The Absurdity of Standardized Testing: Caught Between Prediction and Assessment

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Standardized testing is truly absurd.

 
It’s both a prediction and an assessment.

 

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

 

We hardly ever do this anywhere else in life.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But most things in life aren’t so dire.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But this is wrong on so many levels.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


 

 

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

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Few Kids in the World Can Pass America’s Common Core Tests, According to New Study

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Could you jump through a hoop?

 

 

Probably if it were lying on the ground.

 

 

But what if it were held slightly higher? Let’s say waist high? Sure.

 

 

Shoulder height? Maybe with some practice.

 

How about if we raised the hoop to the rafters of a three story auditorium? Could you jump through THAT?

 

 

No. Of course not.

 

 

You could train with the world’s greatest coach, with the best equipment, 24-hours a day and you still couldn’t jump that high.

 

 

Yet that’s kind of what the U.S. has been expecting of its public school students – minus the resources.

 

 

We hold the hoop ridiculously out of reach and then blame them when they can’t jump through it.

 

 

But don’t take my word for it.

 

 

This is the conclusion of a new study that came out in January called “How High the Bar?” by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League.

 

 

They found the benchmarks for passing the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and American Common Core tests put success out of reach for most students the world over.

 

To do so, they linked the performance of foreign students on international tests of reading, mathematics, and science to the proficiency benchmarks of NAEP and thus Common Core aligned tests which use NAEP benchmarks to determine passing or failure.

 

The difference is the NAEP is only meant to compare how students in various states stack up against each other. Common Core tests, on the other hand, apply exclusively to kids within states.

 

 

No one’s actually expected to pass the NAEP. It’s only given to a sample of kids in each state and used to rank state education systems. The U.S. government, however, gives almost all its students Common Core tests and expects them all to pass – in fact, failure to do so could result in your public school being closed and replaced with a charter or voucher institution.

 

 

However, in both cases, the study concluded the score needed to meet the bare minimum of passing was absurdly too high – so much so that hardly any group of children in the entire world met it.

 

 

It’s important to note that these aren’t standardized testing skeptics.

 

 

They believe in the assessments. They even believe in Common Core. What they don’t believe in is the benchmarks we’re expecting our kids to meet to consider them having passed.

 

 

And this has massive consequences for the entire education system.

 

 

The media has uncritically repeated the lie that American public schools are failing based almost exclusively on test scores that show only one third of our students passing.

 

 

But if the same tests were given to students the world over with the same standard for success, even less would pass it, according to the study. If we drew the red line on international tests at the same place we draw it on the NAEP and  Common Core tests, almost every child in the world would be a dunce.

 

 

Kids from Singapore would fail. Kids from South Korea would fail. Kids from Japan would fail. You name a country where kids do nothing but study for high stakes standardized tests, and even they couldn’t meet our uniquely American criterion for passing.

 

 

In fact, the percentage of our students who do pass under these ridiculous benchmarks often exceeds that of other countries.

 

 

So when you hold kids up to impossible standards a few actually make it – and more of our kids do than our international peers.

 

 

That doesn’t mean the benchmarks are good. But it doesn’t mean the American education system is failing either. In fact, just the opposite.

 

 

We have a high stakes standardized testing system that not only does not assess kids fairly, but it actually hides their success!

 

 

In the words of the study’s authors, “…the analysis suggest the U.S. has established benchmarks that are neither useful nor credible.”

 

 

How did this happen?

 

 

It comes down to one word – proficient.

 

 

If you’re proficient, it’s thought you’re competent, you are able to do something. You might not be incredible at it, but you can get the job done.

 

 

Kind of like this:

 

 

Hey. Did you hear about my leaky faucet? The plumber fixed it after three tries because he’s proficient at his job.

 

 

Oh really? My plumber fixed my leaky faucet in only one try and didn’t even charge me because she’s advanced at her job.

 

 

That sort of thing.

 

 

There are only four scores you can achieve on most standardized assessments: Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic. The first two are considered passing and the last two are failing.

 

 

However, this doesn’t line up with the five general grades most public schools give in core subjects:

 

 

A – Excellent

B – Very good

C – Average

D – Poor

F – Failing

 

 

A-D is usually considered passing. Only F is failing.

 

 

So you might expect them to line up like this:

 

 

Advanced – A and B

Proficient – C

Basic – D

Below Basic – F

 

 

However, that’s not how they line up on NAEP. According to Diane Ravitch, who served on the National Assessment Governing Board, the federal agency that supervises NAEP, they line up like this:

 

 

Advanced – A+

Proficient – A

Basic – B and C

Below Basic – D and F

 

 

This is important, because saying someone scored a proficient on the NAEP doesn’t mean they’re just okay at it. It means they’re excellent but have room to improve.

 

 

The problem is that when developers of Common Core tests set their benchmarks, they used almost the same ones as the NAEP. Yet the NAEP benchmarks were never meant to be the same as grade level ones. Confounding the two puts mere passing out of reach for most students.

