Standardized Testing During the Pandemic is Corporate Welfare Not Student Equity

We’ve got to be able to tell how badly the pandemic is affecting student learning.

So let’s give standardized tests.

That’s the rationale behind the Biden administration’s mandate that schools across the country still struggling just to keep buildings open somehow manage to proctor standardized assessments.

Nearly 29 million people have contracted Covid-19 in the United States. More than 514,000 people have died from the virus.

Only about half of the nation’s schools are open for in-person learning, and many of those are operating on a hybrid basis. The rest are completely virtual.

Children have lost parents, siblings, family members, friends, teachers. Families are struggling just to survive with some members still recovering from the longterm health consequences of contracting Covid.

It is absurd to claim that only standardized tests can show whether the pandemic has impacted student learning.

It has. Nearly everywhere.

Insisting on testing is like bringing a thermometer into a burning building to tell firefighters where to spray the hose.

But pay attention to the messenger.

In this case, it’s acting education secretary Ian Rosenblum, former executive director of pro-testing organization, the Education Trust.

He sent the letter to state superintendents on behalf of the Biden administration telling them that blanket waivers of the federal testing mandate would not be considered this year as they were in 2019-20.

Let’s be honest. Rosenblum is not an educator.

He is a corporate lobbyist given a government job where he has continued to lobby for his industry.

This has nothing to do with helping students overcome the problems of a pandemic.

It is corporate welfare. Plain and simple.

Standardized testing is a multi-million dollar business.

States spend more than $1.7 billion every year on testing. In 45 states, assessments at the primary level alone cost taxpayers $669 million.

This money isn’t going to mom and pop organizations. The four major testing companies are Wall Street heavy hitters – Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson.

In 2001 the first three agencies accounted for 96% of the tests administered, while Pearson was the leading scoring agency of those tests. And since then the market has exploded.

In 1955 the industry was valued at only $7 million. By 1997 it had ballooned to $263 million. This is a 3ooo% increase. Today the estimated worth of the industry is $700 million.

However, that only takes into account actual assessment.

When you consider that many of these companies (or their parent conglomerates) also provide remedial materials for students who fail the tests, the profits really start rolling in. It’s no coincidence that McGraw-Hill, for example, also publishes books and other materials many of which are used by schools to remediate the same students who fail the company’s tests.

It’s a captive market. The testing company makes and distributes the test (for a fee), scores the test so that a majority fail (for another fee), and then sells schools the materials it claims will help students pass next time (for an even further fee).

However, for the first time in two decades, the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the machine.

Last year, the Trump administration cancelled all standardized tests as schools were closed to protect students from Covid-19.

Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had already signaled that she would not cancel them again this year, but when Trump lost the election, many educators and families had hoped in-coming President Joe Biden would think differently.

He had, in fact, promised that if he were elected he would not continue forcing states to give standardized testing.

I was there at the Education Forum in Pittsburgh in 2020 when my friend Dr. Denisha Jones asked him about it point blank.

You can watch his full answer here, but the crux of it was “Teaching to a standardized test makes no sense.”

Unfortunately, caving to a powerful corporate lobby does. And that’s exactly what Biden has done here.

In fact, it goes a long way to explaining his perplexing rush to reopen schools in his first 100 days regardless of the level of community infection.

Biden, who ran on being friendly to teachers and that his wife Dr. Jill Biden was an educator, has pushed some extremely absurd education policies in his short time in office.

Not only has his administration decided to ignore community infections, he has insisted that schools can be opened safely if districts follow certain safety precautions like universal masking, contact tracing and social distancing.

However, many schools are not following these protocols and even more simply cannot because doing so would be exorbitantly expensive. For example, you can’t have all students return to a cramped school building AND have them be 6 feet apart. There simply isn’t the available space. Moreover, contact tracing doesn’t effectively track Covid cases since most students who contract the virus are asymptomatic.

Then there is the absurd prescription that schools don’t even have to prioritize teachers for the Covid vaccine before reopening. In many states educators aren’t even eligible yet to receive the vaccine. Yet the Biden administration expects them to enter the classroom without necessary protections to keep them, their families and students safe.

