Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Standardized Testing: Time to Cry "Enough!"

Like millions of school teachers, I have deep concerns about the path American education is currently following. 

I think most of us feel a monomaniacal focus on standardized testing has been detrimental to learning. I believe most of us feel billions of dollars wasted on testing might better have been spent directly on meeting the needs of children. That’s tragedy enough, if we go not a syllable farther.

I haven’t seen figures recently; but in 2012 it was estimated testing cost the states $1.7 billion annually. School reformers, those people who never seem to teach, called that a mere pittance. That said it was worth the expense to have all the valuable data! Why a couple of billion was hardly anything at all! Not if we stopped to consider the total cost of U. S. public education, which the Brookings Institute claimed at the time was roughly $600 billion per year. And did we already mention all that valuable data?

Like most real teachers, who worked with real kids, I couldn’t see it. First of all, $1.7 billion represented nothing more than the cost of “primary assessment contracts.” That’s what states paid companies to buy tests.

Forget the other attendant costs for a moment and focus on what that money, wisely spent, might have meant. Every school in American could use more counseling help. For $1.7 billion, we could have hired 34,000 additional counselors ($50,000 each) and asked them to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of children.

Nope. We bought giant stacks of A, B, C, D tests.

What else might we have used that money for if we wanted to help children? We might have escorted 1.7 million boys and girls to the nearest book stores every year and handed over $100 gift certifcates and let them buy books they liked. 

It’s bad enough we asked a generation of young Americans to devote their best years to coloring in bubble tests. It’s worse to think educators have been forced to sacrifice ten or twenty percent of instructional time to “teach to the tests.” It smacks of insanity to keep following the same path if testing hasn’t worked.

And evidence indicates it has not.

Are students better prepared to compete in a global economy or succeed at a college level? ACT scores indicate they are not. If we go back to 2001, before No Child Left Behind was enacted, we see the only noticeable change is that students who take the optional writing test on the ACT fare worse:

We can turn to SAT results and renew our hopes. Ah, no. Again, there’s not a sliver of evidence that more testing has worked:

How about trends on NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) reports? What do they show? Have reading scores improved? In a way. There are gains at the 9- and 13-year-old levels (not shown), which probably have much to do with all the cramming teachers in the lower grades are forced to do. But any “progress” dissipates by the time young Americans finish high school. Below are NAEP reading scores for 17-year-olds, going back to 1971. May the gods of knowledge have mercy! Reading scores were higher two decades ago. All that money spent on testing! What good did it do?

Math scores for seniors have been stagnant, too. Results remain fundamentally unchanged since 1992:

Ironically, the clamor for increased standardized testing followed hard in the wake of release of the first PISA results in 2000. Based on scores provided by the Program for International Student Assessment, an organization which had not even existed before, cries of horror filled this great American land. In 2000, U. S. students finished 14th in reading and, like, 10,000th in science and math. 

(Okay, I exaggerated a little.)

(Typical PISA results from 2009 shown below.)

So the experts (who, as I have noted, almost never seem to teach) insisted we do something; and what we had to do, they screamed, was give more and more tests and spend more and more time prepping for tests. And what, again, we must ask, have we accomplished? Below are PISA results, shown on a pathetic graph I just made.

(Graph-making is obviously not my forte.)

The blue bars represent scores for U. S. students in math. The red bars represent science. Green indicates reading. The groups, 1, 2, show results from 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012. 

(U. S. reading scores in 2006 were disqualified.)

So what we see here—after all the time, effort and money devoted to raising scores—is a decline in all three areas on the PISA test. Our students are doing worse on the very tests that proved we needed to have more standardized tests!

At this point, if you care about kids, you hardly know whether to laugh or to cry, or in my case to curse.

Frankly, we have been following the same path for almost fifteen years, listening to all the experts, and we have ended up going in dizzying circles. It’s time to take back our schools and run them in the interests of children. It’s time to tell testing companies, know-it-all reformers, bureaucrats and politicians, we have had our fill. We will not fill in more bubbles on all your standardized tests. 

Enough is enough.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Dear Teachers: Please Save the World (and Raise Standardized Test Scores, Too).

Dear Teachers,

            We, the school reformers of America, have a little job for you. We realize you feel you are busy trying to teach reading, science and math.

            Yes, many of you already come to work early, stay late, and spend countless hours at home grading papers and creating lesson plans, too.

            We don’t care about any of that that. We’re school reformers and we love to talk about what you should do.

            We expect you to fix the world. We expect you to show us data, too, to prove when you do. We love data so much we want you to carve out time from helping children to chart everything you do. Band teachers, count all musical notes played. Gym teachers, we must know how many jumping jacks your students performed. Art teachers, how many colors did each pupil use? Don’t have time to save real children and chart data, too? Maybe you should work a little harder, you know, tabulate data in your room when you’re normally eating lunch.