 

And that’s not just out of reach for most American students. It’s out of reach for international students!

 

In short, American students are doing B work on their Common Core tests and failing with a Basic. Yet in other countries, this would be passing with room to spare.

 

Moreover, when you hear that only one third of American students are Proficient or above, that means only one third are doing A or A+ work on their Common Core tests. That’s actually rather impressive!

 

According to the study:

 

“National judgments about student proficiency and many state Common 
Core judgments about “career and college readiness” are defective and misleading… 
According to NAEP officials, Proficient does not mean grade level performance. The misuse of the term confuses the public. The effects of this misuse are reflected in most Common Core assessments…

 

NAEP’s term “Proficient” does not even mean proficient. “Students who may be proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

 

The report even cites other independent analysts that have come to similar conclusions such as the U.S. General Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Brookings Institution.

 

In short:

 

“Advocates who push for school improvement on the grounds of questionable benchmarks are not strengthening education and advancing American interests, but undermining public schools and weakening the United States.”

 

Some specifics.

 

 

The study was conducted by comparing performance of foreign students on international tests of reading, mathematics, and science with the NAEP and American Common Core tests.

 

 

Very few foreign students were able to score high enough to meet what is considered proficiency on the NAEP and Common Core tests.

 

 

 

In fact, in 4th grade reading, not a single nation was able to meet the benchmark.

 

 

In 8th grade math, only three nations (Singapore, South Korea and Japan) had 50 percent or more students who could meet the criterion.

 

 

In 8th grade science, only one nation (Singapore) had 50 percent or more students meeting the benchmark.

 

 

But wait.

 

 

Even though the benchmarks are unfair and few nations children could meet them, the percentage of U.S. children who did meet them was higher than most other nations.

 

 

Take 4th grade reading.

 

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No one had 50% or more of its kids scoring a proficient or advanced. But 31% of U.S. kids actually met the benchmark, putting us fifth behind only Singapore, the Russian Federation, Finland, and England.

 

 

Only 31% of our kids could do it, but only four other nations out of 40 could do better.

 

 

That’s kind of impressive. Yet judging our scores in abstraction solely on this unrealistic proficiency standard, we’re failures. The whole process hides how well our kids actually do.

 

 

Bottom line, Common Core benchmarks are too high and paint an unfair picture of our education system, according to the study:

 

 

“When citizens read that “only one-third” or “less than half” of the students in their local schools are proficient in mathematics, science, or reading, they can rest assured that the same judgments can be applied to students throughout most of the world…

 

Globally, in just about every nation where it is possible to compare student performance with our national benchmarks, the vast majority of students cannot demonstrate their competence because the bars are set unreasonably high.”

 

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At very least, this invalidates the scores of the NAEP and every Common Core test yet given in this country. It demands we set new benchmarks that are in line with grade level performance.

 

At most, it casts doubt on the entire process of high stakes standardized testing.

 

It demonstrates how the data can be manipulated to show whatever testing corporations or other interested parties want.

 

Standardized testing is a gun, and we have been demanding schools shoot themselves in the foot with it.

 

Instead of trying to hold our schools to impossible standards, we should be holding our lawmakers to standards of common decency. We should concentrate on equitable funding, reintegration, and supporting our public school system and public school teachers. Not enriching private testing corporations so they’ll paint a misleading picture of student performance to justify pro-privatization schemes.

 

When will our policymakers rise to meet the benchmarks of honesty, empathy and caring about the well-being of children?

 

In the final analysis, that may be bar they are simply incapable of reaching.

If School Computer Use Reduces Standardized Test Scores, Doesn’t That Prove the Tests are Inadequate?

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Melvin’s hand is up.

He’s a 13-year-old African American with too much energy and not enough self-control.

He’s often angry and out of his seat. He’s usually in trouble. But today he’s sitting forward in his chair with his hand raised high and a look on his face like he’ll explode if I don’t pick him right this second.

So I do.

“Mr. Singer! Can I show my imovie now!?”

This is a first. He hasn’t turned in a lick of homework all month.

“Wow! You’re really excited about this, aren’t you?” I say.

“Yeah,” he responds. “I was up all night finishing it.”

I start to doubt this, but he does look awfully tired underneath that urgent need to share.

Airdrop it to me from your ipad,” I say, “and I’ll put it up on the SMART Board.”

This takes a few minutes.

Let’s face it.

We live in a world of high technology.

Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo missions to the moon.

The best, high paying jobs opening up on the world stage require increasing levels of computer literacy.

Yet according to a new study, America’s students don’t succeed as well academically if they have access to computers at school.

How can this be?

How can exposure to new technologies cause a nation of young people to fail at a system supposedly designed to prepare them for the jobs of the future?

Doesn’t real world experience usually make you better prepared?

A future chef would be helped by more time in the kitchen.