These are all perplexing policies until one looks at it from an economic vantage.

Waiting for all teachers to have the opportunity to take a two dose vaccine would take at least a month and a half – that’s if every teacher could start the process today.

In addition, if we wait for community infections of the virus to dissipate, testing season will be far from over. In fact, it’s likely the rest of the school year would be gone.

So if the Biden administration had prioritized safety, it would have been forced to cancel standardized tests again this year.

Instead, it has prioritized the testing-industrial complex.

The economy is more important to the powers that be once again.

As a compromise measure, Biden is allowing flexibility in just about every way the tests are given. They can be shortened. They can be given remotely. They don’t have to be given now – they can be given in the fall.

However, this completely erases any measure of standardization in the processes.

Standardization means conforming to a standard. It means sameness. A test taken by a student at home is not the same as one taken by a student in school. A short version of a test is not the same as a long one. A test taken with 180 days to prepare is not the same as one taken with 250.

And if standardization is not NECESSARY in this case, why can’t we rely on non-standardized assessments teachers are already giving to their students? For example, nearly every teacher gives her students a grade based on the work the child has done. Why isn’t that a good enough measure of student learning?

It’s based on a year’s worth of work, not just a snapshot. It’s in context. And it’s actually more standardized than the hodge podge of assessments the Biden administration is allowing this year.

Why isn’t that allowed?

Because the testing companies won’t make any money.

Moreover, it could ruin their future profits.

If student grades are enough to demonstrate student learning during a pandemic, why aren’t they enough at other times?

The very project of high stakes standardized testing is thrown into question – as it should be.

Educators across the country will tell you how worthless standardized tests are. They’ve been telling people that for decades but policymakers from Republicans to Democrats refuse to listen. It’s almost as if they’re distracted by another sound – the jingle of money perhaps?

Those who claim standardized testing is necessary to determine where students are struggling have the weight of history to overcome.

Standardized assessments were created as a justification of racism and eugenics. They have never shown learning gaps that couldn’t be explained by socio-economics. Impoverished and minority students score poorly on the tests while privileged and white students score well.

If one really wanted to invest more resources where these alleged deficiencies exist, one wouldn’t need standardized assessments. You could just look at the poverty level of the community and the percentage of minority students.

But even more telling is the fact that this has never happened. Testing has never resulted in more resources being provided to needy children other than providing more remedial test prep material purchased from – you guessed it – the testing industry.

Under normal circumstances standardized testing is a scam.

During a pandemic, it’s the most perverse kind of corruption imaginable.


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Why Does Trump Hate COVID Testing But Love Standardized Testing?

When it comes to COVID-19, Donald Trump sure hates testing.

But when it comes to public schools, his administration simply adores standardized testing.

Why the discrepancy?

Why is testing for a virus during a global pandemic bad, but giving students a multiple choice test during the chaos caused by that pandemic somehow good?

When it comes to the Coronavirus, Trump has made his position clear.

In a June 15 tweet, Trump wrote that testing “makes us look bad.”

Five days later at his infamous campaign rally in Tulsa, he said he had asked his “people” to “slow the testing down, please.”

At one of his White House press briefings, he said, “When you test, you create cases.”

In his infamous Fox News interview with Chris Wallace, he seemed to be saying that the U.S. had just as many new cases now as it did in May. However, since there were fewer tests done in May and more are being done now, it only appears that the infection is spreading when it actually is not.

It’s pure bullshit.

How would he know how many cases existed in May other than through testing?

He is simply trying to gas light the nation into believing that his abysmal job as Commander-in-Chief has nothing to do with the pandemic raging out of control on our shores.

He is trying to distract us from the fact that the US has only 4 percent of the world population but more than 25% of all COVID-19 cases. He wants us to forget that more Americans have died of COVID-19 than in any war other than WWII – 200,000 and counting.

So that, at least, is clear.

