When Good Students Get Bad Standardized Test Scores 

 
 
Ameer is a good student.  


 
He takes notes in class, does all his homework and participates in discussions.  


 
He writes insightful essays and demonstrates a mastery of spelling and grammar.  


 
He reads aloud with fluency and inflection. He asks deep questions about the literature and aces nearly all of his classroom reading comprehension tests. 


 
However, when it is standardized test time, things are very different.  


 
He still arrives early, takes his time with the questions and reviews his work when he’s done – but the results are not the same.  


 
His grades are A’s. His test scores are Below Basic. 


 
How is that?  


 
How can a student demonstrate mastery of a subject in class but fail to do the same on a standardized test?  


 
And which assessment should I, his teacher, take seriously?  


 
After all, they can’t BOTH be correct. 


 
This is a problem with which most classroom teachers are forced to contend.  


 
Bureaucrats at the administrative or state level demand teachers assess students with standardized tests but the results often contradict a year or more of observation. 


 
Take the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.  


 
This year at my Western Pennsylvania district, administration decided to use this computer-based standardized assessment as a pre-test or practice assessment before the state mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). 


 
I’ve already written about what a waste of time and money this is. A test before the test!? 


 
But after reluctantly subjecting my classes to the MAP and being instructed to analyze the results with my colleagues, we noticed this contradiction. 


 
In many cases, scores did not match up with teacher expectations for our students.  


 
In about 60-80% of cases, students who had demonstrated high skills in the subject were given scores below the 50th percentile – many below the 25th percentile.  


 
These were kids with average to high grades who the MAP scored as if they were in the bottom half of their peers across the state. 


 
 Heck! A third of my students are in the advanced class this year – but the MAP test would tell me most of them need remediation! 


 
If we look at that data dispassionately, there are possible explanations. For one, students may not have taken the test seriously. 


 
And to some degree this is certainly the case. The MAP times student responses and when they are input fast and furious, it stops the test taker until the teacher can unlock the test after warning them against rapid guessing. 


 
However, the sheer number of mislabeled students is far too great to be accounted for in this way. Maybe five of my students got the slow down sloth graphic. Yet so many more were mislabeled as failures despite strong classroom academics. 


 
The other possibility – and one that media doom-mongers love to repeat – is that districts like mine routinely inflate mediocre achievement so that bad students look like good ones.  


 
In other words, they resolve the contradiction by throwing away the work of classroom teachers and prioritizing what standardized tests say


 
Nice for them. However, I am not some rube reading this in the paper. I am not examining some spreadsheet for which I have no other data. I am IN the classroom every day observing these very same kids. I’ve been right there for almost an entire grading period of lessons and assessments – formative and summative. I have many strong indications of what these kids can do, what they know and what they don’t know.  


 
Valuing the MAP scores over weeks of empirical classroom data is absurd.  


 
I am a Nationally Board Certified Teacher with more than two decades experience. But Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a testing company out of Portland, Oregon, wants me to believe that after 90 minutes it knows my students better than I do after six weeks! 


 
Time to admit the MAP is a faulty product. 


 
But it’s not just that one standardized test. We find the same disparity with the PSSA and other like assessments.  


 
Nationally, classroom grades are better than these test scores.  


 
In the media, pundits tell us this means our public school system is faulty. Yet that conclusion is merely an advertisement for these testing companies and a host of school privatization enterprises offering profit-making alternatives predicated on that exact premise.  


 
So how to resolve the contradiction? 


 
The only logical conclusion one can draw is that standardized assessments are bad at determining student learning.  


 
In fact, that is not their primary function. First and foremost, they are designed to compare students with each other. How they make that comparison – based on what data – is secondary.  


 
The MAP, PSSA and other standardized tests are primarily concerned with sorting and ranking students – determining which are best, second best and so on. 


 
By contrast, teacher-created tests are just the opposite. They are designed almost exclusively to assess whether learning has taken place and to what degree. Comparability isn’t really something we do. That’s the province of administrators and other support staff.  


 
The primary job of teaching is just that – the transfer of knowledge, offering opportunities and a conducive environment for students to learn.  


 
That is why standardized tests fail so miserably most of the time. They are not designed for the same function. They are about competition, not acquisition of knowledge or skill. 


 
That’s why so many teachers have been calling for the elimination of standardized testing for decades. It isn’t just inaccurate and a waste of time and money. It gets in the way of real learning.  


 
You can’t give a person a blood transfusion if you can’t accurately measure how much blood you’re giving her. And comparing how much blood was given to a national average of transfusions is not helpful. 


 
You need to know how much THIS PERSON needs. You need to know what would help her particular needs.  


 
When good students get bad test scores, it invariably means you have a bad test.  


 
 
An entire year of daily data points is not invalidated by one mark to the contrary.  


 
Until society accepts this obvious truth, we will never be able to provide our students with the education they deserve.  

Good students will continue to be mislabeled for the sake of a standardized testing industry that is too big to fail.


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Classroom Grades Show Learning Better than Standardized Test Scores

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

William Bruce Cameron

This summer my family suffered a tremendous blow.

My grandmother, Ce Ce, died.

She was in her 90s and had been unwell since before COVID. But she was also our matriarch, the point around which so much of our interrelations orbited and met.

After the funeral, I found myself at my uncle’s house somehow tasked with watching over several young cousins who had had just about enough of sitting around quietly in itchy suits and dresses.

To get a moment to myself, I set them a task: go downstairs among the assorted relatives and ask them to tell you a story about Ce Ce. Best story wins.

They went off like an explosion. And when they came back, they each had a touching tale about Ce Ce.

One was about how she defended a niece who wanted to marry someone of another faith. Another story was a fond recollection of the sweet and sour spaghetti sauce she used to make, the recipe of which is lost forever.

I was even surprised to hear some stories I had never known like that after my grandfather died, a semi-famous painter had asked Ce Ce on a date!

When my little cousins’ recitations were done, they were united in one thing – wanting to know who won.

I stumbled. I stammered.

I really had no way of judging such a thing.

They had all brought back such wonderful stories. Who won? We were ALL enriched by hearing them.

And that’s kind of how I feel about learning.

It is a fool’s errand to try and compare one person’s acquisition of knowledge with another. But that’s exactly what our current education system is built on.

Unless opted out by a parent or guardian, every public school child in America is required to take standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

And the results of these tests are used to make high stakes decisions about which classes the students can enroll in, which enrichments, field trips or remediation they require, and even how much funding will be given or withheld from the schools and districts where they attend.

As a result, the social effects of poverty and racial discrimination end up being transformed into numbers. Thus, instead of being seen as indictments of the economic and racist status quo, they are viewed as the problem of schools and the individual students, themselves.

Standardized tests purport to show that poor children and/or children of color aren’t learning at the same rate as other children. So by the end of 12th grade they have learned less. When they are discriminated against in the job market then, that discrimination is justified – because it is not based on economics or race; it is based on numbers.

However, to perform this alchemy, we have to ignore the fact that standardized assessments are not the only way to determine whether students have learned anything. In fact, for the majority of students’ school experience that learning is assessed by something else entirely – classroom grades.

What if we took classroom grades as seriously as we take standardized test scores?

What if we valued them MORE?

The world would be a very different place.

The entire narrative of failing students and failing schools would turn on its head. After all, graduation rates have steadily increased over the last decade.

Students are completing more courses and more difficult courses. And students are even getting higher grades in these classes!

Yet at the same time, standardized test scores on national exams have remained at about the same level or gone down.

How is that possible?

The new analysis comes from the U.S. Department of Education, and tracks transcripts of a representative sample of high school graduates in 1990, 2000, 2009, and 2019.

It does not include scores from 2020 and 2022 when both classroom grades and national test scores fell. But that’s clearly because of the pandemic and the fact that most students educations and testing schedules were disrupted.

