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

 

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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!

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Meet the Test Before the Test – Pennsylvania’s Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT)

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It’s test time.

 

My students are dutifully pecking answers onto their iPads before a hand goes up.

 

“Mr. Singer, I can’t log in to the server.”

 

Another hand.

 

“It keeps kicking me out.”

 

Another.

 

“Mr. Singer, what does this question mean?”

 

Then every single hand in the room pops up all at once.

 

“What’s the matter!?” I say, trying not to let the frustration into my voice.

 

A lone student in the front offers to speak for the group.

 

“The Website just kicked us all off.”

 

If that sounds like the optimum environment to assess student learning, then you must work for Data Recognition Corp (DRC).

 

It is typical of the company’s Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) test in Pennsylvania.

 

The assessment, which cannot be taken with pencil and paper but must instead be taken on a computer or personal device, has always been glitchy.

 

You type in a response and what you typed only appears after a delay.

 

When moving from one screen to another, you have to wait through a seemingly endless interval until the next screen loads.

 

And during this year’s first sessions, multiple teachers told me of students whose tests cycled through all the questions without input from the students and then gave them an unalterable grade.

 

This is not the best way to diagnose students’ abilities in reading, math and science.

 

Yet that’s what the state Department of Education strongly encourages we use it for – three to five times a year!

 

This is not a mandatory test.

 

It’s strongly suggested by administrators in Harrisburg. And that’s enough to make some local principals march wherever they’re told.

 

Ironically, Gov. Tom Wolf proudly proclaimed that he was reducing the amount of time students in the Keystone state would take standardized tests. But he’s only talking about the federally mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams which he’s cut by a total of almost 2 hours a year.

 

There are still a battery of suggested pretests on the state’s wish list – tests that are supposed to predict success on the PSSA or Keystone Exams – tests used to show whether kids are getting the skills they need.

 

Do you understand it now?

 

No.

 

Do you understand it Now?

 

No.

 

Do you understand it NOW!!!!!!!?

 

 

Of these, the most common is the CDT.

 

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!

 

Moreover, the CDT test is cumbersome to proctor.

 

I’ve given my students this test for about seven years now and it never fails to be anywhere from tricky to an outright disaster.

 

This week, I had a class of students on their iPads unable to log on to their accounts at DRC headquarters. In another group, five students were dropped from the server without warning and couldn’t finish.

 

Defective software and having to repeatedly log back in to the system are hallmarks of even the most successful CDT session.
Even if you like standardized tests and think they are the best way to assess students, the product and service provided by DRC is extremely low quality.

 

But keep in mind – you’re paying for it, folks! In the last 8 years alone, taxpayers forked over more than $1 billion for this service and the PSSA and Keystone tests, which DRC also produces.

 

It’s incredibly frustrating, a waste of classroom time and taxpayer money.

 

No one does their best when they’re exasperated, and this test is almost designed to make students feel that way.

 

Yet some local administrators are trying to use the assessment as part of a high stakes matrix to determine classroom placement.

 

Whether your child is registered in the remedial, general or advanced class could be determined by this shoddy excuse for an assessment. Whether your son or daughter has the advantages and esteem of the advanced class could rest on a malfunctioning data system. Whether he or she has to settle for months of mind numbing test prep instead of authentic education could be decided by defective software.

 

No matter how you look at it, this doesn’t help the teacher diagnose academic deficiencies and remediate them. That is, unless your idea of remediation is printing out a worksheet of test look-a-like questions based on the ones the student got wrong on the CDT.

 

This is bad assessment supporting bad pedagogy forced on us by bad policy.

 

But that’s not even the worst part.

 

Why are we doing this in the first place?

 

Have standardized tests ever been proven accurate assessments of student learning? Moreover, has it ever been proven useful to give pre-test after pre-test before we even give the ultimate high-stakes test?

 

Answer: No.

 

Most countries don’t test their students nearly as much as we do in the United States. Finland, which has students who routinely return some of the highest scores among developed nations, only makes its children take one standardized test.

 

One test from K-12!

