Incident, #BaltimoreUprising 2015

“And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Martin Luther King Jr., “The Other America” 14 March 1968

“We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
Arundhati Roy, “Peace and the new corporate liberation theology,” The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture

“The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”
James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” The Nation 11 July 1966.

Countee Cullen’s “Incident” is a powerful and disturbing confrontation of racism as well as the enduring impact of racial slurs: “And so I smiled, but he poked out/His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’/…That’s all that I remember.”

In the last days of April 2015, Cullen’s Baltimore has once again answered a haunting question about another city, “Harlem” by Langston Hughes: “Or does it explode?”

“Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore,” begins Ta-Nehisi Coates, adding—

an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city’s publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city’s police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.

The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today’s riots began.

I read these words in the wake of watching this incident on mainstream news coverage, the same media that covered the avalanche in Napal as the death of a Google executive.

The coverage of Baltimore became an avalanche of “thug” punctuating comments by political leaders—white and black—and commentators.

And then one of the cable news talking heads interrupted one guest to lecture her about “paddy wagon” as an offensive term—a whitewashed interlude before the onslaught of “thug” resumed.

Coates concludes: “When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself”—exposing that in the decades since King, “the preferably unheard” remain ignored, marginalized, the victims of the relentless daily violence of poverty and discrimination. But their circumstances as well as their options for raising their voices are determined for them, for the benefit of those who tolerate and perpetuate that daily violence.

The day after this recurring incident of Baltimore 2015 erupted, I write this while being the care provider for my bi-racial granddaughter, only 9 months old.

She is the glorious embodiment of racial harmony, but she has yet to recognize the world for all its remaining evils.

Our privilege will insulate her in many ways against the inequities that have fueled Baltimore’s unrest, but someday she too likely will feel the sting that shaped the speaker of Cullen’s poem.

At least as long as the calculated white gaze and accusatory finger remains selectively on who and what and refuses to confront and address why.

What If Standardized Tests Were Biased Against Whites, Males, Affluent?

In my Marvel collecting days, I bought the first issue of What If?—begun in February of 1977 with “What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?”

Marvel and DC have since then ventured into rewriting their comic book universes and even creating alternate universes for such thought experiments, but in the late 1970s, this was exciting stuff.

So much so, I want to apply this concept to standardized testing to ask the following:

1972 2014 SAT M v. F

  • What if standardized tests were biased against white, affluent males in ways that denied them access to college? Data from the 2005 SAT (the last year they separated data by gender and wealth) show that impoverished females disproportionately take the SAT while affluent males disproportionately take the SAT; see this chart:

2005 SAT M v. F plus wealth

  • What if standardized tests used to retain children in 3rd grade disproportionately retained while, affluent males? Grade retention impacts significantly impoverished and minority students, both pre-high-stakes accountability and then post-NCLB. From a 2000 research analysis of grade retention:

We review the policy context of school retention and show that age-grade retardation has been common and growing in American schools from the 1970s through the 1990s. Our analysis focuses on the period from 1972 to 1998 and on grade retardation at ages 6, 9, 12, 15, and 17. By age 9, the odds of graderetardation among African-American and Hispanic youth are 50 percent larger than among White youth, but these differentials are almost entirely explained by social and economic deprivation among minority youth, along with unfavorable geographic location. Because rates of age-grade retardation have increased at the same time that social background conditions have become more favorable to rapid progress through school, the observed trend toward more age-grade retardation substantially understates growth in the practice of holding students back in school. While there is presently little evidence of direct race-ethnic discrimination in progress through the elementary and secondary grades, the recent movement toward high stakes testing for promotion could magnify race-ethnic differentials in retention.

And then from a 2013-2014 position statement from the International Reading Association:

African American and Hispanic students and students living in poverty are most affected by grade retention practices that use the results of high-stakes assessments for decision making. Achievement patterns reveal wide disparities between the achievement of white students and that of African Americans and Hispanics (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011); thus, it follows that there would be similar differences in the number of students retained in each subgroup. In 2009–2010, African American students represented 49% and 56% of the third and fourth graders who were retained, respectively, which was disproportionate to their representation in those grades; Hispanic students were twice as likely to be retained than their white counterparts (Adams, Robelen, & Shah, 2012)….

