Posts Tagged ‘Testing’

Failing Students Based on Standardized Test Scores is Irrational… but Persists Because of Our Mental

May 16, 2018 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote a post drawing from an op ed piece written by Michigan teacher Nancy Flanagan decrying the Michigan’s third grade “mandatory retention legislation” that requires schools to fail any third grader who scores below a certain level on the standardized tests used to determine “proficiency”. Ms. Flanagan writes:

What to do about children who are not confident readers in third grade? We could begin by taking the resources it will cost to retain them for a year (minimally, $10K per child) and spending it on supplemental instruction: in-school tutoring, libraries filled with easy, engaging books, after-school programs, summer reading clubs and books for children to take home.

We could offer smaller instructional groupings. We could stop the merry-go-round of silver-bullet ‘solutions,’ from emergency managers to charter schools to one-size-fits-all scripted curricula.

We could genuinely invest in our children, believing in their capacity to master not only the skill of reading, but to become an informed, productive citizen.

Reading this brought to mind my favorite Peter Senge quote: “Structures of which we are unaware hold us prisoner”…

Politicians, parents, and pundits view time as a constant and learning as a variable instead of the other way around because we group and asses children based on their age. Standardized testing reinforces this structure and when standardized testing is linked to “promote” students from one grade level to the next by politicians it creates a group of “failures” who in many cases just need time to mature. It would be preposterous to “fail” a child whose physical maturation rate was different from his age peers, but somehow it is “rational” to “fail” a child who can’t learn reading and math skills at the same rate as his or her age peers… especially if that learning is measured by a seemingly precise tool like a standardized test!

It is possible to tailor instruction to meet the unique needs of each child by matching instruction to their rate of learning… but our current structure reinforces the practice of grouping children by age and comparing children to each other, which holds us prisoner to the current factory paradigm.

Ms. Flanagan essentially urges us to change the dominant paradigm by changing the one-size-fits-all scripted curricula. I wold take it a step further to suggest we need to stop the one-growth-rate-fits-all structure we impose when we group and assess children by age.


My Annual Rant Against US News and World Report’s Ratings

May 13, 2018 Leave a comment

It’s the time of year when newspapers across America trumpet the schools in their states who achieve the highest ratings in their State and, in some cases, in the entire nation based on the US News and World Report’s metrics… and it’s the time of year when bloggers like me remind readers that these ratings are completely bogus because they are primarily based on standardized tests which, in turn, are inextricably linked to family affluence and education.

To find out how the US News and World Report calculates their rankings, one has to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page touting the importance of the ratings past the click-bait headlines listing the top high schools overall, the top charter schools, the top STEM schools, to a hot-link in the lower right hand corner. Once the link is clicked, the reader is led to another series of links where eventually the reader learns that in calculating the rankings:

…U.S. News & World Report teamed with North Carolina-based RTI International, a global nonprofit social science research firm.

RTI implemented the U.S. News comprehensive rankings methodology, which is based on these key principles: that a great high school must serve all of its students well, not just those who are college bound, and that it must be able to produce measurable academic outcomes to show it is successfully educating its student body across a range of performance indicators.

This sounds very high-minded, but the four step process is ultimately based on standardized tests and/or family income. .

Step One, for example, purports to determine “...whether each school’s students were performing better than statistically expected for students in that state (in standardized tests).” How is this done? “...(B)y looking at reading and math results for all students on each state’s high school (standardized) proficiency tests”Schools scoring in the top 10% were automatically carried forward, those scoring in the lowest 10% were dropped, and some manipulations were applied to identify schools serving disadvantaged students that performed “…much better than statistical expectations.” 

Step 2 “...assessed whether their historically underserved students – black, Hispanic and low-income – performed at or better than the state average (on standardized tests) for historically underserved students.

