Greater Test Scores Often Mean Less Authentic Learning

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The main goal of schooling is no longer learning.

 

It is test scores.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Either way, standardized assessments are supposed to be based on what students have learned. But the problem is that not all learning is equal.

 

For example, a beginning chef needs to know how to use the stove, have good knife skills and how to chop an onion. But if you give her a standardized test, it instead might focus on how long to stir the risotto.

 

That’s not as important in your everyday life, but the tests make it important by focusing on it.

 

The fact of the matter is that standardized tests do NOT necessarily focus on the most important aspects of a given task. They focus on obscurities – things that most students don’t know.

 

This is implicit in the design of these exams and is very different from the kinds of tests designed by classroom teachers.

 

When a teacher makes a test for her students, she’s focused on the individuals in her classes. She asks primarily about the most essential aspects of the subject and in such a way that her students will best understand. There may be a few obscure questions, but the focus is on whether the test takers have learned the material or not.

 

When psychometricians design a standardized test, on the other hand, they aren’t centered on the student. They aren’t trying to find out if the test taker knows the most important facts or has the most essential skills in each field. Instead, there is a tendency to eliminate the most important test questions so that the test – not the student – will be better equipped to make comparisons between students based on a small set of questions. After all, a standardize test isn’t designed for a few classes – it is one size fits all.

 

New questions are field tested. They are placed randomly on an active test but don’t count toward the final score. Test takers aren’t told which questions they’ll be graded on and which are just practice questions being tried out on students for the first time. So students presumably give their best effort to both types. Then when the test is scored, the results of the field test questions determine if they’ll be used again as graded questions on a subsequent test.

 

According to W. James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, standardized test makers take pains to spread out the scores. Questions answered correctly by too many students – regardless of their importance or quality – are often left off the test.

 

If 40 to 60 percent of test takers answer the question correctly, it might make it onto the test. But questions that are answered correctly by 80 percent or more of test takers are usually jettisoned.

 

He writes:

 

“As a consequence of the quest for score variance in a standardized achievement test, items on which students perform well are often excluded. However, items on which students perform well often cover the content that, because of its importance, teachers stress. Thus, the better the job that teachers do in teaching important knowledge and/or skills, the less likely it is that there will be items on a standardized achievement test measuring such knowledge and/or skills.”

 

Think about what this means.

 

We are engaged in a system of assessment that isn’t concerned with learning so much as weeding people out. It’s not about who knows what, but about which questions to ask that will achieve the predetermined bell curve.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This has huge implications for the quality of education being provided at our schools. Since most administrators have drunk deep of the testing Kool-Aid, they now force teachers to use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests don’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction.

 

We end up chasing the psychometricians. We try to guess which aspects of a subject they think most students don’t know and then we teach our students that to the exclusion of more important information. And since what students don’t know changes, we end up having to change our instructional focus every few years based on the few bread crumbs surreptitiously left for us by the state and the testing corporations.

 

That is not a good way to teach someone anything. It’s like teaching your child how to ride a bike based on what the neighbor kid doesn’t know.

 

It’s an endless game of catch up that only benefits the testing industry because they cash in at every level. They get paid to give the tests, to grade the tests and when students fail, they get paid to sell us this year’s remediation material before kids take the test again, and – you guessed it – the testing companies get another check!

 

It’s a dangerous feedback loop, a cycle that promotes artificially prized snippets of knowledge over constructive wholes. But this degradation of education isn’t even the worst part.

 

The same method of question selection also builds economic and racial bias into the very fabric of the enterprise.

 

According to Prof. Martin Shapiro of Emory University, when test makers select questions with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers, they are selecting against minorities. Think about it – if they pick questions based on the majority getting it right, which minority got it wrong? In many cases, it’s a racial minority. In fact, this may explain why white students historically do better on standardized tests than black and Hispanic students.

 

This process may factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. They are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children.

 

So when we continually push for higher test scores, not only are we ultimately dumbing down the quality of education in our schools, but we’re also explicitly lobbying for greater economic and racial bias in our curriculum trickling down from our assessments.

 

As Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” puts it:

 

“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”

 

 

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

 

He writes:

 

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

 

I’d go even further.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

 

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

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The Absurdity of Standardized Testing: Caught Between Prediction and Assessment

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Standardized testing is truly absurd.

 
It’s both a prediction and an assessment.

 

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

 

We hardly ever do this anywhere else in life.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But most things in life aren’t so dire.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But this is wrong on so many levels.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


 

 

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

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Top 7 Ways Technology Stifles Student Learning in My Classroom

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As a middle school teacher, I have real concerns about the ways technology is used in the classroom and the effects it’s having on students.

