A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests

I get a lot of questions about education from friends, family, friends of family, family of friends and random people on the interwebs.  One of the most difficult questions I get is “Why did you choose to opt your kids out of standardized tests?”.  This question isn’t difficult because I don’t know the answer.  It’s difficult because they are 1425915980_featured.jpeglooking for the short version of a very complex decision.  Last year I wrote about our decision to opt out of the state test in Arkansas.  This year is a bit different.  Partly because our reasons have evolved and partly because standardized testing will take an entire MONTH in 2015.  So I decided that I would tackle one reason per day during the month-long testing window of March 9 – April 10.  Including spring break, that’s 20 school days of testing.  I’ll post each reason separately and use this post as the master list.  So here you have it, the Endacott Family Top 20 Reasons we are opting out of PARCC in 2015:

Reason 1:  We trust teachers

Standardized tests have become the most important measure of educational quality in recent years.  As some of my later posts will explain, this is ridiculous.  You might have heard of Value Added Measurement (VAM), which is how test scores are used to determine teacher quality.  VAM requires a complicated statistical model that can be horribly erroneous when calculated by those without the right expertise.  Not only is VAM ripe for error, but the American Statistical Association has highlighted research that shows teachers account for only 1%-14% of the variance in student test scores. Very recent research has also demonstrated that there is no association between VAM test score data and other composite measures of effective teaching.  In other words VAM is a problematic way to measure teacher quality that is also inconsistent with what we already know about good teaching.  Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

According to the most recent Phi Delta Kappa survey on public education, 72% of Americans have trust and confidence in their kids’ teachers.  You can count us among their numbers.  Nobody knows what our children are capable of more than the teachers that see them every day.  58% of Americans also oppose the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers.  We are definitely among them as well, and as long as test scores are being used in this fashion, I hope they join us in opting out.

Reason 2: False Premises

If you listen to politicians and pundits (bad idea) then you’d think that poor standardized test scores are a danger to our national security and that boosting test scores can be the cure for everything from pervasive poverty to sustainable economic growth.  You’ll even hear claims that closing the achievement gap will add trillions of dollars to our GDP.  While the U.S. census has shown that each additional year of schooling will lead to greater overall career earnings, there is no evidence that higher test scores will have that same relationship.  Economists make predictions with lots of assumptions, but there is one serious flaw to the argument that higher test scores equal greater economic success.

That flaw is that test scores are a symptom of poverty and economic success, not a cause.  There is a clear and undeniable link between socioeconomic status and test scores, but it is socioeconomic status that affects test scores, not the other way around.  Simply put, raising test scores will not reduce poverty – reducing poverty will raise test scores.  We opt our children out of the test because we refuse to help perpetuate the shortsighted focus on symptoms rather than causes.

If you want to know more about the problems that poverty causes that test scores won’t fix, we recommend this book.

Reason 3:  Narrowing Curriculum

There can be no question that the curriculum in our public schools has narrowed considerably since NCLB in the early 2000’s.  Subjects such as social studies, the arts, even science were relegated to secondhand status in order to focus on standardized tests.  Now we have the Common Core State Standards for English / Language Arts and Math along with a new set of tests (PARCC and Smarter Balance).

The introduction of CCSS has further kicked the “other” subjects in school to the curb because the stakes for PARCC and Smarter Balance are higher than ever.  In reaction, schools made the rational decision to allocate resources, time and attention to preparing for the test.  By placing 100% of our attention on student “achievement” on these two tests, we have essentially told our students that nothing else matters.  And our students are listening.

Reason 4: Harming Children

Over the past few years schools have made great sacrifices in order to raise standardized test scores.  Examples include doing away with nap time in kindergarten, giving students less recess and physical education, cutting school nurses, firing school librarians, and discontinuing musical programs.

These sacrifices are being made despite the enormous body of research that says they benefit children. 5 year-olds need nap time.  Sick kids need medical attention.  All kids need physical activity.  Libraries without librarians are just big rooms full of books, and in some schools they are even getting rid of the books.   Then we have examples of how testing is used as a form of public humiliation in the form of data walls.

This is just a sampling of how we hurt our children by devoting our time, resources, and attention to testing instead of their well-being.  The worst part is that our neediest students are the children that need these things the most, yet they are the first ones to lose them as underfunded schools cut and test, cut and test.  At least there’s a significant body of research showing that testing benefits children far more than the things we are sacrificing for higher scores… Oh wait, no there isn’t.

Reason 5: Ridiculous Preparation

The preparation for all standardized testing is a little ridiculous when you think about it.  Where else in life does your ability to perform well on a test make a difference?  Sure there are qualifying exams for many professions, but once in a profession, one’s ability to perform well on a test really doesn’t mean squat.  Yet we’ve placed great emphasis on this ability in schools.

Preparation for the new PARCC test is a special kind of ridiculous.  We don’t have a great deal of data on the preparation so far (though we will be collecting this soon), but many teachers have sent us anectdotal examples of how test preparation has taken wasting time to a whole new level.  One teacher recently sent me this message:

“I have spent two weeks preparing kids for this test – practice tests, analyzing questions, breaking down the question asked, how to not lose points, etc. I feel like a hack, this is not what I got into education for.”

Plus, the PARCC is based on the computer, which means that schools
have supplemented these many hours of traditional test preparation with many additional hours of literally just showing students how to navigate the test online.  As if that wasn’t enough wasted instructional time, concerns about bandwidth issues have led schools to using students as “bandwidth testers”, pulling them out of classes in order to put them online at the same time just to see if the network will crash.  One teacher told me that it “took 3 hours just to Windows_9X_BSODtake one practice test because  students were kicked offline, videos wouldn’t play, and the network would time out.”  It would be easy to blame the schools for these decisions, but do they really have a choice?  Everything depends on this.

