesimal chance of being propositioned by your high school teacher and the much more likely outcome of being treated like a prison inmate at 13 by the charter school corporation or being starved, shackled and beaten by your parents!

 

 

Human beings aren’t going to stop being human anytime soon. Wouldn’t it be better to entrust our children to an environment with regulations and accountability than letting them go off in some locked room and just trusting that everything will be alright?

 

 

Our posterity deserves better than privatization.

 

 

They deserve the best we can give them – and that means fully responsible, fully regulated, fully accountable public schools.

The Joy of Opting Out of Standardized Testing

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Testing season is a gray period in my classroom.

 

But it’s a joy in my house.

 

As a classroom teacher with a daughter in the public school system, I’m always struck by the difference.

 

In school I have to proctor the federally mandated standardized tests. But I’ve opted my own daughter out. She doesn’t take them.

 

So at home, I get to see all the imaginative projects she’s created in her class while the other kids had to trudge away at the exam.

 

“Daddy, daddy, look!” she squeals.

 

And I’m bombarded by an entire Picasso blue period.

 

Or “Daddy, will you staple these?”

 

And I’m besieged by a series of her creative writing.

 

My daughter is only in second grade and she loves standardized test time.

 

It’s when she gets to engage in whatever self-directed study strikes her fancy.

 

Back in kindergarten I missed the boat.

 

Even as an educator, myself, I had no idea the district would be subjecting her to standardized tests at an age when she should be doing nothing more strenuous than learning how to share and stack blocks.

 

But when I found out she had taken the GRADE Test, a Pearson assessment not mandated by the state but required by my home district in order the receive state grant funding, I hit the roof.

 

I know the GRADE test. I’m forced to give a version of it to my own 8th grade students at a nearby district where I work. It stinks.

 

Ask any classroom teacher and they’ll tell you how useless it is. Giving it is at best a waste of class time. At worst it demoralizes children and teaches them that the right answer is arbitrary – like trying to guess what the teacher is thinking.

 

Then I found out my daughter was also taking the DIBELS, a test where she reads a passage aloud and is given a score based on how quickly she reads without regard to its meaning. In fact, some of the passages test takers are forced to read are pure nonsense. It’s all about how readers pronounce words and whether they persevere through the passage. It’s not so much about reading. It’s about grit.

 

No. My precious little one won’t be doing that.

 

I talked candidly to her kindergarten teacher about it. I trust her judgment, so I wanted to know what she thought. And she agreed that these tests were far from necessary. So I set up a meeting with the principal.

 

The meeting lasted about an hour. Sure, it was a little scary. No one wants to rock the boat. But even he agreed with most of what I had to say. He didn’t feel as strongly about it as I did, but he respected my wishes and that was that.

 

Ever since, my daughter hasn’t taken a single standardized test.

 

For me, it was a political statement as well as a parental one. I wanted to do my part to chip away at the corporate school reform movement. I know how much they rely on these test scores to justify closing poor schools like mine. I don’t want to give them a chance.

 

But little did I know what bliss I would be providing for my little one.

 

Beyond politics, I thought I was just protecting her from a prolonged period of boredom, unfair assessments and cognitively invalid measurements.

 

I wanted to shield her from adult woes. What I didn’t realize was I was opening a door for her creativity.

 

It’s amazing. All the other poor children sit there dutifully filling in bubbles while she pours her heart out onto the page.

 

She loves creating these illustrated books telling the wildest narratives: Colorful superheroes blast bad guys into oblivion. Game show hosts get lost in other dimensions. Even her Mommy and Daddy get in on the action riding Yoshi through Super Mario land.

 

Often she adds text to these adventures. Her spelling could use some work, but I’m impressed that an 8-year-old even attempts some of these words. Sometimes she writes more in her adventure books than my 8th graders do on their assigned homework.

 

I’ve even noticed a marked improvement in her abilities during this time. Her handwriting, sentence construction, word choice and spelling have taken a leap to the next level. While her classmates are wasting time on the assessments, she’s actually learning something!

 

I wish I could provide the same opportunities for my students that I have for my daughter.

 

It’s strange.

 

As a parent, I have the power to make educational decisions on behalf of my child. But as a trained education professional, I’m not allowed the same privilege.

 

Don’t teachers stand in loco parentis? Well this is loco, so let me parent this. Let me at least talk to their parents about it – but if I do that on school time, in my professional capacity, I’m liable to be reprimanded.

 

I have studied standardized testing. It was part of my training to become a teacher. And the evidence is in. The academic world knows all this stuff is bunk, but the huge corporations that profit off of these tests and the associated test-prep material have silenced them.

 

I have a masters in my field. I’m a nationally board certified teacher. I have more than a decade of successful experience in the classroom. But I am not trusted enough to decide whether my students should take these tests.

 

It’s not like we’re even asking the parents. We start from the assumption that children will take the tests, but if the parents complain about it, we’ll give in to their wishes.

 

It’s insanity.

 

We should start from the assumption the kids won’t take the test. If parents want their kids to be cogs in the corporate machine, they should have to opt IN.