 

That does not make me a technophobe.

 

The fact that you are reading this article on a blog – a regularly updated Website containing personal writings or a weBLOG – should prove that point.

 

I use technology in my everyday life and in many ways find it indispensable.

 

However, that does not mean I embrace all uses of technology just as criticizing some forms does not mean I think we should get rid of them all.

 

But after 17 years of teaching, I have legitimate concerns about what all this technology is doing to our students and our schools.

 

I have seen technologies come and go. Some – like a computerized grade book – have been extremely helpful, and I would not want to have to do my job without them.

 

Others have fallen by the wayside, been discontinued or proven a waste of time or even worse – they’ve become impediments rather than assistants to student learning.

 

In general, I think we have become too reliant on technology in schools. We’ve welcomed and incorporated it without testing it, or even reflecting upon whether it promises to offer better pathways toward student comprehension and discovery or whether it merely offers flash and novelty devoid of substance. And perhaps even more frightening, we have not investigated the ways in which using these technologies actually puts student privacy and intellectual growth at risk.
So, without further ado, here are the top 7 ways technology stifles student learning in my classroom:

 

1) It Stops Kids from Reading

 

I’m a language arts teacher. I want my students to read.

 

I could simply assign readings and hope students do them, but that’s not practical in today’s fast-paced world. When kids are bombarded by untold promises of instant gratification, a ream of paper bordered by cardboard doesn’t hold much of a claim on their attentions.

 

So like many teachers, I bring reading into the classroom, itself. I usually set aside class time every other day for students to read self-selected books for about 15 minutes. Students have access to the school library and a classroom library filled with books usually popular with kids their age or popular with my previous students. They can pick something from outside these boundaries, but if they haven’t already done so, I have them covered.

 

In the days before every student had an iPad, this worked fairly well. Students often had books with them they wanted to read or would quickly select one from my collection and give it a try.

 

Sometimes when there was down time in class, when they had finished assignments or tests early, they would even pick up their self-selected books and read a little.

 

What a different world it was!

 

Now that every student has an omnipresent technological device, this has become increasingly impossible. I still set aside 15 minutes, but students often waste the time looking for an eBook on-line and end up reading just the first chapter or two since they’re free. Others read nothing but the digital equivalent of magazine articles or look up disparate facts. And still others try to hide that they’re not reading at all but playing video games or watching YouTube videos.

 

Even under the best of circumstances, the act of reading on a device is different than reading a printed page.

 

The act of reading traditional books is slower, closer and more linear. It’s the way teachers really want kids to read and which will most increase comprehension.

 

Reading on a screen is a product of social media. We scroll or scan through, seeking specific information and clicking on hyperlinks.

 

The old style of reading was transformative, absorbing and a much deeper and richer experience. The newer style is more superficial, mechanical and extrinsic. (And, Yes, I’m aware of which style of reading you’re engaged in now!)

 

To be fair, some students actually prefer reading eBooks on devices and may even experience the richness of the original style. But they are few and far between. Usually students use the devices to escape from the deeper kind of reading because they’ve never really done it before and don’t understand what it really is. And when they have this choice, they may never find out.

 

2) It’s a Distraction

 

As a teacher, I want my students to be able to focus on one thing at a time. There are situations and assignments that call for multitasking, but usually we need students to be able to look at text closely, examine an argument, identify figurative language or write creatively, etc. They can’t do that if they’re constantly checking their devices.

 

We have to admit that iPads, laptops, social media, etc. are addictive. If given the chance, many teenagers will spend hours there. Heck, many adults will, too. It’s common for students to rush through assignments to get back to watching videos about the latest on-line gaming trend Fortnite, or listen to music with earbuds, or others such things.

 

Technology is usually associated in their minds with entertainment, not education. I’m not saying that technologies don’t have their place. If you want to look up information quickly, devices are great. But the most common words I tell my students on any given day are “Apples up.” In others words, turn your iPads face down and focus on the lesson at hand.

 

3) It’s Unhealthy

 

For most students, technology is not a novelty. It is something with which they already have a lot of experience. Many studies find that kids between the ages of 13-18 spend up to 18 hours a day in front of a screen.

 

Why are we adding to that in the classroom?

 

Children need face-to-face interactions. They need to learn social skills, how to communicate with people, not screen avatars. They need time outdoors, time to get up and move around and interact with the world. Heck! They need unstructured time where they actually experience boredom and have to find ways to cope.