Remember when test preparation involved somebody winking and saying, “when in doubt, just choose “C” for the answer”?  Those were the days.

Reason 6: Losing Perspective

In addition to the aforementioned issues to narrowed curriculum and harming children, our obsession with test scores and the data they harvest has made some people flat out lose perspective on what’s important in education.  Take for example the numerous threats that parents receive when they opt their children out of standardized tests.  As a member of several Opt Out groups I am witness to the trials parents face in order to stand up for their children.  I’ve seen accounts of parents around the country being told that their children would not be eligible for Advanced Placement classes, graduation, or extra curricular activities.  Worse, some parents have been threatened with retention or forced remediation.

What do threats like these say about what we really care about in education?  Do we care about kids or the data they churn out?  Certainly data is important to good teaching, but the data provided by high stakes standardized testing is far less valuable than the data generated everyday by a child’s activity in the classroom.  Makes you wonder why it is really needed.

Reason 7:  Losing Even More Perspective

I originally planned to get into some of the reasons we’ve become so addicted to test score data today.  However, it was brought to my attention that I forgot one way in which we are losing perspective in yesterday’s post.

We have a lot of readers who are teachers from around the country.  One of them emailed me through the site with this example of how perspective has been lost in their school.  I share this with you anonymously because teachers are in danger of losing their jobs if they are critical of how far we’ve gone in search of higher test scores.

“Today our jobs were threatened if our students aren’t proficient on the exam.  The principal actually printed out the rules and highlighted sections of it. At this point I’m not sure what to do. Is this happening at other schools? Is this just part of it?  Instead of support from our department heads we get threats. I never imagined it would be like this… What will they do if our students aren’t proficient? They have resorted to fear tactics the day before the test… I’m pretty disgusted. I know my students in particular will not be proficient. Most of them haven’t been in the country for more than six years. Attendance rates are dismal. I can’t imagine how I could be held accountable for their scores.”

Targeting Teachers Won't Work
Targeting Teachers Won’t Work

I normally don’t like to use anectdotal examples like this one to make an argument, but I can tell you that this isn’t the first I’ve heard.  You might not have heard anything about this yourself, but that isn’t surprising.  Teachers who speak out are in danger of losing their jobs.

I find it curious that some people believe that threatening teachers will actually improve test scores since it definitely doesn’t work for students.   More lost perspective I suppose.

Reason 8:  Oversimplification for the Purposes of Manipulation

A friend of mine recently argued that she valued standardized test score data because it showed her how her children were doing in school.  However, if you accept my premise that we should trust teachers then high stakes standardized test scores aren’t really that valuable.  Teachers have access to a number of ways to judge a student’s progress on a set of educational standards.  They are (mostly) trained to evaluate student achievement and they have a number of other assessments at their disposal.  My children take formative assessments on the computer approximately once a quarter that provide their teachers with usable and immediate feedback on their progress.  We do not oppose these tests because they help our sons’ teachers adjust instruction to their needs and because they don’t have high stakes or penalties attached to them.   In contrast, high stakes test scores are not made available to teachers or parents until well after they have been taken.  Too late for teachers and a snapshot of the past for parents.

What my friend was really saying, whether she recognized it or not, was that she wanted to know how her children performed compared to other children.  That’s what is really behind our desire for test score data in this country.  We look at percentile rank to see just how many kids are behind ours.  We are concerned if it’s not enough and relieved if it is.  We want to compare states with other states and America against the world.  I’m not slighting my friend here, it’s ingrained in our American souls.

And the test score is perfect this purpose.  It is a promise of our child’s capability all wrapped up in a neat package that is fairly easy to understand.  Deep down we understand that it really is only a snapshot of performance on a relatively limited assessment based on a subset of educational standards that was given in an unnatural environment on that given day.  But it is a number!  We love numbers.  Credit score of 750?  Here’s some money at a great interest rate!  Batting average of .400?  All time great.  2% on Rotten Tomatoes? Your movie sucks.  Numbers are the guarantee on the side of the box.

Test scores are the strings of the marionette, but who is moving them?
Test scores are the strings of the marionette, but who is moving them?

But at the same time that we look to numbers for approval and reassurance, others are using those same numbers to manipulate you.  This is possible because numbers are often an oversimplification of something more complicated – something much harder to understand.  As such, they can be twisted and spun to suit a purpose or agenda.  Test scores are also perfect for this purpose.  Over the next few days I’ll explain how.

Reason 9:  An Invented Crisis

You’ve probably heard that standardized test scores in the United States are experiencing a dismal trend of decline.  Our children are not improving and our schools are to blame.   In fact, a colleague and I recently surveyed 1,047 Americans and asked them if they thought test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had increased, decreased or stayed relatively the same over the past 40 years.  The NAEP is the only “national” standardized test administered in the United States.  90% of our respondents told us that they believed test scores had either decreased or not improved at all since the 1970’s.  This study is still in progress, but we have come to a pretty important conclusion:

Only 10% of Americans know the truth about NAEP test scores over the past 40 years.

Let me lay it out for you.

The following are some examples
taken from Diane Ravitch’s 2013 book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to American Public Schools (p. 49-50).

