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:
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.

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

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 8

This is the 8th 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 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.

For tomorrow:  Manipulation #1 – False crisis mentality

 

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 7

This is the 7th 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 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.

For Tomorrow:  Why test scores are really needed

 

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 6

This is the sixth 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 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.  

Your child's education  been reduced to a series of 1's and 0's
Your child’s education been reduced to a series of 1’s and 0’s

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.

For tomorrow:  Why it’s really needed.

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 5

This is the fifth 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 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.

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 4

This is the fourth 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 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.

 

Coming Soon: New Testing Center
Coming Soon: New Testing Center

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.

For tomorrow: Ridiculous Preparation

A Month of Opting out Of Standardized Tests: Day 3

This is the third 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 3:  Narrowing Curriculumteachtothetest-e1393301251635

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.

For tomorrow:  Harming Children