A future doctor would be helped by more access to dissection.

But a future computer-user is hurt by more time at a computer!?

Something is very wrong here.

But according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), students who use computers more at school earn both lower reading and math scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The organization studied 15-year-olds across 31 nations and regions from 2012. The study just released in September even controlled for income and race.

Yet here in my classroom I see the exact opposite. Computer use increases my students test scores – on my teacher-created tests.

Melvin’s movie was ready. He had been tasked with explaining the differences between external and internal conflict. I pressed play.

High adrenaline music poured from the speakers. Pictures flashed across the screen of boxers and football players.

“This is external conflict,” came rushing forward followed by a brief definition. Then an image of Homer Simpson with an angel and devil on his shoulders. “This is internal conflict,” came zooming by our eyes.

The film might not win any Academy Awards, but it was pretty impressive work for 40 minutes of class time and however long Melvin decided to spend at home.

It’s the kind of thing my students never could have done before they each had ipads. And when they took my test, few of them got the questions wrong about conflict.

Yet according to the OECD, I was somehow hurting my students academically!?

Even in my high poverty district, students have always had access to technology. But the nature of that technology and how we use it has changed dramatically this school year.

I used to have eight computers in my classroom, but they were slowly becoming obsolete and inoperable. Some days they functioned best as extra illumination if we shut out the overhead light to show a movie.

Still, I tried to incorporate technology into my lessons. I used to have my students make their own Webpages, but reserving time in the computer lab became almost impossible. And even then, the district couldn’t afford to keep the devices in the lab updated enough to run anything but the most rudimentary software.

The one lab in the building that had new devices was reserved almost exclusively for a drill and kill test prep program we had received a state grant to operate. THIS was the apex of school technology – answering multiple choice look-a-like questions. It bored students to tears and didn’t even accomplish the stipulated goal of increasing standardized test scores. Yet we were blackmailed by the state government into initiating the program so we could gain additional funding to keep the school operational.

THIS is the kind of technology use you’ll find at most poor schools like mine. And it’s one of the reasons the authors of the OECD study came to their conclusion. It’s also one of the reasons why teachers like me have been skeptical of technological initiatives offered to impoverished districts.

However, the best use of technology is something quite different.

This year my district received a gift of ipads for all the students, and it’s changed everything. No longer do I have to beg and plead to get computer lab time for real high tech lessons. I don’t need it. The technology is already in the classroom in the palm of their hands.

But policymakers clutching their pearls because of this study have already began to make changes to international school curriculum. Schools in Asia have begun cutting back on student computer time. Should America follow suit?

Absolutely not.

The problem clearly is not computers. It’s the antiquated method we use to measure success.

Standardized testing has been around since 206 BC as an assessment for civil servants in ancient China. The same process spread to England in the 19th Century and then to the United States during WWI. Through all that time, the main process of rewarding rote learning through multiple choice questioning has remained the same.

But the world hasn’t. We’ve moved on a bit since the Han Dynasty. We no longer live in a medieval society of peasants and noblemen where the height of technology is an abacus. We live in an ever-changing interconnected global community where a simple search engine provides more information than could be stored in a thousand Libraries at Alexandria.

How can we possibly hope to rely on the same assessments as the ancients? Heck! Even as far back as 970 AD, standardized testing was criticized as being inadequate.

But a global multi-billion dollar industry relies on these primitive assessments. It’s the basis of an exceedingly lucrative business model.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the same people who promise standardized testing and Common Core will best prepare students to be college and career ready are passing the blame.

They claim this report isn’t an indictment of their cash cow industry. It’s a warning against over-reliance on computers. And, yes, they’re right that technology is not a panacea. The mere presence of a computer won’t make a child smarter. Likewise, the mere presence of a book won’t make a person wiser. One must know how to use said computer and book.

But what I’m seeing in my classroom primarily is an opportunity – not a danger. Students like Melvin are more engaged and willing to take chances. They have greater freedom, intrinsic motivation and excitement about learning.

Many times when sharing Keynote presentations, after one or two, students ask to have their work back so they can improve them. That doesn’t happen with test prep.

They often elect to take ipad assignments to lunch and work on them between bites. That doesn’t happen with Pearson worksheets.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s up to me, my colleagues and administration to ensure technology is used to its full potential. Never should these devices be time fillers or babysitters. Nor can they ever replace the guidance of a thoughtful, creative educator to determine their best use. Teachers need to create and assign lessons that promote creativity and critical thinking skills.

Education professionals are constantly advised to individualize their lessons to meet the needs of diverse learners. Technology allows them a unique opportunity to do so. With district ipads I can talk to an English Language Learner in his own language. A struggling reader can have the device read test questions aloud. A student with poor motor control can type journal responses and have his writing be understood.