 

In addition, countries like those in Scandinavia don’t have nearly the child poverty rate we do. Nor do they fund their schools based on local property taxes. They provide more funding and resources for needy students than rich ones – we do just the opposite.

 

Numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between parental income and the test scores of their children. In short, kids from wealthy families who go to schools with the best of everything generally score very well on standardized tests. Students from poor homes who go to underprivileged schools do much worse.

 

So all this testing does nothing to help students learn. It simply reinforces the inequality already in place. And then it’s used as a justification for that same inequality.

 

High stakes standardized testing is not about increasing student outcomes. It’s about boosting corporate incomes – corporations like Data Recognition Corp.

 

Finally, there’s another danger we haven’t even hinted at involved with the CDT.

 

As an on-line test, it collects an awful lot of data about the children taking it. This information is kept in a database for students entire academic career so that it can be compared with subsequent results.

 

This is private student data in the hands of a private company.

 

The chances that this information and thus students’ privacy will be violated are extremely high.

 

We are putting our children’s futures in the hands of a for-profit company with little to no assurance that it is safe. There is little oversight, accountability or even awareness of the issue.

 

Therefore, any knowledgeable parent would be entirely within his or her rights by refusing to let their child take any of these tests.

 

Yes, you can refuse to let your child participate in test prep the same way you can opt out of the PSSA and Keystone Exams.

 

You need refer to the same part of the law:

 

“PA School Code Chapter 4.4(d)(1)(2)(3):

(d) School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians have the following:

(1) Access to information about the curriculum, including academic standards to be achieved, instructional materials and assessment techniques.

(2) A process for the review of instructional materials.

(3) The right to have their children excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt by the school entity of a written request from the parent or guardians.”

 

That includes the CDT.

 

Opt Out PA has provided this helpful form letter you can use and modify to meet your needs before sending it to your local principal:

 

“Dear Principal/Teacher(s):

Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(1)(2)(3) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my child, [NAME], excused from PSSA test prep, including (but not limited to) CDT’s and Study Island because of religious beliefs.

Sincerely,”

 

 

So while Pennsylvania’s lawmakers dither back and forth about the political realities of standardized testing as an accountability measure and as they blithely ignore the threat posed to student privacy by on-line testing, parents can take matters into their own hands.

 

 

Your child’s teacher would like nothing better!

 

Imagine being able to actually teach and not have to spend days of instruction time troubleshooting a Website while corporate lackies cash our check!

 

 

Imagine students in school to actually learn something – instead of testing them into oblivion.

 

 

Imagine a student raising her hand to ask a question about the curriculum and not the software!

 


 

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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Kiss My Assessment – A High Stakes Testing Poem

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Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.

 

 

Little Laquan, Empty belly

Reading passages by Maichiavelli

Does he know what the author thinks

Last night did he get forty winks

Drive-by shooting in his neighborhood

Answer questions that he should

Interrogated by the cops

Took away and locked his pops

Now he sits slumped in school

Testing, testing, it’s a rule

Will he – this time – make the grade

A debt to society he has paid

 

 

For being poor and his black skin

Success and riches, let me in!

But not unless you answer right

Like wealthy kids whose hue is white

Not two plus two or three and four

Context implied when you ask for

European culture and white society

If you know it, you’re in propriety

If not, take a longer road

Hurdles to jump and words to decode

 

 

But do not label the test unfair

Rich folks will blast you with hot air

Testing makes them bundles of billions

Leaching off of us civilians

Test prep, grading and remediation

Never mind that it keeps you in your station

Need new books, here’s Common Core

So big corporations can make some more

Money off your starving schools

The funding is drying up in pools

 

 

As politicians vote to gut

So they can give bankers another tax cut

Hotels and yachts and Maltese vacations

Touring havens in other nations

To hide their money and avoid paying

Anything to keep preying

On little kids and their moms

So long as they aren’t forced to pay alms

 

 