Step 3 looked at graduation rates, eliminating any schools that failed to graduate 80% of the cohort that entered the school. This is indirectly linked to standardized tests since 12 states require the passage of such a test to earn a diploma. But it is inextricably linked to family income since more than one third of all drop outs were raised in poverty.

Step 4 is the clincher. For schools whose students score well on State standardized tests and whose students graduate at an 80% rate, the ultimate benchmark is “college-readiness performance” – which is determined by “...using Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate (standardized) test data as the benchmark for success.” 

So how does a school assure itself of high ratings in the annual US News and World Report’s index? Easy: it attracts students who aspire to college, students who enroll in AP and IB courses, students who pay for the AP and IB assessments, and students who do well on those tests. This creates a barrier to entry that precludes hundreds if not thousands of schools since schools or students must pay fees for each test they take, schools must pay to have teachers trained to offer AP and IB courses, and IB certified schools must pay annual fees in excess of $11,000.

And, as noted in earlier posts decrying these rankings, the whole system is based on the assumption that schools enrolling students who score well on standardized tests are meritorious. One would hope that US News and World Report writers realize that quality should be based on something more than standardized tests scores, but the test scores are seemingly precise and objective, readily attainable from public data-bases that are relatively inexpensive to glean data from from, and provide an easy means for sorting and selecting schools. In the end, the selective public and charter schools and the public schools serving the children of affluent and well educated parent achieve medals… and the vicious cycle of poverty continues.


Is “Reform” on the Ropes… or Getting Doctored in the Corner Before Coming Out For the KO?

May 10, 2018 Leave a comment

In the Rocky movies, Sly Stallone inevitably finds himself teetering on the brink of defeat after surprisingly setting his heavy-hitting opponent on his heels. When he wobbles back to the corner at the end of the 14th round, his “corner men” work to stem the bleeding in his facial cuts and encourage him to not give up. As he rises unsteadily on his feet, he looks at his faithful and beloved wife, Adrian, in the first row and is determined to finish the fight with a flourish.

In one of yesterday’s posts, Diane Ravitch draws on a post from Oklahoma teacher John Thompson to support her conclusion (and his) that reform is on its last legs. She opens the post with this:

In case you hadn’t noticed, corporate reform has failed. It is dying. Only money keeps it going. Its true believers know it is dead but they are paid handsomely to pretend there is still a pulse. If they flat out admitted that test-and-punish reform had failed, that privatization was a flop, the money train would go away.

John Thompson, teacher and historian in Oklahoma, reviews what reformers say to keep their spirits alive and their coffers overflowing.

And John Thompson’s post DOES illustrate the fact that many “reformers” acknowledge that despite their belief in the test-and-punish method of school improvement the test scores they insist on using as a metric have not moved at all. But are the reformers going to lose this fight… or will their corner men encourage them to get on their feet and win one for Adrian?

A Washington Post op ed article by Margaret Spelllings and Arne Duncan, two of the corner men for NCLB and RTTT, suggest that “reform” hasn’t failed! All schools need is more “vision… will… and political support”. This conclusion is not surprising given that these two “corner men” believe that children raised in poverty don’t suffer in school because they lack food, clothing or shelter…. they lack grit— the  determination to push ahead despite adversity. And in this op ed piece they call for the creation of a new national coalition to address the “failing” education system:

After decades of momentum across different administrations (sic), all of us believe we’re headed toward another round of unilateral disarmament. Federal education policy is rudderless and adrift.

What, today, is the national priority for K-12 schools? For higher education? What policy proposal exists today that can plausibly achieve the progress we need?

At a moment when students are marching in the streets for their right to a safe, quality education; when teachers across the country are demanding attention and investment from their political leaders; when every economic indicator confirms the growing importance of a sound education in forging a full, productive life, what is our shared national vision for our children?

From what I’ve seen, politicians prefer spending money to protect children from gun owners exercising their rights to acquire weapons designed for warfare to spending money on health care for those same children. They prefer giving tax cuts and tax incentives to corporations to giving living wages to the teachers or decent housing to those who cannot afford a roof over their heads.