 

We’re robbing them of these skills by giving in to the electronic nanny. And it’s creating children who are less able to survive without that technological crutch.

 

As technology has become more widespread in my classes, I’ve noticed attention spans decreasing. So has self control, mindfulness and an ability for critical thinking.

 

4) It Costs Too Much

 

Public schools are already grossly underfunded. We have to pick and choose the most effective tools to help kids learn. Technology is often very expensive and takes away valuable money and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

 

And the way these technologies are marketed is often reminiscent of the drug trade. The first uses are free. But if you want to expand, it will cost.

 

Even those that don’t demand briefcasefulls of cash often recoup their costs by collecting and selling student data.

 

In the school system, we are privy to an enormous amount of information about the children in our care – information that we are tasked with keeping safe. Ed tech software and technologies also routinely collect data on students. But they are not as constrained or legally responsible for it in the way schools and teachers are.

 

Some of the data technologies collect is indeed necessary for whatever task they perform – tabulating which questions students get correct and incorrect, etc. However, much of it is unnecessary for those tasks – information about student preferences or marketing information.

 
We have no guarantee that this data is secure. The FBI has warned schools, parents and students of information breaches at these ed tech companies. And the contracts these companies have with schools and/or users are shady at best. They don’t guarantee your data will be secure, don’t accept liability and even when they do, they routinely warn that their policies can change at any time without warning – especially if they go bankrupt.

 

These are costs too expensive to pay.

 

5) It Has Never Been Proven to Help Kids Learn

Educational technologies’ claims about student learning outcomes are based on faith not facts. There are few (if any) long-term, large scale, peer reviewed studies showing that most technologies are effective educational tools.

 
This is partially because they’re too new to have been around long enough to be adequately tested. Moreover, the field is flooded with “studies” payed for by the same companies or organizations being studied – which is like having McDonald’s tell you the McRib is nutritious. Some small-scale peer reviewed studies have been done, but the results have been inconclusive.

 

We are literally unleashing these devices and software applications on children without knowing their full effects.

 

Ed tech is a market-based solution to an academic problem. It is the triumph of big business over pedagogy.

 

Our children deserve better than this.

 

6) It Perpetuates Bad Pedagogy and Assessment

Ed tech is almost always organized around standardized testing. It takes the multiple choice test as the ultimate form of assessment and arranges itself around that paradigm.

 

Software basically teaches to the test. It shows users the kinds of questions that will be asked, how to solve them and then gauges their success by giving them test-based questions.

 

It’s ironic because the marketing departments of these corporations usually sell this junk as “personalized learning,” “individualized learning,” or “competency” or “proficiency based education.” They want you to think that the program is tailor made to the user when it’s actually just a prepackaged mess. If you can’t answer a question of type A, you don’t get to move on to a question of type B. That’s all.

 

This can be an effective method for increasing test scores – if students aren’t so tuned out by the experience that they don’t engage with what they’re being presented – which is what I often find with my students when I’ve been forced to subject them to this nonsense.

 

However, learning how to take a multiple choice test on reading is not the same as learning how to read and understand. It is not the same as interacting with, comprehending and forming an opinion about that reading.

 

This is not the best way to teach just as having students fill out endless worksheets is not, nor is even having a flesh-and-blood teacher do endless test prep.

 

It is brainwashing – teaching kids to think like the designers of a test when we should be teaching them how to think for themselves and like themselves.

 

7) It Undermines Public Schools and Teachers

 

Ed tech companies are not philanthropies. They are in this business to turn a profit. And the best way to do that is to displace and disrupt the public education system.

 

There is an entire testing and school privatization industrial complex out there trying to prove that traditional public schools are bad and need replaced with business solutions.

 

These aren’t just charter schools or private and parochial schools cashing in on vouchers siphoning tax money away from children and into their private pockets. These are ed tech companies, too.

 

The ultimate goal is to get rid of the very concept of school, itself, and to replace it with on-line cyber schooling that can be accessed anywhere without the need for any living, breathing teachers in the mix. Or at best, they want to reduce the teacher to a mere facilitator. It is the device and the software that teach. It is only the human being’s job to make sure the student is engaging with the technology.

 

This is not in the best interest of students. It is in the best interests of companies and corporations.

 

When we give away our responsibilities, our autonomy, and our humanity to these businesses, we are selling out our children.

 

I’m not saying that all technology is bad or even that it should never be used in the classroom.