  • Reading scores in fourth and eighth grade have
    improved significantly since 1992 for almost every group of students
  • The proportion of 4th and 8th
    grade students who were “proficient” in Reading increased from 1992 to 2011
  • The proportion of 4th and 8th
    grade students who were “below basic” in Reading declined from 1992 to 2011
  • Mathematics scores improved even more than reading
    scores
  • The proportion of 4th and 8th
    grade students who were proficient in Mathematics increased from 1992 to 2011
  • The proportion of 4th and 8th
    grade students who were “below basic” in Mathematics declined from 1992 to 2011

For those of you who prefer charts, here’s one that shows how much NAEP scores increased from 1973-2008.

chart1
Increase in Long Term NAEP Scores from 1973 to 2008

The raw numbers are going up, but even more impressive is the percentage of students that have moved out of the lowest level of performance known as “Basic” and the percentage of students who have moved into at least the “Proficient” level over that same time period.

chart2
Change in percentage of students scoring at the “Basic” level and “Proficient or better from 1992 to 2011

It is clear that American students’ performance on the NAEP has improved over the last 40 years or so. Yet, politicians and the media continue to perpetuate the myth that our schools are failing to raise test scores. Why is this even possible? Manipulation of numbers makes is possible and quite profitable.

Reason 10:  Perpetuating the Myth of American Failure

My last post discussed the fact that American students have been improving on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam over the past 40 years despite the common belief perpetuated by the media, politicians, and education reformers that they have not.  Today I discuss how this manipulation of understanding possible and it involves a little-known but easy to understand statistical phenomenon known as “Simpson’s Paradox”.

To put it somewhat simply, Simpson’s paradox is what occurs when the “observed variable” (in this case it’s test scores) is affected by “lurking variables” (in this case it’s race and class) so that the observed variable doesn’t tell the whole story.  That’s an important point to remember.  Observed variables (overall test scores) don’t tell the whole story.

Let’s look at the 4th Grade NAEP Reading scores as an example.
4th Reading
The overall scores on this test have improved 11 points since 1975.  That doesn’t seem like a lot, but that belies the progress our schools have made with African American and Hispanic students since that time.   As you can see in the graph, both African American and Hispanic students have improved 25 points over that same time period.  So why haven’t overall scores improved more than they have?  It’s because the demographics of American schools are changing and the percentage of non-white test takers is much higher than it was in the past.  Here’s a look at how much the demographics have changed since 1990.

race 1990 race 2013

 

 

 

 

 

So the lurking variable of our changing demographics is affecting the overall average score.  The percentage of white test takers has decreased by 22% in 23 years, while the percentage of African American and Hispanic test takers has increased by 3% and 19% respectively.  All of these groups of students are improving, especially the African American and Hispanic students. But the overall numbers appear somewhat flat because we have more students who are non-white than ever before.  They are becoming a larger part of the pool of test takers so they are making up a larger proportion of the overall score.  To be clear, these students are not “dragging our average down”.  It’s simply an unfortunate fact that students who are not white have scored lower than white students over time.  The good news is that our white and non-white students are improving even if the overall average obscures that progress by washing out the details.  We still have a great deal of work to do though.

I’m willing to bet that 9 out of 10 readers of this post did not know this (based on our research), and that’s why it is possible for politicians, pundits and education reformers to manipulate you with oversimplified numbers.

Reason 11:  Perpetuating the Myth of Teacher Failure Part 1: The Achievement Gap

My last post debunked the myth of American failure on standardized tests over the past forty years by showing how scores on the NAEP have been improving though there are still disparities between white and non-white students.  Today I begin to describe how standardized test scores have been used to perpetuate the Myth of American Teacher Failure (MATF) by taking a closer look at that achievement gap between white and non-white students over the past few decades.

I must begin by clearly stating that I am not arguing that American schools are perfect or beyond reproach.  The achievement gap that I described in my previous post does exist and equity between white and non-white students needs to be a continued focus.  That said, American schools have made significant gains in closing the achievement gap over the past few decades, though you’d never know it if you listened to corporate reformers, the media, or politicians – essentially those who have something to gain from the MATF.

If you take a look at scores on the NAEP over the past four decades you’ll see that they are undoubtedly trending upward.  What you will also notice is that the scores of non-white students are trending even more steeply upward.

4th Grade Math


8th Grade Math

4th Grade Reading
4th Reading

8th Grade Reading
8th Reading

This chart makes the “achievement gap” a little easier to wrap your head around:

Long-term decrease in NAEP Score Gap 1973-2011
Long-term decrease in NAEP Score Gap 1973-2011

This chart tells us that the gap between white and Black students has decreased between 7 and 18 points and the the gap between white and Hispanic students has decreased between 3 and 24 points depending on subject and grade level. The largest improvement has happened at the grade 8 level in reading and the grade 4 level in mathematics, and the data from the last two decades is even better.

NAEP achievement gap changes since 1990
NAEP achievement gap changes since 1990

Since 1990 the achievement gap has decreased the most between white and black students in reading and mathematics at the 4th grade level and between white and Hispanic students at the 8th grade level for reading. There are double-digit decreases in the achievement gap across subjects and grade levels, with reading at the 12th grade level as the only area in which the gap has grown since 1992.

So, why is all of this a reason to opt out of standardized tests? Because test scores continue to have limited value to teachers and parents, but almost limitless value to those who use them to perpetuate the MATF. And in the case of the achievement gap between white and non-white students it is working. How do I know? Well, when we surveyed 1,047 Americans and asked them if they thought this achievement gap had increased, decreased or stayed the same over the past 40 years, only 29% got it right. Some might argue that the answer to this problem is to educate those who are mistaken. However, when we put education up against the resources, power and influence of those who profit from the MATF, education doesn’t stand a chance. So I may not be able to stop the MATF, but I sure won’t allow my children to take the tests that help contribute to it.