Before COVID, students increasingly were taking higher-level courses, and their Grade Point Averages (GPAs) were steadily rising — from an average of 2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000, 3.0 in 2009, and 3.11 in 2019. 

This is true of students from all backgrounds, but disparities still existed. On average, white and Asian students had higher GPAs than Black and Hispanic students. Though girls, overall, had higher GPAs than boys.

However, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), given to a sample of students across the country, test scores during the same period did not show a similar increase. Math and reading scores in 2019 were slightly lower than in 2009 and unchanged from 2005. Science scores haven’t budged since 2009. 

Why the disparity?

It seems that either teachers are making it too easy to get good classroom grades or standardized testing does not assess student learning accurately.

Scholars, teachers, parents and students have been complaining about the validity of standardized testing for more than a century. But business interests make billions of dollars off the industry it creates. Guess which group policymakers continue to heed over the other.

It doesn’t take much to show why classroom grades are better at assessing student learning. Compare them with standardized test scores.

Students earn grades based on a wide range of assessments, activities, and behaviors – quizzes, class participation, oral and written reports, group assignments, homework, and in-class work.

Standardized tests, on the other hand, are not assigned on such a multifaceted range of factors. Instead, they are designed to obtain a measure of student proficiency on a specified set of knowledge and skills within limited academic areas, such as mathematics or reading.

Classroom grades are tapestries sown from many patches showing a year’s worth of progress. Standardized tests are at best snapshots of a moment in time.

In class, students can speak with teachers about grades to get a better sense of how and why they earned the marks they did. They can then use this explanation to guide them in the future thus tailoring the classroom experience to individuals.

The value seen in standardized test is its apparent comparability. Scores are supposed to reflect student performance under roughly the same conditions, so the results can be equated and analyzed.

So the biggest difference isn’t a matter of validity, it is pragmatism. Test scores can be used to rate students from all over the country or the world. They can be used to sort kids into a hierarchy of best to worst. Though why anyone would want to do that is beyond me. The purpose of education is not like the National Football League (NFL). It’s to encourage learning, not competition based on a simulation of learning.

And there is evidence that classroom grades are more valid than standardized test scores.

After all, high stakes assessments like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) do NOT accurately predict future academic success as classroom grades, in fact, do.


 
Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or American College Testing (ACT) tests don’t achieve more than kids who received lower scores or never took the tests in the first place.


 
Numerous studies have shown this to be true. The most recent one I’ve seen was from 2014.


 
Researchers followed more than 123,000 students who attended universities that don’t require applicants to take these tests as a prerequisite for admission. They concluded that SAT and ACT test scores do not correlate with how well a student does in college.


 
However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.

Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.

Classroom grades would not have such consistent predictive value if they were nothing but the result of grade inflation or lenient teachers.

In fact, of the two assessments – classroom grades and standardized tests – one is far more essential to the daily learning of students than the other.

We could abolish all standardized testing without any damage to student learning. In fact, the vacuum created by the loss of these high stakes tests would probably result in much less teaching to the test. Days, weeks, months of additional class time would suddenly appear and much more learning would probably take place.

Academic decisions about which classes students can enroll in or what remediation is necessary could just as easily be made based on classroom grades and teacher observations. And funding decisions for schools and districts could be made based on need and equity – not the political football of standardized testing.

However, getting rid of classroom grades would be much more disruptive. Parents and students would have few measures by which to determine if students had learned the material. Teachers would have fewer tools to encourage children to complete assignments. And if only test scores remained, the curriculum would narrow to a degree unheard of – constant, daily test prep with no engagement to ones life, critical thinking or creativity.

To be fair, there are mastery-based learning programs that try to do without grades, but they are much more experimental and require a complete shift in how we view learning. This is a more holistic system that requires students to demonstrate learning at one level before moving ahead to the next. However, it is incredibly labor intensive for teachers and often relies heavily on edtech solutions to make it viable.

I’m not saying this is an impossible system or even taking a stance on its value. But a large scale shift away from classroom grades would be chaotic, confusing and probably a failure without serious support, scaffolding and parental, teacher and student buy-in.

At the end of the day, classroom grades are the best tool we have to determine whether learning has taken place and to what degree. We should do everything we can to change the way policymakers prefer the standardized approach to the personalized one.

To return to a fuller quote by sociology professor Cameron with which I began this article:

‘It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Thus, the urge to quantify student learning seems predicated on the popular maxim: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Standardized testing is about managing students – sorting them into valuable and disposable for the workforce.

Classroom grades are actually concerned with the project at hand – assessment of learning.

Which brings me back to my little cousins.

When I told them I couldn’t possibly pick a winner between them based on their stories, there were lots of groans of annoyance.

They viewed the whole project as a competition and they wanted to win.

I hope on reflection they’ll see that we all won.

Everything isn’t a contest. We are not all opponents.

If they can grasp that, it would be the greatest lesson I could teach.


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I’ve also 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!

The MAP Test – Selling Schools Unnecessary Junk at Student Expense

School districts are easy targets for grifters.

Corporations everywhere are trying to sell them unnecessary junk and pocket wads of taxpayer cash.

The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test is a particularly egregious example of this, but let me begin with a more everyday example.

I’m a public school teacher in western Pennsylvania, and when I returned to school this week before classes started, I noticed my stapler was irreparably jammed from last year.

Normally, I’d just go out and buy another one. But I was running out of time to get things done, so I went to the office and asked if they had any staplers.

As luck would have it, they did.

The secretary lead me to a closet full of brand new Swingline staplers.

I thanked her, took one back to my room and started stapling.

Three staples in, it was irreparably jammed.

When I returned home that evening and complained to my family about the woes of the day, my sweet 13-year-old daughter offered me a stapler we had around the house.

When I brought it to school, it worked like a dream.

It wasn’t some top of the line model. It was another basic Swingline stapler. It was slightly less boxy and more modern than the kind I got from the office. But it worked. That’s the important difference.

So why did the office have a closet full of faulty staplers?

Because most teachers – unlike me – know the staplers the district buys are crap. You have to purchase your own supplies.

But think of the money wasted here!

The basic model sells for almost $14 on amazon.com.

Those staplers – that many staplers – probably add up to hundreds of dollars.

And they don’t even work!

Sadly, the full extent of the waste district-wide is much farther reaching than just the staplers.

Later that very day, teachers in my building were forced to sit through a virtual training on the MAP test.

This is an assessment made by Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a so-called non-profit organization out of Portland, Oregon.

The company claims its assessments are used by over 9,500 schools and districts in 145 countries – but none is more popular than the MAP.

Some states even require the MAP as part of their standardized testing machinery. However, in the Commonwealth, the MAP is used as a pre-test or practice assessment by districts that elect to pay for it.

My building – the middle school – used a variety of different assessments throughout the years for this purpose – IXL, CDT, etc.

However, things are changing this year. No, we’re not getting rid of these pretests altogether – why enact sane policy now after a decade of wrongheadedness!?

My district had used the MAP consistently for years at the elementary schools, so someone in administration thought it made sense to bring it to the middle school now and eventually institute it in the high school, as well.

Do we really need an assessment BEFORE the state mandated assessments?

Heck no!

Classroom teachers give enough assignments and tests of their own to know where their students are academically throughout the year. We grade them after all. What do you think that’s based on – guessing?

But certain administrators just love these pre-tests. They love looking at spreadsheets of student data and comparing one grading period to another. They think if the numbers go higher, it will be proof they’re good principals and functionaries.

It’s pathetic to be honest. What a waste of taxpayer dollars that could be used for actual learning! What a waste of class time that could be used for actual teaching!

And what a negative impact these assessment actually have on students and their learning!

For instance, at the MAP training, teachers were told the assessment’s job was to show how our students were doing in Reading, Math and Science compared with an average test taker.