Trump hates COVID testing because – as he puts it – it makes him look bad.

So why is his administration pushing for more standardized testing in public schools as those same institutions struggle to reopen during the pandemic?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – everyone’s favorite billionaire heiress turned public servant – sent a letter to state education leaders on Thursday saying high stakes testing probably would be required this school year.

They should not expect the Education Department to again waive federal testing requirements as it did last spring while schools were suddenly closing due to the outbreak.

The reason?

DeVos wrote:

“If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come. Not only will vulnerable students fall behind, but we will be abandoning the important, bipartisan reforms of the past two decades at a critical moment.”

However, this is a rather strange thing to say if you think about it.

Standardized tests are just one of many kinds of assessments students take every year. At best they represent a snapshot of how kids are doing on a given day or week.

But since students are tested all year long by their teachers, they earn end of the year marks, pass on to the next grade or are held back, graduate or not – there are a multitude of measures of student learning – measures that take in an entire year of academic progress in context.

Waiving standardized testing would not make it impossible to tell who learned what. In fact, waiving the tests in the spring did not leave teachers clueless about the students in their classes today.

We still know which students are falling behind because we interact with them, give them assignments, teacher created assessments, etc. And when it comes to vulnerability, standardized tests show us nothing unless we read between the lines.

Students from poorer households tend to score lower on standardized tests. Kids who attend schools with fewer resources and larger class sizes tend to score lower. Minority children tend to score lower.

We don’t need any tests to tell us who these kids are. It’s obvious! Just look at who qualifies for free or reduced meals. Look at school budgets. Look at student ethnographic data. Look at seating charts. Look at classroom grades.

We don’t need standardized tests! We need resources to help these kids overcome the obstacles set before them or to remove those obstacles altogether.

Standardized testing does nothing to achieve this goal nor is there much help from the “bipartisan reforms of the past two decades.”

After all, which reforms exactly do you think DeVos is referring to?

It’s not hard to imagine since her letter was endorsed by far right and neoliberal organizations such as the Center for American Progress, the National Urban League, the Education Trust and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

DeVos is talking about charter and voucher schools – the same pet projects she spent her entire adult life either funding or trying to wrest funding away from public schools to fund.

In fact, she just had her ass handed to her for a third time by the federal court system for trying to siphon money to private schools that Congress explicitly earmarked for poor kids.

Congress set aside money in the CARES Act to be distributed among public and private schools based on the number of students from low-income families. However, DeVos said the funds should go to private schools BASED ON TOTAL ENROLLMENT.

Uh-uh, Betsy.

In her ruling this week, Dabney Friedrich, the U.S. District Judge for the District of Columbia (and a Trump appointee) wrote:

“In enacting the education funding provisions of the CARES Act, Congress spoke with a clear voice… that cannot mean the opposite of what it says.”

So why does the Trump Administration support standardized testing?

For a similar reason to why it doesn’t support COVID testing.

Testing for the Coronavirus makes Trump legitimately look bad.

Testing kids with standardized assessments makes the public schools (during a pandemic or otherwise) illegitimately look bad. And that can be used as a justification to close those schools and replace them with private and charter schools.

It’s not about academia or helping vulnerable children.

It’s pure politics. The shock doctrine. Disaster capitalism.

This is another way the Trump administration is trying to rob the American public blind and get away with it.

When it comes to Coronavirus, there are a limited number of tests for infection. Trump is against all of them. He just wants to hide his head in the sand and pretend it will all go away.

When it comes to education, there are multiple measures of student learning. The Trump administration only champions one of them – the standardized variety.

Why? Because that is the assessment most inadequate to measure learning but it’s the easiest to spin into an anti-education narrative.

After all, you can’t use classroom grades or teacher-created tests to support the narrative of failing schools. Those assessments are in context and too clearly show the link between poor achievement and things like lack of resources and inequality. If kids are failing their classes, it’s too obvious when schools are trying to help but stymied by a lack of resources and countless social issues. Shining a light on that will only lead to solving these very real problems.

