The New York Times is finally noticing that parents are pushing back against standardized testing… and with some coaching might begin to recognize that the whole standardized testing movement is based on simplistic and wrongheaded thinking.
Today’s paper features an article by Lizette Alvarez describing the parent pushback against the wide array of mandated standardized tests in FLA, testing that expanded greatly as a result of Jeb Bush’s initiatives a decade ago that was compounded by RTTT. I left a comment that was just under the 1500 character limit that made the following points:
- Standardized tests do not measure the quality of education,
- The new test results are lower because of the way they are scaled
- Using those tests to measure teacher performance is invalid and simplistic.
- Using test as the primary measure for “quality” will increase the focus on testing in the classroom.
- Politicians love standardized tests!
Standardized tests do not measure the quality of education: States have administered standardized tests for decades and the results are always the same: affluent districts serving the children of well educated parents always outscore the financially strapped districts serving children raised in poverty. The new test will be no different EXCEPT that there will be more failing students and schools.
The new test results are lower because of the way they are scaled: The new Common Core tests expand the number of “failing” schools because they are scaled to an artificial and idealized standard that assumes all students will graduate from high school ready for college instead of being scaled to the mean scores of an age cohort as they have been in the past. As a result, more students are “failing”, more schools are “falling”, and more districts are “failing”. Whether this is a bug or a feature depends on the extent to which you believe that politicians are in cahoots with squillionaires who are investing in for-profit charter schools and technology companies. For now, I’m on the fence. I think some politicians listen to investors but I also believe some politicians are naively convinced that schools CAN be measured based on test scores and test scores CAN improve if kids and teachers work harder. They believe this in large measure because considering the alternative might require them to raise taxes to provide more support for children raised in poverty.
Using those tests to measure teacher performance is invalid and simplistic: The value-added methodology that uses test scores to measure “growth” of students, teachers, and schools is a statistical artifact. There are reams of scholarly articles that undercut the validity of this approach. I’ve written about this frequently on this blog… enough said.
Using test as the primary measure for “quality” will increase the focus on testing in the classroom: When test results are used to evaluate teachers, to determine if schools will be closed, and to determine if entire districts will be taken over by the state or turned over to for-profit entrepreneurs, it is not surprising that they become the focal point in every classroom…. and as noted in a post earlier today, when those districts are strapped for money they cut everything BUT test preparation activities.
Politicians love standardized tests! They love the tests because they yield precise data that is inexpensive to collect and prove that schools are failing because of “bad teachers” and if the TEACHERS are the problem the fix for “failing schools” is inexpensive and fast: replace the “dead wood” teachers with new (and less expensive) teachers. Voila!
It is heartening to see that the Times is reporting on this nascent movement among parents… but somewhat distressing to see them reporting on this a month after the dust-ups in FLA and a week after a close election in that state and in several other states where “reform minded” governors got elected. Maybe after a spring of rebellion on tests some Presidential candidate will stand up against the test-and-punish approach and begin supporting the importance of public education and the effects poverty has on learning.
The NYTimes, the allegedly “liberal” newspaper of record, continues its relentless bashing of Bill diBlasio’s efforts to provide enhanced services to community schools and lionizing of Michael Bloomberg’s “reform” approach of closing schools and replacing them with charters despite the lack of evidence that Bloomberg’s 12 years in office made any difference whatsoever in the overall performance of NYC schools. In an editorial in today’s paper, titled “New York Needs a Stronger School Plan, the Times editor’s open by acknowledging that diBlasio’s plan “…needs to be fleshed out in greater detail before it can be fully appraised” but then proceeds to appraise it by asserting it:
…might not be sufficient to remake the city’s lowest-achieving, most-dysfunctional schools. The plan could easily delay action on schools that are in desperate straits and should be reorganized or closed in fairly short order.