Reason 12: Ignoring Poverty

Today I want to address how standardized tests are used to distract you from the #1 problem facing our nation’s public schools – childhood poverty.   The simple fact is that children who live in poverty do not fare as well in school as children who do not.  This problem is worrisome enough, especially considering that those in charge of our nation’s schools refuse to accept that low test scores are a symptom of poverty and not a cause.

My argument for opting out today is a bit easier to understand after you read my last couple of posts about how test scores have improved over the past forty years despite all the complaining you hear to the contrary, and how the achievement gap between white and non-white students has narrowed though you won’t hear much about these successes in the media or from education reformers.  The bottom line is that scores on the NAEP are going up and non-white students are catching up to white students.  But there’s one group of students that are not catching up – those who live in poverty.  The “achievement gap” between students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (free or reduced lunch) has remained stubbornly stagnant over the last couple of decades.  Here’s a graph:
Chart1
For 8th grade students, the “achievement gap” between NSLP and non-NSLP students has stayed exactly the same in Math and Reading since 1996, while 4th grade students who live in poverty have managed to only gain 2 points on their more fortunate peers in that same time span.

At this point you might be thinking “Well, it’s pretty clear that our public school teachers are failing students who live in poverty”.   And why wouldn’t you?  That’s what you’ve been told for years.  Well guess what?  You would be WRONG.  You know I’m not a big fan of using test scores as a measure of “success” but even by this limited measure, we can see that students who are eligible for NSLP are improving on the NAEP at almost the exact same rate as students who do not live in poverty.  Chart!

chart5
Improvement in NAEP test scores for NSLP and Non-NSLP students since 1996

And just in case you’re a more “visual” learner, here’s a graph of the 4th grade Math scores, the other tests look pretty much the same.
chart2
Those lines are seriously similar.  So what have we learned?  If you come to the same conclusion that I come to after looking at these charts and graphs (as well as a mountain of research) then you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute.  There must be something else going on.  NAEP test scores are going up for all groups of students, the achievement gap is closing between white and non-white students, but the gap between students who live in poverty and those who don’t is almost exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.”

If that’s what you were thinking then you’re definitely on the right track, and you’re on the cusp of the answer.  Just in case you need me to push you over the top, then here’s your nudge:  POVERTY IS A CAUSE, NOT A SYMPTOM OF LOWER TEST SCORES.  Teachers cannot change the circumstances of their students, as much as we desperately wish we could.  Those students who live in poverty are at a disadvantage – one that cannot be solved by teachers alone.

But that’s not all.  If you look at the change in socioeconomic status of our students over the past twenty years you’ll see that the percentage of students who live in poverty is steadily on the rise.
chart 3
That’s right, the majority of our students are now eligible for free and reduced lunch.  If you remember my discussion of Simpson’s paradox then you know that American students’ scores look flat because a higher proportion of them are now living in poverty.  This makes for a perfect distraction.  Convince the American public that scores are lower because teachers are failing while conveniently blocking their view of the real problems in our society.

And that’s why we consider this a reason to opt our children out of standardized tests.  Until we address childhood poverty as a society, these inequities will continue to be exacerbated.  And as long as test scores are being manipulated to distract the American people from looking at the root causes of inequity in our schools by casting blame on our public school teachers, then our children will not be a part of it.  It’s  a travesty, morally repugnant, and we will not stand for it.

Reason 13: Ulterior Motives

If you’ve been reading my master list manifesto of reasons to opt out of standardized testing then you know that I’ve used the last few posts to show you how standardized tests are used to manipulate the American public into believing that public education and public school teachers are failing in the United States.  Test scores are the weapon of choice for those with ulterior motives because they are relatively easy to manipulate for a variety of purposes.

The “crisis” that public education faces is not a lack of performance by schools or teachers (though there are many of both in need of improvement), but rather a larger, and all-encompassing intrusion into the space of public education by those who have something to gain.  I consider these interlopers with ulterior motives to be very similar to the mortgage brokers we saw spring up in every strip mall in American circa 2005.  Here today, profit today, gone tomorrow when the effects of their actions are felt by the public school students and teachers who are left behind to pick up the pieces

In my estimation, those “education reformers” with ulterior motives fall into three categories, which I rank from worst to just “less bad”.

  1. Those who seek to profit from corporate education reform
  2. Those who seek to gain politically from the education “crisis”
  3. Those who seek to push their philosophical beliefs (choice, competition, free-markets…etc.) despite evidence that they are harmful to children

Over the next few days I’ll unpack how these ulterior motives are harming public education in general and students specifically.

distractions-sometimes-there-are-ulterior-motives-involved

It is important to note that not all people who consider themselves to be “education reformers” have an ulterior motive.  There are many well-meaning people who are trying to reform public education.  I don’t believe these people are “bad”, I just believe they are wrong.  Many of these well-meaning folks are actually employees of public school systems, and not coincidentally, many of their paid positions were made possible by manipulations I have previously described.

Reason #15:  Corrupting Public Education

In 1976 Social Psychologist Donald Campbell wrote a paper that introduced the world to Campbell’s Law.

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Campbell’s law is pretty simple.  The more we rely on one social indicator to make our decisions regarding policy, the more that one social indicator is apt to corruption_347102_7be distorted and corrupted.   In the case of standardized tests, that social indicator is the “test score” and the social process is “education”.  And now that we’ve placed a ridiculous level of emphasis on this social indicator, it is no surprise that we also see a number of different issues with corruption.