No nurses, no librarians, no psychologists

Nothing to feed a tummy or an esophagus

No fancy buildings, no small class sizes

Nothing to match the suburban enterprises

Fewer resources, fewer tutors,

Crumbling classrooms, archaic computers

Just give them tests as charity

And pretend it means populace parity

When he fails, we’ll blame Laquan

Fire his teacher and make her move on

 

 

Close his school and open a charter

And then his services we can barter

To turn his funding into profit

Democracy melts like warm chocolate

Private boards get public voice

Deciding who to enroll and calling it choice

Spending tax money behind closed doors

Filling classrooms with Americorps

Instructors who never earned a degree

But cheap trumps any pedigree

For teachers to teach the darkest of humans

As long as they don’t form any pesky unions

Reformers they’re called, really just hypocrites

Wolves with sheep skin in their identity kits

 

 

They might refuse to come out of the closet

But don’t burn this humble prophet

Who tells you the truth about high stakes tests

About the school system and the unholy mess

We’ve made for kids so hedge funders

Can bark and rave and push for blunders

To make money off of kids misery

And a better world – not for you, not for me.

Am I obsessed and distressed by oppressive divestment?

Oh who cares? Kiss my assessment!

 

 

Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.


NOTE: I wrote this poem during and after proctoring this year’s PSSA test for my 7th grade students. Can’t imagine where the inspiration came from! I’ll just say that the opposite of standardized testing has always seemed to be poetry. I hope you enjoyed my verses.  It was either that or spit curses!


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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Testing Corporations Rake in Cash while Teachers Sell Plasma to Survive

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If you want to get rich in education, don’t become a teacher.

 

Open a charter school or take a job at a testing corporation.

 

Sure, charter schools are elaborate scams to make money off children while providing fewer services.

 

Sure, standardized tests are just corporate welfare that labels poor and minority kids failures and pretends that’s their fault.

 

And teachers? They’re just the people who do all the actual work of educating children. Yet there’s never enough money, never enough resources for the job they do.

 

 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of public school teachers in Pennsylvania is between $53,000 and $59,000 per year.

 

Compare that with the salaries of the people who make and distribute the state’s federally mandated standardized tests – employees at Data Recognition Corporation (DRC).

 

DRC publishes numerous assessments in various states. However, in the Keystone state, the corporation makes everything from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) to the Keystone Exams in Algebra, Literature and Biology.

 

At its 14 locations across the country, the company has more than 750 full time employees and 5,000 seasonal ones used mainly to help grade the tests.

 

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According to glassdoor.com, a site that showcases job listings, here are some openings at DRC and their associated salaries:

 

Test Development Specialist – $68K-$86K

 

Quality Assurance Analyst – $77K-$83K

 

Technology Manager – $77K-$84K

 

Business Analyst – $81,856

 

Software Developer – $83,199

 

Psychometrician – $95,870

 

Senior Software Developer – $96,363

 

So teachers spend 180 days in overcrowded classrooms with fewer resources than they need – often forced to buy school supplies for their students out of pocket – to get their students ready to take the high stakes tests.

 

Meanwhile, the test makers sit in luxury office buildings taking home tens of thousands of dollars more just to make the tests that students take over the course of a few weeks.

 

And these corporate test employees DO work in luxury.

 

Here are some of the benefits they receive listed on DRC’s own Website:

 

 

“DRC offers a comprehensive benefits program that allows employees to make choices that best meet their current and future needs.

Key Benefits

  • Choice of medical plans
  • Choice of dental plans
  • Flexible spending accounts
  • HSA account
  • 401K savings plan
  • Profit sharing
  • Short- and long-term disability plans

Wellbeing Benefits

  • Paid vacation
  • Paid holidays
  • Personal time off
  • Workout facilities/locker rooms at select locations
  • Tuition reimbursement
  • Community service hours
  • Discount programs
  • Adoption assistance
  • Fitness classes
  • On-site massage
  • Walking paths

Convenience Benefits

  • Business casual attire

  • On-site subsidized cafeterias

  • Dry cleaning pick-up and delivery

  • Company store”

 

It’s funny. Some folks get all in a lather about the much less extravagant benefits given to teachers, but I’ve never heard anyone in a rage about these benefits being paid to corporate test makers.

