Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Not your Public School Anymore...

January 21 federal HELP (Heath, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee) hearings begin on the federal No Child Left Behind law, (NCLB) which has been controlling the work of public schools for twelve years.  View hearing here.
Even if you do not have a child in school, never had a child in school, or despised your own schooling, you need to pay attention to this debate.

Why?  Because your tax dollars have been funneled into a variety of boondoggles, mean-spirited rulings, and questionable educational practices that have made some private individuals very rich while impoverishing, shaming, and sidelining others.  

Meanwhile children have been submitted to the largest un-tested social experiment ever perpetrated on a helpless group of citizens and are suffering under a narrowed and constricted curriculum.

Here is an argument you are likely to hear, first from Charles Barone of the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  Barone spoke last week in support of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s decree that the law must be repealed, but not the tests.

"I don't know how else you gauge how students are progressing in reading and in math without some sort of test, some kind of evaluation," Barone said. "If you want to see a kid's vocabulary, how they write, if they can perform different math functions, the only way is to sit them down and give them a test."

In this argument, Barone presents an either/or logical fallacy that appeals to common sense.  Either you test them--as we have been doing for the past 12 years--or you have no evidence of student ability.

Most adults will accept this argument on it's face. (Of course! You have to test them.) But, in addition to its insultingly facile nature, it simply isn't true.

The facts are that teachers have always relied on a variety of forms of assessment to gauge where their students are and have reported these assessments in a variety of ways: report cards, parent conferences, remediation, specialized groupings.... (Surprise: we've always known who struggles.)

Teachers also use assessments to celebrate and encourage all students to find success in something: school plays, art shows, band and choir concerts, debates, school newspapers, spelling bees, repairing cars, wiring a house, building a tennis pavilion, welding, creating an architectural drawing, drawing blood, entering a variety of contests both athletic and academic--every one of these activities are authentic and evaluative.

Nothing provides greater feedback than a real audience, a public display, a finished product, or a scoreboard.  Nothing is more "real-world" than these activities.

A multiple-choice test is as "fake" an assessment as any devised.

Barone also ignores that since 1969 the nation has had the National Assessment for Educational Progress, also called "The Nation's Report Card," an annual, standardized test that provides reliable, valid data on the achievement of our students in all of the various reported groups, but does not punish school systems by withdrawing funds or testing every child every year.  The data from these tests is used diagnostically to look for broad areas for improvement in the delivery of education.

Ironically, this national tool has been used to measure the effectiveness of NCLB.  The verdict: a steadily rising rate of achievement among all students flattened once NCLB was put in place.  In some areas the achievement gap between sub groups has closed--but primarily because the top group dropped down, not because the bottom rose.

Against this assessment the high-stakes-testing-hold-all-schools-accountable initiative has been an abject failure.

So why would we repeat, at great expense, work that is already being done?

Barone, DFER, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been speaking for business groups who stand to gain financially from a policy designed to prove every public school a failure.  The options offered for "failed public schools" are always about shifting public dollars into private hands: charter schools run by private groups for profit, online courses run by private groups for profit, testing created by private groups for profit.

As a single example consider Pearson, the British-owned testing behemoth.  Your tax dollars have supported this outfit for years.  Hired to "hold teachers accountable" this group has been siphoning off local dollars with little oversight, shielded by the very loud "you gotta test 'em" voices.  Operating profits (that's profits, not sales) for 2012 alone were $1.4 billion.  In large part, this is money derived from taxes paid by citizens.

Current law ensures the profits will keep rolling in.  To wit: when our students test, teachers sign a legal document--every time--that stipulates they can have their license revoked if they read the test. The argument implied is that teachers cannot be trusted to teach well if they know what the kids will be tested on (huh?).

The truth is that released tests would require the creation of a new test every year.  That is expensive and would cut into the 1.4 billion in profits.  Our Virgnia legislature supports these business interests through law.

This also conveniently keeps out any oversight by experienced educators.  We can't know for certain what students are asked to do.  Additionally, these tests do not provide the valid information from tools we used to rely on to gauge student ability: The Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford Achievement test.

There are more costs associated with testing: Every district must provide computers and reliable internet access ($$).  The tests must be administered to very careful guidelines, usually by someone in the building whose job is dedicated to this ($$$). Data must be collected, reported, printed, published which requires personnel and software in every district and state ($$$).  Teachers must create specific goals that can be quantified, measured, reported, described (time and $$). This, more than anything else, is driving good teachers away--and affecting the quality of teaching.

All of these local costs support the testing multiple-choice monster, but Pearson profits!  The organization is also clearly overextended, promising and profiting on products they cannot produce. For instance, they have hired freelance writers--not educators--to write test questions and seasonal employees--not educators--to score them.  Shoddy products, indeed.

Yes, kids will always have to take tests.  But they do not have to be mandated by law, shift public money into private hands, carry damaging labels, and destroy the lives of children.

Educators already know who needs support for learning. Our money would be better spent in achieving equity of resources for all of our students--well-equipped school buildings, access to books and enriching experiences, and well trained and supported teachers.

Repeal the law.  Dump the tests.

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