  • What if standardized tests were biased against white, affluent males, denying them high school graduation? Also from the IRA position statement:

As with the outcomes of third-grade retention policies, African Americans, Hispanics, and students living in poverty are most affected by the use of high-stakes assessments for diploma decisions….

Policymakers may believe that linking grade retention and high school graduation to students’ results on high-stakes assessments will motivate students to perform better, but instead, evidence indicates that these practices have harsh and lasting consequences for students academically, psychologically, socially, and economically (Baker & Lang, 2012; Jimerson, 1999; Jimerson, Anderson, & Whipple, 2002; Norton, 2011; Walker & Madhere, 1987; Yamamoto & Byrnes, 1984).

I must, then, ask broadly, what if standardized tests were historically and then currently a powerful metric that closed doors for determining the educational and life opportunities of while, affluent males?

Would there be the same unyielding defense of the necessity for high-stakes tests?

Bonus What If…?

What if, instead of declaring race-based considerations for college admission illegal, we banned the use of legacy admissions? Historically and currently, for the outlier white, affluent male who does not score high on standardized tests of college admission another door is open wide, legacy admissions.

Yes, To Be Clear, I Am Anti-Testing, Anti-Grading

[See You Are Invited to Participate in the #HowMuchTesting Debate!]

Since the early to mid-1990s, I have actively practiced and preached de-testing and de-grading as an educator.

So, to be clear and not as some ploy to be provocative or to slip into hyperbole, I am solidly anti-testing as well as anti-grading.

That stance is based on a very simple point of logic: Tests and grades have been central to formal education for over a century, and the stakes of those tests and grades have dramatically increased over the last three decades; yet, virtually no one is satisfied with our system or so-called “student achievement.”

In the colloquial parlance of my South, we cannot admit that weighing a pig doesn’t make it fatter.

However, virtually every time I speak publicly, write a public piece, or am interviewed by the media about testing and grades, I come against something like this from Jordan Shapiro:

If we consider standardized testing in schools, it is clear to me that many folks get caught up in the fire of the debate and lose the ability to see both sides of the story clearly. Those who take an extreme anti-testing position are well meaning. They want to protect children’s individuality. They want to shield them from unnecessary anxiety. They want to protect valuable learning time. They want to spare children the indignity of punching chads and filling in circles. And they want to empower young people by providing them with life-long experiential learning skills.

But some of these critics also seem to forget that those who advocate for measured accountability are also well meaning….

Ultimately, there’s no way for the Federal Department of Education to equitably serve the 50 million students who attend public schools in the United States without some sort of assessment data. But do the current tests provide meaningful data? The critics say no. The advocates point out that all data is ultimately incomplete, but that doesn’t make it worthless.

Typically, the reasonable position is that both sides have good and bad; as well, the final point always swing back to “OK, standardized tests (and even grades) are misleading, flawed, and all that, but we have to have something (which means just plowing ahead with flawed tests and grades).”

This sort of common sense journalistic approach (everything is reduced to “both sides” and then each side is treated as if equal) coupled with fatalism fueled by a refusal to back up far enough to reconsider norms is a false objectivity that can only reinforce the status quo.

Therefore, along with my appeal to logic and confronting a very long history of how tests and grades have failed our students and our formal education system, we have, ironically I think, a tremendous body of data: Standardized test data are overwhelmingly and persistently correlated to social class of students’ families and remain linked to race and gender biases. Those ugly roots of standardized testing (IQ, etc.) are not mere historical artifacts since all standardized testing continues to exhibit the worst elements of inequity exposed in those roots.

And if we genuinely investigate our commitment to data, the College Board’s own research on the predictive value of the SAT when compared to simple GPA is a powerful argument against standardized testing and common sense proposals like Shapiro’s above because GPA trumps the SAT as a valuable metric.

Even though I reject traditional classroom-based grading, hundreds of grades assigned among dozens of teachers over many years (logically again) serve our need to address accountability far better than a one-shot standardized test.

