High Tech, High Stakes Testing Company “Spies” to Protect Itself Against High Tech Opportunities to Cheat

March 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Years ago when I was in college and contemplating joining a fraternity, one of the benefits touted by some of the Greek organizations was their comprehensive files of final examinations. This trove of old examinations served as a study guide and, in some cases would give you the actual examination itself if a teacher gave the same test year-after-year. Oh… and (wink, wink) in some cases one of your resourceful fraternity brothers might even provide you with questions given earlier in the day.

Seven years ago when I was superintendent of schools in NH a group of juniors and seniors entered the school after hours, broke into a teacher’s office, took final examinations on the eve of the examination, and circulated them among their friends. Because the event happened at the close of the school year, and because the event was not brought to the attention of the principal until after the school year concluded, and because we determined that the pilfering of the examinations required breaking into locked workspaces, we involved the police in our investigation. The arrests and trials that occurred the following school year resulted in national coverage (in part because it coincided with a debate in our community as part of the NH primary election), divided the community and school board over the issue of police involvement in the case, and ultimately led the staff, parents, community, and school board to engage in a dialogue on the ethos of the school.

These two personal experiences came to mind when I read Diane Ravtich’s recent posts on the steps Pearson is taking to prevent cheating on it’s high stakes high tech tests through the use of social media…. and the whole issue raises several questions about the consequences of administering high stakes tests of any kind.

As readers of this blog realize, I am an opponent of high stakes standardized testing. But my opposition to such testing includes opposition to heavily weighted final examinations like those that drove college students in the 60s to compile filing cabinets full of tests and high school students in 2008 to break into teachers’ offices on the eve of examinations. Unfortunately our entire educational system is built on the premise that such tests are a valid measure of learning. Why? Because they are basis for measuring student performance in virtually all colleges. To make matters worse, the AP Tests reinforce this mentality as do longstanding state tests like the NY Regents and now the plethora of new exit examinations that are part of the “reform” movement. Because of this reality, high school teachers administer analogous high-stakes tests to “prepare students for college” or to “get them ready for the State tests”. In short, public education is premised on the need to prepare students for summative examinations that ultimately determine whether they pass or fail a course. When viewed through that lens, is it any wonder that students might do whatever it takes to succeed on a such a high stakes summative examination?

The advent of cell phone technology combined with the desire to do whatever it takes to pass an examination inevitably results in memos from test designers like those issued by Pearson. But those protesting Pearson’s directives should ask this question:

  1. Does your school district administer teacher developed high-stakes final examinations?
  2. Does your school district allow these tests to be open-book tests?
  3. Does your school district allow students to bring cell phones (or handheld devices that access social media) into class when a high-stakes examination is being administered?

If the answer to the first two questions is “yes” then having a cell phone could arguably be acceptable since it would provide access to the trove of information available on the internet… But… what if a student, instead of using the phone to access “Google” uses it to seek an answer from a classmate?  What steps can a teacher take to prevent that from happening?

The easiest workaround to this dilemma from Pearson’s perspective might be to declare that all students not be allowed to bring cell phones into testing venue. If Pearson issued such a directive the howls would be equally loud and equally justified because a third party vendor would be dictating a school policy that may or may not match the ethos of a school. So instead of mandating the collection of cell phones before entering a test area, Pearson issued an excruciatingly detailed process schools can follow to determine if cheating has taken place ex post facto… and justifiably howls of protest are being evoked. So… what IS the solution?

The optimal workaround to this problem would be to completely abandon the use of high stakes summative examinations. Some progressive colleges have figured out ways of assessing performance that does not require letter grades and, consequently, does not rely on summative test scores. So here’s an idea: Instead of using 21st century high tech “spying” to make sure that 19th century assessments are not being breached why not adopt the assessment methods used in progressive colleges and universities? If high schools adopted the “grading” structures of Bennington, Hampshire, and Evergreen instead of those used in traditional colleges we wouldn’t rely on high stakes tests: we’d rely on professional insights of teachers and each students emerging self-awareness.

“Teach to One” in Brooklyn Elicits a Flashback to Shaw JHS in 1971

March 14, 2015 Leave a comment

I am slowly but surely shedding boxes of papers from the past and in doing so have reviewed journals I wrote in college, papers I wrote in graduate school, newspaper articles I wrote as superintendent of schools… and lesson plans from my two years of teaching middle school mathematics at Shaw Junior High School from 1970-72. As described in earlier posts, Shaw Junior High was a rough-and-tumble urban school with 3000 students on a split shift the first year I taught there and a 1600+/- school on a single shift the second year. During the first year, I found that the grade-level materials the district provided were inappropriate for my eight grade students, most of whom had not mastered the basic skills. Like most of my first-year colleagues, I encountered many discipline problems— most of which were brought on as a result of the difficulties I faced getting students engaged with the materials.

