On Thursday, the NYTimes finally acknowledged that the opt out movement was having an impact on the “reform” movement but missed the boat completely on their analysis of why it is happening. In “‘Opt Out” Becomes Anti-Test Rallying Cry in New York State“, Elizabeth Harris and Ford Fessenden admitted that the movement had gotten the attention of legislators who were “…now tripping over one another to introduce bills that guarantee the right to refuse to take tests”. But the article is full of misleading statements and erroneous conclusions. Take this paragraph for example:
…some education officials and advocacy groups fear the opt-out movement will reverse a long-term effort to identify teachers and schools — and students — who are not up to par, at least as far as their test performance goes. Of particular concern is that without reliable, consistent data, children in minority communities may be left to drift through schools that fail them, without consequences.
The “long-term effort” to identify “teachers… who are not up to par” based on test scores has just started in NY State and has only been in place in one state since 2003. The “long-term effort” to identify “schools… who are not up to par” based on test scores goes back, at most, to just over a decade when NCLB took effect, though some states have used test scores to identify districts that require intervention for 20 +/- years. And the “long-term effort” to identify “students… who are not up to par” based on standardized test scores has only been in place in NY for anything resembling a “long term”. The whole notion that test scores should be the ultimate assessment for teachers, schools and students, then, is a recent phenomenon.
The notion that children in minority communities “may be left to drift” because of failing schools is preposterous. Schools serving minority students have been allowed to drift for decades… and not even a national Supreme Court ruling overturning “separate but equal” or State Supreme Court rulings requiring funding equity have changed that one iota. The civil rights organizations promoting the use of standardized tests to provide equity should first promote the passage of legislation in their states that would provide schools serving minority students with the same services and curriculum offered to students in affluent suburbs.
And this paragraph from the article elicited many rebuttals from commenters:
The refusal movement sprouted after states instituted tougher tests in recent years aligned with the Common Core standards, which, in many districts, caused scores to plummet.
The commenters made it clear to the NYTimes that they were NOT opting out because the tests were too hard or because they created too much pressure: they were opting out because they did not want the tests to dictate the curriculum in their school and the test scores to define their kids, their school, or the teachers in the school.
The article ends with one a response from a think tank that advocated high stakes testing but has now concluded that some states may have gone overboard:
But Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy organization, said that rather than enforcing the rules, government officials might very well retreat.
“You could write a really good history of education writ large about our tendency in this country to go from one extreme to the other, and this has all the hallmarks of that,” Mr. Pondiscio said. “This is not a prediction, but it would not surprise me to see New York, or someplace else, go from testing every kid within an inch of their life to testing nobody, ever.”
I doubt that the complete elimination of all standardized testing is happening any time soon… but it may come to pass in the next decade or so that formative testing and competency-based instruction will replace summative testing and norm-referenced instruction… but only if newspapers like the NYTimes help make the public aware of the promise of such an approach.
After reading a Forbes op ed column written by William Bennett, it dawned on me that we have gone decades without having a Secretary of Education who spoke out on behalf of the good work that public schools do in the face of adversity. Instead, from Terrell Bell forward each of the Secretaries of Education have used the theme of “failing public schools” as the basis for seeking more funding for schools and from Bennett forward each secretary has implicitly or explicitly promoted the notion that charter schools are a viable alternative. As a result, the re-branding of public education as “government schools” combined with our country’s deep faith in the marketplace has led voters to believe that the best way to fix the “failing public schools” is to replace them with deregulated for-profit charters that parents can opt into the same way they opt into buying a car.
Bennett’s column subtly plays into this notion and is full of disinformation and/or misinformation. Titled “Overcoming the Honesty Gap in Public Education” Bennett implies that States implemented watered down tests to look good but their “dishonesty” resulted in no improvement on the NAEP:
This is a serious problem, but, of course, it is not new. Intentional or not, many states have been offering less than truthful and accurate definitions of proficiency for far too long.
Of course one the reasons for that discrepancy was the fact that states were in effect permitted to develop their own standards and assessments, something that the Federal government was supposedly reversing with the implementation of NCLB Race to the Top. Ironically, one of the “reforms” in the new federal legislation is the chance for States to develop their own standards and assessments, which will exacerbate Bennett’s call for consistent definitions of proficiency.
Bennett also disingenuously misrepresents the development of the common core as a grassroots and voluntary undertaking:
Over the past five years, more than 40 states have diligently begun to implement the Common Core standards, which were conceived in mutual and voluntary agreement between the states, not under the pressure of the federal government. (Granted, the federal government has since intruded in some areas, but that is no longer the case and we must fight to ensure it doesn’t happen again.)
To paraphrase his earlier quote, Mr. Bennett is being “less than truthful and accurate” in his description of how the common core came into being. But the concluding sentences are the ones that jumped out at me because they are irreconcilable with the direction his party wants to take public education:
But the first step to addressing performance concerns is establishing a system that accurately identifies them through the implementation of higher standards and more rigorous testing requirements. American education is moving in the right direction right now. Let’s not slow or stop the progress.
Here’s my question for Mr. Bennett: if you are fighting to keep the federal government from intruding in mandatory testing how will you keep states from “offering less than truthful and accurate definitions of proficiency?”
Mark Dayton, Minnesota’s Democrat governor, wants Universal fully funded pre-Kindergarten offered in public schools across the state. Because of his approach to taxation (as contrasted with his neighboring state Wisconsin), Minnesota has the $125,000,000 needed to do this and have $1,000,000,000 left over to offer rollbacks on some taxes and/or improve the transportation budget. But the Minnesota legislature has a different agenda for public schools, one that seeks more for-profit charters predicated on the belief that “failing government schools” need to be replaced by imaginative and forward thinking charters. So… when the legislature hammered out it’s budget they gave the governor the funding he requested for public schools but omitted the funding for the pre-Kindergarten initiative that was his major priority. The Governors’ reaction? As reported by NPR, Governor Dayton offered these thoughts about the Republicans who dominate the legislature in a press conference:
“They hate the public schools, some of the Republican legislators,” the governor said. “They’re loathe to provide any additional money for public schools and for public school teachers because all of the good programs I’ve seen around this state for pre-K and all-day kindergarten. All of those programs contradict what they say, which is public schools do things badly.”
Predictably the Republicans pushed back… but not on the substance of his statement— their reluctance to “…provide any additional money for public schools and for public school teachers” because of the fact that doing so contradicts their “failing public schools” narrative. No… the Republicans lashed out at the Governor for characterizing some members of the Republican party as hating public schools.
The stories (see here, here, and here) that followed this press conference predictably focussed NOT on the evidence that some Republicans have animosity toward public schools, but rather on the Republican’s demand that Dayton apologize for saying that they “hate” public schools. One of the articles on the apology demand in the Pioneer Press reported that the Governor was not inclined to apologize. Why? At a subsequent press conference he asserted that “Republicans haven’t shown true support for public schools” and offered this quote:
“Actions speak louder than words,” Dayton said.
The Governor’s words were arguably truthful and honest… but they unfortunately gave the legislators a chance to shift the conversation away from their actions toward his words… Here’s hoping that in the coming weeks someone takes the time to assess the voting records and written and verbal statements of “some” Republicans to buttress the Governor’s assertion that “some” members of the party are adamantly opposed to the idea of “government run schools” and detest everything they stand for. Unless MN is different from most states in the country there will be a t least a handful of legislators who are on record in that fashion… But it might be easier for the Governor to acknowledge he could have chosen his words more wisely and offer an apology accordingly. THAT might help shift the conversation quickly to something more substantive.