How is that useful?

I don’t teach average test takers. I don’t even teach average students.

How is constantly comparing them to a norm going to help them improve?

If I went on a diet and stepped on the scale, learning that my weight loss wasn’t as high as an average dieter would not help me stay away from sweets. If anything, it would inspire me to go on a binge in the snack drawer.

It’s the same with my students. Constantly pounding into them how below average their scores are does not inspire them to do better. It teaches them that they cannot do what is being asked of them so they stop trying.

When learning a skill, it doesn’t help to know how well others are or are not learning that same skill. It matters how much you are learning in comparison to yourself. Yesterday I knew THIS. Today I know a bit MORE. Who cares what the so-called average learner can do!?

Students learn at their own rates – sometimes faster, sometimes slower. We don’t quicken the timescale with needless comparisons.

But no matter how many times I say such things to administrators or paid trainers from NWEA, they just don’t get it.

At this training, the instructor actually wanted to know what “elevator speech” teachers were going to give to parents about why the MAP was important!

It’s bad enough we’re being forced to give this crappy assessment, but now you want us to spout propaganda to the very people paying our salaries!?

Why not invite us to the school board meeting and ask us what we really think of this initiative? Why not have us submit comments anonymously and have them read publicly to the school board?

But of course not! That would be actually valuing the opinion of the people you’ve hired to teach!

It’s no wonder the trainer was anticipating blow back. Many parent and teacher groups across the country have opposed the MAP test. Most famously in 2013, teachers at several Seattle schools lead by Garfield High School actually refused to give the MAP test.

Having trusted teachers sooth community worry with corporate propaganda would be a big win for the testing company.

However, I’ll give the trainer one thing – she understood that the MAP assessment scores would not be useful unless students could be encouraged to take the test seriously. Nobody tries their best at something they think is unimportant.

Her solution was two-fold. First, NWEA has produced several propaganda videos to show students why the test is important.

I can imagine how much they’ll love that!

Second, the MAP is an adaptive test taken on a computer or iPad. And it actively monitors the students taking the test.

If its algorithm determines that students are answering questions too quickly or “rapid guessing,” the program pauses the student test.

Teachers are supposed to monitor all this on a screen and intervene when it occurs. We’re supposed to counsel kids not to just guess and then allow them back on the test. If the algorithm still thinks students are guessing, we’re supposed to suspend their test and make them take it all over again.

You know, I did not get a masters in education to become a policeman for a standardized testing organization.

Moreover, this is exactly the kind of test proctoring that would get me fired if I tried it during the state mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). I would be guilty of violating test security.

Teachers throughout the state have to take on-line classes every year about what we are and are not allowed to do during the PSSA test. Stopping students who seem to be guessing, is not allowed. I’m not even allowed to point out if a student skipped a question on the test!

I certainly can’t scrap a PSSA test that I think a student didn’t give his best effort on and make him do it again!

So how exactly is this MAP test a practice for the real thing!?

Even under the best of circumstances, it’s an artificial environment where scores are massaged to give an unrealistic picture of how students will do on the PSSA.

Of course, administration at my school has one more trick up its sleeve to get students to take the MAP test seriously.

Like the CDT, IXL and other assessments before it, administrators plan to use MAP scores to make decisions about which classes students can take in the next grade. Students in the advanced classes must test well on the MAP or be denied access to this class in subsequent years. Students who score badly on the MAP may have to take the remedial class.

And unlike the PSSA or Keystone Exams – assessments required by the state – administrators are trying to forbid parents from opting their children out of the MAP test.

State test – you can opt out.

Local assessment – you have to take it. Or else!

I wonder if enough parents will complain to the school board about such behavior or just give up and enroll their kids in the local charter school or the private parochial school located RIGHT NEXT DOOR!

As if this all wasn’t counterproductive enough, it’s also a huge waste of money.

Though NWEA claims to be a non-profit, the company posted $166,775,470 in revenue in 2020 – the most recent year available. Its CEO Chris Minnich made $397,582.

These people are making lots of money off this standardized testing baloney!

According to a 2015 brochure from NWEA about the MAP test, it costs $13.50 per student to take the test every year. And that’s just for the Reading and Math. It costs an additional $2.50 per pupil for the Science test.

So if we estimate 1000 students at the elementary and middle school level, that’s roughly $16,000 a year to take the test.

And that doesn’t include the price of trainings like the one I had to sit through this week.

According to that same brochure, the cost for a single days training is $4,000, though sometimes it can be reduced to $3,500 if you buy the right package.

Trainings can go up to $40,000 for multiple days and an in-person trainer.

I wonder how much money my district flushed down the toilet on this garbage.

I look in my classroom closet at the crumbling books, and wonder.

I look at my steadily increasing class sizes and wonder.

My district doesn’t need the MAP test.

We need a test of basic decency for decision makers.


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I’ve also 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!

A Teacher’s Wish

 

People often ask me what I’d change about education if I could change just one thing.

But they don’t seem to realize that our schools are kind of like Jenga – if you change one thing, you might set off a chain reaction and it all comes tumbling down.

Change one thing – the RIGHT thing – and you may change all of them.

Maybe even for the better!

Why worry about that now?

Monday is my birthday. I’ll be 48.

Old enough to know that birthday wishes don’t come true. Unless maybe you wish for cake and ice cream.

But I can still see myself staring into the candles as friends and family sing the obligatory tune.


The orange flames wave back and forth atop tiny wax fingers threatening to burn down the whole chocolatey confection.  

But before they do, I just might give in and make a wish – a birthday wish – and….

You never know!!!

So here goes.

Candle burn, candle bright,

Let me strive to make things right,

I wish I may, I wish I might,

Have the wish, I wish tonight…

 
I wish there were no more standardized tests.  


 
No more judging kids entire academic year based on their performance in a few hours of multiple choice Hell.  


 
No more assessments where a multiplicity of nonacademic factors like parental income, childhood trauma and corporate bias are hidden behind a numeric label.  


 
No more evaluations based on eugenics and pseudoscience. No more tests supported by the bottom line of corporations who make money creating the tests, grading the tests and selling us the remediation materials to retake the tests.  


 
That, alone, would make such a difference.  


 
No more teaching to the test. No more narrowing the curriculum. No more pressure to increase test scores.  


 
Just the freedom to teach.  


 
To empirically observe a classroom of students, see what they need and try to help them get it.  


 
And since I’m overturning that stone, I’ll topple another one. 


 
I wish schools were budgeted fairly.  


 
Not equally, mind you, but fairly.  


 
I wish every student got all the resources necessary to meet his or her needs. No! I wish they got MORE than enough.  


 
I wish we funded schools the way we fund the military! I wish schools had money flowing through them like a river of gold. I wish school buildings were marble palaces where the community could come together and learn and play and talk and interact. 

Imagine how that would impact class size.

No more 20-30 kids stuffed into a single classroom with just one teacher between them.

No more trying to differentiate, grade, instruct, counsel, and inspire until there’s nothing left of you at the end of the day.

No more being on stage every moment but instead having dedicated times untethered to students where you can actually think about things – how to teach this or that, what students really meant when they made certain comments, how to best help parents…

But wait there goes another pebble!

I wish there was no school privatization!

And I do mean NO school privatization.

There shouldn’t be schools for some kids and schools for others.

We should differentiate by need but not by income bracket. We shouldn’t divide kids up based on race, ethnicity or their parents biases.

No more prep schools. No more parochial schools. No more prestigious academies. No more charter schools. No more home schools.

Just public schools of every shape and size.

Schools funded by everyone to teach everyone’s kids. No place to hide money for some and deprive it from others.

Oops! There goes another stone overturned!

I wish there were no more segregated schools.

No more districts or buildings or classes focusing mostly on white kids, or black kids, or rich kids or poor kids.