 

And keep in mind, both teachers and test makers are being paid with public tax dollars. YOU are funding the test makers on-the-job massage break just as you’re funding the public school teachers trip to the doctor for anti-anxiety meds.

 

The Pennsylvania legislature has entered into three contracts with DRC through 6/30/21 for services related to standardized testing for a total of $741,158,039.60, according to State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-West Chester).

 

That is your money funding the test makers workout facilities and flexible spending accounts. You pay for their walking trails, fitness classes, dry cleaning services and subsidized cafeterias.

 

Meanwhile, public school teachers – who do the bulk of the work educating children – are left struggling to make ends meet.

 

According to estimates by the National Education Association (NEA), teaching salaries from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia have stagnated by 2.3% in the past 15 years.

 

But that’s way better than in most parts of the country.

 

In West Virginia, teachers across the state went on a 9-day strike to get a 5% pay raise.

 

Teachers in Arizona and Oklahoma are planning their own strike due to even worse neglect.

 

In Oklahoma, some educators have actually had to resort to selling plasma in order to survive.

 

KOCO News 5, in the Sooner State, reported on a fifth grade teacher at Newcastle Elementary school, Jay Thomas, who sells blood to supplement his income.

 

“I’ve got a permanent scar doing that. Just did it yesterday,” Thomas said.

 

“I’ve been doing it for a couple of years. I’ve given over 100 times. It’s twice a week.”

 

Though Thomas has been an Oklahoma teacher for 16 years, he makes less than $40,000 a year after taxes.

 

Selling plasma nets him about $65 a week.

 

And if you think Thomas is the anomaly, when this story was spread on Twitter, other teachers responded that they do the same, some even including pictures of themselves at the blood bank.

 

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This is why there is a teacher shortage in many states. This is why fewer college students are entering the field. And it is why many of those educators who have stayed in the classroom are considering strikes.

 

We take teachers for granted. We value the work they do but not the people who do that work.

 

 

Meanwhile, we give extravagant rewards to the corporate vultures who provide very little for children but divert funding that should be going to educate students – the standardized testing corporations and the privatized school operators.

 

If we really want to improve our education system in this country, the first step is to value those who work in it.

 

We need to turn the money hose off for unnecessary expenses like standardized testing and allowing charter and voucher operators to pocket tax money as profit.

 

And we need to spend more on the people in the trenches day-in-day-out making sure our children get the quality education they deserve.

 

We need to give teachers the resources and respect they need to succeed and end the scams of high stakes testing and school privatization.

 

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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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Pennsylvania Proposes Smaller Tests, Same High Stakes

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It’s not the size of the tests, it’s how you use them.

 

And that’s kind of the problem with Gov. Tom Wolf’s new proposal for Pennsylvania public schools.

 

Wolf wants to reduce the amount of time students are taking standardized tests, but he seems to have little problem using those tests to hold schools accountable for all kinds of things that are beyond their control.

 

The proposal released today applies only to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – those taken by students in grades 3-8. Keystone Exams taken by high school students are unaffected.

 

It would cut one of three reading sections and one of three math sections – two total. Wolf also wants to cut some questions from one of the science sections.

 

Such a move is estimated to eliminate 48 minutes from the math test, 45 minutes from the reading test and 22 minutes from the science test. However, judging from my own students, these times vary considerably depending on the individual taking the tests. I’ve had 8th grade students finish a PSSA section in as little as 5 minutes or as much as two hours.

 

Most schools give either a section a day or two in one day. Therefore, this proposal probably translates to 1 to 2 fewer days testing in most districts.

 

Um. Thanks?

 

Look I don’t want to seem ungrateful here, but these suggested modifications are little more than fiddling around the edges of a massive problem.

 

Yes, it will be helpful to reduce testing times, but this does very little to address the fundamental problems with test-based accountability in the Commonwealth.

 

At best, this proposal will allow students to spend two more days a year learning. Assuming most districts don’t use that extra time for test prep, that IS a good thing.