 

As a teacher, I can try to inform my students’ parents about all this, but at my own peril. If the administration found me talking about this with parents, I could be subject to a reprimand. Giving my honest educational opinion could result in me losing my job.

 

As you can see, it hasn’t stopped me. But I teach in a high poverty, mostly minority district. My kids’ parents often don’t have the time to come up to the school or even return phone calls. They’re working two or three jobs. They’re struggling just to put food on the table. They don’t have time for standardized tests!

 

So every test season I sadly watch my students trudge away at their federally mandated bubbles. I see their anxiety, their frustration, their sad, sad faces.

 

And it breaks my heart.

 

But then I come home to my daughter’s exuberant creations!

 

You would not believe the joy of opting out!

The First Rule of Test Club is We Don’t Talk About Test Club

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How can you criticize standardized testing if you aren’t allowed to talk about the tests?

To show why these assessments are bad, you have to be able to mention specific questions on the exams.

But if you do that, you will be violating the test company’s copyright and thus be subject to legal action.

So there will be no discussion of your concerns, no defense of the questions in question. Instead you’ll be threatened to silence.

This is the Catch-22 for teachers, parents and children throughout the nation.

We know the federally mandated high stakes assessments public school children must take are poorly constructed, culturally and racially biased, and ultimately unfair. But if we speak up in public with any kind of specificity, we’re threatened with steep fines. And if we write about it on-line, those articles will be taken down, censored or otherwise disappeared.

This is what happened to Prof. Celia Oyler of Teachers College, Columbia University this week when she posted an anonymous classroom teacher’s critique of the 4th grade PARCC exam on her blog.

Since the article reproduced three live questions from the exam, Oyler received a threatening email from PARCC CEO Laura Slover.

Oyler acquiesced to the CEO’s demand that she remove the PARCC questions, but she did not – as Slover commanded – reveal the name of her source. Oyler is debating legal action of her own against the testing company.

Meanwhile, education bloggers across the country have engaged in civil disobedience by reprinting Oyler’s entire post along with the PARCC questions. Many of these articles have been taken down by Twitter, Facebook or other Internet enforcers.

It’s a sad day in America when free speech is treated so disdainfully.

These PARCC questions are considered private property, but in many important ways they are not. They were developed at public expense. They were funded by taxpayers for use in our public schools. As such, they should be subject to public review.

And we may review them – privately. Ostensibly anyone could ask their local school district officials to be allowed to come in to the principal’s office and look over the tests. In fact, this is one of the first steps parents go through to opt their children out of taking the exams. You can page through the tests with supervision so you don’t make any copies or remove any materials from the building.

I’m sorry. This is just not the same thing as putting these tests under public scrutiny.

I can look at them, myself, and make up my own mind. So can you. We can even meet and talk about this together in our own private homes. But the second I go to a public forum like a school board meeting and begin to discuss these assessments in any detail, I can be charged with breaking the testing company’s copyright.

And so can my child. In fact, multiple students have already been harassed on-line by test corporation Pearson for allegedly talking about their exams.

This begs several questions: Can we legally hold minors accountable to such contracts without first providing them with legal representation of their own? Moreover, can they be forced to enter into these agreements without the presence of their parents or guardians?

However, there is an even more basic question with more far-reaching implications for the entire high stakes enterprise: How can experts explain what is wrong with the tests, if they can’t talk about anything on the tests?

Oyler mentions a question from the 4th Grade PARCC exam that is written at least two years above the grade level being assessed. Students are asked to read at a level beyond their years in order to find an answer. That’s patently unfair. But it’s one thing to make that claim – it’s quite another to point to the exact question and prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Unfortunately, this vital fact is being completely ignored. The testing companies have already silenced that debate. We’re not discussing the quality of the test anymore. We’re discussing free speech. It’s an important issue, but it isn’t the one we started with.

Standardized assessments are not top secret military documents. Reproducing a test question that tens of thousands of students have already seen is not analogous to Edward Snowden or Julian Assange.

Hundreds of test questions are already released by assessment corporations as examples to help with test preparation. Some of them even show up on the actual tests. Why not release them all? One couldn’t possibly go through every question and memorize the answers before taking the tests.

When the assessment industry gets to show us only a portion of the questions they use, they’re bound to display only the least objectionable ones in the bunch. We’re accepting an illusion of transparency and forking out more than $1 billion annually for the privilege.

A product created with such a wealth of taxpayer dollars should be open to public review and debate. At very least, we should demand these questions are subject to independent review. That doesn’t mean the testing companies get to hire so-called experts with ties to their industry to sign off on the questions. It means real experts should have a say. We should hear from PhD’s in the field like Oyler. We should hear from classroom teachers. We should hear from parents and even students.

This is the only way we can ensure students are being assessed fairly. We shouldn’t just trust the huge corporations manufacturing this stuff. We have to know exactly what’s on the tests.

Without such public scrutiny and outcry, test corporations have no incentive to better their products. In fact, this is exactly how New York State residents got rid of perhaps the most infamous test question ever reported – The Pineapple Question.