I was taking a graduate course on “Curriculum” and to complete an assignment for that course AND help me with my classroom management, I decided to write my own material for one of the sections I taught. I used some of the funds allocated to me to mimeograph a 30+ page set of materials that student could go through at their own pace. My wife, who was an artist, illustrated some of the pages with cartoon caricatures of me exhorting the class to “Do Your Math!”. With over 30 kids in the class, implementing this individualized learning was a challenge, especially since the notion of proceeding at their own pace was alien to the students. After a couple of weeks the students got the knack of it and settled into work on the material. The brightest kids in the class completed the packet quickly, but I found I could assign those same students supplementary problems and they worked on them without disrupting the class. Unsurprisingly, the most disruptive students in the class struggled the most with the work, but they were getting my personal attention to help them. I was observed in the class and while the assistant principal noted I was “not following the prescribed curriculum” he acknowledged that the class was orderly and on task… and my classroom management skills had improved.

This experience flashed before me when I read  Tina Rosenburg’s Fixes column, “Reaching Students One By One” in yesterday’s NYTimes. The “Fix” Rosenburg describes is “Teach to One” a computer-based individualized program that can deliver exactly what I was attempting to deliver 44 years ago… and with Khan Academy, a wealth of web resources, and all kinds of tracking software teachers in PS 29 in Brooklyn are capable of accomplishing the goal of matching lessons to students far more effectively than I could. Rosenburg concludes her essay with this paragraph:

Critics ask a good question: Why should a school try an expensive, disruptive high-tech platform that’s still unproven?   The answer is: in order to prove it. School of One takes comprehensive advantage of technology in ways that let teachers concentrate on teaching. That’s worth getting right. There may be ways to make it cheaper and more effective, but only through further experimentation. As for being disruptive, does anyone defend the current system? “We’re not aspiring to create the least disruptive program,” said Rose. “Our goal is a model that works.”

Taken to its ultimate conclusion programs like “Teach to One” could compel schools to engage in the ultimate disruption: the replacement of age-based grade level cohorts with individualized tracking. Here’s hoping that the standardized testing protocols, with their implicit assumption that all children learn at the same rate, don’t marginalize programs like “Teach to One” that help each and every student experience success.

Why Governor Cuomo’s Education Proposals Are As Bad for Students As They Are for Teachers | The Nation

March 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Why Governor Cuomo’s Education Proposals Are As Bad for Students As They Are for Teachers | The Nation.

Third grade teacher Leah Brunski describes how Cuomo’s ideas will play out in the classroom… and it is not a pretty picture. One point Ms. Brunski failed to make in her analysis of various evaluation systems: there are two problems with the evaluation systems used in other countries from the “reformers” perspective: they are designed to HELP teachers and not PUNISH them; and they cost too much money to implement and spending money on education is not the outcome we are looking for— it drives down profits!

Frank Bruni Lives in a College Prep Bubble

March 13, 2015 Leave a comment

I just received a copy of Frank Bruni’s Sunday essay titled “How To Survive College Admissions Madness”. The essay describes several anecdotes of college bound students who fail to gain acceptance to top tier colleges and succeed nevertheless. But the essay fails to acknowledge the reality that only 40% of ALL children between the ages of 18 and 24 attend college: that is a majority of students are NOT on the college track even though a majority of high school graduates DO attend college. Bruni writes:

“…a majority (of American families) are focused on making sure that their kids simply attend a decent college — any decent college — and on finding a way to help them pay for it.”

To which I responded:

Sorry to burst your bubble and the bubble of many readers, but roughly 60% of 18 to 24 year olds are NOT in college… which is a reflection of another reality: many parents disengage from their child’s school experience and, thus, are NOT focused on getting their youngster through HS let alone into HS. Engaged students come from the homes of engaged parents… and if we are really serious about improving education in our country we need to find ways to keep parents engaged in the lives of their children. To do so we might need to pay all parents a decent wage, give them and their children medical care, schedule their work at predictable hours, make sure they get sick leave if their child is ill, and schedule teacher conferences at a time that is convenient for them.