 

But tacitly committing students throughout the state to taking these tests almost guarantees that test prep is exactly how these additional days will be used.

 

The problem with standardized testing isn’t just the number of raw days it takes students to complete the tests. It is how the tests deform the entire year-long curriculum. Students don’t just learn anymore. They learn what’s on the test – and anything else is purely optional.

 

Regardless of the size of the assessments, they are still being used to sort and judge students, teachers and schools. Shortening their length does nothing to address the fundamental unfairness of the evaluations. Rich white kids still tend to have high scores and poor minority kids still tend to have low ones.

 

At best, they reveal structural funding disparities between poor and wealthy districts. At worst, the cultural bias inherent in the questions favor those from dominant, privileged ethnicities while punishing those who don’t fit the standard.

 

That’s what “standardized test” means after all – defining normal and punishing those who don’t fit the definition. Most questions don’t assess universals like the value of 2 and 2. They evaluate cultural and social norms required to understand the questions and easily find an answer that another “normal” student would choose. (Don’t believe me? Watch “Black Jeopardy” on Saturday Night Live.)

 

This is true whether the test takes one day or 100 days.

 

We should not be using standardized testing to meet federal accountability standards. Period.

 

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) contains provisions to circumvent them. States are supposed to be given leeway about testing. They may even be able to replace them with projects or other non-standardized assessments. THAT’S what Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Education should be exploring – not half measures.

 

To be fair, the state Department of Education is attempting reform based on the ESSA. This year, the department introduced Future Ready PA, a new way of using test scores and other measures to assess school success. To its credit, The Index does place additional emphasis on academic growth, evaluation of school climate, attendance, graduation rates, etc. However, for my money it still gives far too much importance to standardized testing and test prep.

 

Like reducing the size of the PSSAs, it’s a positive step but won’t do much to get us to our destination.

 

Neither measure will have much impact on the day-to-day operations of our public schools. Districts will still be pressured to emphasize test prep, test taking strategies, approaches to answering multiple choice questions, etc. Meanwhile, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity will still be pushed to the side.

 

Moreover, since schools and teachers will be assessed as successful or not based largely on these test scores, districts will be under tremendous pressure to give countless practice tests throughout the year to gauge how well students are prepared for the PSSAs. The state will still be providing and encouraging the optional Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) tests be taken several times in reading and math throughout the year. Trimming off two days from the PSSA will affect that not at all.

 

In addition, today’s proposal only applies to the PSSA. While that assessment is important, the Keystone Exams given to high school students are even more so. According to existing state law, passing the Keystones in Algebra I, Literature and Biology are required in order to qualify for a diploma. However, that condition has yet to go live. So far the legislature has continuously pushed back the date when passing scores become graduation requirements. The Governor and Department of Education should be proposing the elimination of this prerequisite before anything else. Other than education funding and perhaps charter school accountability, it is the most important education issue before Commonwealth lawmakers today.

 

Don’t get me wrong. The Democratic Governor is somewhat hamstrung by the Republican-controlled legislature. Partisan politics has stopped lawmakers from accepting Wolf’s more progressive education measures.

 

Though Wolf has gotten Republicans to increase education funding by hundreds of millions of dollars during his term, K-12 schools still receive less than they did before the previous GOP governor’s administration. Moreover, there have been absolutely zero inflationary increases to keep up with the rising cost of doing business. Pennsylvania schools receive less funding – whether you adjust for inflation or not – than they should, and that has a real world impact on our public schools. Moreover, how that money has been allocated by the legislature still – even with our new better funding formula in place – benefits wealthy districts more than poor ones.

 

If you want to talk about accountability, that’s where the majority of the issue belongs.

 

And primarily it’s out of Wolf’s hands. One can understand why he is proposing changes where he can and trying to do whatever good is possible given the political climate.

 

Shortening the PSSA tests would benefit our students. It is a step in a positive direction.

 

However, it is far from solving our many education problems.

 

The biggest roadblock to authentic school reform is a legislature that refuses to do anything but the absolute minimum for our neediest students.

