2 Good Reasons Not to Endorse Senate’s ECAA: Standardized Tests and Charter Expansion

First, there is no language whatsoever that softens the blow of standardized testing for children.  None.  For children, all standardized tests are high stakes and, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter whether these tests are foisted on them by their state government or the federal government.  It still detracts from their education.  Standardized tests merely measure, sort, and label — they don’t educate.

Second, nearly 10% of the bill is devoted to the expansion of charter schools.  The entire bill is 601 pages.  The first 11 + pages consist of a table of contents.  That leaves 590 pages of text.  Fifty-five of those pages — nearly 10% — outline a plan to expand charter schools.  I think the record is clear that charter schools are problematic.  Remember — the charter school movement emerged from the voucher and choice movement.   Milton Friedman’s own foundation — The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice — claims the charter school movement as a boon to the free market, competition driven ideology of neoliberals.  Charter schools = privatization.

Question:  So, what further provides impetus in the move to privatization?

Answer:  A steady stream of standardized tests to support the faulty logic promoted by A Nation at Risk — and barely challenged — that our entire public school system (which Friedman labeled a monopoly and socialistic) is a failure and in need of constant systemic reform.

How can anyone who supports public schools and the children they serve support this legislation?  And I anticipate the final bill that emerges from the House and Senate conference committee will be worse.


Test is a test is a test is a test

Subtitle:  You can put lipstick on a pig, but that doesn’t mean it ceases to be a pig.

For those clamoring to declare isolated successes amongst the political wranglings going on in Congress over ESEA/ECAA, I think it’s important to remember a couple of things.  First, whatever the Senate votes to approve, with whatever amendments are tacked on to the legislation, we still don’t know what the legislation will look like when it emerges from the conference committee established by the House and Senate.  Amendments get removed, House and Senate legislation is merged and — well, it’s sort of like making sausage.  So, as I’ve said before, it’s a little disconcerting when organizations endorse legislation before it’s been finalized.  It’s okay to point out the strengths of proposed legislation or the weaknesses, but an endorsement, qualified or not, of half-baked legislation is troubling.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, I think we should remember, as Gertrude Stein was fond of asserting, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”  It’s an existential concept.  There isn’t a point in which the rose ceases to be a rose — even after your memory of a rose fades or it has been described countless times and in different ways.  Many years ago now, in the years leading up to our current state of education reform, we were cautioned about the rise in standardized testing of our nation’s school children and the detrimental impact it would have on education (and our children).  Too few listened.  And the steady creep of standardized tests continued until it has now become the zeitgeist driving our curriculum and test prep dominates our daily lives in school.

So — as we’re on the eve of an ESEA reauthorization, we find policymakers parsing the language of tests.  We talk about  grade span testing versus annual testing and standardized tests vs. “high stakes” standardized tests.  And the big “win” is presented as the federal government sending the responsibility for governance over of education policy back to the states and local districts.

It may sound good on the surface.  But all the parsing of the language associated with ECAA/ESEA and killing the beast of NCLB doesn’t change the reality that we, as a nation, have waved the white flag of defeat when it comes to standardized tests.  Instead of saying, “Please, sir, I want some more,” while plaintively holding forth an empty bowl, we say, “Please, sir, I want a little less.”

Our current iteration of ESEA holds no promise of breaking the stranglehold that standardized testing has over education in the U.S.  To say that it is needed to equalize educational opportunity and educational outcomes is simply not the case.   To say limiting the number of hours children are required to sit for standardized tests will end the amount of energy expended on test prep is a simplistic notion.  And merely giving this authority back to states will not stop the abuses associated with standardized tests.

It’s time to say no.  Measuring is not teaching.  Standardized tests have no real purpose in education except to sort and label children.  They are constructed purposefully to create a system in which half of our children are deemed below average.  We do not live in Garrison Keillor’s mythical  Lake Wobegon, “where all the men are good looking, all the women are strong, and all the children are above average.”  That place doesn’t exist.

Test is a test is a test is a test.  How is it that we simply accept the assumption that we need standardized testing in order to educate our children?

I cannot support legislation that continues to make standardized testing the law of the land.

What’s More Important? Test Data or Life Data?