 

But we must approach it with caution and intelligence. We should always know why we’re using it, what end we expect it to have and fully comprehend the consequences.

 

Otherwise our children will be left to pay for our own shortsightedness.


 

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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PA Officials Want to Replace Bad Keystone Exams with Bad College Entrance Exams

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Pennsylvania officials are scandalized that the Commonwealth is wasting more than $100 million on unnecessary and unfair Keystone Exams.

 
They’d rather the state spend slightly less on biased college entrance exams.

 
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and State Sen. Andy Dinniman held a joint press conference last week to introduce a new report compiled by DePasquale’s office on the subject which concludes with this recommendation.

 

Replacing bad with bad will somehow equal good?

 
Under the proposal, elementary and middle school students would still take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. However, instead of requiring all high school students to take the Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Literature and Science, the report proposes the same students be required to take the SAT or ACT test at state expense.

 

This is certainly an improvement over what the state demands now, but it’s really just replacing one faulty test with another – albeit at about a $1 million annual cost savings to taxpayers.

 

The report does a good job of outlining the fiscal waste, lack of accountability and dubious academic merits of the Keystone Exams, but it fails to note similar qualities in its own proposal.

 

From 2008 to 2019, the state already paid Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp. more than $426 million for the PSSAs, Keystone Exams and Classroom Diagnostic Tools (an optional pretesting program). The federal government paid the company more than an additional $106 million. Officials wonder if this money couldn’t have been better spent elsewhere, like in helping students actually learn.

 

DePasquale, who recently launched a congressional bid, puts it like this:

 

“When the federal law changed in 2015, why didn’t Pennsylvania begin to phase out Keystone Exams? I could understand if they use them for a short period of time after that, but it’s been four years, and will cost taxpayers nearly $100 million by the end of the contract for tests our students do not even need to take.”

 

The federal government dropped its mandate four years ago and the state legislature did the same last year.

 

Originally, state lawmakers intended to make the Keystone Exams a graduation requirement, but in 2018 they passed legislation to make the assessments one of many avenues to qualify for graduation starting in 2021-22. Students can instead pass their core courses and get into college among other things.

 

“The Department of Education itself said they [the Keystone Exams] are not an accurate or adequate indicator of career or academic readiness,” Dinniman said. “So what I’m always surprised about is, they said it and then they continue to use it. These tests have faced opposition from almost every educational organization that exists. And when we got rid of the requirement and put in [more] pathways to graduation, this was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House.”

 

The federal government also changed its testing mandate. It used to require all public school students to take state-specific assessments in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

When Congress reauthorized the federal law overseeing education in 2015, it offered states more flexibility in this regard. Elementary and middle school students still have to take a state-specific test. But now the high school portion can be fulfilled with college admissions tests – and, in fact, a dozen other states legislate just such a requirement.

 
Democrats DePasquale and Dinniman think the SAT and ACT test are an improvement because students who taken them are more likely to go to college. But that’s a classic case of confusing correlation and causation.

 

Students motivated to go to college often take these exams because they are required to get in to a lot of these schools. Taking these tests doesn’t make students MORE motivated and determined to enroll in post-secondary education. They’re ALREADY motivated and determined.

 

Moreover, one of the faults the report finds with the Keystone Exams is that the assessments measure student’s parental income more than children’s academics.

 

Kids in wealthier districts almost always do better on the Keystone Exams than those in poorer districts. In fact, the report notes that of the 100 state schools with the highest scores, only five were located in impoverished districts —where the average household income is below $50,000.

 

Yet the report fails to note that this same discrepancy holds for the SAT and ACT tests. Poor kids tend to get low scores and rich kids get the highest scores.

 

In fact, the College Board – the corporation that makes and distributes the SAT – recently started adjusting scores on its test in an attempt to counteract this effect thereby accounting for high schools and neighborhoods “level of disadvantage.”

 

Does this creative scoring actually work? Who knows – but it’s kind of like being forced to swallow poison and an antidote at the same time when any sensible person would simply refuse to swallow poison in the first place.

 

And that’s the best solution state officials have for our children.

 

They’re suggesting we replace discriminatory Keystone Exams with discriminatory college entrance exams.

 

To be fair, DePasquale and Dinniman are somewhat constrained by boneheaded federal law here.

 

Though the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is an improvement over No Child Left Behind, it still requires all high school students to take standardized tests.

 

Given what we know about the limits and biases of these assessments, policymakers should remove that hurdle altogether. But until the federal government gets its act together, one could argue that DePasquale and Dinniman’s policy suggestion may be the best available.