This Article May Be Illegal – Lifting the Veil of Silence on Standardized Testing

whistle

Warning!

What you are about to read may be a criminal act.

I may have broken the law by putting this information out there.

Edward Snowden leaked data about civilian surveillance. Chelsea Manning released top secret military documents.

And me? I’m leaking legal threats and intimidation students and teachers are subject to during standardized testing.

Not exactly a federal crime is it?

No. I’m asking. Is it?

Because teachers are being fired and jailed. Students are being threatened with litigation.

All because they talked about standardized tests.

The US government mandates public school children be subjected to standardized assessments in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Most schools test much more than that – even as early as kindergarten.

And since all of these assessments are purchased from private corporations, the testing material is ideological property. The students taking these exams – regardless of age – are no longer treated as children. They are clients entering into a contract.

At the start of these tests, students are warned of the legal consequences of violating the terms of this agreement.

In particular, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests require students to read the following warning on the first day of the assessment:

DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH, COPY OR REPRODUCE MATERIALS FROM THIS ASSESSMENT IN ANY MANNER. All material contained in this assessment is secure and copyrighted material owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. 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

So the first act of testing is a threat of legal consequences and possible fines.

There are no such warnings on my own teacher-created tests. Sure I don’t want students to cheat, but I don’t threaten to take them to court if they do.

The school has a plagiarism policy in place – as almost every public school does – which was created and approved by the local school board and administration. The first infraction merits a warning. The second one results in a zero on the assignment, and so on.

Moreover, this is something we go over once at the beginning of the year. We do not reiterate it with every test. It would be counterproductive to remind students of the dire consequences of misbehavior right before you’re asking them to perform at their peak ability.


Okay, Brady! Go out there and win us a football game! By the way, if you deflate that football, you will spend the rest of your life in jail. Go get ‘em!

But that’s not all.

In Pennsylvania, we also force kids to abide by a specific code of conduct for test takers. They must enter a quasi-legal relationship before they are even permitted to begin the tests we’re forcing them to take.

Much of this code is common sense. Get a good night’s sleep. Fill in bubbles completely using a number two pencil.

But some of it is deeply disturbing.

For example, students are told to “report any suspected cheating to your teacher or principal.”

They have to agree to be an informer or snitch to a government agency. My students aren’t old enough to vote or even drive a car, but they are directed to collaborate with the government against their classmates.

In addition, they are told NOT to:

-talk with others about questions on the test during or after the test.

-take notes about the test to share with others.

Sure kids shouldn’t talk about the test with classmates DURING the testing session. Obviously! But why can’t they discuss it after the test is over!?

Kids aren’t allowed to say to their friends, “Hey! Did you get the essay question about ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’?”

They aren’t allowed to discuss how difficult it was or compare how each of them answered the questions?

These are children. If you think they aren’t talking, then you just don’t know kids. You don’t know people!

And why shouldn’t they talk about it? They just shared a stressful, common experience. Who wouldn’t want to compare it to what others went through so as to decide how your experience rates? Did you answer the questions well or not? Did you get a more difficult question than others? Did the thing that struck you as odd also hit others the same way?

Personally, I do not consider talking like this to be cheating. It’s just human nature.

But we force kids into a legalistic vow they won’t do it. On the test, we make them fill in a bubble next to the following statement:

By marking this bubble I verify that I understand the “Code of Conduct for Test Takers” that my Test Administrator went over with me.

As a test administrator, I am not allowed to move on until all students have filled in that bubble. I wonder what would happen if one of them refused.

Technically, we aren’t making them promise TO ABIDE by the code of test takers. Perhaps we lack that legal authority. We are, however, making them swear they understand it. Thus we remove ignorance as an excuse for not following it.

But there is a veiled threat here. We imply that not following this code will have harsh legal consequences.

And I’m not sure it should.

Kids certainly ignore it. They almost definitely discuss the exam with their peers after the testing session. But we’ve given them a sense of guilt, fear and anxiety just for being normal human beings.

That’s wrong.

Teachers are forced to do it, too.

Just as there is a code for test takers, there is a code for test proctors.