Silly privatizer, schools are for ALL kids. All kids mixed together. Because only then can we ensure they all get equity and that they learn the true face of America.

Only then will they learn how to get along, how to understand where they’re coming from and how to embrace their differences.

Uh-oh! Did you hear that!? There went a whole mountain of stones!

No more profiteering off children!

No more data mining!

No more developmentally inappropriate standards!

No union busting!

Teaching could become a calling again.

Educators would no longer be seen as overpaid babysitters but trusted pillars of the community.

They’d be respected – their opinions sought after in educational issues like diamonds.

And the pay! No longer would any teacher need to work more than one job! They’d be compensated like professional athletes. Maybe there’d even be a draft in each state where the most promising prospects out of college would be fought over by schools with children who they think would best be served by their hire.

Imagine a country like that! One that put children first by putting education first!

Imagine how it would change the landscape. Adults who grew up in such a system would be pretty hard to fool because they’d be critical thinkers.

No political charlatan could come in and bamboozle them with nonsense and charisma. No corporation could trick them into pyramid schemes and tax evasion.

No wars for oil.

No climate denial.

No banning books.

No gun ownership without strong regulations.

No lack of social services, public healthcare, public goods!

Ah! It would be a much better world I think if my wish came true.

But…

Oh…

Sigh!

I don’t see it happening.

No even a little of it.

After two decades in the classroom, the wind always seems to be blowing against such things.

But then again, I have a chance to change the wind come Monday.

We all do.

If you’ll help me blow out the candles.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!

The Same People Who Think Antiracists Have Gone Too Far Think Standardized Testing Hasn’t Gone Far Enough

Some folks are fed up with modern anti-racism.

Why?

For one, all this focus on equity has made it harder to support standardized testing.

That’s a big problem for these folks.

They think that if being against discrimination means also turning against something as obviously innocuous as fill-in-the-bubble tests, maybe it’s today’s brand of anti-racism that has to go.

However, most of us probably don’t see this as a difficult choice.

High stakes testing – like racism – is one of those really bad ideas that just won’t go away.

Since 2001 unless their parents actively opted out their children, standardized tests have been forced on all public school students in 3-8th grade and at least once in high school.

The scores have been used to judge students, teachers, schools – everything except the corporations who make and score the tests and then sell remediation needed to improve failing test scores. Good money if you can get it.

Low test scores have been used to justify closing schools in poor and minority communities, narrowing the curriculum in those communities to just the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, and increasing racial and economic segregation through charter schools and voucher programs.

Most people can see it’s a scam and a racist one to boot.

In the United States, standardized testing was invented by eugenicists trying to prove white Europeans were better than darker skinned immigrants and thus deserved a privileged position in society. This is no hyperbole – in the early 20th Century they were literally used to justify the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of mostly poor, brown-skinned people.

And today the scores still routinely fail Black and Brown people while passing whites thus barring many people of color from graduation or college entrance.

However, describing such a state of affairs as “racist” has been criticized by a self-described anti-woke backlash.

People as diverse as Fox News correspondents, old school neoliberals and contrarian progressive academicians have taken arms together to fight against what they see as an overstatement of the degree of racism present in modern America and an attack on free speech.

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, has long been an apologist for standardized testing and included his decades old arguments defending the practice in his new book, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

Tony Norman, a columnist at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, writes that McWhorter is:

“…an old-school Black progressive who doesn’t hide his disdain for white liberals and what he considers their Black enablers in academia and the culture. He argues that the anti-racism movement of the “elected” is more performative than intellectually serious and that the white allies who provide the shock troops at universities and street rallies are just as gross as white supremacists because their virtue signaling hides their condescension.”

Ultimately Norman concludes, “I agreed with so much of what the writer had to say about specific hypocrisies of white saviors while disagreeing with much of its premise.”

As a white person, I make no judgment on McWhorter’s overall thesis because I don’t feel qualified to do so.

However, as a classroom educator with more than two decades experience teaching mostly poor and minority students, I feel qualified to address the issue of testing.

After all, I have proctored hundreds of these assessments, seen their impact, studied the history and spoken with hundreds of people of color who oppose the tests and a few like McWhorter who defend them.

The linguist’s main argument can be summed up as follows.

Excusing people of color from the tests because they generally score lower is mere pity. People of color don’t need your pity. Give them the tools necessary to pass the tests like everyone else.

In 2014 he wrote:

“Is it the moral thing to exempt black and Latino kids from the serious competition we consider a normal part of life for all other children, instead of making an effort to prepare them for it?”

However, McWhorter seems to be missing the point.

Critics of standardized testing do not think the tests should be a “serious competition we consider a normal part of life for all other children.” It should be abolished altogether.

First of all, testing should not be about competition. It should be about assessment – telling who knows what, not judging who is worthy of what social and economic position later in life.

Second, it’s not just Black and Brown children who are hurt by the testing. It is ALL children.

These test are not unfair just to students of color. They are unfair to the poor, people from non-white cultures, the neurodivergent, and others.

The very term “standardized test” means an assessment based around a standard. It privileges the kinds of questions white students are more likely to get correct. After all, that’s how test questions are chosen – not based on the quality of the question but on whether the majority (i.e. white people) get the questions right and the minority (i.e. people of color and others) consistently get it wrong.

It’s not just about knowing math. It’s about knowing the cultural terms, shared experiences and assumptions the math question is embedded in.

McWhorter sees nothing wrong in this. He thinks people of color simply need the tools necessary to pass the tests even if that means being taught to respond as a white person would and to make the same linguistic assumptions and have the same cultural knowledge as privileged white people.

I think it’s kind of sad that in McWhorter’s view Black people would have to engage in such a radical and complete double consciousness or more likely give up their own uniqueness and assimilate as much as possible just to be considered the equal of a white person.

However, another thing he doesn’t seem to understand is that even if he got his wish and the playing field were level giving all children the same chances on the tests, it wouldn’t change a thing.

Standardized tests are bad at their job of assessing student learning – even when all test takers are white.

These exams are made up of multiple choice questions. This is not the best way to determine whether learning has taken place on complex topics. How a linguist could ever suppose even the most rudimentary subtleties of meaning could be captured by a simple A, B, C and D is beyond me.

Wittgenstein, Jakobson, Chomsky… all just so you could choose between a narrow set of prewritten answers!?

That seems to be McWhorter’s position because he criticizes proposed remedies to the problem:

“And yet it is considered beyond the pale to discuss getting the kids up to speed: Instead we are to change the standards—the current idea is to bring GPA, performance on a state test, and even attendance into the equation as well. What an honor to black kids to have attendance treated as a measure of excellence. What’s next, rhythm?”

However, it’s not a matter of adding ridiculous or insulting data to the mix to make Black kids look better. It’s about adding enough data to give a clear enough picture of a student’s learning.

At best a standardized test is a snapshot of a student’s learning. It shows what a student answers on a single day or even two or three. By contrast, grade point average (GPA) is made up of student assessments (informal, formal, formative and summative) over the course of 360 some days.

By that metric, alone, you should expect a GPA to be more accurate than a standardized test.

Whether you take other things into account like attendance, poverty level, per pupil spending at the school, etc. – that would just give more information.

It could be argued that some of these things are necessary and some irrelevant. But to consider standardized tests as the ne plus ultra is patently absurd.

In fact, if I were using a metric to accurately assess student learning, I would not include standardized testing at all. I would look at many of these other measures like GPA instead.

Standardized assessments are not being used because they are effective or accurate. They are a money-making scheme that victimizes those groups society doesn’t care about – the poor, people of color, English language learners, etc.

It is yet another system that enables and promotes white supremacy.