 

When you can’t do right, maybe it’s best to do less wrong.

 

But we must acknowledge that this isn’t the ultimate solution, it’s only a stopgap. We must continue to push for intelligent assessment policy that’s best for our children.

 

Standardized testing should be eliminated altogether – especially in high stakes situations. Instead we should rely on classroom grades, portfolios of student work and/or other authentic measures of what children have learned in school.

 

Accountability – the typical reason given behind these assessments – should be determined by the resources provided to students, not a highly dubious score given by a corporation making a profit off of its testing, test prep and ed tech enterprises.

 

The most we can expect from DePasquale and Dinniman’s program if it is even considered by the legislature is a band-aid on a gaping wound.

 


Read the full report, Where Did Your Money Go? A Special Report on Improving Standardized Testing in Pennsylvania.


 

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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Will This Be On The Test?

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As a public school teacher, I’m confronted with an awful lot of urgent questions.

 

Sometimes all at once and in rapid fire succession.

 

But perhaps the most frequent one I get is this:

 

“Mr. Singer, will this be on the test?”

 

Seriously?

 

Will this be on the test?

 

In 8th grade Language Arts, we’re discussing the relative merits of the death penalty vs. life imprisonment – or the history behind the Nazi invasion of Holland – or the origin of Dill Harris’ obsession with Boo Radley — and this little kid wants to know if any of it is going to be on the test!?

 

What in the almighty universe does he think we’re doing here!?

 

 

I pause, take a deep breath and reflect.
After all, it could be worse. The kiddo could have interrupted the flow just to ask to go to the bathroom.

 

So I try to put a positive spin on the inquiry.

 

It does give me some important information about this student. It tells me that he is really concerned about doing well in my class.

 

The kids that don’t care about that, the ones who are more preoccupied with survival or fear or malnutrition or a thousand other adult cares foisted too early on childish shoulders – those are the ones I really worry about.

 

But this kid isn’t like that at all. He just wants to know the rules.

 

On the other hand, it also tells me that he really doesn’t care about what we’re talking about.

 

Oh, this student cares about getting a good grade, to be judged proficient and to move on to the next task in a series of Herculean labors. But does he care about the tasks or does he just want to end the labor?

 

He sees school like a tiger sees a circus – a series of hoops to jump through in order to get a juicy hunk of meat as a reward at the end of the day.
For him, our class contains no magic, no mystery – it’s just a pure extrinsic transaction.

 

I tell you X and then you spit it back up again. Then I’m supposed to give you a gold star and send you on your way to do things that really matter.

 

And I suppose it bothers me this much because it’s a way of looking at things that ignores the larger context of education.

 

If we must see things as either assignments or tests, as either work toward a goal or a reward for working toward a goal – well, then isn’t everything in life a test, really?

 

After all, every action has its own rewards and significance.

 

Looked at from that vantage point, one can feel almost sorry for these sorts of students. Because in a matter of minutes the bell will ring and they will leave the classroom to encounter this awesome experience we call life.

 

It’s a collection of majesty and the mundane that will be unfiltered through bell schedules and note taking, homework and assignments.

 

It will just be.

 

And no matter what it consists of these children will be tried, tested and judged for it.

 

Some of it will be tests of skill. They’ll encounter certain obstacles that they’ll have to overcome.

 

Can they express themselves in writing? Can they compose an email, a text, a Facebook post that gets across what they’re really trying to say?

 

Presumably, they’ll want to apply for a job someday. That requires typing a cover letter, a resume, and being able to speak intelligently during an interview.

 

But even beyond these professional skills, they’ll come into contact with other human beings. And what they say and how they interact will be at least partially determined by what they’ve learned both in and out of the classroom.

 

People will judge them based on what kind of person they think they are – is this someone knowledgeable about the world, do they have good judgement, can they think logically and solve a problem, do they have enough background knowledge about the world to be able to make meaning and if they don’t know something (as inevitably everyone must) do they know where to find the answers they seek?

 

When they come into social contact with others, will they have digested enough knowledge and experience to form interesting, empathetic characters and thus will they be able to experience deep relationships?

 

Will they be victims of their own ignorance, able to be pushed around and tricked by any passing intellect or will they be the masters of their own inner space, impervious to easy manipulation?

 

Will they be at the mercy of history and politics or will they be the captains of consciousness and context molding educated opinions about justice, ethics and statecraft?

 

Because for these students all of that, all of their lives really, is an assessment in a way. And the grades aren’t A, B, C, D or F. There is no Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below Basic. It is not graded on a curve.