They repeated their claim from earlier this week that the kind of integrated service approach was unsuccessful in SOME schools in Cincinnati based on THEIR analysis of results. In the same article they effectively acknowledge that in SOME cases Bloomberg’s ideas did not succeed, but no matter, diBlasio should continue that course of action. The section of the editorial that I found especially maddening was this:
Schools that do not meet performance benchmarks face “consequences,” the city says, including changes in leadership or reorganization. Much, of course, will depend on the benchmarks. If they are weak, mediocre or failing schools will continue to operate, instead of being reconstituted or shut down.
Bloomberg’s benchmark tests during the first two terms of office, the ones he used to tout the success of his test-and-punish approach, turned out to be bogus— which is worse than “weak” or “mediocre”. When the tests were statistically adjusted it seemed that the success rate of his reconstituted schools wasn’t nearly so good. And, as readers of this and other progressive blogs know, the charter schools that have remarkable achievement rates often had remarkably low retention rates, remarkably high student suspension rates, and de facto selectivity. So far diBlasio has not tried to juke his statistics or make wild claims about fast turnarounds. Schools are human enterprises not factories, and changing human behavior is much harder and more time consuming that changing the procedures on an assembly line in a factory. The Times should know that and help the readers understand it. Instead, they are reinforcing the idea that there is a quick, cheap, and direct way to fix a complicated problem that will require additional resources.
The non-partisan race for CA State Superintendent of Public Instruction pitted two Democrats against each other: the incumbent Tom Torklason who advocates continuation of the current model for non-profit public schools and neo-liberal challenger Marshall Tuck who advocates for market-based reform that would provide increasing amounts of public funding to for-profit charter schools. There were two other bright line distinctions between the candidates: Torklason opposed the Vergera decision that eliminated tenure for teachers in CA and opposes the use of test scores to measure teacher effectiveness; Tuck supported the Vergera decision and the use of VAM. As Mokota Rich of the NYTimes wrote, the CA race drew a lot of outside attention and money because it was viewed “…as a proxy for the national debate over teacher tenure rules, charter schools and other education issues that have divided Democrats.”
An hour ago Alexei Koseff of the Sacramento Bee reported the results, and as the title of this blog post intimates Torklason won. But the relatively narrow margin of victory (53-47) is an indication that the education reformers are making a substantial dent in public opinion. As Koseff noted, the Vergera case was a focal point of Tuck’s campaign:
Tuck built his campaign on the case, galvanizing supporters after a judge declared the policies unconstitutional in June. He wielded the ruling against Torlakson like a bludgeon, spending most of his public appearances urging California to reject the “status quo” and get behind the decision.
Over the past year, progressive bloggers lamented the attention the Vergera case generated while grudgingly acknowledging it was politically shrewd, particularly in its timing. Whether the case won or lost, it shone a light on “tenure” which is perceived by many voters as “protecting bad teachers”. This notion, in turn, plays into the hands of “reformers” who assert that our nation’s low performance on international tests can be easily fixed by ridding classrooms of “bad teachers who are protected by tenure”. This is akin to the logic that the budget can be balanced if we eliminate “waste, fraud, and abuse” but is a logic that resonates more than Torklason’s reaction to the Vergera case, as reported by Koseff:
Torklason said the case was an attack on teachers, who should not be blamed for the failings of the education system. He pushed for more school funding and was the rare politician to speak out in favor of extending tax hikes voters approved in Proposition 30 when they begin to expire in two years.
Given the choice of “reform” which can be accomplished by “eliminating bad teachers” and introducing competition into education with a reduction in taxes or the “status quo” which requires more funds to help existing public schools without a reduction in taxes makes “reform” appealing.
Here’s my optimistic take-away from 3000 miles away:
- The CA voters did not support the “status quo”, they rejected Tuck. Given the framing of these two articles from opposite sides of the country, it is evident that Tuck successfully framed Torklason as a defender of the “status quo”, particularly a defender of “the unions”. This framing accounted for the narrowness of the victory.
- CA voters are not prepared to adopt privatization as a solution, even if it results in tax savings. While the two media reports did not see the race as a referendum on spending, Tuck’s campaign implicitly rejected the argument that more spending was needed on schools and that “introducing competition” would preclude the need for a continuation of tax hikes in the future.