In my last post I suggested that if the government is so intent on publishing standardized testing data as an indicator of the effectiveness of teachers and schools, they should likewise publish other meaningful data on the communities teachers and schools serve.  In What’s Missing in Education “Reform”  ?  Daun Kauffman discusses another dimension of child wellbeing that is distinctly missing from discussions of education reform.  One dimension that is missing, according to Kauffman, is “the massive incidence of childhood trauma, and its laser-like connection to cognition and education ….”  Children who live in urban settings typically experience more incidents of trauma.

A great deal of research has been generated about the impact of childhood trauma or “Adverse Childhood Experience” (ACE).  Therefore, Kauffman makes the following suggested addition to the data that should be reported concomitantly with standardized test scores:

“What are aggregated, community rates of Childhood Trauma, or “Adverse Childhood Experience” (ACE), as separate from ‘poverty’?”  What are the reported incidents within a community of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and physical or emotional neglect?  How many children are being raised in single parent homes due to abandonment, separation, divorce, or incarceration?  What are the reported incidents of household violence, substance abuse, and mental illness?

I agree with Daun Kauffman that this type of data is clearly missing in discussions of child wellbeing.  The federal government funds research in the area of childhood trauma/ACE and, therefore, it would seem that the government acknowledges the impact of trauma on a child’s ability to meet the cognitive demands of school life.  According to Kauffman:

“ACE Rates vary widely. Chronic exposure to ACEs directly affects cognition. They have the power, as chronic events, to disrupt neurodevelopment and secondarily social behavior(as defenses against the onslaught). Presently ACEs are ignored in educational performance analyses. Ignored at macro levels, ignored at District level, ignored at school level . . .  Their prevalence is shocking:  suburban rates (for 3+ ACEs) have been measured at 22% and urban rates at 37% and greater.  A prevalence above the COMBINED rates of ELL and IEP students.”

It is not without irony that education reformers posit that improvement in the academic lives of children begins and ends at the schoolhouse door and they distance themselves from meaningful data about the realities of the lives of too many children through “no excuse” rhetoric that teachers can demonstrate academic improvement for every student regardless of all the factors that impact their lives.  No other profession is held to the same level of accountability, responsible for one narrow set of outcomes in spite of all other dimensions of human life.

Again, if the federal government is so intent on public disclosure of standardized test scores as an indicator of the effectiveness of teachers and schools, they should be required to provide a full picture of the community data that impacts the lives of children.  Then, perhaps, teachers will get the credit for their noble efforts in trying to educate children who face almost insurmountable challenges every day.  As one teacher I interviewed a few years ago poignantly stated about her young students in a high poverty community, “I’m trying to teach these children to read and they’re trying to survive.”  I’ve experienced firsthand the devastating impact of unsafe communities on the lives of children.  I’ve heard children speak of family members murdered, imprisoned, and lives lost to drugs and crime.  I saw little children take freshly sharpened pencils and pretend to inject themselves in the tiny little crooks of their arms.  It broke my heart.

How dare education policy makers ignore the realities of the lives of far too many children in the U.S. when they boldly and callously propose systems for holding teachers accountable for academic performance while ignoring the devastation of too many of the communities that create the world children have to navigate through on the way to and from school?  Children deserve better.


For more information, see:

http://lucidwitness.com/2014/09/25/whats-missing-3/ http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/ http://captus.samhsa.gov/prevention-practice/targeted-prevention/adverse-childhood-experiences/1


Arne Duncan Kicks the Education Can Down the Road: NCLB Waivers for 3-4 Years!

Arne Duncan will allow states to apply for No Child Left Behind waivers shortly that will remain in place for three or four years.  Of course, in order to receive a waiver, states are required to implement Race to the Top policies such as college and career ready standards (CCSS or a mirror image) and teacher evaluation systems largely based on student test scores.


In effect, Duncan is kicking the ESEA can down the road and solidifying Obama education policies for the next few years — beyond the next presidential election cycle.  Of course, this is very good news for corporate education reformers and education entrepreneurs.  The Obama administration is sending out strong signals that he and Duncan will not be tampering with policies that maintain their ability to profit from the education field.  They can continue to operate in an unfettered free market and receive federal and state dollars to open charter schools, develop data systems to monitor school children, teachers, and schools, promote curricular material to support the CCSS, and create, administer, and score all those standardized tests!