 

It’s a test that’s timed in the minutes they breath and in each pump their hearts push blood throughout their bodies.

 

This exam will assess everything they do, everything they think, everything that’s done to them and every action they do or think in response.

 

This is an evaluation with the highest stakes. They will not get to take it again. And if they fail, their grade will be final.

 

But what they don’t seem to realize is that no matter how they score, the result will be the same as it is for everyone who’s ever been born – it will be terminal.

 

Because each of these students, and only these students, as they grow and mature will have the power to determine ultimately what that score will be.

 

We are all judged and evaluated, but it is our own judgements that we have to live with – and this passive acceptance of being tested and this petty goal of grade grubbing your life away, it denies your individual agency, your freedom of thought.

 

So, you ask if this will be on the test?

 

The answer is yes.

 

Everything is on the test.

 

But you’re asking the wrong question.

 
That’s what I really want to say.

 
That’s what I want to shout at a world that sees learning as nothing but a means to a job and education as nothing but the fitting of cogs to a greasy machine.

 

Yet invariably, when the question comes I usually narrow it all down to just this simple answer.

 

“Yes.

 

It will.”

 


NOTE: This article owes a debt to the author and YouTube personality John Green. It was partially inspired by a speech he gave to introduce his video about The Agricultural Revolution:

 

“Will this be on the test?
The test will measure whether you’re an informed, engaged, productive citizen of the world.

 

It will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and in dorm rooms and in places of worship.

 

You will be tested on first dates, in job interviews, while watching football and while scrolling through your twitter feed.

 

The test will test your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages, whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty political rhetoric and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context.

 

The test will last your entire life and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that when taken together make your life, yours.

 

And everything, everything will be on it.

 

I know right, so pay attention.”


 

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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School Accountability Begins With the People Who Make the Rules: A Code of Conduct for Politicians and Test Makers

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Standardized testing is all about accountability.
 

We’ve got to keep schools accountable for teaching.
 

We’ve got to keep students accountable for learning.

 
It’s kind of a crazy idea when you stop to think about it – as if teachers wouldn’t teach and students wouldn’t learn unless someone was standing over them with a big stick. As if adults got into teaching because they didn’t want to educate kids or children went to school because they had no natural curiosity at all.
 

So we’ve got to threaten them into getting in linestudents, teachers: march!

 
But that’s not even the strangest part. It’s this idea that that is where accountability stops.

 
No one has to keep the state or federal government accountable for providing the proper resources.

 
No one has to keep the testing companies accountable for creating fair and accurate assessments.

 
It’s just teachers and students.
 

So I thought I’d fix that with a “Code of Conduct for Politicians and Test Makers.”

 
After all, that’s what we do when we want to ensure someone is being responsible – we remind them of their responsibilities.
 

You see, the state and federal government are very concerned about cheating.

 
Not the kind of cheating where the super rich pay off lawmakers to rig an accountability system against the poor and minorities. No. Just the kind of cheating where teachers or students try to untie their hands from behind their backs.

 
They’re very concerned about THAT.

 
When you threaten to take away a school’s funding and fire teachers based on test scores, you tend to create an environment that encourages rampant fraud and abuse.

 
So the government requires its public servants to take on-line courses in the ethics of giving standardized tests. We have to sit through canned demonstrations of what we’re allowed to do and what we aren’t allowed to do. And when it’s all over, we have to take a test certifying that we understand.
 

Then after we proctor an exam, we have to sign a statement swearing that we’re abiding by these rules to ensure “test security.”
 

This year, for the first time, I’m supposed to put my initials on the answer sheets of all of my students’ Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests to prove….  I don’t know. That I was there and if anything went wrong, it’s my fault. Burn the witch. That sort of thing.

 
Even our students have to demonstrate that they’re abiding by the rules. Children as young as five have to mark a bubble on their test signifying that they’ve read and understood the Code of Conduct for Test Takers.
 

I still don’t understand how that’s Constitutional.

 
Forcing children to sign a legal document without representation or even without their parents or guardians present – it sure looks like a violation of their civil rights.
 

But that’s what accountability looks like when you only require certain people to be accountable.

 
So back to my crazy idea.
 

Perhaps the corporate flunkies actually designing and profiting off these tests should be held accountable, too. So should lawmakers requiring all this junk.
 

Maybe they should have to sign a “Code of Conduct for Politicians and Test Makers” modeled after the one the rest of us peons have to use to sign our lives away.
 