- CA voters see through the fallacy of defining teacher quality based on standardized test results. Both writers mentioned VAM as a political issue and Tuck and Torklason were on opposite sides of the fence on this issue. To the extent that voters rejected Tuck’s proposal for change they also rejected the notion that VAM is worthwhile.
But here’s why I see the results as ominous:
- The “reformers” framed the debate: By making the debate “reform” vs. “status quo” they simultaneously framed the debate as “taxpayers” vs. “unions” and “accountability” vs. “laissez-faire”. This, in turn, placed those of us who see the need for a holistic approach, one that would require more resources for the children raised in poverty, on the defensive.
- The anti-union sentiment is strong: When 47% support an explicitly anti-union candidate it is a sign that reliance on union voters is shaky. In a future post I will outline my thoughts on why the support for unions is eroding, but it is increasingly evident that mainstream voters are put off by candidates who get large sums of money from organized labor while ignoring the money streaming into candidates from the .1%.
- The failing schools meme is not going away: While Torklason did advocate for more funding for schools, he not use the campaign to dispute the fact that schools are failing and emphasize that schools serving children raised in poverty need more resources if Californians hope to see an increase in aggregate test scores.
- Dark outside money is moving into school politics: The outside money invested in Tuck’s campaign necessitated a proportional response from teachers’ unions and that resulted in this outcome:
The contest drew more than $20 million in outside spending, more than for any other elected office in California this fall. Billionaire philanthropists looking to overhaul California’s low-ranking public schools squared off against powerful teacher unions defending their job protections, with both sides spending heavily on television attack ads and nasty mailers.
To paraphrase Al Shanker, when unions and school boards call each other names, the public believe them both. When school campaigns result in adults taking sides, and both sides spend heavily on “attack ads and nasty mailers“, the public believes what both sides are claiming and school children lose in the end. THAT is the MOST ominous result of the CA election.
The NYTimes and other NYC media have criticized Bill De Blasio in the past few weeks for not having a plan to improve schools whose test scores have not improved over the past several years, intimating their support for the Bloomberg/Klein plan of closing the so-called “failing schools”. Yesterday, De Blasio announced his plan for low performing schools and it was a marked departure. Instead of closing the schools, his administration will keep them open and provide them with the resources they need to throve despite their challenges:
Students at those schools will receive an extra hour of instructional time each day, teachers will have extra professional training, and the schools will be encouraged to offer summer school. The schools will also be given additional resources, with $150 million spread over two years, about $39 million for this school year and $111 million in the next.
But the centerpiece of the proposal involves turning these institutions into so-called Community Schools, which try to address the challenges students face outside the classroom, with offerings like mental health services for those who need them or food for students who do not get enough to eat at home.
Implicit in De Blasio’s plan are the following notions:
- Improvement will not happen quickly. De Blasio is willing to provide the time required to turn around a school where lagging performance has demoralized teachers, parents, and students. This is a marked contrast to the “turnaround” concept whereby the outright closure of the school and replacement of the staff would yield instantaneous results.
- Students need more time to succeed: Much of the funding will be going toward the extension of the school day and the lengthening of the school year. As noted in multiple posts on this blog, we have operated for too many years on the notion that time is constant and performance is variable. By providing more classroom time for students, De Blasio is making performance the constant and time the variable.
- Bad teaching is not the fundamental problem: By allocating funds for health and social services, De Blasio is signaling his belief that teachers are doing the best they can and the effects of poverty need to be addressed.
- Teachers working in low performing schools need new approaches: The schools are not failing because teachers aren’t trying hard and they are not going to improve unless new approaches are attempted. De Blasio’s plan to fund staff development for teachers in these schools will provide time for training and implementing the new approaches.
