As readers of this blog know, I am solidly against the high stakes standardized test regimen that has been imposed on schools as a result of NCLB and RTTT. I am not, however, opposed to ALL standardized tests. I fully support standardized Criterion Referenced Tests (CRTs), tests that are designed to measure a specific skills and specific information sets that are necessary to successfully use those skills. An example of a CRT that is universally accepted is the test required to obtain a drivers license. To secure a drivers license one must demonstrate the capability of driving a car and the ability to understand the signs and “rules of the road”. The AP Tests and GED are examples of CRTs that are accepted as evidence that a student has mastered the skills required for specific college courses or required to graduate from high school.
An article by Rick Rojas and Mokoto Rich in today’s NYTimes describes a CRT that is being required by some states for graduation that is also hard to argue against: the citizenship examination administered to immigrants. Rojas and Mokoto write:
This month, Arizona became the first state to pass a law requiring its high school students to pass the citizenship exam, stipulating that they must answer at least 60 of 100 questions correctly to receive a diploma. (Immigrants are given 10 of the 100 questions and must correctly answer six to pass.) Other states may follow suit: North Dakota’s House of Representatives has passed a comparable bill, and its Senate approved it Tuesday; legislators in Indiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and seven other states have recently introduced similar initiatives.
The driving force behind this movement is Frank Riggs, a former congressman who is president of the Joe Foss Institute. Riggs thought that it was reasonable to require ALL high school graduates to “demonstrate a rudimentary knowledge of civics” in order to get a diploma and reasoned that there was no need to devise a new test for this because we already had one in place: the test given to aspiring US citizens.
The article notes that the proposal to require passage of the citizenship examination does have some opposition:
“I don’t think the test measures what is most important for students to learn,” said Diana Hess, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation, which gives grants in support of education causes. “If all we’re asking students to do is answer very simple questions, we’re not going to be working on the complex understanding that I think students need in order to participate well.”
The balance of the article describes various perspectives on the question, citing the lack of fundamental knowledge that exists among voters today and the poor voter turnout.
I wholeheartedly support this idea… but would take it a step further. To get a drivers license one must not only pass a written test, one must also pass a performance test: they must demonstrate the ability to drive a car. Similarly I would propose that schools require high school students to register to vote and vote in mock elections beginning in their sophomore year. In that way they would learn the procedures that are required in their state and get an understanding of the specific offices they will be voting for once they are of age. For those teachers who complain that this would take time away from “valuable instruction” my retort would be this: “What is more important to our democracy than ensuring high school graduates are informed voters?”
Several years ago (over 35 to be more precise), I recall pondering to move as I sought a new job in a larger school district. To help us decide where we might want to move, my wife and I had purchased Places Rated Almanac which complied reams of data sets to help families like ours decide where we might want to move. As I recall, the data sets included items like housing costs, availability of transportation, recreation alternatives, medical services, weather, taxes… and schools. The metrics used to assign “stars” for each of the data sets had some flaws (e.g. recreation included the number of golf courses and bowling alleys, neither of which interested me) but the one I found most frustrating was the data set for schools. The ratings used some combination of per pupil spending, class size, and standardized achievement tests to evaluate “quality” and they were particularly inadequate in metropolitan areas like Hartford CT where the city school indices were blended with the nearby suburban districts… and I knew from my experiences in the Philadelphia area that there were VAST differences between the city schools and suburban schools and among the suburban school districts as well.
It is therefore not surprising that after relocating to Western MD in the late 1980s I was enthusiastic about the State Department of Education’s notion of developing “Report Cards” for each school as part of an accountability initiative and I welcomed the opportunity to participate in the development process as one of the 24 Superintendents in the State. Under the leadership of State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick we developed a Report Card that included standardized test scores, drop out rates, attendance, and a host of demographic data that included race, socio-economics, special education, and ESL. As the report cards evolved we worked to upgrade the Report Cards. We changed the test data reported, moving away from the use of minimum competency tests to the “Maryland School Performance Assessment Plan” (MSPAP) assessments that were administered in grades 5, 8 and 11. We made certain we all used a common methodology for defining “drop outs”. We reported the data in a disaggregated format to make certain that high-performing students in affluent schools were not masking the deficiencies of, say, special education students in less affluent schools. The MSPAP Report card was far superior to the blunt measurements used by Places Rated but still fell short of capturing the elusive qualities the separate a “good” school from an “excellent” school.
I was saddened when I learned that Maryland had to abandon its tests with the advent of NCLB because they were not given at the end of each grade and they also needed to abandon the format of the Report Card. Standardized Test data became the primary metric for determining school quality. Race To The Top, as noted repeatedly in this blog, only made matters worse by raising the stakes of standardized test results thereby making them the de facto exclusive metric for school quality. Ironically, the depth of the data available to parents in the age of the internet was more school specific than the Places Rated data, but it was far less helpful to parents and far more punitive to schools.
But, as Anna Kamenetz reported in an NPR post earlier this month, the reauthorization of NCLB may result in the use of a different set of accountability metrics. In “What Schools Could Use Instead of Standardized Tests” Kamenetz offers a long list of possibilities:
- Sampling, where tests like NAEP would examine random samples of students in a school instead of stopping everything to administer tests to all students simultaneously.
- “Stealth testing”, which suggests formative assessments like NWEA or Khan Academy dashboards could be used to systematically determine individual student progress
- Multiple Measures, where routinely collected data, like “…graduation rates, discipline outcomes, demographic information, teacher-created assessments and, eventually, workforce outcomes” could be used to measure a school district’s effectiveness. Kamenetz also suggests that emerging metrics like social/emotional skills surveys, game-based assessments, and portfolios could be included in the “multiple measures” provided to students and/or their parents.