And these opportunities for enrichment don’t even need to be planned ahead of time. For instance, when discussing a short story about a character that was exceedingly proud, one of my students brought up the Seven Deadly Sins. She wasn’t exactly sure what they were or how exactly they related to pride, but one of her classmates quickly looked it up on her ipad. Then another found a medieval woodcarving to which someone else found a related manga text. The subsequent discussion was much deeper and relevant to these children’s lives than it would have been otherwise. And none of it was pre-packed, planned or standardized. It was individualized.

This is really no surprise. Administrators in charter or private schools aren’t asking themselves if they should close their computer labs and put their devices on ebay. They know the value technology can provide in the classroom, but they aren’t constrained by high stakes testing.

Even rich public schools don’t have to worry to the same degree because their students already score well on federally mandated assessments – after all, standardized tests are designed to favor children with wealthy parents over those from impoverished or minority backgrounds. It’s only in poor school districts where technology is either second hand or a charitable donation that administrators and school directors are being pressured to cut back.

As usual, best practices for the privileged become questionable when applied to the poor and minorities. You want technology? Prove it will boost your test scores!

It’s nonsense.

Think about it. Even the best use of computers won’t boost standardized scores. Computer skills aren’t on the tests.

Nor could these things ever be assessed effectively in this manner.

Yet such skills are exactly what education researchers tell us demonstrate the deepest levels of understanding and an ability to meet the demands of the best jobs of the future.

I wonder what Bill Gates thinks of this report. The Microsoft co-founder is also one of the biggest advocates for school standardization. If he had to pick between his two favorite children, which would he choose – laptops or Common Core tests? Maybe we needn’t wonder. His own children go to a private school with no standardization and a plethora of technology.

There comes a time when you have to admit the truth staring you in the face: standardized tests are poor measures of academic achievement. They are suitable only for turning our children into factory drones. They are for pawns, patsies and robots.

If we really want to prepare the next generation for the jobs of the future, we need to scrap high stakes testing. We need to invest in MORE technology, not less. We need to ensure technological lessons are being overseen by trained educators and the devices aren’t used as a babysitting tool. As such, we need to provide teachers with support and professional development so they can best take advantage of the technology they have.

America can prepare its children for the world’s high level management and administrative positions or we can prepare them to do only menial work that will soon by replaced by machines.

Computers do the former. Tests the latter.

Choose.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

You Can’t Win a Rigged Game – Standardized Tests as “Proof” of Failure

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One of my dearest high school friends was a bit of a doofus.

Who am I kidding? So was I!

One of our favorite things to do after school was plop on the coach and play shoot ‘em up video games. “Smash TV” was a particular favorite.

We’d bob and weave while clutching controllers and rapidly jamming our thumbs on the buttons.

And at such times, we‘d talk.

No great philosophical problems were solved during these mid-afternoon gaming sessions. We’d talk trash, dissing each other’s gaming skills, bragging about our own, and occasionally quizzing each other with trivia on a shared topic of interest.

We both loved movies, so my buddy used to shout out cinematic quotations and ask me to name where they came from.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

“Luke, I am your father!”

“Go ahead, punk. Make my day!”

None of these famous quotes made my buddy’s list. He preferred lines like these:

“Run!”

“Look out!”

“Holy S&*t!”

As you can imagine, I rarely got any of them right.

I’d laugh, punch him in the arm good-naturedly and go on shooting virtual enemies.

It was good dumb fun. But now – more than two decades later – my students are forced to take my buddy’s quiz – and if they don’t pass, the government is threatening to shut down their schools and fire me, their teacher.

No, learners don’t have to identify impossible movie quotes. Instead, they’re forced to answer impossibly bad multiple choice questions. But the results are pretty much the same.

In my home state, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and the Keystone Exams are high stakes versions of my buddy’s moronic quiz. The purpose isn’t to fairly assess: it’s to stump as many kids as possible.

And it’s working. For the fourth year in a row, student test scores have declined statewide. Previously, students had been doing relatively well. Why the change?

It began with budget cuts. The legislature slashed almost $1 billion every year in school funding. That means higher class sizes, less teachers, fewer electives, tutoring, nurses, services, etc. And districts like mine weren’t exactly drowning in money to begin with.

Students now have less resources, therefore they can’t prepare as well for the tests.

So what did the legislature do? Did our lawmakers fix the problem by putting back the money they had repurposed as gifts to the natural gas industry?

Heck no! They made the tests even more unnecessarily difficult.

As a result, the steady decline in test scores this year fell off a cliff!

After all, this was the first year in which the Commonwealth fully aligned every question of its mandatory testing with the Pennsylvania Core Standards – which are similar, but not identical to the Common Core standards adopted in other states.

Proficiency rates in grades 3 through 8 dropped by an average of 35.4 percent in math and 9.4 percent in English language arts on the PSSA. Nearly half of all seventh and eighth graders dropped an entire proficiency level in math in just one year.