You can read about the whole thing here, but the basic story goes as follows. Several years ago, students who finished their 8th grade reading test couldn’t get over how absurd this question was. They talked about it to anyone who would listen. Eventually, the question was reprinted on parent Leonie Haimson’s blog, Class Size Matters. It became a national head-scratcher. People all over the country called for the question’s removal.

Without public input, the Pineapple Question might still be on the tests. Students could still be trying to answer a question almost everyone thinks is ridiculous.

People often say they want more accountability in public education. Isn’t it time we started to hold the test manufacturers accountable for their products? Isn’t it time we restored free speech to public education?

We can’t improve our schools if we’re more concerned with a private company’s copyright than we are with the quality of the product they’re providing us.

We can’t have a functioning school system if whistle blowers are silenced.

Parent Power Can Crush the Testocracy – and the Government is Scared Witless

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“We need to change accountability for schools to be more holistic. My greatest frustration is that I can’t do it fast enough.”
Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s Education Secretary

Parents, you can.

It doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter what laws are on the books. It doesn’t matter if your state is controlled by Democrats, Republicans or some combination thereof.

No government – not federal, state or local – can trample your parental rights. If you don’t want your child to be evaluated based on standardized tests, your child doesn’t have to be. And if a majority of parents nationwide make this decision, the era of standardized testing comes to an end. Period.

It has already begun.

Across the nation last school year, parents decided to opt their children out of standardized testing in historic numbers. The government noticed and functionaries from New York to California and all places in between are scrambling to deal with it.

In the Empire State one in five students didn’t take federally mandated standardized tests. State education commissioner Mary Ellen Elia responded yesterday by threatening sanctions against schools this year with high opt out numbers. In short, if in the coming year too many kids don’t take the test in a given school, the state will withhold funding.

It’s a desperate move. If the public doesn’t like what its duly elected officials and their functionaries are doing, those same officials and functionaries are vowing to punish the public. But wait. Don’t those people work for the public? Isn’t it their job to do our will? It’s not our job to do theirs.

The message was received a bit better in U.S. Congress where the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is being reauthorized. Two drafts of the law that governs K-12 public schools were approved – one in the House and one in the Senate. And both specifically allow parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. But can schools be punished for it?

The House version says no. The Senate version says it’s up to each state legislature.

These bills are being combined before being presented to President Obama for his signature. If he doesn’t veto the result, one might assume that at worst the issue will become each state’s prerogative.

But you’d be wrong. The state has as much business deciding this matter as does the fed – which is none. This is a parental rights issue. No one has the right to blackmail parents to fall in line with any government education policy. It’s the other way around.

In my own state of Pennsylvania, opt out numbers this year were not as dramatic as in New York, but they still sent a message to state government.

The number of students opted out of state tests tripled in 2015, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. PSSA math opt-outs rose to 3,270 students from 1,064 in 2014. PSSA English language arts opt-outs rose to 3,245 from 1,068. Those are the largest jumps in the nine years of available data.

And it’s not only parents who are concerned. Teachers continue to speak out against high stakes standardized tests.

Thousands of teachers have told State Education Secretary Pedro Rivera that school accountability needs to be less about test scores and more about reading levels, attendance, school climate, and other measures, he said. They have concerns about graduation requirements and the state’s current system of evaluating schools.

It’s not like these criticism are new. Education experts have been voicing them since at least 1906 when the New York State Department of Education advised the legislature as follows:

“It is a very great and more serious evil to sacrifice systematic instruction and a comprehensive view of the subject for the scrappy and unrelated knowledge gained by students who are persistently drilled in the mere answering of questions issued by the Education Department or other governing bodies.”
-Sharon L. Nichols and David Berliner, Collateral Damage: How High Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools, 2007

Corporate education reformers complain that testing is necessary to hold schools accountable. However, the results are not trustworthy, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, itself! In 2011 and now again in 2015, officials are cautioning against using test scores to compare student achievement from year-to-year.

“The 2015 assessment should not and cannot be compared to the 2014 and 2013 assessment,” Rivera said. “It’s apples and oranges. Schools are still working on aligning curriculum to standards. They’re still catching up to teaching what we’re assessing.”

Each year students and teachers are told to hit a moving target, which was the reason also cited for caution four years ago.

While Rivera laments the issue and his inability to change anything soon within the government bureaucracy, parents are not thus encumbered.

All you have to do to save your child from being part of this outdated and destructive system is opt out.

But don’t stop there. Talk to other parents. Talk to classroom teachers. Organize informational get-togethers. Go to the PTA and school board meetings. Get others to join you.

And if the government threatens to withhold funding, lawyers are waiting in the wings to start the class action suits. Withholding taxpayer money expressly put aside to educate children because those same taxpayers disagree with government education policy!? Just try us!

Governments are tools but we hold the handles. If enough of us act this year, there will be no testing next year. Functionaries can threaten and foam at the mouth, but we are their collective boss. If they won’t do what we want them to do, we have the power to boot them out.

A multi-billion dollar industry has sprung up around high stakes standardized testing. Lobbying dollars flow from their profit margins into the pockets of our politicians. But we are more powerful.

Because you can’t serve your corporate masters if you are voted out of office.