Posts Tagged ‘Testing’

Citizenship Tests as a Graduation Requirement

January 28, 2015 Leave a comment

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?”

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Childhood Poverty at “Obscene Levels”

January 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Charles Blow’s NYTimes column today deals with childhood poverty, a topic that has been the subject of scores of posts on this blog. Drawing statistics and quotes from “Ending Child Poverty Now”, a recently released report from the Childhood Defense Fund, Blow calls on us to reduce the “obscene level of childhood  poverty”. He writes:

People may disagree about the choices parents make — including premarital sex and out-of-wedlock births. People may disagree about access to methods of family planning — including contraception and abortion. People may disagree about the size and role of government — including the role of safety-net programs.

But surely we can all agree that no child, once born, should suffer through poverty. Surely we can all agree that working to end child poverty — or at least severely reduce it — is a moral obligation of a civilized society.

And yet, 14.7 million children in this country are poor, and 6.5 million of them are extremely poor (living below half the poverty line).

He quotes extensively from the report, which notes that children born in poverty in the US are more disadvantaged than those born in other developed countries in the world: “Among (the 35 OECD) countries, America ranks 34th in relative child poverty — ahead only of Romania, whose economy is 99 percent smaller than ours.” 

Citing statistics that demonstrate how poverty is intergenerational and the long term costs associated with the corrosive effects of poverty, the report recommends that our government invest $77 billion per year to end childhood poverty. While that is an eye-popping amount, the report notes that it pales in comparison to what we are spending now:

Every year we keep 14.7 million children in poverty costs our nation $500 billion — six times more than the $77 billion investment we propose to reduce child poverty by 60 percent.”

The report offers several ideas on how that money could be raised, including the obvious solutions of raising taxes on the highest wage earners and spending less on the military. But as I implied in the comment I left, these ideas are likely non-starters:

As you note in your column, this is not a new problem. Unfortunately “A Nation At Risk” that blamed economic problems on public schools captured the public’s attention far more than the 1994 CDF report “Wasting America’s Future” and the current toxic testing regimen is the result. You could get over $1.7 billion from the state coffers by eliminating standardized tests that are used now to tell us what we already know: children raised in poverty do worse on standardized tests than children raised in affluence. And here’s what is especially maddening: instead of using those results to demonstrate the need to invest more in children who are raised in poverty we are using those results to close neighborhood schools and replace them in many cases with for-profit charters that are not markedly improving the opportunities for children raised in poverty but ARE increasing the money shareholders receive.

I doubt that the 2014 CDF Report will get any more traction than the 1994 report, but appreciate Charles Blow’s effort to bring the report to the full attention of the public. MAYBE repeating the report’s central message will help people of conscience to think twice before they support cuts to programs that help children. That central message is:

“America’s poor children did not ask to be born; did not choose their parents, country, state, neighborhood, race, color, or faith.”

What Could Replace Standardized Tests as A Metric?

January 27, 2015 Leave a comment

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:

  • Samplingwhere 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.


RTTT Overreach = Potential for GOP to End Tests = Hobson’s Choice

January 20, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

Three Takes on Duncan’s Insistence to Test

January 14, 2015 Leave a comment

On Monday, Arne Duncan announced that he intended to encourage Congress to continue its emphasis on standardized testing when they reauthorized NCLB, and the articles three different media outlets all focused on the “enshrinement of testing” that is baked into NCLB

White House Still Backs Annual Testing in Schools“, the NYTimes quoted one part of Duncan’s rationale for the continued testing: “parents, teachers and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness.” 

The USNews and World Report’s article, “Duncan Wants to Scrap No Child Left Behind, Keep Annual Tests” offers another rationale: testing has bi-partisan support.

Duncan, for his part, said he hopes department leaders can work with Democratic and Republican lawmakers to come to a compromise on a reauthorization bill, and cited past collaborations, such as a bill to reduce student loan interest rates, as the basis of his optimism.

“The Republican Party has always stood for not wasting taxpayer dollars, and I agree with that, and using scarce dollars wisely, and having accountability,” Duncan said. “But saying we should just put out money in a blanket way and not have any sense of whether that money is helping [students] learn, that’s not a Republican ideal.”

The Network for Public Education (NPE)saw the glass half-full on the reauthorization of NCLB in their article titled “Congressional Hearings on Testing“. Why? Because Lamar Alexander indicated he would convene special hearings on standardized tests, a specific request of the NPE. The article includes this quote from Alexander:

“Every parent, every teacher in 100,000 public schools is asking the question, ‘Are there too many tests?’ “Alexander said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t know the answer. I’m asking the question. And the United States Senate ought to be asking that question as we think about No Child Left Behind.”

Each article referenced the supporters and opponents of standardized testing, and all noted (without saying so explicitly) that Obama and Duncan and Duncan want to have it both ways: they want to mandate fewer tests but don’t want to change the purpose and use of the tests. As noted in many earlier posts,

  • Duncan and Obama’s insistence that test results be used to determine the effectiveness of schools and/or teachers is political hay but statistical folly: the VAM measures they insist on using are invalid and cannot be improved upon.
  • The repeated administration of standardized tests “prove” what we already know: Poverty Matters! Students coming from affluent and/or well educated households do better than students coming from poor and/or less educated parents.
  • Offering disaggregated results does nothing to improve VAM measures and only reinforces the fact that Poverty Matters.