Frank Bruni is a true believer in the “school reform” meme— his article includes the story of a 26 year old who didn’t get into the college of her choice, joined TFA, and now, at the age of 26, is leading her own charter school. He, like many who have not witnessed the dispiriting nature of poverty, believes ALL parents think like his parents and the parents of his college attending friends. If that were the case we would not have struggling students or disparate earnings. Until those in the “reform movement recognize that poverty is an obstacle that must be overcome and not “an excuse” for the struggles many children have in school we will never get at the root of the problems in education.

Grassroots Parent Movement Disrupting Education In a GOOD Way: They are Opting Out of Tests

March 13, 2015 Leave a comment

What happens if a standardized test is given and not enough students are present to make its results valid? Will the testing movement be brought to a halt? Will the parents who keep their children home be fined or penalized? Will the children who stay home be held back? Will the administrators and/or political leaders make examples of the opt-out movement?

Based on reports from schools across NYC and NYS it appears that we might get the answer to the question soon! Based on reports my daughter is feeding me from Facebook posts from schools in Brooklyn and countless articles that are arriving daily in RSS feeds, it appears that a REAL grassroots movement is occurring among public school parents who are dismayed over the time their children are losing to tests and their sense that schools will become test preparation factories instead of centers of inquiry. One of the best articles I’ve read on this topic was Jake Dobkins’, “Public School Kids to Cuomo: Don’t Destroy Our Schools” which appeared in today’s Gothamist. In the article Dobkins describes the rally in his neighborhood school in Brooklyn, PS 10, a rally that featured AFT leaders, local politicians, and a small cadre of media. The article stood out, though, because Dobkins captured the essence of everything that is wrong with the testing in a paragraph full of tough questions that “reformers” are not addressing:

Who would want to work a job where half your yearly evaluation was based on something you had very little control over? What would happen if we fired all the teachers with low-scoring classes, since most of those teachers work in schools in the poorest neighborhoods? How would you replace all those teachers? What would New York look like if all the schools were charters, free to curate their classes with high-performing kids? Where would all the other kids go?

He then describes HIS experience as a teacher, how the test-centric curriculum is affecting his twin sister who teaches in a NYC elementary school. He gives readers a behind the scenes picture of how difficult and challenging it is to be a teacher.

My concern about Dobkins coverage and that of the mainstream media is the emphasis on the union’s participation in these protests. I fear that every time the media coverage includes the name of the union president or of the teachers union’s building representative it will lead readers to the wrongheaded conclusion that these protests are being orchestrated by the unions. The coverage will also lend credence to Cuomo’s allies who will inevitably wave the press coverage and claim the union is behind this movement.

Based on my daughter’s experience as a member of the parent’s organization’s political action team at her son’s school in Brooklyn the unions are NOT directing this movement! Indeed, based on many email exchanges I’ve had with her on the issue I sense that the movement to oppose over-testing is organic to a fault. The parents in her school write their own public relations releases, compose their own letters to city, state, and federal officials, and develop strategies for changing the direction they see their school headed if Governor Cuomo’s package passes. And while the parent group’s written materials include links to information provided on teachers union websites and/or to organizations that the unions sponsor, most of their links are to other parent organizations and to articles and written material they’ve prepared reporting the economic and educational impact to their school should Governor Cuomo’s “reforms” pass. After working for 37+ years in public schools, 35+ as an administrator, I know the difference between a union led movement and a parent-led movement and what is happening in NYC and— from what I’ve read— across the state is being driven by parents and it could be formidable and viral if it succeeds…. and it gives me hope…. and as Dobkins writes in his article’s concluding paragraphs, if hope is combined with action it is possible to stop Cuomo’s “reforms” in their tracks:

The only real hope is that if enough people come out for protests like these, perhaps his political calculus will change slightly- although that seems like a long shot. As a parent with a kid in public school, though, and another one starting soon, that’s what I’m hoping for- the alternative, which is a dystopian future where all the public school kids are packed into classes with 40 kids while their buildings are given away to charter schools and their teachers flee for less stressful careers, is just too depressing to contemplate.

If you agree, consider sending the Governor a polite email, asking him to reconsider this position. The budget isn’t done yet, and there’s still time for him to change his mind.

Getting Governor Cuomo to change his mind about his “reform” initiative is an extremely long shot… but it IS possible to get parents across the state to understand the impact of Cuomo’s “reform” package on their child’s school and if parents across the state continue communicating their opposition with their Assemblymen and State Senators there is a better than 50-50 chance their voices will be heard. There is hope if action is taken now.