But don’t just take my word for it. Look to Black thinkers like Jesse Hagopian, Dr. Denisha Jones, Dr. Yohuru Williams, Jitu Brown, and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi who have spoken out against standardized testing. Look to the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter movement which have called for an end to standardized testing. Look to the Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, who have never wavered in their opposition to high stakes standardized testing.

These tests are not just immoral because they’re racist, but they’re bad at the act of fairly assessing.

And part of the reason for that is their embedded prejudice.

An assessment that unfairly singles out certain groups not because of their lack of knowledge of the subject being tested but their different enculturation and lack of similar opportunities as the dominant culture can never be a good assessment.

But even if they didn’t do that, they would be like using a pencil to eat soup.

The systems of our society matter. Using the right tool matters.

Whether we call an appreciation of these facts being “woke,” “antiracist” or anything else does not.


 


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I Triggered Bill Maher By Writing About Standardized Testing and White Supremacy 

 


Bill Maher is mad at me. 


 
And I’ve never even met the man.  


 
I guess you could say we’re from different worlds. 


 
He’s on the West Coast. I’m on the East.  


 
He’s a political comedian. I’m a public school teacher. 


 
He’s a multimillionaire. I can barely make ends meet. 


 
What could I possibly do to provoke the ire of this man so much so that he took aim at me on his HBO TV show? 


 
 As near as I can tell, it started when I wrote a blog.  


 
Then people read that blog.  


 
It got popular and was republished throughout the Internet.  


 
And Maher disagrees with what I wrote.  


 
In fact, the very idea annoyed him as a prime example of namby-pamby liberals taking their agenda too far. 


 
What did I write in the article?  


 
Only that standardized testing is a tool of white supremacy


 
In fact, that was the title of the article, which seems to be about as far as Bill read because he ignored any arguments, facts or historical citations in the piece.  


 
On his show, “Real Time with Bill Maher” this week, he posted the title of the article and the graphic that appeared with it when it was republished on commondreams.org


 
What he didn’t post was my name. I am the author, after all, but I guess that’s not important.  


 
The crucial bit was how triggered Bill was by my assertion.  


 
By connecting such allegedly alien concepts as standardized testing and racism, Maher thinks I devalued the meaning of “white supremacy.” 
 


Maher never actually examined my claim or what I wrote backing it up. Never mind the arguments I made in favor of my point, the sources I cited, the examples of actual bias or the documented history of standardized testing as a creation of the eugenicist movement.  
 


He was content to speak in a smarmy tone and make a pretty lame joke about what a racially biased test question might look like.

 
 
In fact, that’s probably why he (and his staff) picked my piece in the first place. They saw it as an opportunity to make a joke and whiffed at it pretty terribly. 


 
Here’s the relevant bit of his monologue: 


 
 
“In 2010 the New York Times used the term “White Supremacist” on 75 occasions. Last year, over 700 times. Now some of that to be sure is because Trump came along and emboldened the faction of this country that is truly white supremacist. It is of course still a real thing. But it shouldn’t apply to something like – as more than a few have suggested – getting rid of the SAT test. Now if we find the SAT test is slanted in such a way as to stack the deck in favor of Caucasians, if there are questions like Biff and Chip are sailing a yacht traveling at 12 knots to an Ed Sheeran concert on Catalina – if Catalina is 12 miles away, how many White Claws should they bring? Yes, then maybe. But of course the SAT doesn’t have questions like that so it becomes a kind of ludicrous exaggeration that makes lovers of common sense roll their eyes – and then vote for Trump.”  


 


Queue audience laughter and applause.  


 
Funny stuff I guess.  


 
Not the comedy staff’s fake SAT question but Maher’s assurance that “The SAT doesn’t have questions like that.” 


 
Really, Bill? 


 
How about this one? 


 
Runner: Marathon 
(a) envoy: embassy 
(b) martyr: massacre 
(c) oarsman: regatta 
(d) horse: stable 


 
It’s a real SAT question famously discussed in the infamous 1994 book, The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray – a book that tried to use discrepancies in test scores to prove white people are smarter than black people. 


 
The answer is C, and it relies on a test taker’s knowing the meaning of regatta – something more likely to have come up in the daily lives of affluent white students than in the lives of less affluent minority students. If you don’t live by a body of water and/or don’t have much experience with rowing, you’re probably going to fail this question.  

It’s the same kind of question Maher’s comedy team came up with – find something white people are more likely to know than black people – but the Real Time writers just pilled it on over-and-over.

It doesn’t take five repetitions of something to make it biased. All it takes is one.


 
To be fair, my example is from the SAT analogy section, which was removed from the test in 2005. However, that doesn’t mean they got rid of the bias. 

In fact, the College Board, the organization that develops and administers the SAT, tacitly admits its test is biased.

It now provides an “adversity score” for poor and minority students to adjust raw SAT scores to account for high schools and neighborhoods “level of disadvantage.”

In other words, they know that poor and minority kids get lower scores so they’re trying to fudge the results to give them a boost.

Which would be entirely unnecessary if the SAT assessed them accurately in the first place.

They are literally trying to make up for how biased their test scores are.

Consider this.

Total SAT scores range from 400 to 1600 – or from 200-800 in both Math and Reading respectively.

According to 2018 data, combined SAT scores for Asian and White students average over 1100, while all other groups average below 1000. Meanwhile, students with family income less than $20,000 score lowest on the test, and those with family income above $200,000 scored highest, according to 2015 data. And the difference is significant – a 433 average Reading score for those with the lowest family incomes compared to an average Reading score of 570 for those with the highest family income. That’s a 137 point difference!

And it holds for racial groups, too. The average Reading score on the SAT was 429 for black students – 99 points behind the average for white students.

However, the College Board is trying to justify this by saying the discrepancy is because poor and minority students are more disadvantaged than white, affluent ones. In other words, it’s not the test that is unfair, but American society in providing better resourced schools with lower class sizes and more resources for white kids than children of color.

And while American society IS unfair to the poor and minorities, several studies indicate that the problem is even deeper than that.

The SAT is biased, too.

Several studies ( Roy Freedle of the Educational Testing Service from 2003, Maria Santelices and Mark Wilson from 2010, etc.) find notable differences between the verbal scores of black and white students whose educational background and skill set suggest that they should get similar scores.

Freedle says this is because SAT questions likely reflect the cultural expressions that are used commonly in the dominant (white) society, so white students have an edge based not on education or study skills or aptitude, but because they are most likely growing up around white people.

This makes sense if you examine how test questions are selected for the SAT. In his book How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds, national admissions-test expert, Jay Rosner, explains the process:


 
“Compare two 1998 SAT verbal [section] sentence-completion items with similar themes: The item correctly answered by more blacks than whites was discarded by the Educational Testing Service, whereas the item that has a higher disparate impact against blacks became part of the actual SAT. On one of the items, which was of medium difficulty, 62% of whites and 38% of African-Americans answered correctly, resulting in a large impact of 24%…On this second item, 8% more African-Americans than whites answered correctly…”


 In other words, the criteria for whether a question is chosen for future tests is if it replicates the outcomes of previous exams – specifically tests where students of color score lower than white children. And this is still the criteria test makers use to determine which questions to use on future editions of nearly every assessment in wide use in the US.

But if all this isn’t enough to convince you that standardized tests really are a tool of white supremacy, consider their sordid history.

They are literally the product of the American eugenics movement.

Modern testing comes out of Army IQ tests developed during World War I.


 In 1917, a group of psychologists led by Robert M. Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association (APA), created the Army Alpha and Beta tests. These were specifically designed to measure the intelligence of recruits and help the military distinguish those of “superior mental ability” from those who were “mentally inferior.” 


These assessments were based on explicitly eugenicist foundations – the idea that certain races were distinctly superior to others. In 1923, one of the men who developed these intelligence tests, Carl Brigham, took these ideas further in his seminal work A Study of American Intelligence. In it, he used data gathered from these IQ tests to argue the following: 


 
“The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.”