But Ms. Spellings and Mr. Duncan don’t want to acknowledge that we have the money we need to improve our schools and we are spending that money on the wrong things. They would rather insist that our vision is warped, our will is weak, and our efforts are lacking… because their “Adrian”, the corporate sponsors of the political leadership, wants things to stay just the way they are in terms of “reform”.

Here’s hoping Apollo Creed wins this fight…


The Desegregation Conundrum: Can Schools Move Faster Than the “Speed of Trust”

May 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Late last month the new New York City schools chief Richard Carranza weighed in with a tweet on a desegregation effort that is resulting in pushback from affluent Upper East Side parents, and in one short message he indicated that there may be some changes in the efforts to integrate schools in the city. The Chalkbeat blog noted that by tweeting an NY1 video of Upper West Side parents angrily pushing back against a city proposal that could result in their children going to middle school with lower-scoring classmates, Mr. Carranza indicated a sift in the thinking in his administration.

Carranza didn’t add any commentary of his own to the message generated automatically by the site that amplified the NY1 video, Raw Story. He didn’t have to for his Twitter followers to see an endorsement of the site’s characterization of the video — “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.”

…Since taking the chancellorship, Carranza has signaled that he believes the education department has a central role to play in desegregating schools — offering a contrast to the chancellor he replaced, Carmen Fariña. She called school diversity a priority but argued that integration efforts should happen “organically” and be driven by school leaders and local communities, not department officials.

Last week in a NYTimes article,  First Test for New York Chancellor: A Middle School Desegregation Plan, education writer Elizabeth Harris weighed in on the change in Mr. Carranza’s administration. Citing the fallout from the same tweet, Ms. Harris wrote:

Mr. Carranza said in a partial apology on Monday that the language was not his — it had been automatically generated from the headline on the site hosting the video, a local news story that was first broadcast on NY1. But he did not back away from the issue.

“The video speaks for itself,” he said. “And the video of the comments that were made, I don’t know how anybody could be O.K. with that. I know that I’m not O.K. with that.

To observers, after four years in which Mayor Bill de Blasio and his first schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, took only small bore action on the issue, Mr. Carranza’s language sounded like a sea change.

The new middle school desegregation plan that will test Chancellor Carranza would give priority for 25 percent of the seats at all the district’s middle schools to students who score below grade level on the state tests. Given the fact that test scores generally mirror socioeconomic status and race, the plan would likely increase the number of poor and minority students at middle schools that rely on test scores as a primary admissions criteria, schools that have much higher ratings because they unsurprisingly have much higher pass rates on subsequent standardized test scores. But parents at these high scoring schools are afraid that teachers will be unable to adapt their instruction to meet the needs of incoming underprivileged students use “the lack of a plan” to support teachers as a defense for maintaining the status quo. And some parents are even more caustic in defending the status quo that results in resegregation, like the woman in the video that prompted Mr. Carranza’s late night tweet: :

“You’re talking about telling an 11-year-old, ‘You worked your butt off and you didn’t get that, what you needed or wanted,’” a woman yells. “You’re telling them, ‘You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks!’”

Ms. Harris notes the underlying rationale for the school boundaries and choice plans in the city, indicating that “… in drawing school zones and allowing parents choice in which schools their children attend, the city has been seen as trying to keep white families in the public schools.” In tinkering with boundaries or changing the rules in terms of school admissions, Mr. Carranza may topple a delicately balanced arrangement that enables affluent whites to remain in the public schools and thus encourage the support for school funding that provides resources for all students.