This leads me to suspect that advocates of standardized tests are not as enamored with tests as much as they simply distrust teachers, but again, the data refute that distrust.

And my additional recognition is that standardized test advocates do not love the tests as much as they love how standardized testing reinforces and perpetuates their privilege: high-stakes exit exams do not gatekeep the wealthy, college entrance exams do not gatekeep the wealthy, third-grade retention based on standardized tests do not hold back the wealthy.

Standardized tests have a false allure of objectivity, a bureaucratic allure of efficiency, and a traditional allure since they have always been central to formal schooling. But most significantly, standardized testing serves the interests of the privileged—at the expense of minority and disadvantaged populations.

In the context of equity and education, standardized tests have failed, repeatedly; they are a tragic drain on school funding and instructional time, and to what end?

Instead of tests or even grades, students need rich and engaging learning experiences that include high-quality feedback from their teachers and ample time to revisit those students’ demonstrations of learning.

One teacher or even one artifact of learning doesn’t mean much at any fixed point in time.

Education occurs in fits and starts over many, many years and within a complex matrix of influences (some “bad” experiences are “good” in terms of learning).

Tests and grades are inadequate for teaching and learning, and they simply do far more harm than good.

The evidence is overwhelming for that claim, and to argue otherwise is not simply “the other side,” and it is not reasonable or justifiable because test and grade advocates also want what is best for students.

Continuing to cling to tests and grades is clinging to very negative views of human nature (especially in children) and of teachers.

I am anti-testing and anti-grading because I have committed my life to children and young people, to the complicated and unpredictable art of teaching as an act of social justice, a pursuit of equity.

Testing and grading have not built an equitable system of formal education in the U.S. (in fact, testing and grading have labeled and then perpetuated inequity); therefore, to argue that we must continue both in order to reach that goal is a grand failure of understanding the very evidence advocates claim to understand.

What opportunities and experiences are we guaranteeing all students?—this is the thing to which we must be accountable, not simplistic metrics that serve only to quantify the very inequities we refuse to acknowledge or change.

For Further Reading

Email to My Students: “the luxury of being thankful”

To My Students at the End of the Semester

Grades Fail Student Engagement with Learning

Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different

Co-authored with Schmidt, R. (2009). 21st century literacy: If we are scripted, are we literate? Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

A Weekend Reader: Revisiting Johnny, Accountability, Test Prep, Debunking “Factory Model” Narrative

The key element of critical pedagogy and critical literacy, for me, is the concept of investigating—investigating the text, investigating the claim, investigating the norm.

Below is a collection of what may seem unconnected (except all address education) pieces that represent, I think, a shared modeling of investigating.

Please take the time to read, and do so carefully.

Solving the School Crisis in Popular Culture: Why Johnny Can’t Read Turns 60, Adam Golub

Golub johnny readWhy it’s so scary that test prep works so well, Sarah Blaine

bar examThe Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education,’ Audrey Watters

Watters factory model

Why High Stakes Accountability Sounds Good But Doesn’t Work—And Why We Keep on Doing It Anyway, Heinrich Mintrop and Gail L. Sunderman

VAM-pire Metrics and the Cost of Using Students as Weapons of Mass Instruction

It is generally obnoxious to say “I told you so,” but since I am often accused of being obnoxious even when I am not intending to be, I’ll risk this: I told you so.

While speaking recently to an education law class of doctoral students, I revisited my argument that using value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate, retain/fire, and reward teachers has an incredibly negative consequence: Teachers are being incentivized to use their students as mechanisms for their own job security and pay and to hope their students outperform other teachers’ students.

Being perhaps too snarky two years ago I framed this as using students as weapons of mass instruction.

I have always been disappointed that my point has gained little traction and even prompted a great deal of push back, but I am now pleased to direct everyone to a new analysis by Susan Moore Johnson, Harvard Graduate School of Education: Will VAMS Reinforce the Walls of the Egg-Crate School?

Johnson, I believe, makes a comprehensive and compelling case against VAM that in many ways reinforces my argument.

The analysis begins by acknowledging the rise in concern about teacher quality as well as offering a detailed challenge to overly simplistic considerations of teacher quality and the role it plays in student achievement.

