Sunday, April 27, 2014

In the Belly of the Oligarchy

Corporate Oligarchy, according to Wikipedia:

Corporate oligarchy is a form of power, governmental or operational, where such power effectively rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals, sometimes from a small group of educational institutions, or influential economic entities or devices, such as banks, commercial entities, lobbyists that act in complicity with, or at the whim of the oligarchy, often with little or no regard for constitutionally protected prerogative.  Monopolies are sometimes granted to state-controlled entities, such a the Royal Charter granted to the East India Company.  Today's multinational corporations function as corporate oligarchies with influence over democratically elected officials.

It is the testing season, and, as I have been required to do every year since we began the Standard of Learning tests in Virginia in 1995, I must sign an agreement with the state before proctoring the tests.

The School Division Personnel Test Security Agreement is enforced by Virginia Law 22.1-292.1.

Over the years the agreement has been revised.  Last year the agreement was "toughened up."

In signing, I put my livelihood at stake:

  • Agreement #1:  "Violation of test security procedures: revocation of license."  
  • And in case I didn't get it, in Agreement #2: "...if test security procedures are not followed, my license may be suspended or revoked and/or I may be assessed a civil penalty for each violation."
  • And finally I am required to squeal:  "All known or suspected violations of SOL test security shall be reported to appropriate school division personnel or to the Virginia Department of Education."  And then the contact information for informants is provided.

The agreement rankles.

Parts of it are downright insulting--"All persons are prohibited from altering, in any manner, student responses to secure SOL test items"--since it presumes a level of complicity or guilt--while also acknowledging the very high stakes surrounding these tests since adults are judged (fired, reassigned, subjected to extensive data-collection and paperwork....) by the results.

So, yeah, some might be tempted to cheat.  Go figure.

We are also advised that "All persons are prohibited from providing students with answers to secure test items, suggesting how to respond to secure test items, or influencing student responses to secure test items."

Okay.  I wouldn't do that in my classroom either, especially if I really want to know what a student knows, but once you start making rules you have to cover every possible variance (hence my problem with rule making.)

But here is where it crosses over into the level of a gag rule.

The following item on the agreement is more about protecting the intellectual property of the test maker--in this case Pearson, a multinational corporation (see oligarchy definition).

The ruling effectively shuts down any push back on whether a test item is a valid one, whether the test is testing what it purports to be testing, or whether classroom teachers can get any insight into what a student might struggle with so adjustments can be made in the classroom to better prepare the test taker.

Teachers are prohibited from:

  • "Reading or reviewing any part of a secure test (e.g. test items, answer options, passages, pictures, diagrams, charts, maps, etc.) before, during, or after the test administration."

The rules, supported by the state legislature, (see definition wherein corporations have "influence over democratically elected officials") ensure that there will be no effective oversight of the test items.

We can't read the test or we are in violation.

Our role is to merely read directions and tacitly support a tool we may not find in the best interest of our students. (But how could we know?  We can be fired for reading it.)

  • All SOL tests must be administered strictly in accordance with the instructions provided in the SOL test manuals.  This includes but is not limited to adhering to procedures for the handling, distribution and use of test materials and test manipulatives, adhering to specific requirements associated with test accommodations (e.g. read aloud accommodation, dictation to scribe, etc.), and reading all SOL test directions to students exactly as written.  SOL test directions must not be paraphrased, altered, or expanded without prior authorization from the Virginia Department of Education through the Division Director of Testing unless the Examiner's manual allows flexibility in providing specific directions.
We have been instructed to answer every student inquiry (whether it has to do with negotiating the new computerized 'enhanced testing items'--lots of clicking and dragging--or providing a condensed version of directions) with this rejoinder: "Read your test directions again and do the best you can."

That's it.

Turn on the computers.  Read the official directions.  Don't look at the test.  Face the potential of losing your license--and your income.  And have your worth as a professional measured by student outcomes on a test which essentially exists in a black box.

Something feels really unfair.

So not impressed with the "technology enhanced items."  Just bells and whistles that are a distraction from what a student knows because sometimes it's the format that trips the student up.  

For instance, on the reading test they must click on tabs to read paired passages.  Some don't see that.  (Even though even more class time is given over to teaching students how to use the tools, they don't always see it. Maybe they're stressed?)

Some students don't notice that the passage is more than a page long. Getting to the next page requires more clicking.  

Many students complain it is hard to read on the computer screen.  The reading test last year took my students FOUR HOURS, people. Think about reading long passages on a computer screen for four hours.

Many items feel like trickery.  For instance, there are items that indicate you should choose "all" the items which fit a criteria.  There is no indication of how many items one must choose.  But you must get all of them (and not too many) or  the entire question is wrong.  That is supposed to reflect "rigor." 

Seems more like a carnival game where the carny is sure to win more often than the mark.

I can learn more about my students' knowledge from a written answer.  

And you, dear taxpayer, should want me to do that.  After all I have a Master's degree and 25 years of teaching experience.  That's thousands of students, tens of thousands of written answers.  I can provide immediate feedback that extends into narrative or a long discussion rather than a disembodied number devoid of explanation.  

I actually know how to do that.  

And I know my students.  I know who is a second language learner who understands a lot of content but is lagging behind in language acquisition.  Providing a simple synonym could help them reveal their understanding.  And I know who has little experience with computers and might need assistance with technology.  And I know who has testing anxiety and could better show their knowledge in another way.  And I know who struggles with attention and could use a stretch or a stroll around the room to get refocused.

Frankly, I'm surprised there is no prison time associated with these rulings. Pearsons' $9 billion in annual revenues is at stake.  There's a lot less profit if you have to re-write the test every year.  Much easier to coerce a legislature into threatening an entire profession.

But I imagine that Pearson's Public Relations division has determined that making martyrs of public school teachers through extended jail time might turn the public against them.