As noted in an earlier post, much has been made of the Civil Rights communities support for testing as a means of ensuring that students receive an equal opportunity for school success. The USNews and World Report article offered this:

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told reporters Monday that Duncan’s plan puts forth an idea both Democrats and Republicans should be able to back, because it emphasizes “both excellence and equity.”

Duncan’s plan, as set forth in the Times article arguably DOES emphasize “excellence and equity”:

Mr. Duncan said the administration was also committed to increasing federal funding for education and providing more support for teachers. President Obama’s 2016 budget would include a request for an additional $2.7 billion for the Education Department’s program, including $1 billion for the program that funnels money to schools with high proportions of poor students.

Mr. Duncan noted that a new education bill should include provisions for public preschool for all families who want it.

If I’m Mr. Henderson I’m all in on this proposal… but it would be best for his constituency if the money was linked to the continued linkage between neighborhood schools and testing. My prediction is that:

  • the testing will continue
  • no new money will be appropriated for testing or schools
  • the accountability standards and assessments revert to the states
  • state departments of education will form collaboratives to devise cheap bubble tests for accountability… or if Duncan is lucky USDOE regional offices will develop them
  • persistently low performing schools will be closed and turned over to for-profit charter chains
  • inequality will not only persist, it will continue to grow

Oh… and when Obama leaves office Duncan will be named head of a neo-liberal think tank who will issue countless white papers extolling the virtues of testing and charter schools. I’ll check back in a few months to see how I did!


Education: The Internet’s Last Frontier

January 12, 2015 Leave a comment

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.



My Letter to the CPC

January 11, 2015 Leave a comment

On Friday I urged readers of this blog to write to the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) members urging them to oppose any reauthorization of NCLB that perpetuates the use of standardized tests as the primary accountability metric. Here is the letter I am sending to the CPC, to my two senators, and to my house member. News reports indicate that the NCLB reauthorization is a high priority for Congress and that Secretary Duncan is advocating even more tests. Those of us who want to see a more progressive approach to schooling and want to see more equitable funding need to speak out now!

Dear CPC members-

The test-based accountability system mandated by the current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation is destroying public education and the Race To The Top initiative President Obama launched six years ago has accelerated its demise. The the reauthorization of NCLB proposed by the Republicans in Congress and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan includes many elements that will expand and perpetuate the use of standardized tests, erode the governance of local schools, open the door for vouchers, and continue the inequitable funding of public schools and the resultant economic inequality. To the best of my knowledge the CPC has not taken a position on this issue. I urge you to convene as a group and formulate a position on the reauthorization of NCLB and, in doing so, include the following elements:

  • Discontinue the use of standardized tests as the primary metric for rating schools. NCLB uses standardized tests to evaluate public schools. By now parents, teachers and voters realize how demoralizing this testing is for teachers, school communities, and—most dishearteningly— for students. They see that preparation for tests has become the focal point of classroom instruction. They see that use of standardized achievement tests to rate schools is narrowing the curriculum by pushing out subjects that cannot be tested inexpensively. They see that these tests have given the public misleading, meaningless, and seemingly precise data that fails to measure the true value of schooling. And it is this misleading data that has been used to persuade the public that our public schools are “failing”. Any reauthorization of NCLB should require new accountability systems developed at the state level by practitioners, post secondary institution leaders, and business leaders.
  • Return governance of public schools to state and local school boards: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) stripped state and local boards of their ability to define their curriculum and establish accountability measures. NCLB mandated a de facto national curriculum and de facto national standardized tests. Any reauthorization of NCLB must restore governance to State Boards of Education and local school boards and diminish the impact of standardized tests on public schools.
  • Forbid public funding of for-profit and religiously affiliated K-12 schools: Boards of education who oversee public schools funded by taxpayers are answerable to the public and, like all public institutions, cannot make a profit or advocate for religion. For-profit schools do not answer to the public: they answer to shareholders. Religiously affiliated schools do not answer to the public: they answer to an unelected governing board who share a common religious perspective. Any legislation that enables the expansion of for profit charters will line the pockets of shareholders. Any legislation that enables the expansion vouchers under the guise of “choice” will teach our children that one religion is superior to another.
  • Give EVERY child and school a chance to succeed: NCLB punishes schools serving students born in the wrong zip code and does nothing to address the fundamental problems with public education, which are poverty and inequality. We cannot sustain the “American Dream” of economic advancement for each succeeding generation unless the most financially challenged school districts in our nation have the same services, courses, and facilities as the most financially blessed school districts in our nation. The reauthorization of NCLB should include a provision that re-allocates federal funds to resource starved districts (see next bullet).
  • Redirect all Federal funds to constitutionally underfunded districts: Over the past several decades all but five states have been sued over inequities in school funding. At the same time federal special education funds have been allocated to every district in the country, even the most affluent. Recent articles report that the GOP intends to link Federal funding for handicapped students with legislation on the reauthorization of NCLB. If that is in the NCLB reauthorization, the CPC should insist that all federal funds, including funds for handicapped children in affluent districts, be redirected to those districts that state courts identify as being short-changed in cases where State legislatures have failed to provide every child with an equal opportunity. If states are unwilling to ensure equal opportunity for their children, the federal government has a responsibility to do so.

Thank you, in advance, for considering these ideas.