Johnson notes that the political and bureaucratic rise in embracing VAM has received considerable push back by teachers, building to her focus for the analysis:

In this article I bring an organizational perspective to the prospect of using VAMS to improve teacher quality. I suggest why, in addition to VAMS’ methodological limitations, reformers should be very cautious about relying on VAMS to make decisions that teachers view as important. Because the wide-scale use of VAMS is very recent, scant research exists with which to answer the organizational questions about the intended and unintended consequences of using VAMS in making consequential staffing decisions. However, relevant research about teachers and school improvement, coupled with my own experiences working with states and districts that are implementing new teacher evaluations, lead me to suggest that expanding the use of VAMS in teacher evaluations (even if it represents no more than 30% of the teacher’s total score) might compromise the school’s potential for improvement.

Instead of focusing on individual teacher quality, Johnson argues for a more comprehensive approach:

Recent studies have persuasively documented the benefits of systematic efforts to improve student learning through schoolwide improvement initiatives (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Easton, & Luppescu, 2010; Little, 1982; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001;Rosenholtz, 1989). Because students move through schools from class to class or grade to grade, they are better served when human resources are deliberately organized to draw on the strengths of all teachers on behalf of all students, rather than having students subjected to the luck of the draw in their classroom assignment. Successful schoolwide improvement increases norms of shared responsibility among teachers and creates structures and opportunities for learning that promote interdependence—rather than independence—among them. By contrast, a strategy for school improvement that focuses substantially on identifying, assigning, and rewarding or penalizing individual teachers for their effectiveness in raising students’ test scores depends primarily on the strengths of individual teachers.

Broadly, evidence shows that schools should function within a culture of collaboration and not competition (another “I told you so,” sorry).

The unintended consequences, then, far outweigh the claimed advantages of measuring, identifying, and retaining “good” teachers. Johnson identifies the following unintended consequences:

Therefore, heavy reliance on VAMS may lead effective teachers in high-need subjects and schools to seek safer assignments, where they can avoid the risk of low VAMS scores. Meanwhile, some of the most challenging teaching assignments would remain difficult to fill and likely be subject to repeated turnover, bringing steep costs for students….

Given that reality, it seems possible that when districts rely on VAMS for a substantial part of teachers’ evaluations, their teachers may pull back from sharing collegial responsibility for the students in a school….

As more states require that teacher evaluations include both classroom observations and data from standardized tests of student achievement, principals who are not instructional experts will be left to interpret discrepancies between what they see in the classroom and what they read on a VAMS score sheet. Will they doubt the validity of their observations or the accuracy of the VAMS score? If they are uncertain about judging instruction or believe VAMS to be more objective and precise than their own professional judgment, value-added scores may unduly influence their decisions….

In line with Coleman’s (1988) theory about social capital, this suggests that a school would do better to invest in promoting collaboration, learning, and professional accountability among teachers and administrators than to rely on VAMS scores in an effort to reward or penalize a relatively small number of teachers.

Ultimately, commitments to VAM prove to be based on ideology, including a conscious effort to ignore evidence—a great irony considering VAM advocates are calling for dat-driven teacher quality policies.

Addressing the inequity in every child’s life outside of school and also recalibrating the culture of school—toward collaboration and away from competition—would both reap great rewards for children and society.

Plowing forward with VAM will, I guarantee, continue to bleed our field and our schools dry.

For Further Reading

The Constitutional Challenge to Teacher Tenure, Derek W. Black

Merit pay could revive child labor, Stephanie Jones

Parental Choice, Magical Thinking, and the Paralysis of Indirect Solutions

Parental choice #1: Seeking a school for their white children so they will not have to attend classes with black or brown children.

Parental choice #2: Seeking a school where their wealthy children will not have to attend classes with poor children.

Parental choice #3: Seeking a school where children will be taught Intelligent Design, but not evolutionary biology.

Parental choice #4: Not allowing their children to be vaccinated.

Parental choice #5: Smoking in the house and car while children are present.

I could continue for quite some time with the hypotheticals, but let’s turn to what we know about parental choice and education.