If I made up a test like this in my own classroom, gave it to my students and got results like these, my first assumption would be that there was something horribly wrong with the test. I must have messed something up to fail so many students! Teachers are always on the lookout for unclear or bad questions on their self-created exams. The for-profit corporations that create our state-mandated tests? Not so much.

Though state Department of Education officials acknowledge the continued decline in scores, they insist problems will work themselves out in subsequent years – as if a 4-year trend is just an anomaly. Move along. Nothing to see here, folks.

My students used to make impressive gains on the tests. My principal stopped by today to give me the scores for my current students and those I taught last year. No surprise. Very few passed.

Are my students now lazier and less intelligent than those I taught four years ago? No. Students who scored well before the budget cuts, often score badly now.

Am I a worse teacher? Absolutely not. I have the same skills I did then. I spend the same amount of time at school – maybe more.

So what changed in my classroom? Lack of reconnaissance.

Teachers like myself used to know exactly what was expected of students on these assessments. We had plenty of materials with which to prepare them. Now the exams change every year – and I don’t mean just the individual questions, I mean what is tested!

Back in the day, when my buddy first shouted out, “Run!” and asked me which movie it came from, I had no idea. But after he did it long enough, I’d start to anticipate him. I’d learn that he was thinking of James Cameron’s “The Terminator.”

That’s how the PSSA’s used to be. Teachers knew how the test makers wanted kids to answer. And we could prepare them to do so. The tests didn’t accurately assess student learning even then. It was a game, but at least it was more fair.

Let’s be honest. These tests have never been particularly good. You can’t honestly expect to assess higher order thinking skills on a multiple choice test. Basic skills, maybe. But anything complex simply cannot be measured in this manner. We’ve known that for over a century!

It’s like my buddy’s movie quiz. I have little doubt that someone really did shout “Run!” in “The Terminator.” However, that same line probably appears in at least a dozen more action movies. There’s no way to determine a single correct answer. And shouting out a different quote instead like “Look out!” doesn’t help either.

So please stop the talk about “Rigor.” We’re not raising standards. We’re changing them. My buddy found a new bunch of movies from which to shout out impossible quotes. That’s all.

Anyone who wants to argue validity to these new test questions has to leap a host of hurdles to accomplish his goal.

First, one would have to prove PA Core – and by extension Common Core – Standards actually improve student learning. Good luck. It’s never been done and all the evidence is against you.

Second, one would have to gain access to an individual year’s worth of test questions. Again, good luck. They’re corporate property. The public is not allowed to see the questions. If a principal, student or teacher were to copy a question or snap a photo of a test, they could be subject to prosecution in a court of law.

Such a lack of transparency in government is a sure sign of malfeasance.

It’s almost impossible to avoid certain conclusions about this whole process. Standardized testing is designed to fail students – just like my buddy’s movie quiz was designed to stump me.

These tests constitute fake proof of inadequacy. They attempt to “prove” our public schools are failing and should, therefore, be replaced by private corporations – maybe even by subsidiaries of the same for-profit companies that make and grade these tests!

When my buddy unfairly stumped me, we both knew it was a joke. We’d laugh and play another video game.

But there’s nothing funny about this when it’s perpetrated by the state and federal government.

Pennsylvania’s standardized test scores are a farce just like the scores in every state and territory throughout the country. They’re lies told by corporations, permitted and supported by lawmakers, and swallowed whole by the media and far too much of the public.

We always seem on the verge of waking up. Tomorrow we will stop the state-sanctioned abuse of children by the testing industry. Tomorrow we’ll take responsibility for this sick system we allow.

But when will tomorrow come? I’m tired of waiting.


NOTE: This article also was quoted extensively on Diane Ravitch’s blog and published in full on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Why Were So Many Education Reformers Bad Students?

 


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Bad students often hate school.

Not exactly shocking, I know.

But perhaps more surprising is the pattern of low, sloppy or inconsistent academic achievement by so many of those adults who consider themselves education reformers, particularly corporate school reformers.

Our ideas of school are certainly formed during our years in it. Those working so diligently to destroy the public school system and reshape it to resemble the business model are so often people who didn’t fit in. They earned low grades or only excelled in subjects they really liked. Perhaps school failed them or perhaps they failed school. There’s no way to know for sure since school records are almost always kept private. But details do trickle through and display a clear pattern – a pattern that certainly gives the appearance of an ulterior motive.

Are these former bad students more interested in fixing the perceived problems they see with the system? Or are they consciously or unconsciously seeking revenge against a system that found them to be inadequate?

Take Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin Governor-cum-Presidential candidate has been one of the most virulent enemies of public education and public school teachers in the past decade.

But when he was a lowly student, he wasn’t anywhere near the head of the class. His grade school years are mostly shrouded in mystery, but his college career is ablaze in controversy.

He claims to have been a solid C-student with a 2.59 grade point average. Contemporaries say it was closer to a 2.3.

“I had some classes I was more interested in than others, I suppose,” he admits.