- Inspections, conducted by well-funded state departments of education.
Kamenetz has written a book on this topic, which provides a more expansive description of each of these ideas and offers others…. and anyone who thinks this is “unaffordable” should look at how much we are spending on standardized tests. The billions spent on those tests could easily be redirected to the metrics described above… and the results described above would be far more beneficial to teachers, parents, and students than the results we are getting today.
In today’s NYTimes Mokoto Rich reports that Lamar Alexander intends to “…reverse the “trend towards a national school board” in federal education policy” by shifting the responsibility for setting standards and developing assessments back to the States. In doing so, Alexander said he was open to reducing the mandated annual tests and allowing states to determine how they will assess the progress of schools:
Mr. Alexander, in a conference call with reporters, said he was “open on the question” of whether the federal government should mandate testing. “Generally speaking, I want these discussions about testing, standards and accountability systems to move back to states and communities, where I think they belong,” he said.
As one who recently posted articles on the history of public education policy since Brown v. Board of Education and one who has written MANY posts opposing the use of standardized tests, Alexander’s proposal puts me (and presumably many other’s who share my convictions) in a double bind. If I were to support Alexander’s proposal on the pretext that the elimination of federally mandated annual tests to be used for the purpose of evaluating schools and teachers was the greatest good it is conceivable that I would be supporting a host of state governments where privatization and re-segregation are viewed as acceptable if not desirable. It is not hard to see that many Senators who advocate “choice” would readily trade the opportunity to introduce that concept into their states in exchange for the “nanny state” that Duncan and Obama have imposed through RTTT. Indeed, as the previous post indicates, advocates of choice have declared annual testing and choice as “the civil rights issue of our time”. Consequently if Congress declares that decisions about testing and choice can be executed more rapidly at the State level it would be difficult for Duncan and Obama to oppose legislation that does so… especially if the new NCLB legislation insists on annual testing which seems to be their “do or die” issue. The ultimate responsibility for this emerging Hobson’s choice falls on the President and his Secretary of Education. By determining that annual tests and VAM would replace NCLB and by using the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to infuse schools with substantial sums of money to create “incentives” to do so, the Obama administration has set the stage for the GOP to use the restoration of State control of education to eliminate their misbegotten legacy. Over the past two months it has become increasingly evident that the use of the federal stimulus to support VAM, testing, and privatization was a huge missed opportunity and may ultimately result in the end of public schooling as it existed in the 20th century… and the disruption Obama and Duncan achieved will result in separate but unequal schools and a hardening of the economic classes if states are permitted to introduce vouchers as part of the ESEA reauthorization.
Silicon Valley Turns Its Eye Toward Education, an article in today’s NYTimes by Natasha Singer, quotes Betsy Corcoran, the chief executive of EdSurge, an industry news service and research company, as describing education as “…one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology”… a last frontier that is getting more and more attention from hedge fund investors. The article focuses on the direct marketing of free apps to teachers as a means of coping with the “…limited budgets and slow procurement processes” in small school districts across the country. These free products, or “Freemiums” are used by a large number of teachers, parents, and students and are subsequently monetized by selling advertising based on the large number of users. Free courseware, on the other hand, is monetized by having students pay to complete assessments that certify the mastery of the materials presented in the course. In both cases, the technology start ups are using a bottom-up approach to marketing. They identify a need that technology can meet, design a product to meet that need, and then get market share in that niche. From my perspective, this kind of marketing and product development is praiseworthy even though part of the monetization of the “freemium” is likely to involve the sale of e-mail lists and, given the scope of the products described, some personal information.
The article does not mention the top-down approach to introducing technology into schools being used by technology advocates like Bill Gates and various profiteers who are introducing technology-based deregulated for profit schools in states like PA who are willing to fully fund virtual education. Gates’ method of introducing technology is to fund (and in some cases create) various organizations that promote technology based learning and/or the use of technology to assess student and teacher performance. These organizations, in turn, generate White Papers that are used to influence legislation at the State and federal level, legislation that effectively mandates the use of technology. This top-down approach has the advantage of side-stepping the “…limited budgets and slow procurement processes” in small school districts across the country by side-stepping the democratic processes inherent in those same small districts across the country. It has some inherent disadvantages as well:
- Buy-in: Because it is imposed at the national or state level teachers are not engaged in the adoption of the products and not invited to provide feedback as they are in the small start-ups cited in Singer’s article.
- Infrastructure: Top-down “innovations” like on-line testing require technology infrastructure that is often lacking and back room support that for-profit organizations often short change. Too, there is often incompatibility between the technology in schools and the technology required for testing. This recent E-classroom Newsletter article described the connectivity challenges MN faced, challenges that were mirrored in several states across the country.
- Time: Those seeking quick fixes to education are drawn to the top down approach despite the reality that implementing new software programs requires time. Having lived through several budgeting, scheduling, and data-base implementations during my career as an administrator, I found that it took at least two years for the small number of end users to make full use of the software programs. The aggressive roll-out schedules for student assessments reflect a desire place profits in front of education.
- Training: Implementing technology requirements from the top-down requires training of teachers, parents, and students…. and the training can only occur once the first three items on this list are addressed: there must be total buy-in from the end users, the infrastructure must be in place, and there must be sufficient time for the software to be de-bugged.
The Times article’s conclusion is on target and should be required reading for those within to impose a top down means of technology implementation:
“If you get share, users and engagement, you can find a way to build a viable business,” said John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, which is an investor in Remind. “But none of it is easy.”
Mandating technology is easy and fast… but it’s unlikely to be as inexpensive as the bottom-up approach and even more unlikely to be effective.