A 2007 study by a pro-school choice organization in Wisconsin reached the following conclusions:

Taken as a whole, these numbers indicate significant limits on the capacity of public school choice and parental involvement to improve school quality and student performance within MPS. Parents simply do not appear sufficiently engaged in available choice opportunities or their children’s educational activities to ensure the desired outcomes.

This may be just as well. Relying on public school choice and parental involvement to reclaim MPS may be a distraction from the hard work of fixing the district’s schools. Recognizing this, the question is whether the district, its schools, and its supporters in Madison are prepared to embrace more radical reforms. Given the high stakes involved, district parents should insist on nothing less.

More recently, in School Choice Versus A Public System of Education: The Big Picture, Jan Resseger explains:

Promoters of school choice tout the idea that competition through choice will make everybody try harder and improve traditional and charter schools alike.  But large studies conducted in the past year in Chicago and New Orleans show that parents aren’t always looking for academic quality when they choose schools.  Instead they prize schools that are close to home or work, schools near child care, schools with good after-school programs, and high schools with strong extracurricular offerings.  Margaret Raymond of the conservative Hoover Institution, shocked a Cleveland audience in December when she declared that she does not believe that competition through school choice is driving the school improvement its defenders predicted: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”  (You can watch the video of Raymond’s Cleveland speech here, with the comment quoted beginning approximately 50 minutes into the video.)

In the hypothetical and real contexts above, then, I am struck by Jack Markell’s assertion: School Choice Works, Privatization Won’t—notably after rejecting vouchers, his proposal: “That means using parent choice among traditional, charter, and magnet schools to foster innovative instruction, and hold public schools accountable for giving students the best opportunities possible.” [1]

I think we must acknowledge the final point—”best opportunities possible”—while adding “all” before “students” above; however, we cannot allow the essential magical thinking about choice and idealistic framing of parental choice to go unchallenged.

Let me offer next a much broader context.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed “the treatment of poverty nationally” by arguing:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Choice, market forces, the Invisible Hand—these are always indirect methods, and in many cases, magical thinking. The market might accomplish goals that benefit a people, and if so, that process is slow, characterized by fits and starts, and entirely dependent on the consumers—their wants, needs, and abilities to exercise choice.

So let’s return to parental choice #4 above.

What happens to public health if vaccinations are left to the choice of parents, the market?

In other words, the sloppy and chaotic nature of the market to address the quality of cable TV or Internet providers seems something we can tolerate.

But public health?

And this question, I think, is the same for public education.

Promoting the indirect impact of parental choice to accomplish the clear and obvious responsibilities that a public institution not only can but also must fulfill [2] is a tragic failure of a people, an ethical failure.

If we genuinely as a people viewed any child as everyone’s child, we could in the course of public funding and public schooling create the sort of educational opportunities that every child deserves, but currently only the elite are guaranteed because of the dynamics of choice trumping the assurances of the Commons and the stratifying policies driving traditional schooling [3].

And thus Markell’s final bi-partisan wink-wink-nod-nod to Jeb Bush to assert “policymakers should be ‘more daring’ when it comes to education policy” rings hollow since political leaders embracing choice are in fact shirking their responsibility and obligation to act in the service of all people.

[1] Of course, there is always the nasty implication among choice/market advocates and the “no excuses” crowd that teachers and children are just not trying hard enough. And as I detail above, those exact people are supporting letting the market “work” instead of them actually working. So once again, I invoke: “I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.” Commander Buck Murdock (William Shatner), Airplane 2: The Sequel.

[2] See note above, ironically, exposed by parental choice and the market: Just what are the characteristics of the elite private schools wealthy parents choose for their children—the exact political leaders who say class size doesn’t matter but their children’s school has 155 teachers for 1150 students (a 1:7.4 ratio)? And it is here that we have the “best opportunities possible” before us while political leaders remain paralyzed, unwilling to guarantee for “other people’s children” what they cede to the market since, of course, the market favors them.

[3] And let’s ponder how the system benefits the wealthy: Would the SAT and all standardized tests be so entrenched in the U.S. educational system if their gatekeeping effects denied wealthy children grade promotion, graduation, and college entrance? Hint: No.