Take for example the scandals that happened in, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and the one that should have happened in Washington D.C. but didn’t because Michelle Rhee has some kind of kung fu mojo with a lot of money behind her.   In some of these cases, the cheating was committed by teachers or administrators hoping to save their jobs or get past the testing regime so that they could focus on what is actually good for students.

As an educator I can’t condone cheating of this nature, but I understand how it can be rationalized.  If teachers view standardized tests as an unreliable measure of their effectiveness (they are) and view the hoopla surrounding standardized tests as bad for children (it is), then cheating in order to protect one’s livelihood from wrongful termination or cheating so that one can actually provide students with what they really need almost makes sense.  Of course, I’m sure many of these teachers are just dishonest.  In the case of Washington D.C., Michelle Rhee offered bonuses to teachers if their students scored higher on tests.  There’s no better motive for corruption than the almighty dollar.

This leads us to another form of corruption in public education – the corruption that inevitably occurs when “public” is taken “private”.  The best example (because it really is only the first to clearly emerge but there will certainly be more) is the privatization of charter schools.  My friend and colleague Chris Goering has written about charter schools on EduSanity before.  The original intent of the charter school has been perverted since it’s inception to fit the agenda of education reformers.  Once laboratories of experimentation, many charter schools are now factories for test scores, and in this sense test scores are very much like profits earned by a business.  They are the only thing that matters.

And a seriously disturbing number of charter schools have had problems with corruption.  A Google search for “charter school corruption” returns 3,790 results.    Many of these charter schools are part of privately owned networks.  These companies open charter schools, receive taxpayer monies to educate students, and in some cases they steal that money.  Take for example Illinois where a recent report found that:

To date, $13.1 million in fraud by charter school officials has been uncovered in Illinois. Because of the lack of transparency and necessary oversight, total fraud is estimated at $27.7 million in 2014 alone.

It’s not just Illinois.  There are other examples in Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana… and you get the point.  Even the FBI has gotten involved with raids on a charter network to look for evidence of corruption.  Heck, there’s even a blog dedicated to just compiling these scandals in one place! How is this all possible?  Test scores.  Charters continue to expand because politicians and the American public generally believe that they are better than public schools at raising student achievement – even though they’re not.  And private charter schools are all the rage because we love deregulation and the free market!  Well guess what comes riding in on the coattails of deregulation and privatization?  Corruption.  You asked for it.  You got it.

Reason 16:  Political Profiteering

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a perfect example of political profiteering off public education.  It combines a perfect title (who wants to leave children behind?) with an impossible task (all children proficient by 2014 regardless of circumstance) and a clear target when the impossible is not achieved (public schools and teachers).

Public schools have been the target of politicians since the launching of Sputnik in 1958.  The Russians beat us to space with a satellite that did nothing of significance beyond beeping and scaring the crap out of the American public.  The logical conclusion was that American schools must not be training our future scientists and engineers right.  That message hasn’t changed much and is still perpetuated today with a fake “STEM crisis” created by those who seek to profit from the overproduction of STEM graduates.

In 1983, the politicians benefitted further when A Nation at Risk was published and our public schools were again blamed for America’s inability to produce cars or televisions as well as the Germans or Japanese.  Our country was once again in crisis as America’s public teachers endangered our future economic success. Ronald Reagan held up a copy of A Nation at Risk in front of the press corps and raised the alarm.  In the decades since it’s publication A Nation at Risk has since been thoroughly debunked by real education scholars, but nobody has paid as much attention as the day when The Gipper lambasted public education’s “low standards, lack of purpose, ineffective use of resources, and a failure to challenge students to push performance to the limits of individual ability”.

Today we hear the echoes of these cries from those who ridiculously claim that public education is endangering our national security.  President Obama has doubled down on the imminent failure of NCLB by putting $5 billion into the flop known as Race to the Top (RTTT). Regardless of how badly Secretary of Arne Duncan failed with his expenditure of American taxpayer funds, the media and public still get in a tizzy when he makes claims of educational stagnation and complacency despite never actually being an educator.

One of the safest bets a politician can make is to stand up in front of a crowd and promise to do something about America’s failing schools.  What’s remarkable is that this bet is so safe despite the fallacy it’s central claim is based on.  Regardless, America’s public school teachers have long been an easy target of politicians who don’t understand what we do or how we do it, but control the purse strings and the narrative anyway.

It’s important to point out that the only people who are around to deal with the aftermath of failures like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top are the public schools and public school educators.  NCLB was conveniently designed to reach 100% proficiency in 2014, a full 6 years after President Bush would be out of office.  Ostensibly that would have left the mess for the next President to clean up.  However, instead of admitting failed policy, President Obama did what politicians do best, used the states’ inevitable failure to meet NCLB thresholds as leverage to force them into adopting the CCSS and compMTI4OTk3NzIyMTkwNjgxMzYyete for RTTT funds.  Obama’s reign over public education will end next year and I cringe to see what the next President comes up with.  We’ve replaced bad with worse, and somehow the schools are still on the short end of the blame-stick.  Frank Underwood would be proud.

Reason 17: Competitive Disadvantage

The most recent generation of education reform is full of those who believe that imposing certain philosophical beliefs on public education is the key to “saving” our schools.  Primarily, we see attempts to impose “competition” or “free market ideals” with standardized test scores serving as the “accountability” needed to maintain competitive balance.

I can see why people who know almost nothing about educating children would think that the same free market ideals that helped make the United States a world economic power would also help schools.  For some schools it has helped, though often to the detriment of other schools and students.