 
Eventually Brigham took his experience with Army IQ tests to create a new assessment for the College Board – the Scholastic Aptitude Test – now known as the Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT. It was first given to high school students in 1926 as a gatekeeper. Just as the Army intelligence tests were designed to distinguish the superior from the inferior, the SAT was designed to predict which students would do well in college and which would not. It was meant to show which students should be given the chance at a higher education and which should be left behind. 


And unsurprisingly it has always – and continues to – privilege white students over children of color.

Is it an exaggeration to say that assessments specifically designed to favor affluent white people over impoverished minorities still does the same thing?

Is it ridiculous to describe the century long racial and economic discrepancy in test scores as something that supports white supremacy – especially when these results are shown time and again to be a feature of the tests and not just an artifact that recreates economic inequality?

Is it going too far to call out the racism of the SAT and other standardized tests like it when even the College Board admits its own scores are biased?

Does it devalue the term “White Supremacy” to point out real world white supremacy?

But Maher apparently isn’t interested in these questions.

After a few moments he moved on to another example of the left gone wild.


 
But I can’t do that because this isn’t just a bit for me.  


 
As I mentioned, I’m a public school teacher.  


 
I deal with the impact of standardized testing every day.  


 
I watch my students degraded, depressed and dehumanized by it year after year.  

It’s become cliche for privileged white people like Bill Maher to get cranky when someone points out real world prejudice.

But for those of us in the trenches, it is an everyday reality.

And that’s what triggers me.


Here’s the segment from “Real Time with Bill Maher”: (the relevant bit starts at 4:45)


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Reducing Students to Their Test Scores Will Only Increase Their Pandemic Wounds 

 

Read the following as quickly and accurately as you can:

‘I know I withought all by he middle on, ” said a between he name a buzzing, he for began open he the only reason for making.”

Very good, you’re told as your teacher clicks a stopwatch and writes on a piece of paper.

Now try this one:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.”

The teacher frowns and writes for a minute straight without comment.

Okay. Give this one a shot:

“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elity, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.”

No, this isn’t a crash course in some foreign language.

It’s the DIBELS test.

Students as young as Kindergarten (and sometimes younger) are asked to read a text aloud in a given time and each mispronunciation is recorded and marked against them.

And, yes, the texts are often pure nonsense.


My first example was from a nonsense generator of Winnie the Pooh, the second was from “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll and the last an example of Lorem ipsum, a placeholder text commonly used in the graphic, print, and publishing industries.

To my knowledge none are actually used on the DIBELS test but they give you an idea of what an adult version might be like if given to people our age and not just the littles.

Can you imagine being a child, feeling the pressure of a test and being presented with something that looked like those passages!?

The fear! The sense of urgency to say something before the time runs out! The feeling of inadequacy and confusion as you finished knowing you got it wrong!

And the assurance that this meant there was something wrong with YOU!

That’s reading assessment in the standardized testing age.

Decoding – or working out the actual pronunciation of words – is given primacy over actual comprehension.

Why? Because that way we can break reading down into simple, quantifiable tasks that can be used to sort and rank children.

You know. The goal of standardized testing.

It’s highly controversial among people who study reading acquisition, but extremely common in elementary and middle schools.

And extremely lucrative for the makers of the DIBELS test.

Today I was forced to leave my class of 8th grade students with a sub so an “expert”from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit could lecture me and the rest of my school’s English department in using DIBELS as a gatekeeper assessment for all students.

That way we can group the students more easily based on their reading deficiencies.

I literally had to stop teaching for THAT.

I was bopping around the classroom, reading students’ writing, helping them organize it, helping them fix their explanations and craft sophisticated essays on a short story.

But I had to STOP, so an outside contractor could explain to ME how to teach.

ME, a Nationally Board certified teacher with two decades of classroom experience.

And the rest of the department with similar experience and education. In the group was also the holder of a doctorate in education. Almost all of us at least held a masters degree.

It boggles the mind.

In this time of pandemic stress when just keeping enough teachers in the building to staff our classrooms is a challenge, administration is wasting our time with this.

Before Covid-19, I could almost imagine it.

We did a lot of stupid things back then. But now a deadly virus rages across the country. Several students and staff get sick every week.  


 
There is a shortage of teachers, aides, subs, bus drivers, and other staff. 


 
And even though most school buildings are open, most students are still suffering from the social and emotional effects of the never-ending disaster.  


 
Yet the people who set school policy refuse to see any of it.  


 
They’re like ostriches – in suits – with their heads planted firmly in the ground. 


 
Covid safety protocols, reducing teacher workload, providing counselors for students – none of that is even on their radar.  


 
All they want to do is reinstitute the policies that weren’t working well before the pandemic hit.  


 
The only difference is their sense of urgency.  


 
In fact, the only impact they even recognize of the last year and a half is the dreaded LEARNING LOSS.  


 
Kids weren’t in class consistently. They were in on-line classes, or hybrid classes or maybe they didn’t even show up to class at all.  


 
That means they don’t know as much today as they would have known had the pandemic not happened.  


 
So – we’re told – they’ve lost learning. 


 
Oh no!  


 
But what these decision makers don’t seem to understand is that this whole concept is kind of meaningless.  


 
All people learn at different rates. If you don’t know something today, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it tomorrow.  


 
There’s no time table for understanding. It’s not a race. It doesn’t matter when you learn something only that you continue making progress. 


 
However, you’d need a classroom teacher to explain that to you. And these are more business types. Administrators and number crunchers who may have stood in front of a classroom a long time ago but escaped at the first opportunity. 


 
They look at a class full of students and don’t see human children. They see numbers, data.  


 
And they are just itching to get back to sorting and ranking students based on standardized test scores.  


 
After all – say it with me – LEARNING LOSS!!!! 


 
Unfortunately there’s a whole world of reality up here above ground that they’re ignoring. And up here continuing with their willful fantasy is doing real harm.  


 
When I look at my classes of students, I don’t see overwhelming academic deficiencies.  

Even their test scores don’t justify that myth.


 
According to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA), they’re pretty much where I’d expect them any other year.

 
 
But their behaviors are off the hook


 
They simply don’t know how to interact with each other without conflict.  


 
My students are desperate for attention – any kind of attention – and will do almost anything to get it.  


 
They’d prefer to be respected, but they don’t understand how to treat each other respectfully. So they aim for any kind of response.

 
 
To a large extent this is due to a disruption in the social and emotional development they would have received at school. But robbed of good role models and adequate consequences, they’re somewhat at sea.  


 
Moreover, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on their support systems at home. Parents, family members and guardians have lost jobs, become sick and some have even died.


 
They don’t know who to trust and who they can rely on.  


 
So when they get to school, we’re going to meet their needs with more standardized tests!?  


 
That’s one of the worst things we could do. 

Take a child who already has trust issues and force them to read nonsense sentences while we judge them with a stopwatch?


 
Erase their individual identities and try to see them primarily as their scores?


 
These are in the low group. These are in the middle group. These are in the high group.  


 
Instead of giving them robust pieces of literature to read, they’ll get nonfiction scraps devoid of any connection to their lives, interests or aptitudes.  


 
We’ll drill and kill them, make every day about teaching to the test instead of teaching to the student.  


 
We’ll let data drive the instruction instead driving it based on the actual living, breathing, human beings we’re supposed to be serving.  
 


And instead of relying on teachers – highly trained people with decades of experience in how children learn effectively – we’ll put our trust in mega corporations that make more money the less effective their materials are.  


 
Prepare for a test – they make money. 


 
Take a test – they make money. 


 
Fail the test and have to remediate – they make money.  


 
It’s a scam – an endless cycle – and administrators and policy makers keep falling for it.  