But if we put the spotlight squarely on standardized test scores, we can spin the narrative that it is the public school system, itself, that is at fault and thus we can better sell the need for privatization in all its profit-driven forms.

That’s the whole reason DeVos took this job in the first place.

And shame on Democrats like Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) who praised DeVos’s testing pronouncement.

Scott, who serves as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement:

“There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic is having severe consequences for students’ growth and achievement, particularly for our most vulnerable students. We cannot begin to address these consequences, unless we fully understand them.”’

Um, we do understand them, Congressman. You don’t need a multiple choice assessment to see who is failing or why. It’s due to targeted disinvestment of the poor and children of color.

Murray, the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, said:

“Especially when it comes to the disparities that harm so many students of color, students with disabilities and students whose families have low incomes, we’ve got to have data that shows us where we’re falling short so we can better support those students.”

How does a single test score from a corporation like Pearson show you more than a year’s worth of academic assessments from a school?

Standardized tests convey ZERO to us about students falling behind or vulnerable students that we don’t already know. And Murray is engaged in pure theater by framing her concern as an issue of racial justice while actual racial justice groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Black Lives Matter movement have explicitly condemned standardized testing.

An assessment system literally designed by eugenicists and pushed by segregationists is NOT a remedy to racial inequality – unless you’re proposing getting rid of it.

In short, Trump and DeVos are two peas in a pod committed to avoiding accountability for themselves but determined to destroy public services like public schools based on bogus accountability measures like standardized testing.

Hopefully the American public will boot them both out on their asses in November so that rational leadership in the Department of Education and elsewhere will do what should have been done years ago – waive standardized testing for this year and every year that follows – Coronavirus or not.


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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!

 

Sell Your Soul to the Testocracy: Kamala Harris’s Faustian Teacher Raises

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I love the idea of Kamala Harris’ plan to give teachers a pay raise.
 

But once we get past ideas, it’s way more troubling.

 

The California Senator and Democratic Presidential hopeful is proposing a $13,500 pay increase for the average teacher, with the exact number based on the size of each state’s pay gap.
 

That’s $315 billion more over a decade through federal matching funds, which amounts to a 23 percent salary increase for most educators.

 

Yes, please!

 
I could certainly use a raise.
 

But as Joe Moore said, “You can’t trust a promise someone makes while they’re drunk, in love, hungry, or running for office.”

 
And Harris IS running for office.

 

With this policy she’s wooing the national teachers unions and filling the neoliberal seat left by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

 
I love my union, but its leadership is like a college kid during spring break – ready to jump into bed with anyone who says the right words.
 

The fact of the matter is this plan also is favored by the people out to destroy my profession from the inside out.
 

Arne Duncan likes it.
 

Yes, THAT Arne Duncan!

 
Obama’s first Education Secretary. The guy who thought Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to New Orleans because it allowed the government to close the public schools and replace them with charter schools.

The man who held federal grant money hostage unless schools enacted his unproven and disastrous corporate driven education reforms.
 

 
The man who encouraged pushing out teachers of color who had four year education degrees in favor of mostly white Teach for America temps with a few weeks crash course training.
 

 
The man who encouraged a rapid increase in high stakes standardized testing, narrowed curriculum, let class sizes balloon and decreased authentic lessons.

 
THAT Arne Duncan wrote this about Harris’ plan on Twitter:
 

 

“Radical idea: pay the professionals we entrust to teach, nurture and mentor our children a better salary!”

 

 

 

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How to reconcile the two?

 

 
I draw your attention to what he said on a recent book tour:

 

 

 

“If we were willing to invest in high-quality early childhood education, if we’re willing to pay great teachers and great principals significantly more, the benefits to our society, the benefits to our economy, the benefits to our democracy I think would be extraordinary…

[But] Money is never enough. So you’ll never hear me say, it’s only about money. For me it’s always about your high expectations as well as high support. And we have to hold ourselves accountable for great results. When schools aren’t working, we have to be willing to challenge the status quo. So investment is part of it, but high expectations have to go with that, and we have to hold ourselves accountable as educators for results, absolutely.”