Here’s how it might look:

 

CODE OF CONDUCT FOR POLITICIANS AND TEST MAKERS:

 

Do…

 

 

-Listen to the complaints, concerns and criticisms of parents, teachers and students about the questions and assessments you’re creating.

 
Ask advice from education researchers and all stakeholders to ensure the questions you’re designing are backed up by psychological, neurological, sociological and all associated research on child development.

 
-Read each question you create carefully to ensure it is not simply multiple choice and instead assesses deeper understanding of concepts and skills. Also be sure that all open ended items and writing prompts allow for a multitude of answers and don’t simply ask the test taker to guess what the test maker is thinking.

-Be careful when writing your questions to make sure you have NOT left misspellings or grammatical mistakes in place that would unnecessarily increase confusion for test takers and thereby invalidate the results.

 
Check and double check to make sure you have created a fair and accurate assessment before giving it to students to evaluate their learning.

 
-Report any suspected cheating to a certified watchdog group and the media if you find any evidence or have any suspicion that anyone has created test items purely to enrich the corporation you work for or the privatization-testing-prison industrial complex.

 
-If you’re a lawmaker who’s voted for annual testing, take the assessment annually yourself to prove that it is an adequate test of basic student knowledge of which as a duly elected representative you should clearly pass. Publish your score prominently in the media to prove the test’s efficacy.
 

DO NOT…

 

 

-Have notes in your possession from special interests such as (but not limited to) the testing corporations, the publishing industry and/or the ed tech industry before, during or after voting for legislation that promotes the very same standardized testing and testing remediation on which these industries profit.
 

-Have any (approved or otherwise) electronic devises that tabulate previous test questions and prescribe reusing those that have resulted in answer curves consistent with previous tests thereby continuing the trend of selecting against students of color, the poor and other groups and/or subgroups.

 
-Share inside information about the test or previous test questions with anyone that you do not also make freely available to the public. It is not your job to create a remediation market and/or cash in on the testing apparatus you are creating.
 

-Dissuade students from talking with others about  questions after the test. They are human beings with rights. It is perfectly natural for them to talk and harmless for them to do so after a testing session is over.

 

 
-Take notes on individuals criticizing or opting out of testing with the purpose of punishing them for their dissent. This is a democratic process and you will welcome discussion, criticism and dissent.
 
-Use the bubbles in the answer booklet for anything at all. In fact, throw them away. It’s 2019. Surely we can find a better way to assess children than multiple choice questions answered by filling in bubbles on a sheet of paper with a number 2 pencil!

 
Conduct an online testing session unless you are 100% positive that the information input by the students and collected about the students is secure, will be secure and cannot be shared with advertisers, corporations or any other entity, and only with a certainty that this data will not be put in any database in a manner that could identify individual test takers or otherwise violate privacy laws.
 
-In fact, you know what? Don’t use standardized tests at all to assess student learning – especially not connected to high stakes. Instead rely on classroom grades and teacher observations for student assessment. Use indexes and audits of school resources to determine whether they are doing their best to teach students and whether lawmakers have done enough to ensure they are receiving fair and equitable resources.
 

 

What do you think? Would any of them sign off on this?

 


 

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

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The Trouble with Test-Obsessed Principals

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When I was a child, I couldn’t spell the word “principal.”

 

I kept getting confused with its homonym “principle.”

 

I remember Mr. Vay, the friendly head of our middle school, set me straight. He said, “You want to end the word with P-A-L because I’m not just your principal, I’m your pal!”

 

And somehow that corny little mnemonic device did the trick.

 

Today’s principals have come a long way since Mr. Vay.

 

Many of them have little interest in becoming anyone’s pal. They’re too obsessed with standardized test scores.

 

I’m serious.

 

They’re not concerned with student culture, creativity, citizenship, empathy, health, justice – they only care about ways to maximize that little number the state wants to transform our children into.

 

And there’s a reason for that. It’s how the school system is designed to operate.

 

A new research brief from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance concluded that the lowest rated principals generally work at schools with the most economically disadvantaged students.

 

So schools serving students with the highest poverty and lowest test scores often have the least experienced and least effective principals.

 

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Now the first question I had when reading this report was “How do they measure effectiveness?” After all, if they rate principals primarily on student test scores, then obviously those working at the poorest schools will be least effective. Poor kids earn low test scores. That’s all the scores consistently show – the relative wealth of students’ parents. If you define an ineffective principal as one who works in a building with low scoring students, it would be no shock that those principals worked in the poorest schools.