The Conversation: Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different

The Conversation US: Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different

[Some edits and expanded below]

About 15 years ago, education writer Alfie Kohn made an impassioned case against standardized testing. But despite the wealth of evidence supporting his argument, standardized testing has dramatically increased in the last few years.

From being linked only to high school exit exams and school report cards in the 1980s and 1990s, standardized tests are now part of national standards as well as test-based teacher evaluations.

The latest to be added to the list has been developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) that claims to assess whether students are ready or not for college and careers.

As a 30-plus years educator who has examined how high-stakes testing in the US perpetuates privilege, I do not see how this round of testing will be any different.

I believe PARCC, a move toward national standardized tests of college and career readiness, is another attempt to chase “better tests.” It does not offer anything more to prove that these standardized tests rise above the flaws in testing we have witnessed for decades.

The appeal being made in the case of PARCC is that these tests evaluate the college and career readiness of students. If we recall, similar grand claims were made as part of testing being central to No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

PARCC items found to be grade inappropriate

NCLB was driven, at least in part, by promises of closing the achievement gap and bringing greater equity to public education. But that promise has not been fulfilled, a fact likely linked to the flaws of standardized tests.

Common Core standards and PARCC tests fit into the same pattern of chasing “better tests” to achieve idealistic goals, the only difference being these tests are national instead of being state-based.

From what we know about PARCC so far, the difficulty with tests is that many of the questions are developmentally inappropriate. For instance, during the implementation of English Language Arts elementary tests in New York, questions were not properly matched to the age group.

Principal of South Side High School in New York State Carol Burris, who was named an outstanding educator, explains:

[A] passage on the third-grade test from ‘Drag Racer’…has a grade level of 5.9 and an interest level of ninth – 12th grade.

Bitter lessons of chasing better tests

As we know, across the US, high-stakes standardized testing has had many detrimental consequences: students have been denied graduation, children have been retained in third grade teachers have been dismissed and convicted of cheating.

Despite the grand claims about the tests, there is a growing opt-out movement. In addition, there have been technology failures during testing, controversies over the assessment services company Pearson “spying” on students and concerns about student data security.

However, in the wake of the cheating scandal and conviction of teachers in Atlanta, Angelika Pohl, founder and president of the Atlanta-based Better Testing & Evaluations, remains convinced that the problem is not with the tests themselves but with the inability to create “better tests”:

Tests are not inherently bad. It is quite possible to write test questions and answer choices that most people would agree are fair measures of what a student has learned. It is possible to write questions that do not have any of the flaws mentioned nor other flaws. But it costs money. And expertise.

Tests don’t lead to better performance

Instead of chasing “better tests,” we must admit standardized tests are flawed mechanisms for creating equity.

Evidence suggests that neither Common Core nor the related high-stakes “next generation” tests (such as those developed by PARCC) will achieve that ever-elusive goal of “better tests.”

A 2011 comprehensive review of the accountability movement built on standards and high-stakes testing has shown the degree to which testing has negatively affected student graduation rates, an important indicator of equity.

In addition, testing has often had a greater and negative impact on learning than curriculum or standards. Managing director of the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis has shown that high-stakes testing “resulted in the ‘dumbing down’ and narrowing of the curriculum.”

Nothing about these “next generation” of tests suggests they will be any more effective than state-based accountability systems introduced almost 30 years ago, since the format and grading of these tests remain essentially the same.

In fact, continuing to depend on standardized testing will neither increase student achievement nor achieve equity goals.

Many factors go into test scores

That tests do not create equity, but do reflect inequity, is also clear from the example of college entrance exams such as the SAT.

Results of standardized tests directly reflect students’ socio-economic status and their parents’ level of education. As data from the SAT show, student scores increase directly in line with parental wealth and education, thus misrepresenting college-preparedness, which is better represented by simple GPA:

SAT 2012 demographics copy

Standardized tests reflect more out-of-school than in-school influences:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Standardized test scores are also biased by gender and race, with whites and males scoring higher. However, test data are misinterpreted as exclusively student achievement.