In any case, college wasn’t for him. He attended Marquette University for almost four full years before dropping out. He only had a year or more to go before earning a bachelors degree.

Why did he quit? Numerous contemporaries allege he was expelled for cheating in student government. Walker says he simply accepted a full-time job and had to devote his time there.

The facts are these: Walker unsuccessfully ran for student body president with a tumultuous campaign. He was found guilty of campaigning a week early thereby losing campaign privileges at one facility and a day of campaigning at another.
When the student paper endorsed his opponent, the edition mysteriously vanished from the stands. Students reported seeing Walker staff taking almost all of the papers and replacing them with campaign literature against his opponent.

An investigation was conducted but the university refuses to release it saying the results are either private or have been destroyed.

However, the university denies that Walker was ever in bad standing or that he had been expelled.

The matter could easily be cleared up if Walker released his academic records to the public, but unlike most Presidential candidates of either major political party, he refuses to do so. (All while continuing to criticize President Barrack Obama for not releasing a birth certificate that the President clearly released to the public.)

Not exactly student of the year. Nor would the preacher’s son ever win “Most Ethical” in the student superlative section of his college yearbook.

It’s easy to see why someone who had such difficulty in college would spend so much time as Governor attacking that world.

He reduced state funding to Wisconsin colleges by 13% and then mandated they freeze tuition for 4 years. He recommending replacing University of Wisconsin leadership with a private authority governed by his own appointees. He proposed the university change its fundamental commitment from “a search for truth” to the goal of workforce readiness.

That’ll show ‘em, I guess.

But he didn’t just attack post-secondary education. He went after high, middle and elementary schools, too. He signed a law mandating high stakes reading testing begin in kindergarten. That’s right – kindergarten! Teachers and principals, of course, had to be evaluated based on these scores. Oh and don’t forget the massive school budget cuts.

He also presided over the largest roll back of collective bargaining rights in state history – and who make up the biggest unions? Teachers. Other working people are just more grist for the mill of his petty power trip.

If Walker had studied harder, spent less time on extra-curricular politics and finished his degree – I wonder if he wouldn’t have such animosity towards education. Maybe then he wouldn’t spend his days congratulating himself for hobbling colleges and public schools while trampling on workers rights.

Moving from politics to punditry, few people have devoted their careers to destroying the teaching profession as much as former anchorperson Campbell Brown.

Since being quietly let go from CNN when her news program was cancelled for low ratings, Brown has become an outspoken corporate education reformer. School choice, the destruction of teacher tenure and labor unions – there are few supply side education ideas she doesn’t support. Most notably, she serves on the board of directors for the infamous Success Academy Charter Schools – a system that uses student humiliation to ensure children swallow a curriculum consisting almost entirely of standardized test prep. Moreover, her husband, Dan Senor, is on the board of StudentsFirstNY, a corporate school reform organization affiliated with Michelle Rhee.

How anyone so personally invested in the factory schools model could possibly claim she was impartial enough to serve in a journalistic capacity on this matter is beyond belief. But that’s just what Brown does. This summer she even co-founded The Seventy Four – a news site dedicated to covering education. She claims it’s all “non-partisan” and “non-profit.” Ha! Her husband is a former adviser to the Romney campaign and spokesman for the Bush administration’s Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq! Her “news” site is like Fox News for schools – which given the supply side bias of MOST news organizations is really saying something!

Is it any surprise that when Brown was in school, herself, she wasn’t exactly honor roll material?

She describes herself as a “terrible student” in Catholic school, but immediately justifies her academic performance by saying the teachers were awful, too. Since she had such a horrible parochial school experience, it’s a wonder she reserves her rancor for the public school system where she has little first hand knowledge. A child of privilege, Brown was a private school girl.

At Virginia’s elite Madeira School, she was kicked out for sneaking off campus for a party. She eventually earned a GED, and briefly attended Louisiana State University before waitressing in Colorado and enrolling in a Catholic college in Denver. It was there that a priest who taught political philosophy finally reached her. She eventually earned a B.S. in political science.

It was a long, difficult academic road for Brown. I wonder how she would have done at Success Academy where mostly poor Black and Hispanic students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; where reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea; where her teachers would be inexperienced drones forced to work 11-hour days and face high turnover.

Something tells me as a student she’d find those teachers just “awful,” too. It’s a hard thing to take responsibility for one’s own actions especially as a child. If only the teacher had taught me better, if only I had gone to the good school, if only someone had done this or that. Poor little rich girl.

Now Brown is a professional at casting blame on our public school system in favor of unproven or disastrous education models. She’s come from the back of the class to the front – where she can criticize and wag her finger.

But to do the most damage to the school system, you need to be more than a politician or a pundit – you need to be an ideologue. And you need so much cash you don’t now what to do with it all.