The solution to the problem of fewer seats in “elite” schools for children of color seems easy. Instead of expanding the number of seats in schools that restrict enrollments based on test scores provide, expand the number of seats in those schools and offer those seats to children who struggle to do well on tests. That is, instead of forcing 100 students out of a school of 500 to make room for struggling students, expand the seats in that school to 600 and offer those seats to students who sought entry but whose test scores fell short of the mark. A parent who was interviewed for the NYTimes put it this way:

For Tracy Alpert, a white parent who has one child at P.S. 191, which was at the center of an earlier desegregation debate in the district, the answer was clear. “They need more good schools. It’s a scarce resource,” she said. “We need more good seats at good schools.

As one who wishes desegregation could happen much faster, I attended a Buddhist retreat where an African American presenter spoke about our tradition’s need to welcome more people of color. I was struck by a phrase she used in her concluding remarks: she suggested that in our efforts to be more accepting, she realized that we could move no faster than the “speed of trust”… and that trust would only occur when we realized that the stories we imagine may not be the stories others believe.

Parents like shrill woman featured in the video believe that her children’s education will be compromised if they are assigned to a school with those children who didn’t “work their butt off”. The story SHE believes is that the children who do poorly on standardized tests are lazier and less motivated than her children… and the parents of those children care less about their children than she does. But she might think differently if her child attended a school with those “other children”. She might find out that those children work as hard as her child and the parents have the same struggles with their children and aspirations for their children as she does. But here’s the conundrum: if she decides to withdraw her child from public schools for fear that their education will be compromised in some way, she will never gain that understanding… she will never have the chance to trust that all parents want the same thing for their children.

And here’s the last conundrum: the “speed of trust” was not the standard the Supreme Court envisioned when it overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The court insisted that schools move “at all deliberate speed” to integrate and now, 64 yeas later nothing has changed in terms of segregation. What will it take to accelerate the “speed of trust”? It will take some courageous leadership on the part of school administrators, school boards, and, in many instances, mayors and state politicians. And sadly it will require courage and persistence on the part of parents of children raised in poverty and parents of children of color… for before parents like the shrill woman featured in the video can trust that economic and racial segregation will not harm their children they will have to experience success in racially and economically desegregated schools and change their stories. And changing the stories we believe in is difficult.



John Merrow’s Idea to Rid Schools of Standardized Tests is Compelling and Saves Millions of Dollars!

May 7, 2018 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday that was click-bait. It was titled “If you could could make one change…“, the titled derived from a question John Merrow asked some dinner guests, which was this:

If YOU had the power to make ONE major change in American public education immediately, what would you choose to do?”

In Mr. Merrow’s post that posed this question his dinner guest gave responses like doubling spending on public schools, making spending more equitable, expanding early childhood programs, and a commitment to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And what was Mr. Merrow’s response?

At that point everyone turned to me, and, even though I am much more comfortable asking questions than answering them, I plunged ahead. “I would eliminate standardized testing.”

Everyone seemed shocked.  Including me.  Never before had I expressed that thought. To the contrary, like most critics of testing, I have always argued for ‘multiple measures’ that included–but minimized the importance of–standardized, machine-scored ‘bubble’ tests.

“Get rid of them completely,” one asked?  “Yes,” I said, “because about 75% of what they do is destructive: dumbing down the curriculum, making school a pressure-cooker, equating a person’s worth with his or her scores, falsely evaluating teacher quality based on a single number, and so on.”

I continued.  “Maybe about 25% of what they do is worth-while, but, if we got rid of them completely, we would be forced to develop alternative ways of assessing learning, and we could come up with approaches that weren’t inherently destructive.”

John Merrow got this one right… if testing remains in place as it is now any new resources no matter how they are distributed will be spent preparing kids to pass them. The standardized tests we administer to children today insidiously create the comparison of children within an age cohort. This, in turn, leads to developmentally inappropriate instruction for many children and needless competition among students and schools to “succeed” on test-taking. Worse yet it reinforces the notion that schools are designed to sort and select students.

And here’s the best thing about Mr. Merrow’s idea: unlike the ideas of his dinner friends it wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime! Indeed…. it would SAVE millions of dollars!