In short, from the SAT and ACT to PARCC, I would argue, high-stakes tests perpetuate and even create inequity.

Education historian Herb Kliebard explains that US formal education embraced standardized testing in the early 20th century mostly because those tests were inexpensive and easy to implement.

In the process, a system has been set up that tolerates the many and more corrosive consequences of those tests.

We currently have no evidence, however, that PARCC has solved these historical and lingering problems with the inherently flawed and limited system of standardized testing.

Using standardized tests such as PARCC for high-stakes decisions about individual students or teachers will only continue to fail students but not to achieve goals of social and educational equity.

Education Needs a Collaboration (Non-Competitive) Pact

“The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget
that certain other sets of people are human.”
Huxley, Aldous. The Olive Tree. 1936.

While watching a documentary on schools recently, I felt that same uncomfortable feeling I do whenever I watch or read about this or that school “excelling”—notably the principal, but teachers as well, expressing how they have something different that is driving the school’s success.

Of course that claim caries the implication that other schools, teachers, and students are not doing that something different (hint: trying hard enough, demanding enough).

In this particular documentary, that something different included publicly identifying, labeling, and displaying students by test scores.

And while I have a great deal of compassion and collegial support for educators fighting the standardized testing craze corrupting U.S. public education, I feel compelled to note that many of those same educators turn right around and practice the same sort of tyranny with students—or quickly wave the testing data flag when their school seems to look good (although these claims of “miracles” are almost always mirages).

So here is a test we should all take.

Check all that apply: As a teacher or administrator in a school, do you …

[ ] use test scores to rank, compare, motivate, and/or shame students into working “harder”?

[ ] use test scores to rank, compare, motivate, and/or shame teachers within a department, grade level, or school into working “harder”?

[ ] use test scores to brag about your department, grade level, or school to parents or the media?

If any of these are checked, you have a decision: either stop complaining about high-stakes uses of test scores or stop doing all of the above.

If test scores are a flawed way to evaluate teachers and schools, they are a flawed way to evaluate teachers, schools, and students—and even when they work in your favor.

Thus, I recommend the latter choice above because education needs a collaboration (non-competitive) pact if we are to save the soul of our profession.


Why competitive model fails schools. No one should lose in education, Alfredo Gaete and Stephanie Jones

De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization, Bower and Thomas, eds.

Competition: A Multidisciplinary Analysis, Worthen, Henderson, Rasmussen, and Benson, eds.

Educators (Still) Have No Political Party

NOTE: Below is a repost from 23 August 2012 with small edits. With great regret, I see no reason to write something new since the Chicago mayoral election and the announcement of Hillary Clinton entering the presidential election have offered clear proof educators still have no political party. I do, however, offer some important additions after the repost from W.E.B. Du Bois and George Carlin. I recommend them highly.


Educators (Still) Have No Political Party

For about thirty years now, public education as well as its teachers and students have been the focus of an accountability era driven by recurring calls for and the implementation of so-called higher standards and incessant (and now “next generation”) testing. At two points during this era, educators could blame Ronald Reagan’s administration for feeding the media frenzy around the misleading A Nation at Risk and George W. Bush’s administration for federalizing the accountability era with No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—both under Republican administrations.

For those who argued that Republicans and Democrats were different sides of the same political coin beholden to corporate interests, education advocates could point to Republicans with an accusatory finger and claim the GOP was anti-public education while also endorsing Democrats as unwavering supporters of public education. To claim Republicans and Democrats were essentially the same was left to extremists and radicals, it seemed.

As we approach the fall of 2015 and the next presidential election, however, educators and advocates for public education have found that the position of the extremists—Republicans and Democrats are the same—has come true under the Barack Obama administration.

Educators have no political party to support because no political party supports educators, public education, or teachers unions.

Democrats and Republicans: Our Orwellian Future Is Now

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

1984, George Orwell

Behind the historical mask that Democrats support strongly public education and even teachers specifically and workers broadly, the Obama administration has presented a powerful and misleading education campaign that is driven by Obama as the good cop and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the bad cop. Obama Good Cop handles the discourse that appeals to educators by denouncing the rising test culture in 2011:

What is true, though, is, is that we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at. Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic.