No one has had a greater negative impact on public education than Bill Gates and his billions in so-called philanthropic contributions. As one of the richest men in the world, he has steered the course of education policy away from research-based policies to a business-minded approach favored by corporate raiders.

Common Core State Standards would not exist without his backing and financial bribery of federal and state governments. The man of ideas who instinctively understands the world of computers extends his hubris to encase all subjects. For clearly, what is true of a network of calculating machines must be true of young minds. Gates knows best, and where he is contradicted by one peer-reviewed study, he can pay for several independent ones to back up his pet ideas.

But whatever you say of Gates, he differs dramatically from Walker and Brown. Gates is clearly brilliant. He was a National Merit Scholar who scored a 1590 out of 1600 on his SATs. One would think his academic record must be impeccable. But one would be wrong.

While he excelled in subjects he cared about, he neglected others that weren’t immediately interesting. According to a college friend:

Gates was a typical freshman in many ways, thrown off pace by the new requirements and a higher level of competition. He skipped classes, spent days on end in the computer lab working on his own projects, played poker all night, and slept in a bed without sheets when he did go
 to bed. Other students recall that he often went without sleep for 18 to 36 hours.

Even at Harvard, Gates continued his pattern of 
getting good grades in the subjects he liked and disdaining those that were of little interest. His heart didn’t seem to be in his studies. Gates joined few college activities unless his friend Steve Ballmer dragged him off to a party.

School was of little interest to him. He dropped out of Harvard before getting a degree to start his computer software company.

Some tell it as a story of an eccentric’s unstoppable rise, but few tarry long enough to remark on the privilege from which Gates emerged. He didn’t have a public school education. He attended an elite preparatory school since he was 13. Once again someone with such little experience of public school is a self-appointed expert in reforming it.

His parents also instilled in him a peculiar marker for success. In his home, the family encouraged competition. One visitor reported, “it didn’t matter whether it was hearts or pickleball or swimming to the dock … there was always a reward for winning and there was always a penalty for losing.” How interesting that this same philosophy has become Gate’s vision for all school children! Schools must compete against each other for resources and the losers get shut down. Yet what irony that his own personal success relies on ignoring his weaknesses and focusing solely on his successes! We excuse the inconsistent grades and dropping out of college. But would Gates-backed education policies do the same for other children?

Gates, the student, easily might have wilted under the education policies of Gates, the edu-preneur. How hard it is to see oneself clearly. How hard to admit one has limitations. Especially when one is brilliant in one narrow field and has too much money and free time.

And so the enemies of America’s public education system gather round. Many of them may have axes to grind. Of course this doesn’t hold in every case. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, is no friend to schools. Yet by all accounts he personally had a relatively trouble free academic experience.

However, the case holds often enough to be instructive. An awful lot of C-students think corporate education reform is needed to fix our schools. Heck! Most of these policies come from No Child Left Behind legislation proposed by the most infamous C-student in American history – President George W. Bush!

These kinds of psychological conflicts of interest should give us pause. Do we really want to support such personal crusades? Should all the power of public policy really back the revenge of indifferent students?

Corporate education reform policies don’t work. They never have worked. They’re destroying our system of public education.

Doesn’t there come a time when you have to get over your personal childhood traumas and pay attention to the facts?


NOTE: This article also was mentioned on Diane Ravitch’s blog and published in the LA Progressive and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Turning Kids into Cash

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For too many children, public school is just a “GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL” card.

Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.

The institution that should be raising kids to the skies is chaining them to the ground.

It’s called the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and it disproportionately affects students of color and the poor.

School policy at the highest levels is designed to sort and rank students. Some go to the college track. Some go to the industrial track. And even more end up on the prison track.

We actually have procedures that prepare certain children for life behind bars.

Why? Because people make money from it.

Think about it. The United States represents only 4.4% of the world population but we house 22% of the world’s prisoners. We’re the number one jailor!

It’s not that our citizens are out of control. It’s not a rise in violent crime. In fact, the crime rate has decreased to 1970s levels.

But instead someone has found a way to convert prisoners into cash.

Since the 1980s, we’ve been handing over our prison system to private companies to run for a profit.

The number of inmates in privatized prisons has increased by 44% in the last decade alone, according to a 2013 Bloomberg report.

This creates a market. Without a steady stream of prisoners, these institutions would go bankrupt. And corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group spend tons of cash lobbying our government to ensure just that.

It’s no accident that our national education policy meets the needs of the for-profit prison industry.

Look at the so-called education reforms of the last decade: increasing standardization, efforts to close schools serving poor and minority children, cutting school budgets and narrowing the curriculum. All of these serve to push kids out of school and into the streets where they are more likely to engage in criminal activity and enter the criminal justice system.

Federal education policy – whether it be No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top – continually doubles down on privatization and standardization. These policies consistently have failed to produce academic gains but are offered as the only possible solution in school reform initiatives.

Question: Why do we keep enacting the same failed policies?