 
Will this help meet kids social needs?  


 
Absolutely not. They’ll be segregated by ability and forced to repeat confusing and mind numbing tasks as if that’s what education was.  


 
Will it help meet kids emotional needs?  


 
No way! Being forced to do the same thing over and over and continually told you’re a failure won’t teach anything except a kind of learned helplessness.  


 
Kids will learn “I’m bad at math” or “I’m bad at reading” rather than the joy that can be found in both activities.  


 
They’ll learn to give up.  


 
And they’ll take out the negative feelings all this generates on each other and their teachers.  


 
It doesn’t have to be this way.  


 
A new world is possible.  


 
The pandemic offers us a chance to stop repeating the same mistakes of the past.  


 
We can scrap standardized testing and focus on authentic assessments – teacher constructed assessments the are suited to the individual context, the individual students.  


 
We can focus on lessons that engage students and encourage them to learn intrinsically.


 
We can focus on what students know instead of what they don’t so they learn that they are capable, that they have the power to do the lesson.  


 
We could help students understand how to interact with each other and heal some of the social and emotional wounds of the past year and a half.  


 
But we can’t do that if we’re forced to continue with the same mistakes of the past. 

We have to recognize the reality teachers, students and parents are living through.

And we have to make decisions based on that reality, not the same old preconceptions that have never gotten us anywhere.


 

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Economists Worry Covid-19 May End Standardized Testing Altogether

The sky is falling for standardized test enthusiasts.

Economists Paul Bruno and Dan Goldhaber published a paper this month worrying that the Coronavirus pandemic may increase pressure to end high stakes testing once and for all.

The paper is called “Reflections on What Pandemic-Related State Test Waiver Requests Suggest About the Priorities for the Use of Tests.” It was written for The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) – a Walton funded, pro standardized testing policy concern.

It’s easy to see why Bruno (who also taught middle school) and Goldhaber (who did not) are distressed.

Last school year President Joe Biden forced districts nationwide to give standardized assessments despite the raging Covid-19 pandemic.

Schools could barely keep their doors open and conduct in-person classes. Many educators were still teaching their students on-line or both on-line and in-person at the same time. Hundreds of teachers died from the virus. Thousands of students have lost parents, relatives or became sick, themselves.

Yet the Biden administration refused to give them any relief from the burden of standardized testing as the previous administration had just a year before.

And if increasing cases of the even more contagious Delta Variant continue to spread in 2021-22 while the last 30% of American adults are reluctant to get the vaccine, the situation could be even worse this spring.

For a third year in a row, standardized testing could be yet another unnecessary hurdle for students already overburdened with trauma. Would Biden double down on last year’s mistake or finally see the error of his ways?

The result has been an overwhelming backlash against the already unpopular education policy.

In their paper, Bruno and Goldhaber looked at last year’s waiver requests asking for permission to cancel or modify statewide exams in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Only the District of Columbia’s waiver was granted. All other states had to give the exams, but there was much leeway in how and when.

In the most revealing part of the paper, the economists explain why they think the US Department of Education seems to have refused blanket waivers last year:

We speculate that there was concern that even temporarily waiving statewide tests would give momentum to those advocating for the elimination of testing all together. That is, [the US Department of Education] USDOE (and perhaps states that did not request that common assessments be waived) may be less interested in what happens with testing this year than worried about a slippery slope toward increasingly lax testing requirements.” [Emphasis mine]

So refusing testing waivers wasn’t about the need for last year’s scores. It wasn’t about making sure struggling students get resources. It was about ensuring that high stakes testing would go on for years to come.

In other words, it was about politics.

Speaking of which, the report then becomes focused on advice for standardized testing advocates to combat mounting pressure to end these mandated federal assessments.

If the public doesn’t see the value in the tests, Bruno and Goldhaber say, policymakers must explain why the tests are important, and not just in generalities. They must explicitly show how standardized test scores improve education and help specific students.

They write:

“We encourage policymakers to think carefully, explicitly, and publicly about how they have tailored their standardized testing policies to achieve various diagnostic, research, and accountability objectives. This will help to ensure that standardized tests have benefits for more schools and students and will bolster fragile political support for statewide tests.”

However, nowhere in the entire paper do Bruno and Goldhaber actually do this, themselves.

How do standardized tests help students?

That’s exactly the question at stake here.

In short, I would argue as I have countless times before that they DO NOT help students.

They DO NOT help allocate resources to struggling students.

They DO NOT help diagnose student learning difficulties.


They DO NOT even do a good job of showing what students have learned.

If the authors had good counterarguments, now would have been a good time.

The authors do say that standardized test scores are predictive of latter student outcomes but they ignore whether other assessments or factors are MORE predictive.

Yes, students with high test scores often graduate, excel in college or trade schools, etc. However, the same can be said with classroom grades. In fact, classroom grades are even more accurate.

This just makes sense. Classroom grades are based on at least 180 days of formal and informal assessment. Standardized tests are merely a snapshot of a few days work.

However, even more predictive is child poverty. The rich kids usually do much better than the poor kids. Same with race, class and the funding each student receives at his or her school.

If you want to help students, that’s where you need to begin – equitable resource allocation. Make sure all students have what they need to succeed, and realize that the more poverty you have, the greater the need, the greater the resources necessary.

Test scores are effectively useless.

If the only hope for testing is for cheerleaders to prove the policy’s efficacy, then have at it. Testing opponents have been demanding substantive answers to that question for decades.

To paraphrase Motown singer Edwin Starr:

“Testing! HUH!

What is it good for? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

And while you’re struggling to answer that question in the positive, make sure to explain why an assessment strategy designed by eugenicists is the best way to judge today’s children.

Standardized tests literally were invented to justify bias. They were designed to prove that higher income, higher class, white people were entitled to more than poorer, lower class, brown people. Any defense of the assessments today must explain how the contemporary variety escapes the essential racist assumptions the entire project is based on.

Standardized testing is a multi-billion dollar industry. The tests are written by huge corporations. They are graded by the same corporations. And when students fail, it is often the exact same corporations who provide the remediation materials, software and teacher training.

That is why the Biden administration didn’t waive the tests last year. That’s also why economists like Bruno and Goldhaber are sounding the alarm.

This is about saving an endangered cash cow. It’s protecting the goose that lays golden eggs.

It has nothing to do with helping children learn.

And there is no better image to prove that than forcing kids to take a meaningless test during a global pandemic.


 

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The Year Without Standardized Testing

Last year was the first in nearly two decades that the US did not give standardized tests to virtually every student in public school.

Think about that.

Since 2001 almost every child took the tests unless their parents explicitly demanded they be opted out.

For 19 years almost every child in grades 3-8 and once in high school took standardized assessments.

And then came 2019-20 and – nothing.

No multiple guess fill-in the bubble questions.

No sorting students into classes based on the results.

No evaluating teachers and schools based on the poverty, race and ethnicities of the children they serve.

And all it took to make us stop was a global pandemic.

What are the results of that discontinuity?

We may never really know.

There are so many variables at play.

The Covid-19 pandemic closed school rooms across the nation for various lengths of time. Some are still closed. Some are beginning to close again.

Many classes were conducted remotely through conferencing software like Zoom and file sharing programs like Google Classroom. Others were conducted through a hybrid model combining in-person instruction and cyber instruction. While still others met in-person with numerous mitigation efforts like masks, social distancing and air purifiers.

Many students were absent, struggled to learn and experienced countless traumas due to the isolation, sickness and deaths.

About 561,000 people are dead in the United States because of Covid-19.

That’s more than Americans who died in the attack on Pear Harbor (2,403), the 9/11 terrorists attacks (3,000), WWI (116,000) or WWII (405,000).

Only the Civil War (600,000 – 850,000) has a larger death toll. For now.

As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.

As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to USC research.