Yet, simultaneously, Secretary Duncan Bad Cop was endorsing and the USDOE was implementing Race to the Top, creating provisions for states to opt out of NCLB, and endorsing Common Core—each of which increases both the amount of standardized testing and the high-stakes associated with those tests by expanding the accountability from schools and students to teachers.

Under Obama, Democratic education policy and agendas, embodied by Duncan, have created a consistently inconsistent message. During his campaign mode for a second term, Obama once again offered conflicting claims about education—endorsing a focus on reducing class size (despite huge cuts for years in state budgets that have eliminated teachers and increased class size, which many education reformers endorse) and making a pitch to support teachers unions and even increasing spending on education, leading Diane Ravitch to ponder:

Well, it is good to hear the rhetoric. That’s a change. We can always hope that he means it. But that, of course, would mean ditching Race to the Top and all that absurd rightwing rhetoric about how schools can fix poverty, all by themselves.

Throughout his presidency, Obama’s discourse has been almost directly contradicted by Duncan’s discourse and the USDOE’s policies. Obama tended to state that teachers were the most important in-school influence on student learning while Duncan tends to continue omitting the “in-school” qualifier, but these nuances of language are of little value since the USDOE under Obama has an agenda nearly indistinguishable from Republican agendas:

  • Incentivizing all states to adopt CC and the necessary increase in testing and textbook support (and thus, profit) to follow.
  • Endorsing market dynamics and school choice by embracing the charter school movement, specifically charters such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) that practice “no excuses” ideologies for school reform and school cultures.
  • Criticizing directly and indirectly public school teachers and perpetuating the “bad” teacher myth by calling for changes in teacher evaluations and compensation, disproportionately based on student test scores.
  • Funding and endorsing the spread of test-based accountability to departments and colleges of education involved in teacher certification.
  • Funding and endorsing the de-professionalization of teaching through support for Teach for America.
  • Appealing to the populist message about choice by failing to confront the rise of “parent trigger” laws driven by corporate interests posing as concerned parents.

If my claim that Republicans and Democrats are different sides of the same misguided education reform coin still appears to be the claim of an extremist, the last point above should be examined carefully.

Note, for example, the connection between the issues endorsed by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and the anti-union sentiment joined with endorsing the next misleading Waiting for “Superman”Won’t Back Down.

The Democratic National Convention was home to DFER, Parent Revolution, and Students First to promote Won’t Back Down as if this garbled film is a documentary—including a platform for Michelle Rhee.

There is nothing progressive about the education reform agenda under the Obama administration, nothing progressive about the realities behind Obama’s or Duncan’s discourse, nothing progressive about Rhee, Gates, or the growing legions of celebrity education reformers.

If the Democratic Party were committed to a progressive education platform, we would hear and see policy seeking ways to fund fully public schools, rejecting market solutions to social problems, supporting the professionalization of teachers, embracing the power and necessity of collective bargaining and tenure, protecting students from the negative impact of testing and textbook corporations, distancing themselves from Rhee-like conservatives in progressive clothing, and championing above everything else democratic ideals.

Instead, the merging of the education agenda between Democrats and Republicans is Orwellian, but it real, as Ravitch warned early in Obama’s administration:

This rhetoric represented a remarkable turn of events. It showed how the politics of education had been transformed. . . .Slogans long advocated by policy wonks on the right had migrated to and been embraced by policy wonks on the left. When Democrat think tanks say their party should support accountability and school choice, while rebuffing the teachers’ unions, you can bet that something has fundamentally changed in the political scene. (p. 22)

Still today in 2015, educators have no political party to support because no political party supports educators—and this is but one symptom of a larger disease killing the hope and promise of democracy in the U.S.

This tragic fact is the inevitable result of the historical call for teachers not to be political. Now that educators have no major party to support, the failure of that call is more palpable than ever.

Both the faux “not political” pose and playing the partisan political game fail educators, public education, and the democratic hope of the U.S.

Why I Won’t Vote, W.E.B. Dubois, The Nation, 20 October 1956