I have to sign that I understand the “Ethical Standards of Test Administration.” Again, much of this is common sense, but it includes such statements as:

DO NOT:

-Discuss, disseminate or otherwise reveal contents of the test to anyone.

-Assist in, direct, aid, counsel, encourage, or fail to report any of the actions prohibited in this section.

So even teachers technically are not allowed to discuss the test and should report students or colleagues seen doing so.

If I walk into the faculty room, and one of my co-workers describes a question on the test and asks my opinion, I’m supposed to report this person to the authorities.

What kind of Orwellian nightmare are we living in?

If we see a question that is badly worded, misleading, has no correct answer, contains misspelled words – anything out of the ordinary – we’re supposed to remain silent. In fact, we’re not supposed to read anything on the test other than the instructions.

I can’t talk about it to my colleagues, my principal, my spouse, my priest – ANYONE.

What are the consequences of breaking this code?

Ask those teachers in Atlanta who were convicted of cheating. Obviously they did more than just talk about the test and they deserve to be punished. But there is a specific threat to teachers if they violate this code.

According to the “Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Directions for Administration Manuel”:

Those individuals who divulge test questions, falsify student scores, or compromise the integrity of the state assessment system in any manner will be subject to professional disciplinary action under the Professional Educator Discipline Act, 24 P.S. $ 2070. 1a et seq, including a private reprimand, a public reprimand, a suspension of their teaching certificate(s), a revocation of their teaching certificate(s), and/or a suspension or prohibition from being employed by a charter school. [emphasis added]

So teachers may lose our certifications, livelihoods, etc. Heck! We could be charged with racketeering like the Gambino Family and face up to 20 years in jail!

And all just for talking!

I thought speech was protected by law. Doesn’t the First Amendment protect me from prosecution for speaking except under extreme and unusual circumstances?

If my colleagues and I were to discuss the appropriateness of certain test questions, would that really be such a bad thing? If we compared the questions being asked with how we prepared our students for the test, wouldn’t that – in fact – be the responsible thing to do?

I never give my students one of my own teacher-created tests without knowing exactly what’s on it. I’ve read the test from top to bottom. Heck! I made it!

One shouldn’t feel like a whistle-blower for talking about a standardized test. Discussing the appropriateness of specific test questions does not make me Julian Assange.

Therefore, I must ask an important question of you, dear reader: Did I violate these rules by writing this very article? Is the piece you are reading right now illegal?

I contend that it isn’t. The code of conduct for both test takers and test administrators is freely available on-line from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The legal threat at the beginning of the test is reproduced almost word-for-word in a sample letter the state Department of Education suggests schools send to parents before testing begins.

I haven’t included anything here that is not freely available on the Internet or elsewhere.

But the need I feel to stop and answer this question is kind of scary.

There is a veil of secrecy over these tests and the way they are administered. And it’s no accident. The testing companies don’t want all of this to become public knowledge. They don’t want the quality or inferiority of the actual exams to be known.

And our state and federal governments are protecting them. From whom? Our teachers, parents, and students.

Shouldn’t our legislators be looking out for our rights and not just those of private contractors who were hired to provide a service? Obviously we have to allow test manufacturers the freedom to do their jobs – but some of this seems to go beyond that requirement.

We’re being silenced and intimidated to protect an industry that is of dubious quality and obscene profitability.

Every day more people are asking questions about the validity of standardized testing. Everything from the frequency of the tests to the value of cut scores has been the subject of criticism. Thousands of parents are refusing to let their children take these assessments at all.

Isn’t it time to throw back the Iron Curtain of standardization and look at these tests in the cleansing light of day? Isn’t it time to evaluate this process as well as the product? Do we really want to support a system that encourages silence and snitching from our children and educators?

Isn’t it time to move beyond standardization and toward a system of teacher-created curriculum and testing instead of relying on capitalist profiteers.

Big Corporation is watching.

Let’s poke him in the eye.


NOTE: This article also has appeared on Diane Ravich’s blog, Commondreams.org and the Badass Teachers Association blog.