For instance, ever since the New Orleans public school system was converted into a system of charter schools after Hurricane Katrina, we have seen these schools become more segregated.  In fact, a report by the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School found that:

“The increasingly charterized public school system has seriously undermined equality of opportunity among public school students, sorting white students and a small minority of students of color into better performing OPSB and BESE schools, while confining the majority of low-income students of color to the lower-performing RSN sector.”

I think that in order to really understand why competition between schools is destined to fail from my perspective, you have to understand the similarities and differences between schools and businesses.  In the business world some businesses will succeed and others will fail.  This will happen for a number of reasons, whether because one business is more effective at another at marketing, has better management, produces a better product… etc.  In education, some will succeed and some will “fail”, though the difference between success and failure  is influenced significantly by the socioeconomic status of the students who attend their schools.

Schools that compete for students (charter schools) know this and so they go through great pains in order to make sure that they have the “best students” attending their school.  For example, consider the charter school “dirty dozen” – a series of underhanded tactics that many charter schools use to make sure that the students who will struggle to produce higher standardized test scores find their way to other schools.

In the school competition game, the most important factor involved in being successful is the “raw materials” – or in the world in which people matter – “students” who will produce the scores that can be held up to prove how great these schools really are.

Those who clamor for more competition in schools will tell us that those schools with better educational programs will win out in the end by attracting more of these students.  But anybody with any business sense knows that improving the product is really only one way to be successful in business.  Not surprisingly, research has shown  that charter schools have figured this out.  Instead of focusing resources and efforts primarily on im81tWqWEhYKL._SL1500_proving the educational product, schools in the most competitive districts instead put their time and money towards improving marketing, market research, differentiating themselves from other schools, and honing their selection (exclusion) process to make sure they get the best “raw materials” students.

Despite all the dogmatic rhetoric you hear about competition in schools, the bottom line is that the best way to improve the achievement at ANY school in the country is to find a way to get the “right” students to attend that school.  You certainly wouldn’t expect a business to focus all of their time and resources on improving their product when they can achieve much better results from running a few commercials and making sure they have the right clientele.  Why would we expect a school faced with competition from other schools to not make the same rational choice?

The reason I’m dogmatically opposed to competition in schools is because I know that not everybody is a winner in this scenario.   Supporters of competition will tell you that bad schools should fail just like bad businesses.  But it’s pretty clear that competitive schools see the quality of their students as the primary factor behind that success or failure, which means they are flirting with something very dangerous.  What happens to the students that nobody wants?  In this scenario, discrimination is not just rational, it’s good business sense, and it is happening.  The students who are “not right” for these schools have to go to school somewhere.  I think you can see the quandary here.   Diane Ravitch explained in her book The Death and Life of the American School System  that the system of Charter Schools in New York City eventually shunted these “unwanted” students into large left-over high schools that became pipelines to failure.

That’s because competition means winners and losers, and the most tragic result of this competition is that children have become the currency in which these “competitive” schools trade.  On the surface, the most “valuable” students are those who are capable of producing the high test scores by which schools are judged.  Below that surface however, are differences in the students, such as class, poverty, and family structure, that influence those test scorcompetitorses.  When a student’s value is determined by their ability to produce high test scores and that ability is impacted greatly by factors beyond their control, then academic discrimination between schools of “choice”, like social discrimination in general, is destined to become pervasive and systemic.  Sadly, discriminating against certain students is not just rational, but a competitive advantage.

At the root of all this is the undue emphasis we have placed on standardized tests, which has empowered this system of competitive jockeying.  That’s reason enough for us to opt our children out of it.

Reason 18: Federal Overreach

Honestly, this has always been one of my reasons for opposing standardized tests, and is one of the points of agreement with some of my more conservative colleagues.  I believe that initiatives like Race to the Top and the manner in which the Obama administration coerced states into adopting the Common Core State Standards are prime examples of the federal government exerting quasi-unconstitutional authority over states’ rights to educate their children as the people of that state see fit.

When you opt your children out of standardized tests, you’ll often receive push back from schools or districts in the form of “this is a state mandated test therefore your child must take it”.  The problem with this claim is that the test is really only “state mandated” because it is also federally mandated under NCLB.  In the days before NCLB the attention paid to students who did not take standardized tests paled in comparison to the scrutiny of today.

That’s because the pressure that we receive as parents for opting out of standardized tests comes directly from the White House.  Well, maybe not directly, but it might as well.  Schools are under pressure from their district offices to test every child, districts are under pressure from the state to test every child and states are under pressure from the federal government to test every child because NCLB mandates that at least 95% of children from each school are tested.

If states fail to meet expectations for NCLB then they have to go hat-in-hand to the Department of Education, specifically Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is a cabinet member in the office of the President.  So, I think you can see why I feel like the pressure I receive when opting out of standardized tests comes from the White House.

The President needs this leverage in order to convince states to adopt teacher evaluation systems based partially on standardized test scores and to create new regulations for teacher education programs that, you guessed it, use student test scores as a measure of success.  All of this despite the fact that research has found that student test scores are not in any way related to other measures of good teaching.

But we can’t really expect the federal government and a Secretary of Education that isn’t actually an educator to really understand something as complicated as “good teaching”.  Which is exactly why they should leave this determination to the people who know what they are talking about.

governmentshirt-shirt

Reason 19:  The Status Quo

One popular refrain you hear from politicians and education reformers is that the “status quo” isn’t good enough.  In fact, I couldn’t agree more.

Education reformers would have you believe that they are bringing fresh ideas of choice, competition and accountability to the classroom, and that these ideas will “disrupt” the status quo.  The only problem is that these ideas have been firmly entrenched in American public education since A Nation at Risk in 1983, and have been ratcheted up in influence with NCLB and Race to the Top.

