A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 18

This is the 18th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

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, uses 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.


A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 17

This is the 17th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

Last week I ranked the ulterior motives of those who manipulate the American public with standardized test scores from “worst” to “less bad”.  I then wrote about those who seek to profit either monetarily or politically from the false crisis of American public education made possible by the manipulation of test score data.  Today I focus on…

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.

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 16

This is the 16th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

Last week I ranked the ulterior motives of those who manipulate the American public with standardized test scores from “worst” to “less bad”.  I then wrote about the worst offenders, those who seek to profit from the false crisis of American public education made possible by the manipulation of test score data.  Today I focus on…

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.


A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 15

This is the 15th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

Yesterday I wrote about how testing companies are generating billions of dollars in revenues off the backs of test-taking children and American taxpayers.  That leads me to the next logical topic when a lot of money is involved – corruption.

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.


A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 14

This is the 14th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

Yesterday I ranked the ulterior motives of those who seek to benefit from the education “crisis” created in the U.S. from the manipulation of standardized scores.  Today I want to begin discussing the worst offenders (in my mind) – those who stand to make ridiculous profits from the standardized testing craze.

Reason #14:  Profiting off Children and Taxpayers

The Education sector is now 9% of G.D.P in the United States and the market for educational products totals in the hundreds of billions of dollars.  That’s billion with a “B”.  A recent report from the Center for Media and Democracy revealed how a few corporations have profited recently in this market, especially from the lucrative contracts they receive for administering standardized tests.  Here’s some pertinent examples:pearson


  • Revenues of $9.43 billion in 2013
  • Pearson’s CEO John Fallon was compensated $2.64 million in 2013
  • Pearson administered nine million high-stakes K12 tests in 2014.  38% more than in 2013
  • Pearson received a $1 billion deal to administer the PARCC and another $500 million for tests in Texas

Educational Testing Service (ETS)

  • ETS has increased its annual revenue from $906 million in 2009 to $1.07 billion in 2012.
  • ETS is a non profit under the IRS tax code, but pays its directors and trustees for-profit style salaries. President/CEO Kurt Landgraf was paid $1.3 million in 2012.  Trustee Valdes Guadelupe was paid $80,500 for an estimated two-hour work-week

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH)

  • HMH posted revenues of $1.37 billion in fiscal year 2014

Cha-ching!  Of course, making this much money isn’t easy.  Sometimes you have to spend money in order to make money.

“Pearson Education, ETS (Educational Testing Service), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill—have collectively spent more than $20 million lobbying in states and on Capitol Hill from 2009 to 2014.  They have called for an expansion of the K-12 testing regime, while fighting tooth-and-nail against legislation designed to safeguard student privacy or protect kids from commercial data mining. Aside from the disclosed amount spent on lobbying legislators, Pearson, for example, underwrote untold sums on luxury trips for school officials.”

Here’s a few specifics on just exactly how much money is being spent by testing companies in order to win contracts and make sure that the standardized testing regime continues unabated:

  • Between 2009 and 2014, Pearson spent more than $4.5 million lobbying on Capitol Hill, and a further $3.5 million lobbying state legislatures
  • ETS has spent at least $1.3 million trying to influence state legislature between 2009 and 2013, primarily in Texas and California
  • ETS lobbied heavily for the introduction of a statewide testing system in California and against a bill requiring test agencies to “immediately initiate an investigation” after complaints on“inadequate” testing conditions.
  • ETS also lobbied against a bill designed to safeguard pupil data when Local Education Agencies (such as school districts) sign contracts with 3rd party entities.
  • HMH also spent $1.4 million lobbying on Capitol Hill influencing the legislative agenda on “early childhood education” and “[the] federal funding of education.”
  • HMH spent more than $2.1 million between 2009 and 2014 lobbying state legislatures

As you can see, standardized testing is BIG business with huge profits.  Guess who pays for a huge portion of those profits?  You do, dear taxpayer.  Your hard earned money lines the pockets of testing corporations and “non-profit” testing services to the tune of billions of dollars per year.  The government can’t spend your money fast enough on standardized tests. That alone is a good reason to opt out of this disgraceful racket.

For tomorrow:  More profit = More corruption

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 13

This is the 13th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

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.


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.

For tomorrow:  Profits made on the backs of test takers

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 12

This is the 12th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

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:
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!

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.
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.

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 11

This is the 11th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

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.

For next time: Perpetuating the Myth of Teacher Failure Part 2: The Poverty Gap

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 10

This is the 10th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

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.

For next time (March 30th): How “Closing the Gap” is all about the wrong “Gap”

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 9

This is the 9th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

Yesterday I explained how test scores are perfect for manipulating you and other Americans into believing drastic corporate education reforms are necessary.  Today I’ll start to explain why this is so and why we opt our kids out of standardized tests so that we won’t be party to the manipulation.

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
  • 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.

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.

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. Tomorrow I will show you how it is done and how closing the “achievement gap” is used to manipulate you even further.