            In what ways do we expect you to fix the world? For starters, you should plug the “school-to-prison” pipeline. You might doubt this “pipeline” actually exists. You might argue that problems of society spill into your classrooms, and not out onto the streets. You might claim the best way to plug the pipeline would be provide competent legal assistance to all defendants, no matter how poor, or make sure all American adults have good-paying jobs. You might think a way to empty the pipeline would be to stop jailing people for non-violent drug offenses.
We’re reformers. We don’t care what you think. No. We put this problem all on you.

Oh, and while you’re at it, could you make sure to keep teaching social studies, science and health.

            You need to get busy—you have lots of work to do. We expect you to prepare every child to “compete in a global economy.”
We love that phrase! Google “preparing students to compete in a global economy” and see how many hits you receive!

You might say, “Wait! How do we prepare students to compete in a global economy if corporations ship millions of jobs to China and Bangladesh? How do we prepare the kid from Michigan or Montana to work in an automobile plant if production has been shifted to Mexico, where workers come cheap?”

Quit whining, teachers. We reformers don’t want to hear it again.

We know you can do more! We might be policy wonks, tucked safely away in comfy offices, with nothing more than cogitating to do. But we have all kinds of suggestions for what you should do. We want you to focus on character education: teach the young to be honest, empathetic, hard-working, and show up for work on time and every day. We expect you to teach children how to handle money, how to do home repairs and get the family car running again whenever it breaks down.

We want you to address teen dating violence, too.

To be frank, there is no end to what we expect of you. You should teach students how to succeed in marriage. You might get all sarcastic and say, “Maybe this is the job of ministers and rabbis and not for us.”

Quit grumbling. You’ve got more work to do.

We expect you to teach sex education (even though most Americans can’t decide what topics schools should include). For example, we want you to teach children to be accepting of gay, lesbian and transgender peers. Then we want you to deal with parents who are furious because you dared. By the way: Would you mind terribly giving up your union protection while you’re at it? Because, really, when do parents ever go nuts and what administrator or school board member ever bent like a willow tree in the face of parental or public ire???

In fact, we are going to blame you for the failure of sex education, too.

Also, schools should teach self-defense. It’s a scary world outside the classroom and you can fix it for sure.

That reminds us: you need to focus on drug prevention education, for sure.

We want you to teach understanding of different cultures and religions; but if you bring up Islam, well, parents might blow. And have we mentioned this lately? We want you to put prayer back in school!

            Being a school reformer is hard. It’s tough giving so much advice. But we expect you to be rigorous. You must demand more from your students. We know, as reformers, even though none of us has ever taught, that the parents we’ve never had to deal with will love you if you set a high bar. We can say this, with perfect confidence: The more rigorous you are the more you will reduce the number of dropouts in your schools.

            Did we mention: all dropouts are on you?

            Of course, we expect the schools to provide free lunch, and now free breakfast, as well. We think you should allow kids to eat scrambled eggs with toast in your classrooms. Then it will be part of your daily grind to help clean up the mess when everyone is finished and insure class still gets started on time. (And remember, you have data to chart, so you might not want to waste all that time you spend going to the bathroom every day.)

By the way, we expect you to turn the tide on childhood obesity, even if schools, struggling to raise test scores, have been forced to cut back time devoted to gym.

            What else do we think you should do? Why, we’re just warming up! We think you should add an hour to your workday and not complain to your unions, because this is the only way to raise standardized scores. We don’t want you to balk. We don’t want you to demand extra pay. We think you should carry around phones so parents can call you, night or day, and ask any question they like, and all of this for free—you know, like lawyers and doctors and other professionals do.

            It might appear to you that we are asking for too much. This makes us think you are the problem in the schools.

            We want you to teach students to write computer code and expect you to save children who are homeless and have no computers at home—or, for that matter, homes. You must teach children how to cook, to file taxes, to prepare resumes, and to jump in when medical emergencies occur. You need to show them how to live sustainably, too. You should also teach yoga, because children today are stressed out. And don’t be babies and run to the union when parents freak out.

            Well, as famous reformers, giving all this advice is tuckering us out. We’re going to take a break now. We have to get ready to attend a gala for reformers, testing company executives, corporate lobbyists, billionaire philanthropists who dabble at fixing schools and politicians of varying stripes.

            (There won’t be a single real teacher in the room. We don’t believe teachers know anything about helping kids.)

            At any rate, don’t forget to prepare every student to pass all the newest standardized tests. Be sure to devote plenty of time to test prep. Get busy, quick, and create and score a few pre-tests, create and score a few practice tests, chart every fragment of data, and then spend a week or two administering all the standardized tests, even if those tests seem to change every year!

            Remember: We expect you to fix the world and we know you can do it if you follow all our advice.

            If you can’t—if you’re not all excellent at what you do—and no: “good,” or “very good,” don’t cut it in our eyes—well, we promise, we will find someone who actually cares about kids and pitch you all out on your ears.

Your friends,
The School Reformers


Better get busy! You have some fixing to do!