In other words, the “status quo” over the past 30 years has been firmly in control of the standards-and-accountability crowd, and over the past 15 years it has been headed up by the standardized testing cabal.

So if you’re really interested in breaking away from the status quo, then opting out of standardized tests the ultimate act of individualism in the modern regime of test-prep-test-repeat.

quote-it-is-accomplished-by-the-oppressors-depositing-myths-indispensable-to-the-preservation-of-the-paulo-freire-230028

Reason 20:  Because We Can

In many ways we are the perfect and not-so-perfect parents to serve as a public symbol of the opt-out movement.

We are perfect because we know exactly why we are opting out and can explain it in 6000+ word manifestos that criticize the standardized testing racket with research-backed and experience-based critiques.  This is due largely to my experience as a middle school teacher in a public school, the Ph.D. I hold in Curriculum and Instruction, and the connections I have with teachers from around the country.  If there’s a story out there, I’ve probably heard it and I can relate it to research while throwing in a personal anecdote from my own experiences to make a point.  As a university professor part of my responsibility is to engage in public outreach, so I view my blogging as part of my job, though the “credit” I receive for it doesn’t quite match the effort I put in.  I am also currently aware of the legal precedents surrounding parents’ rights when it comes to educating their child though I’m hardly a legal expert.

On the other hand we are also not-so-perfect role models because our situation doesn’t really reflect the reality that most parents face when trying to decide whether or not to opt their children out of standardized tests.  I haven’t faced the same threats that other parents have faced when informing their child’s school of their intentions to opt out.  Whether that is because they don’t want to mess with a guy who can make a very public mess out of the situation or because our school district is particularly enlightened isn’t totally clear to me.  Then there’s the fact that I just keep our children home with me when they are opting out.  My job allows me the flexibility to work from lots of places (currently writing this at Panera) and home is one of them.  This makes it much easier to opt out because we don’t have to worry about sending our kids to school and putting the responsibility for opting out on them.  I’m constantly impressed by the stories I see of students who refuse the tests, often enduring the “sit and stare” treatment (i.e. they are required to sit and have nothing to do but stare at the wall during the test they are refusing).  Our children don’t have to face that.

All in all, opting out is relatively easy for us.  We are privileged in that regard and it is important for us to recognize that privilege.  But we also believe that it is important for us to use that privilege to do what is right.  It would be arguably more beneficial for us to have our children take the PARCC.  They would undoubtedly score well, which is reflective of their ability and the relatively privileged situation they live in.  They would almost certainly be among the “desired” students courted by schools of choice because their ability and socioeconomic status fit the profile.  That said, we sacrifice relatively little compared to other parents who wish to opt their children out of standardized tests but have a more difficult time asserting their parental rights.

Every parent should have the right to make the choice that has been relatively easy for us to make.  I’ve consulted with lots of parents and most choose not to opt their kids out of standardized tests though it’s usually because they are afraid of the consequences, not because they believe tests are good for their children.  I suppose that’s one of the aspects of standardized testing in the U.S. that concerns me the most.  There are few things that schools can impose upon parents and those that are imposed are designed for safety or protecting the learning environment.  Take immunizations for instance.  Schools require them because there’s a mountain of research that says they protect children, despite what former Playboy cover models will argue.  Still, you can opt your kids out of immunizations if you really want to with a religious exemption.  Yet, when it comes to standardized tests, states are adamant that there is NO exception for opting out.  This is concerning because unlike immunizations, the mountain of evidence about standardized testing doesn’t point to them being all that great for children.

When parents are compelled to subject their children to tests with a fervor unlike anything else in our schools, then one certainly has to wonder why.  Of course, if you’ve read the 20 days of opt-out posts I’ve laid out over the past month then I’m sure you’re not wondering at all.

Beware of CCSS Political Hype

I recently read an curious piece written by former politician and current Wall Street executive Harold Ford Jr. entitled “Why Voters Love the Common Core”.  In my opinion, Mr. Ford’s post is a perfect example of why anything said by politicians and/or Wall Street executives regarding public education should be read with great skepticism, or at least a healthy dose of critical analysis.Ford RhetoricFord Rhetoric

I invite you to read the post at the Daily Beast before proceeding here because I encourage you to also apply a critical eye to my analysis of Ford’s argument.  In full disclosure, I am not a supporter of the Common Core.  However, I’m not posting this to convince you to join me in my thinking, but rather to point out the dangers of allowing others to do your thinking for you.

Ford’s primary claim is that the recent mid-term elections are proof that voters love the Common Core and that this is primarily because the standards are working.  Here’s why I don’t agree.

In support of his claim, Ford provides the following evidence:

Trailing only the economy, education and classroom issues dominated thinking among voters nationwide. In many states, education was the main driver of turnout.

I am not sure how this assertion is supported.  National exit polls did not even include education as an option, instead listing immigration, the economy, health care, and foreign policy as important issues for voters to choose from. Topics such as executive action on immigration, Obamacare, the fight against ISIS, and debate over economic recovery were far more prevalent issues than education in general and the CCSS specifically.  If you want to point out a “driver of turnout”, you might consider the fact that 93% of people who voted Democrat said that one reason they voted was to support President Obama, while 92% said they voted to oppose him.*

…voters, many of them parents, listened to both sides of the debate and ultimately voted for candidates who supported level-headed policy. In fact, November’s results show parents want to continue with implementation of high standards and the results they promise.