The Times, which increasingly is showing its editorial bias for the “reform” agenda, effectively dismissed the ideas in the plan and offered Joel Klein the opportunity to make the preposterous claim that “the Bloomberg administration gave schools little help to improve.”, an assertion the Times did not counter. It did, however, counter De Blasio’s plan based on its own evidence:
While these programs are often popular with advocates, and already in use around the country for many decades, including in New York City, their performance has often been viewed as uneven. An analysis by The New York Times found that some of the community schools in Cincinnati, which is viewed as a leader in the approach, still showed dismal academic performances even after years of work and millions of dollars of investments.
The Star Tribune in Cincinnati in a May 2014 article touted the continuing success of the community schools model:
Over a decade, Cincinnati Public Schools’ graduation rate has jumped from 50 to 80 percent. And in the past five years, the reading and math proficiency of its elementary students has climbed in many schools.
Those gains have been fueled by big improvements in the performance of black students, who make up more than half of the district’s 30,000 students. In 2006, 2007 and 2010, black students’ graduation rates surpassed those of whites.
Here’s the bottom line: not ALL of Cincinnati’s schools improved, but since 2000 the district’s overall test scores rose and the overall graduation rate improved. NYC’s “turnaround plan” did not yield those results— unless one counts the improvement on NYC’s own tests as evidence. De Blasio is on the right track in supporting neighborhood schools and the teachers who work tirelessly to improve the lives and academic performance of students in those schools. I will not be surprised to see that the performance of these low performing schools improves in the aggregate… and not be surprised is SOME of the schools continue to struggle. One thing is clear: after a decade, the “close and re-open” model of the “reformers” did not work. It is time to try another model.
Today’s NYTimes op ed page features an article by Richard Friedman titled “A Natural Fix for ADHD“. The “natural fix” Friedman prescribes is creating an environment in school that matches the reward system in place in the neural passages of ADHD students in much the same way that adults with ADHD find a workplace that meets their needs. Two paragraphs in Friedman’s essay jumped out at me:
You may wonder what accounts for the recent explosive increase in the rates of A.D.H.D. diagnosis and its treatment through medication. The lifetime prevalence in children has increased to 11 percent in 2011 from 7.8 percent in 2003 — a whopping 41 percent increase — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 6.1 percent of young people were taking some A.D.H.D. medication in 2011, a 28 percent increase since 2007. Most alarmingly, more than 10,000 toddlers at ages 2 and 3 were found to be taking these drugs, far outside any established pediatric guidelines.
Some of the rising prevalence of A.D.H.D. is doubtless driven by the pharmaceutical industry, whose profitable drugs are the mainstay of treatment. Others blame burdensome levels of homework, but the data show otherwise. Studies consistently show that the number of hours of homework for high school students has remained steady for the past 30 years.
Friedman believes that the advent of digital technology is an underlying factor, and certainly neither I-phones or I-pads existed in 2003 and are prevalent today. But at the same time as digital technology and its distractions emerged, schools have become more regimented. Why? In 2003 NCLB was getting into full swing and by 2014 RTTT has taken NCLB’s emphasis on standardized testing to new levels. From my perspective, this vicious circle is far more damaging to ADHD children than digitization: if schools could individualize their instruction using digital technology to allow restless students to explore their areas of interest in a fashion that increased their reading comprehension skills instead of preparing them for a standardized test that requires a regimented lockstep curriculum that fits all students we might not find the need for children with ADHD to FOCUS. Expect to see more ADHD if we stay with our factory model… and expect more students to become dependent on Adderall and other drugs that improve “focus”….