 

 
So for Duncan this plan is entirely consistent with corporate education reform.
 

 
In fact, it makes sense as a continuation of those policies.

 

 

When privatization cheerleaders like Duncan talk about “high quality teachers” and “accountability” what they really mean are strings attached.

 

 

In this case, they probably mean merit pay – giving bonuses to teachers whose students get high test scores.

 

 

It’s a terrible idea because it encourages bad behavior from teachers, administrators and districts, which in turn hurts kids.

 

 
Having all your teachers fight over the rich white kids who get the highest test scores doesn’t help the struggling students. It just means fewer educators will want to teach the underprivileged because they can’t take the financial hit that comes with it.
 

 
The result is test prep all day, every day.

 

 
I want a raise, but not if it means I have to bastardize my own profession down to that!
 

 
And it’s not just Duncan who loves this idea.

 

 

Catherine Brown, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), actually helped Harris write this proposal.

 

 

“It could be transformative in terms of how we think about elevating and modernizing the teaching profession and the federal role in doing so,” Brown said.

 

 

CAP is a neoliberal think tank that worked closely with the Obama and Clinton administrations. And Brown is also the co-author of “The Progressive Case for Charter Schools”.
 

 
Any plan to raise teacher salary that is consistent with increased privatization is inherently suspect.
 

 
You can’t champion authentic public schools and public school teachers while also pushing for more institutions run without the same transparency, democratic government, and enrollment standards. If you think schools should be able to cherrypick which students to accept, they should be run by appointed bureaucrats, and it’s fine to cut student services while pocketing the profits, you aren’t a friend of public education.

 

 

In an article she co-wrote published by CAP called “Fact Sheet: Yes, Increase the Salaries of All Teachers,” she made it clear that merit pay is a good idea.

 

 

She wrote:

 

 

“…there is still debate surrounding whether all teachers need a raise, or if it is enough to make changes for a select group of teachers through differentiated or merit-based pay. While differentiated and merit-based pay can help alleviate some specific teacher shortages, such as those in subjects or schools that are high-needs, they are not a substitute for higher base pay.”

 

 

Ultimately, Brown comes out in favor of an across the board salary increase for teachers, but in her view merit pay is part of that solution.

 

 
This is a backdoor for the same snake oil the privatizaters have been selling for years.

 

 

As education blogger Peter Greene points out, the language used in Harris’ proposal is right from the neoliberal playbook. It is full of the same euphemisms and code words that have signaled school privatization, high stakes testing and merit pay.
 

 
Consider this gem:

 

 

“Every child deserves a world-class education, regardless of their ZIP code. Of all in-school factors that impact their success, there’s nothing more important than our teachers.”

 

 
“World class education” and  “regardless of ZIP code” mean charter schools galore. And the only “success” these folks are interested in is high test scores.
 

 

Or this:
 

 

“Our plan will include a multi-billion dollar investment in programs that help elevate the teaching profession and support principals and other school leaders. This includes high-quality teacher and principal residencies early-career induction programs that pair new teachers with mentors and master teachers, career ladder models that allow for advancement opportunities for teacher leaders, and “Grow Your Own” programs that help increase teacher diversity.”

 

 

Greene says that the term “Career ladders” is a red flag because it usually denotes career stagnation. It’s code for adding more duties and responsibilities on teachers without actually furthering their careers.

 

 

If I’m honest, these are all red flags.
 

 

As much as I want a raise, I’m doubtful Harris’ plan would actually accomplish much other than selling my soul to the testocracy.
 

 
Ultimately that’s what this is – a Faustian bargain.

 

 
We need to invest in greater per pupil spending and let that translate into higher teacher salaries.

 

 
We need equitable and sustainable funding formulas that aren’t tied to testing or that don’t open the door for privatization.

 

 

 
And most of all, we need an understanding of the real challenges in education and not a piece of parchment where teachers are supposed to sign in blood.

 


 

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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