This claim is a classic case of rationalization – a logical fallacy in which someone starts with the conclusion they prefer, cherrypicks premises that support that conclusion, and then “reverse engineers” an argument to support it.  In other words, it is utter nonsense.  There are many other far more valid reasons for the midterm election results such as low voter turnout and opposition to the president.

Education may have played a role in some voters’ minds, but even if it did, it would be hard to attribute those votes to support for CCSS.  The most recent poll released by Phi Delta Kappa found that 62% of Americans have never even heard of the Common Core and the majority of the 38% who have said they were only “somewhat knowledgeable” about the standards.  Besides, of those 38% of people who said they were somewhat knowledgeable about CCSS, only 41% believe the standards will improve American competitiveness globally, while 56% believe they will actually harm American competitiveness.**

Some may consider the results surprising in light of the tireless, and often inaccurate, charges opponents leveled against politicians who support higher standards. Interestingly, some of the opponents—many of whom I believe are genuinely confused about Common Core’s development and purpose—assailed the standards as too difficult, not difficult enough, or as a federal takeover of local education. They couldn’t decide.

This one is actually kind of funny in a sad way.  Ford claims that opponents of CCSS can’t make up their minds about why they oppose the standards.  Are they too hard?  Too easy?  The problem is that we simply don’t know because the CCSS were never actually field tested or validated in any way prior to their implementation in schools.  Experts have noted that the CCSS are more difficult than previous standards in some states and less difficult than others. Are the standards an example of federal take over of local education?  Well, given that adoption of CCSS was tied to billions of dollars in federal education grants, one could legitimately argue that the adoption of CCSS is a prime example of federal overreach. Perhaps the reason why opponents can’t decide how to criticize the CCSS is because the answer is “all of the above”.

And to be sure, classrooms are seeing measurable improvements under Common Core Standards.  For example, in Tennessee—one of the earliest adopters of the Common Core Standards—college-readiness rates among high school students saw the biggest improvement this year since the state began testing. And last year, 4th and 8th grade students showed the biggest math and reading gains in the country.

I’m curious as to where Mr. Ford gets his data to support this claim, given that the tests that were designed to assess student progress on the CCSS (PARCC and Smarter Balance) haven’t even been officially given to students yet.  That presents a considerable validity problem.  He might be referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores, which do indeed show that Tennessee has improved more than most other states from 2011-2103.  The only problem here is that while Tennessee  may have been one of the earliest adopters of CCSS, the state didn’t actually begin implementation until the 2012-2013 school year, and full implementation only occurred that year at the K-2 level.  The first NAEP exam isn’t given until the 4th grade, so that doesn’t quite compute.   There was one state that fully implemented CCSS prior to the 2013 NAEP exam – Kentucky.  Unfortunately, their scores actually dropped between 2011 and 2013 and they ranked #39 in the nation in terms of improvement during that time.***  Oops.

The same problem also plagues Ford’s claims about “college readiness”.  The CCSS weren’t implemented in Tennessee until the junior or senior year of the students who are now more “college ready”, and during that time the Common Core was only partially implemented up through the 8th grade.  I’ve heard some fantastic claims about the potential that Common Core holds, but I have a hard time believing that their very presence in the elementary and middle schools in Tennessee somehow made the graduating seniors more “college ready” in high school.  That’s some serious educational mojo right there.

Here are some more takeaways from Election Day. In only four states—Arizona, Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania—did the Common Core Standards emerge as a major issue, and in three of those races the most supportive candidates won. Twelve incumbent governors who publicly support Common Core easily won re-election.

This looks to me to be some more rationalization.  In Arizona, the most supportive congressional candidates may have won their races, but in the race for State School Superintendent, Diane Douglass a critic of CCSS with a plan to abolish the standards  emerged as the winner.  In Colorado, John Hickenlooper defeated the Republican challenger, yet Hickenlooper doesn’t even mention CCSS on the  education section of his campaign website.  In New York, Governor Cuomo placated voters by delaying CCSS test scores for five years in the face of harsh criticism from his opponent.  For every article that claims that supporting the CCSS led to political victory, there are probably 100 others claiming it was something else.****

As presidential campaigns gear up on both sides of the political aisle, candidates, pollsters, pundits and media advisors should take notice: Students are making gains, parents are paying attention, and more and more teachers are embracing classroom standards that make it easier for them to do their jobs.

One poll funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (HUGE supporters of CCSS) found that 68% teachers say Common Core implementation is going well at their schools.  Another poll not funded by the Gates foundation found that teacher support for CCSS has dropped from 76%  in 2013 to 46% in 2014.  I have yet to see a study or poll in which teachers said the CCSS made their jobs easier.  Perhaps this paragraph is full of the vaguest political rhetoric because it is intended for “candidates, pollsters, pundits, and media advisors” – it is their stock-in-trade after all.

I’m not convinced.

As voters we must be careful about believing the rhetoric of anybody who stands to gain or profit on the backs of our children.   Each of us is responsible for developing a better understanding of why we support or oppose major reform initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards.  There are many well-informed and “level headed” (to use Ford’s adjective) people on both sides of the argument who will support their claims with sound logic and concrete evidence.  It is our duty as citizens to seek them out and educate ourselves to avoid falling prey to those who will only tell you enough to get your vote or your money.

__________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

*Obama loves the CCSS.

**Research shows that the relationship between standards and global competitiveness is questionable and the relationship between test scores and global competitiveness is non-existent.

***Though Mr. Ford does not mention it, the story is almost exactly the same for the NAEP mathematics exam.

****That’s totally a guess. I’m not Googling that.