How do you sort through all these tragedies and traumas and say THIS was caused by a lack of standardized testing?

You probably can’t.

But you can ask questions.

For example, how many teachers really missed the data the standardized tests would have shown?

How many students and parents agonized over what last year’s test scores would have been?

How many government agencies really wanted to provide resources to schools but couldn’t figure out where they should go because they didn’t have test scores to guide them?

I’m not sure exactly how we could find answers.

We could survey teachers and staff about it.

We could survey parents and students.

We could even subpoena Congresspeople and ask them under oath if a lack of test scores determined their legislative priorities.

But we’re not really doing any of that.

It’s a prime opportunity to find out something valuable about standardized tests – mainly if people really think they’re valuable.

But we’re not going to stop and do it.

Instead we’re rushing back onto the testing treadmill this year while the Coronavirus pandemic still rages.

Is that logical behavior?

Not really.

We already have almost 20 years of data showing that annual testing did not improve student learning nationally. US kids were no better off from 2001-2019 having yearly tests than students in Scandinavia who were tested much less frequently. In fact, the countries with the highest academic achievement give far fewer assessments.

The effectiveness and fairness of standardized testing have come into question since before George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation enshrined them into law.

They were designed by eugenicists to justify racism and prejudice. Their partiality for wealthier whiter students and discrimination against poorer browner students has been demonstrated time and again.

But in 2001 we created an industry. Huge corporations write the tests, grade the tests and provide the remediation for the tests. Billions of dollars in taxes are funneled into this captive market which creates monetary incentives for our lawmakers to keep the system going.

Yes, some civil rights organizations have waffled back and forth over this as big donors who value the tests make or withhold contributions. Meanwhile, many other more grassroots civil rights organizations such as Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, have continuously called for the abolition of high stakes testing.

It should be no surprise then that President Joe Biden – though as a candidate he promised to stop standardized testing if he were elected – did an immediate about face this year and insisted we reinstate the assessments.

A scientific mind would be empirical about this. It would examine the results as much as possible and determine whether moving forward made any sense.

This is especially true as the pandemic health crisis continues to make the act of giving the tests difficult at best and dangerous at worst.


There is no way a logical mind can look at the situation and not come to the conclusion that the status quo on testing is a triumph of capitalism over science and reason.

In a month or so, the year without testing will be just that – a single year.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill:

We shall go on to the end. We shall test during Covid, we shall test in the classes and on-line, we shall test with growing confidence and growing strength wearing masks, we shall defend our industry, whatever the cost may be. We shall test in the homes, we shall fill in bubbles on sanitized desks, we shall test in the fields and in the streets, we shall test in the hospitals; we shall never surrender!



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Lawmakers Backing Standardized Tests Should Practice What They Preach

When it comes to the whip, one side is definitely better than the other.

Everyone wants to hold it by the stock. No one wants to get hit by the lash. 

That’s why politicians as diverse as Donald Trump and Joe Biden have struggled so desperately to defend standardized testing.

They want to keep control of the torture device they’ve inherited from their predecessors without feeling its sting, themselves.

Take the current Covid crisis in our public schools.


 
Educators are scrambling to teach safely and most lawmakers stand aside unsure how to help.

We can’t figure out which students to assist, they say, without first giving them all a batch of standardized tests.


 


It’s absurd, like paramedics arriving at a car crash, finding one person in a pool of blood and another completely unscathed – but before they know which person needs first aid, they have to take everyone’s blood pressure. 


 
I mean come on! We’re living through a global pandemic.  


 
Nearly every single class has been majorly disrupted by it. 


 
So just about every single student needs helpBUT SOMEHOW WE NEED DATA TO NARROW THAT DOWN!?  


 

Our duly-elected decision-makers seem to be saying they can only make decisions based on a bunch of numbers


 


The fact that they have so little imagination that they can’t visualize the problem without a bar graph is truly disturbing. 


 
But this isn’t rocket science. They don’t HAVE TO be creative thinkers.  


 


Just use class attendance to see which students have received consistent instruction and which have been absent all year.


 
Look at classroom grades, which outline students’ academic performance from day to day.  


 
Those are numbers. And they clearly show which kids have been impacted the most by Covid-19. 


 
But for some reason actually using the data we already have is just crazy talk! 


 


Scores on a standardized test are the ONLY data that counts


 
Okay.

Then I have a suggestion for these legislators. 


 
Why don’t you practice what you preach? 


 
If the only logical way to make decisions is based on test scores, you should provide those scores to the greatest decision-making body in the country: voters.  


 
Every lawmaker who CHAMPIONS standardized tests should have to TAKE standardized tests.  


 
I don’t mean the same tests as the students.  


 
That would be silly.  


 
After all, student tests are designed to favor answers from privileged white people. Most of these lawmakers are the target demographic already. They passed a standardized test (or paid someone to pass the test for them) as a smokescreen getting into whichever prep school or ivy league college where they were legacy enrollments, anyway.  


 
I’m talking about a new series of standardized tests designed to show how much these lawmakers adhere to the principles of their respective political parties. 


 
So there’d be two versions – one for Republicans and one for Democrats.  


 
A high score means the test taker is a bona fide example of their party’s ideals. A low score means they should probably be booted out on their butts. 


 
For example, a question for Democrats might be: 


 


Which policy is progressive? 


 
A) School privatization 
B) Fracking on native lands 
C) Drone strikes 
D) Universal healthcare 


 


And an example for Republicans: 


 
Which policy is fiscally responsible? 


 
A) School privatization 
B) Tax cuts for billionaires 
C) More unnecessary wars  
D) Investing in infrastructure  


 
The answers are both D and that’s because this test would be in high De-mand! Get it? 


 
Think of what we could do with these scores! 


 
Lawmakers could tout their assessment achievements as they campaign. 


 
They could say, “Vote for Sam Smith. He got an Advanced Score on the Democratic System of Statesperson Assessments (DSSA).”  


 
Or “Don’t vote for Megan Mission. She only scored a Satisfactory on the Partnership for Assessment of Republicanism for Congress or Klan (PARCK).” 


 
What an improvement that would be! 


 
Finally, we wouldn’t have to rely on a politician’s voting record or campaign contributions or platform….  We could just look at the score and vote accordingly. 


 
But who would we get to make and grade the tests? 


 
It couldn’t be the politicians, themselves, or even their respective political parties. That wouldn’t be standardized somehow.  


 
If we can’t let teachers create tests for their own students, we certainly can’t trust politicians to do the same for their fellow campaigners. 


 
I guess we could task the testing corporations with making these assessments, but that’s a conflict of interests. We should instead rely on the educational experts, people with the credentials and the most experience actually giving standardized tests. 


 
And that would be…. Classroom teachers


 
So these tests should be written by the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  
 


But, of course, this isn’t free. We’ll have to pay these test-creators, and pay them handsomely.  


 
That’s billions more dollars spent on assessment. What an expense! What a waste of tax dollars! 


 
Still, can we really afford not to?  


 
I’m sure would-be lawmakers would like a leg up on the competition, so the teachers’ unions could make workbooks and software packages and apps and teach remedial courses to help folks pass the tests. That would probably bring in more money than the tests, themselves.  


 
And since the teachers would get to grade the assessments, they could make sure the scores are curved so only a very limited number pass each year. We can’t have grade inflation, after all.  


 
What would the teachers do with this money, I wonder?  


 
Well, they could reinvest it in our schools.  


 
See? We’ve just solved two problems at once.  


 
No more under-resourced schools. No more educational inequality. Every school in the country could be like the Taj Mahal!  


 
And all of this just because of standardized testing! 


 
Maybe the lawmakers have the right idea in prioritizing high stakes testing! 


 
Or maybe they understand the value of benefiting from the testing industrial complex and not being subjected to it. 


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!