It’s also good news for Republicans and Democrats on sides of the aisle.  They are off the hook now.  So what if they don’t get around to reauthorizing ESEA?  Heck, it hasn’t been reauthorized for a dozen years now.  No hurry.  Arne Duncan maintains a firm grip on the the noose around the public education sector and will for the next few years.  No need for messy debates in Congress about education policy.  No need for presidential candidates to debate education policy.  There’s absolutely no need to ruffle the feathers of those big foundations, corporations, and philanthropists who dominate education policy discussions.  Any threat to their stakeholder status in education may mean a reduction in their donations to political campaigns.   A grazing field of corporate profit continues to expand in America’s wild west of unproven free market education reform opportunities and initiatives.

The High Cost of High Stakes Tests

“ …  It is a great and more serious evil, by too frequent and too numerous examinations, so to magnify their importance that students come to regard them not as a means in education but as the final purpose, the ultimate goal.  …  It is a very great and more serious evil to sacrifice systematic instruction and a comprehensive view of the subject for the scrappy and unrelated knowledge gained by students who are persistently drilled in the mere answering of questions issued by the Education Department or other governing bodies”  (in Nichols and Berliner, p. 1-2).

Truer words have never been written and while this could have been written today, these prophetic words were actually written in 1906 by the Department of Education in New York.  Sharon Nichols and David Berliner included this quote in their 2005 paper “The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators through High-Stakes Testing” (available:  http://eric.ed.gov/?q=campbell%27s+law&id=ED508483).

In this paper, Nichols and Berliner explain the phenomenon Campbell’s Law, first described in 1976 by social science researcher Donald Campbell.  In short, according to Campbell’s Law, the use high-stakes tests can result in corruption and cheating as students, teachers, schools, and school districts are judged on their performance on these tests.  Since NCLB, school administrators facing increased scrutiny and sanctions have resorted to scandalous practices in a fight for their schools’ survival.

Absolutely.  And this is evident as the Atlanta school cheating trial began in late September this year.  The trial is expected to last for three months.  In 2011 a state investigation found 178 principals and teachers in Atlanta were involved in a widespread cheating scandal.  Earlier this week former Governor Sonny Perdue testified, stating,  “Even if a teacher were in the classroom, the amount of erasures that we saw from wrong to right could not have even been done within that testing period. … It became fairly evident to me that something had happened outside that classroom testing environment to those test documents, and that had to be conspiratorial.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/us/sonny-perdue-atlanta-school-cheating-was-conspiratorial-ex-governor-testifies.html

As the Atlanta trial unfolds (with little if any discussion by mainstream television media), education policy makers should use this opportunity to consider the high cost of our obsession with high stakes testing.   Obvious is the cost to taxpayers in Georgia for the investigations into the cheating scandal and the subsequent three month trial.  However, there are other not so obvious costs as well.  According to Fulton County assistant district attorney Fani Willis, “many of the victims of the cheating were struggling black students who would have been eligible to receive ‘millions’ in federal aid for tutoring, but never received the money because test scores showed they were meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations.”  (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/30/us/racketeering-trial-opens-in-altanta-schools-cheating-scandal.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article)

When administrators and teachers engage in practices such as erasing and correcting students’ incorrect responses on standardized tests, it may make the school look better, but it can be devastating to low-performing students, who are overwhelmingly poor and students of color.  False victories when low-performing students appear to score proficiently on standardized tests actually rob these children of the opportunity to receive the services they are entitled to — the tutoring that could provide them the ability to become successful students.  The Atlanta cheating scandal trial will shed a spotlight on the misdeeds of school employees.  However, it will not provide any recourse for the nameless and faceless children who were robbed of their right to tutoring services as a result of the cheating scandal.  We will never know how their lives were impacted.  That cost is much greater than the millions spent on investigations and a trial.

Wendy Lecker further explores the high cost of high stakes testing in her article “Lecker: A generation jeopardized by obsession with testing” (http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Lecker-A-generation-jeopardized-by-obsession-5894103.php?cmpid=twitter).   Since NCLB the curriculum has been severely narrowed, squeezing out the arts, music, science, physical education, and other subjects in favor of direct instruction and test prep in language arts and math, subjects that are tested.  And Lecker points out that there has been a sharp rise since 2005 in ADHD diagnoses among children who are required to sit for hours in school without physical activity.  Anxiety among students is on the rise as well.  High stakes testing is taking a toll on our nation’s children.  It is no wonder that the opt-out movement is growing as parents question the right of a state and federal government to force children to participate in day after day of strenuous high stakes tests.  It doesn’t make much sense that schools cannot force students to stand for the pledge of allegiance, but can force students to sit for hours taking tests in silent classrooms under lock down mode.