Thomas Kane is a true believer in Value Added Measures, and his article in EducationNext is persuasive on its surface but it glosses over three obstacles that VAM proponents tend to ignore…. obstacles that make the use of VAM costly, impractical, and, perhaps, impossible. Those obstacles are outlined below:
Schools would be required to substantially alter their grouping practices and/or test protocols in order to use to use “value added” assessments in a fashion that conforms with research models
Almost all the value added research has taken place in urban schools or county school districts where there are large grade-level cohorts, a common curriculum, common instructional practices, and comparable demographics. In these studies, researchers carefully controlled the grouping of students, the way tests were administered, and the nature of the tests. In order to replicate these research conditions in other districts, particularly the large number of small school districts across the country, elementary schools would need to make certain that:
- Teachers are assigned to comparable cohorts of students over a three year period (i.e. the same grade level, the same blend of regular and special education students, and same ability level IF ability level is the grouping practice)
- The student cohorts remain constant
- Assessments used to measure teacher performance are designed specifically for that purpose
- The assessments are administered in a pre-test/post test fashion instead of once annually
At the secondary level, where students typically have 4-7 teachers per day, it is difficult to imagine how any value-added measure could be used without dramatically expanding the tests administered at each grade level.
The performance of a large number of teachers cannot be measured using existing assessments
Teachers at all grade levels who do not teach specific content that is not systematically assessed at the State level (i.e. Art, Music, PE, Guidance, Special Ed, Technology Education, etc) and secondary teachers whose content is not systematically assessed at the state level (currently all subject areas except English, Mathematics and Science) could not be measured be using the testing protocols in place. Moreover, given that assessments are administered at only one grade level in high schools, it is hard to envision how longitudinal information on student performance will be gathered. In summary, since state level tests are not in place for what is arguably a majority of teachers, any system linking student performance with teacher compensation is inherently inequitable.
It is unclear whether the new PARCC and SBAM assessments are specifically designed to generate “value added” measures
As written and designed, he forthcoming computerized tests may not yield individual student data with the kind of detail needed to measure improvement in individual students over time. This is particularly true in high-performing districts where the “headroom” is insufficient, making it impossible to measure “gains” of any kind.
BOTTOM LINE: If districts across the country were required to use the new computerized tests to implement value added measures for ALL teachers it would require several years. Each State would be required to develop new assessments for those content areas not covered by existing tests, field test those assessments, and implement them for multiple years before receiving the results needed to make any meaningful decisions on teacher performance. All of this assumes it is possible to design such an assessment for small rural schools and assumes assessments can be designed and implemented for secondary teachers and K-12 teachers in specialized subjects.
VAM will not work without huge outlays of money… and those funds would be better spent helping students who are living in poverty.
Sometimes I read a string of articles and I believe the stars MAY be aligning to end the standardized testing regimen that has defined schooling for a generation of students. Two articles describe such a potential alignment. The first, a the USA Today report describing a new coalition that wants to see an end to the test-and-punish paradigm in place since NCLB:
The nation’s two largest teachers unions – along with school administration organizations, business advocacy groups and school equity leaders – on Tuesday announced a new framework for accountability that focuses more on a holistic “support-and-improve” model than the longstanding “test-and-punish” mindset that’s commonplace in schools nationwide.
The list of organizations in the partnership is diverse, including business alliances, the AASA, and NSBA. And their mission is not the complete abandonment of standardized testing, but instead a more appropriate use of those tests, especially in light of the real needs of the workforce:
Rather than advocating for an outright repeal of standardized testing, the partnering organizations say they want fewer, better tests that more accurately measure what schools and business leaders say is the most important objective for students who’ll soon have to compete in the high-tech, global economy: whether they can problem solve, work collaboratively and apply academic concepts in different situations.
The second article, from the Washington Post earlier this week reports that civil rights groups are ALSO calling for a change to the existing accountability system:
Eleven national civil rights groups sent a letter Tuesday to President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and congressional leaders saying that the current standardized test-based “accountability system” for K-12 education ignores “critical supports and services” children need to succeed and discourages “schools from providing a rich curriculum for all students focused on the 21st century skills they need to acquire.” The groups make recommendations on how to revamp the system in a way that would improve educational opportunity and equity for students of color.
The notion that the test-and-punish method would address disparities was never evident and after over 12 years of the regimen, it is heartening to see civil rights groups calling the political leaders on this issue. Are the stars TRULY aligned? We’ll know a little bit more after looking at the election results on Tuesday.