Answer: Because they are not MEANT to succeed. They are meant to fail a certain percentage, race and economic bracket.

If we had effective education procedures that increased academic success, we wouldn’t have enough prisoners to feed our for-profit prisons. Lawmakers would loose valuable lobbying revenue.

Call it what you will – misplaced priorities, profiteering or an outright scam. But the reform-to-profit cycle is advocated, perpetrated and championed by the most prominent figures in the so-called education reform movement.

Take Bill Gates – the monetary force behind Common Core State Standards (CCSS), one of the leading policies in education.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also is an investor in The GEO Group – one of the biggest for-profit prison providers in the country. It’s most recent tax filing (2013) shows a more than $2 million investment.

Nominally a philanthropic organization, the Gates Foundation refuses to admit if it still backs the industry or by how much. Sure Gates underwriting is just a drop in the bucket, but it proves how the organization’s interest is economic and not charitable. It is one of a herd of Trojan horses stampeding over the cries of critics under a banner of largesse.

Likewise, Common Core essentially isn’t concerned with increasing the quality of children’s education. CCSS has never been proven to be effective and is – in fact – developmentally inappropriate. But it’s touted as a panacea to a host of ills when its real concern is to continue fortifying the prison machine.

We live in a country where more than half of the children attending public school live below the poverty line. They need proper nutrition, social assistance, tutoring, counseling and a host of wrap around services. But instead they get so-called “higher” academic standards and standardized tests.

It’s like a sporting goods store withholding wheelchairs to the Special Olympics and instead donating extra hurdles – all the while claiming it was trying to help participants become better hoppers!

Even worse, these standards aren’t actually better. They’re just confusing, ignorant and ill-conceived. After all, they weren’t developed by educators. They were made by ideologues who admit they were unqualified for the task.

Was this a huge mistake? No. These standards and the associated bubble tests that drive them do exactly what they were meant to do.

They increase the numbers of failing students. They push more kids out of school and into the waiting arms of the prison industry.

And when kids have difficulty sitting through the hours, days, and months of test prep that are increasingly replacing a well-rounded curriculum, they face unfair discipline practices.

We treat misbehaving kids like little criminals.

Can’t sit still in class? Can’t keep quiet? Can’t control your frustration?

Out you go! Detentions, suspensions, expulsions!

We have zero tolerance for your childish behavior – even if you are still a child.

And unsurprisingly the majority of the children who are crushed by the hammer of discipline have dark skin.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that misbehaving children shouldn’t be disciplined. Far from it.

But we need to stop criminalizing their misbehavior.

If we can’t provide them with schools that teach in a developmentally appropriate manner – it’s not the children who are misbehaving. It’s us! The school system!

Moreover, when a child has a problem conforming to the norm, our first reaction shouldn’t be punishment. It should be understanding. The goal should be to find ways to change the negative behavior, not weed the kid out of the system.

But this means treating children as ends not means.

We have to care about their well-being. They have to be more than just piggy banks for big business.

Otherwise, it is our sick society that really deserves to be sent to jail.


NOTE: This article also appeared in the LA Progressive, ConversationED and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Fight Corporate Education Reform and Meme It!

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Sometimes words alone aren’t enough.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re arguing with someone and just not able to get your point across. You know if you could just show them the picture in your brain, they’d understand what you meant with the force of a bullet. But lacking psychic abilities, you’re reduced to the efforts of your poor twisted, tangled tongue.

That’s where memes make all the difference.

A meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Though originally coined as a term to describe genes, the expression has expanded to encompass anything that can carry ideas from one mind to another with a mimicked theme.

I know that sounds daunting, but you’ve probably seen hundreds or thousands of memes already. At least half of the images on Facebook and Twitter are memes – Grumpy Cat, Condescending Wonka, One Does Not Simply, Conspiracy Keanu and enough facepalms to break your jaw.

As a meme-maker, myself, I’ve been surprised that some of my efforts have taken on lives of their own. By no means am I a master at the art, but a few of my 50 plus memes have been surfing the Internet on their own for a year or more. I’ll go on a nationwide education organization’s Facebook page and see my little meme staring back at me. “Hi, Daddy!”

I leave you with an experiment. Here is a collection of some of my favorite creations. I’ve limited myself here to memes on the subject of education. I’ve also organized them to some degree based on subtopics.

Please feel free to browse. If you see a meme that you like – that helps make your point about the errors of corporate education reform – you have my blessing to take it. Post it on your Facebook page, in a tweet, on Tumbler, whatever you please. Send my little message off again into the great sea of interconnected webs and communication nets. Maybe one day it’ll return to me.

Happy shopping!

 

STANDARDIZED TESTING
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BUDGETS
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COMMON CORE
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TENURE

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VALUE-ADDED MEASURES (VAM)

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CORPORATE EDUCATION REFORM

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ACCOUNTABILITY

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PENNSYLVANIA ISSUES
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MISCELLANEOUS

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