Painful Lessons Lead to Moynihan’s Rehabilitation

March 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Nick Kristoff’s NYTimes column, “When Liberals Blew It“, marks the nearly complete rehabilitation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a sub-Cabinet member of the Johnson administration who later became a member of Nixon’s cabinet and ultimately was a three term senator in New York. Moynihan was a persona non grata to the liberal wing of the Democrat party in the 60s based on a report he wrote describing the adverse impact of both slavery and single parent households on the upbringing of young blacks. At the time he issued his report, he was excoriated by many on the left and many black activists for their perception he was “blaming the victim” for their station in life. Kristof selected one quote that captured the antipathy Moynihan generated at the time:

“My major criticism of the report is that it assumes that middle-class American values are the correct values for everyone in America,” protested Floyd McKissick, then a prominent African-American civil rights leader.

When I was a graduate student at University of Pennsylvania in the early 1970s I wrote a report advocating early intervention for children being raised in poverty, recommending more funds for structured preschool education programs like the ones in Ann Arbor Michigan. Many of my classmates at the time echoed McKissick’s criticism, and others, who privately agreed with my proposals later, were quiet— as were other moderate liberals at the time.

The government’s role in mitigating against family dysfunction is not easy to define. We tend to favor keeping children with biological parents for as long as possible even if those parents have limited resources and/or limited parenting skills. We tend to impose economic penalties on wives who want to move out of abusive relationships even though remaining in those relationships exposes their children to violent and aggressive behavior. And, as Kristof notes, we tend to imprison the fathers of too many children reinforcing the vicious cycle of crime and poverty in impoverished neighborhoods. Here’s Kristoff’s analysis of the conservatives’ fundamental error in the fight against poverty:

Conservatives shouldn’t chortle at the evidence that liberals blew it, for they did as well. Conservatives say all the right things about honoring families, but they led the disastrous American experiment in mass incarceration; incarceration rates have quintupled since the 1970s. That devastated families, leading countless boys to grow up without dads.

The conservative’s belief that “government is the problem” also damaged any hope of meaningful early childhood intervention and their ongoing objections to “government schools” makes any expansion of preschool to help needy children highly unlikely. And many of today’s liberals, like their predecessors, are likely to push back at any effort to have the government impose “middle class American values”, especially if those “middle class American values” involved funding any religious organizations or advocating mindless consumption.

One thing IS clear: continuing what we’ve done for the past 50 years will get us nowhere… and one thing we HAVEN’T been doing is spending too much money on this issue. My thought: if we want to break the cycle of dysfunction that has existed for decades and is getting worse, we need to be willing to spend more on early intervention and one unarguable need is access to medical and mental health services for all children, not just those fortunate to have been born in the right zip code. Maybe a latter day Moynihan will emerge— perhaps someone like Robert Putnam— and call for something along these lines so that we can move the debate away from moral issues related to single parent households and toward ameliorating the physical and psychological pain their children struggle with on a daily basis.

New York Daily News Connects the Dots… Hedge Fund $$$ to Cuomo = More For-Profit Schools

March 12, 2015 Leave a comment

This just in! The New York Daily News reports on the link between hedge fund spending on Cuomo’s campaign and the increase in the number of charter schools! The Daily News writes:

Hedge fund executives have unleashed a tsunami of money the past few years aimed at getting New York’s politicians to close more public schools and expand charter schools.

They’ve done it through direct political contributions, through huge donations to a web of pro-charter lobbying groups, and through massive TV and radio commercials.

Since 2000, 570 hedge fund managers have shelled out nearly $40 million in political contributions in New York State, according to a recent report by Hedge Clippers, a union-backed research group.

The single biggest beneficiary has been Andrew Cuomo, who received $4.8 million from them.

Several of the governor’s big hedge fund donors, such as Carl Icahn, of Icahn Enterprises, Julian Robertson of Tiger Management, and Daniel Loeb, of Third Point LLC, are also longtime backers of charter schools.

Loeb is chairman of the board of the Success Academy network run by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. He’s given $62,000 to Cuomo, while 18 other members of the Success Academy board or their family members have given nearly $600,000 to the governor, according to state campaign records.

The article featured several pictures of the investors… including this one of Daniel Loeb:

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Oh… is that the New York Times backdrop? Hm-m-m-m….

Read the article in full and see if you can connect some other dots. Is it possible that Cuomo insistence on using tests might provide evidence to close the “government monopoly” schools? Is it possible that the massive TV and radio commercials have created the conventional wisdom that “schools are failing” and “bad teachers” are the problem? Is it possible that the oligarchs want some of the money that is being spent by the “government monopoly” schools?