So why aren’t we all jumping on board? Two possibilities: maybe our politicians are among those who are on the receiving end of the money going to “…the big bureaucracies that want more control over classrooms and the big corporations that provide the tests” OR maybe most voters, parents, and teachers cannot envision a system that doesn’t group children based on age and test them accordingly.

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My Modest Proposal: Test for Student Understanding Instead of School and Teacher Accountability

May 2, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday Diane Ravitch posted a “Modest Proposal” on testing and asked for feedback. She began by posing this question: “Why do our policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels continue to require and enforce annual testing, despite the non-existent benefits?” Her proposal to counter this testing mania was this:

Why not give the tests in the first week of school and use only a test whose results may be returned within a month? Let machines score the standardized questions, and let teachers score the constructed responses. The testing vendor would know that they would be chosen only if they could report the results in a month, in a format that informs teachers what students do and do not know. That way, the teacher can find out where students are as they begin the year and tailor instruction to address the needs of the students.

That way, tests would no longer be high-stakes. They would be expressly designed for diagnostic purposes, to help teachers help students. The results would come too early to misuse the tests to stigmatize students, punish teachers, and close schools. There would be no punishments attached to the tests, but plenty of valuable information to help teachers.

My reaction to her question about why policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels continue to require and enforce annual testing and my own “modest proposal” follow:

Why do legislators and those who elect them want to use standardized tests to measure schools? Because they are relatively cheap, relatively easy to administer, and provide seemingly precise data that can be used to sort and select students and schools in a fashion that is easy to understand. And so schools are using tests designed for accountability of adults instead of tests designed to measure student’s understanding.

It strikes me that teachers could crowd-source formative assessments using social media, formative assessments that would enable them to accomplish what Duane Swacker suggests: “… teacher-made classroom testing and assessments designed to help the students learn where they are in their own learning.” Such tests would be untethered from “grade levels”. These crowd sourced formative assessments would not only promote self-actualization on the part of students but also provide classroom teachers with valuable feedback on how the approaches they are using are work for the specific children in their classroom. Assuming someone with technological expertise would be willing to provide the expertise needed to design this kind of “testing network” without making an unseemly profit, these crowd-sourced tests would be very inexpensive to design and relatively easy to administer. Indeed, these formative assessments might replace the “unit tests” teachers use to measure student performance. The only downside of these assessments— or any formative assessments— is that they could not be used to rate schools.

I believe we have the technological ability to design specially tailored FORMATIVE assessments that would enable students to progress at their own rate in subjects where there are clear hierarchical skills to be mastered. Instead of using SUMMATIVE assessments to hold SCHOOLS and TEACHERS accountable for students achieving specific outcomes based on the artificial construct we call “grade levels” we should use FORMATIVE assessments to “…help students learn where they are in their own learning.” We should let time be the variable and learning be constant instead of the other way around.

Nation MORE At Risk…

May 2, 2018 Leave a comment

I began my career as a public school superintendent in 1981 and retired 30 years later. It is difficult to understate the impact of “A Nation at Risk”. The verbiage in the report put public schools on the defense for decades and the “failing public schools” meme was picked up by presidents and governors ever since. The “failing schools” mantra was not the worst consequence of “A Nation at Risk”. Instead it was the implicit and unquestioned acceptance that “success” was determined by standardized testing. As many commenters noted, the only thing that standardized testing proves is that affluent students are better at taking these tests than students raised in poverty. Anyone who works in education knows there is more to schooling than mastering content… but the under-emphasized soft skills cannot be measured with standardized tests and so states continue to test-and-punish schools based on scores derived from cheap, relatively easy to administer, and seemingly precise standardized tests.

And the saddest element of what has transpired since Nation at Risk was published is this: the majority of teachers working today do not remember what it was like to prepare lesson plans that are not linked to some kind of standardized test metric, be it an AP test, a state competency test, or some other test designed to measure “quality”.

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