 

However, researchers didn’t fall entirely into this trap. According to the working paper:

 

“We measure principal quality in two ways: years of experience in the principal position and rubric-based ratings of effective principal practice taken from the state’s evaluation system.”

 

 

In Tennessee this means evaluating principals partially on student test scores at their buildings – 35%, in fact – higher than the 20% of classroom teachers’ evaluations. However, the remaining pieces of principals’ effectiveness are determined by an observation from a more senior administrator (50%) and an agreed upon score by the principal and district (15%).

 

 

Since researchers are relying at least in part on the state’s evaluation system, they’re including student test scores in their own metric of whether principals are effective or not. However, since they add experience, they’ve actually created a more authentic and equitable measure than the one used by the state.

 

It just goes to show how standardized testing affects nearly every aspect of the public education system.

 

The testing industrial complex is like a black hole. Not only does it suck up funding that is desperately needed elsewhere without providing anything of real value in return, its enormous gravity subverts and distorts everything around it.

 

It’s no wonder then that so many principals at high poverty schools are motivated primarily by test scores, test prep, and test readiness. After all, it makes up a third of their own evaluations.

 

They’ve been dropped into difficult situations and made to feel that they were responsible for numerous factors beyond their control. They didn’t create the problem. They didn’t disadvantage these students, but they feel the need to prove to their bosses that they’re making positive change.

 

But how do you easily prove you’ve bettered the lives of students?

 

Once again, standardized test scores – a faux objective measurement of success.

 

Too many principals buy into the idea that if they can just make a difference on this one metric, it will demonstrate that they’re effective and thus deserve to be promoted out of the high poverty schools and into the well-resourced havens.

 

Yet it’s a game that few principals are able to win. Even those who do distinguish themselves in this way end up doing little more for their students than setting up a façade to hide the underlying problems of poverty and disinvestment.

 

Most principals at these schools wind up endlessly chasing their tails while ignoring opportunities for real positive change. Thus they end up renewing the self-fulfilling prophesy of failure.

 

Researchers noticed the pattern of low performing principals at high poverty schools after examining a decade’s worth of data and found it to hold true in urban, rural and suburban areas. And even though it is based on Tennessee data, the results hold true pretty consistently nationwide, researchers say.

 

Interestingly enough, the correlation doesn’t hold for teachers.

 

Jason Grissom, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and the faculty director of the Research Alliance, says that the problem stems from issues related specifically to principals.

 

For instance, districts are hiring lower-rated principals for high poverty schools while saving their more effective leaders for buildings with greater wealth and resources.

 

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As a result, turnover rates for principals at these schools are much higher than those for classroom educators. Think about what that means – schools serving disadvantaged students are more likely to have new principal after new principal. These are leaders with little experience who never stick around long enough to learn from their mistakes.

 

And since these principals rarely have had the chance to learn on the job as assistant principals, they’re more likely to be flying by the seat of their pants when installed at the head of a school without first receiving the proper training and mentorship that principals at more privileged buildings routinely have.

 

As such, it’s easy for inexperienced principles to fall into the testing trap. They buy into the easy answers of the industry but haven’t been around long enough to learn that the solution they’re being sold is pure snake oil.

 

This has such a large effect because of how important principals are. Though they rarely teach their own classes, they have a huge impact on students. Out-of-school factors are ultimately more important, but in the school building, itself, only teachers are more vital.

 

This is because principals set the tone. They either create the environment where learning can flourish or smother it before the spark of curiosity can ignite. Not only that, but they create the work environment that draws and keeps the best teachers or sends them running for the hills.

 

 

The solution isn’t complicated, says Grissom. Districts need to work to place and keep effective and experienced principals in the most disadvantaged schools. This includes higher salaries and cash bonuses to entice the best leaders to those buildings. It also involves providing equitable resources for disadvantaged schools so that principals have the tools needed to make authentic positive change.

 

I would add that we also need to design fair evaluation systems for both principals and teachers that aren’t based on student test scores. We need to stop contracting out our assessments to corporations and trust our systems of government and schools to make equitable judgments about the people in their employ.

 

Ultimately, what’s required is a change in attitude.

 

Too many principals look at high poverty schools as a stepping stone to working at a school with endless resources and a different class of social issues. Instead, the goal of every excellent school leader should be to end their career working where they are needed most.

 

Such professionalism and experience would loosen the stranglehold of test-and-punish and allow our schools not to simply recreate the inequalities already present in our society. It would enable them to heal the divide.

 

As John Dewey wrote in 1916:

 

“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth, something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”

 

And that’s what’s needed – a revolution.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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