Ed Reform Collapsing Under Its Own Weight - Part One, Assessments

There has been many, many news stories out this last month that all lead me to believe that ed reform is starting to collapse.  Is it anywhere near full-collapse?  Nope and that's because there is a lot of money to be made so it will not go without a fight.  But the signs are all there. 

Let's start with assessments and the posterchild that is Atlanta.  (But close on its heels is Rhee's D.C., Texas and Florida.) 

What is this all about?  It's about a superintendent who wanted to make money for herself and for the administrators and teachers in her district, make a "name" for herself and the kids be damned.

Today the first suspects in the Atlanta cheating scandal turned themselves in.  There are 35 educators who were indicted in a 65-count indictment last week including former superintendent Beverly Hall.  The indictments claim there was a pattern among the educators to cheat or conceal cheating or retaliate against any whistleblowers in order to up student test scores.  All of the defendants are ordered to turn themselves in by the end of the day. 

Was it just those 35?  No, nearly 200 educators admitted to taking part in this effort that, for example, showed one middle school going from 24% proficiency to 86% proficiency...in one year.   Superintendent Hall was named "superintendent of the year" in 2009 based on these rising scores.  The prosecutors are unsure if Hall directly led these actions but said the conspiracy could not have happened in such a widespread manner without her knowledge.

Who pays for this?  From the Huffington Post:

The other student cited by Howard was a third-grader who failed a benchmark exam and received the worst score in her reading class in 2006. The girl was held back, yet when she took a separate assessment test not long afterward, she passed with flying colors.

Howard said the girl's mother, Justina Collins, knew something was wrong, but was told by school officials that the child simply was a good test-taker. The girl is now in ninth grade, reading at a fifth-grade level.

Why do it?

The tests were the key measure the state used to determine whether it met the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools with good test scores get extra federal dollars to spend in the classroom or on teacher bonuses.

It wasn't immediately clear how much bonus money Hall received. Howard did not say and the amount wasn't mentioned in the indictment.  (Note: I have seen figures as high as $500k).

"Those results were caused by cheating. ... And the money that she received, we are alleging that money was ill-gotten," Howard said.

Diane Ravitch's blog conveniently has all the interesting graphics from the NY Times and its articles.

This week in Texas, 3rd graders start their state testing. 

On STAAR testing days, students will spend 4 hours -- on average -- testing.

Right now, high-schoolers take the most STAAR tests, totaling 15 end-of-course exams. A bill in front of Texas legislators would cut that number down to five.
I mentioned Florida and here's a story of a special education student who was pushed and pushed to take the state test.  The state requires every single student, regardless of ability, to take their state test, the FCAT. 

From the Washington Post's The Answer Sheet:

The problem: Michael. He has a disability. 

 Michael is nine years old. Born prematurely, he weighed four pounds. He has a brain stem but, according to doctors, most of his brain is missing.

No problem, says the state. An alternative version will be sent—pictures that Michael can describe.

Unfortunately, Michael is blind.

No problem, says the State. There’s a Braille version.

Michael doesn’t know Braille, and is unlikely to ever be able to learn it.

Amanda, Michael’s teacher, is frustrated. She really cares about the kids she teaches, and resists deliberately setting them up to fail. She also knows that Florida’s legislature, ignoring the research, has jumped on the merit pay bandwagon, which requires that teachers evaluated in large part by the standardized test scores of their students. So Michael’s test score—a zero—and the scores of other disabled kids for whom she’s responsible, can set her up for a poor review or even get her fired.

Here's another student:

Through intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy, along with meticulous efforts of his Hospital/Homebound teachers for the past seven years, Ethan has achieved very limited and rudimentary communication skills. He has a very slight thumb lift with his left hand to indicate ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

Ethan has been required to take the Florida Alternate Assessment for the past two years, and in addition to the questions being entirely inappropriate for his level of cognition (he cannot comprehend questions about math, staplers, clocks, shoes, or even food) there is no way to accurately assess his understanding of the material being presented… Additionally, the testing procedure is extremely physically taxing for him, requiring him to sit in his wheelchair for long periods of time and focus on black and white pictures which are difficult for him to perceive at best… After the testing sessions, he is physically exhausted and often develops pressure sores from sitting in his wheelchair. He also has developed respiratory infections from fluid pooling in his lungs from the long testing sessions.
 Are we testing these students or torturing them? You'd be hard-pressed to answer that one.
This, folks, is the definition of crazy.   And I don't believe for a single minute these are isolated cases in one state.  I believe this is happening in every state.  I believe that our teachers and, most importantly, our students are being dragged down by testing. 
I have linked to articles by Frederick M. Hess before and I'm doing it again.  It would seem strange because he works for the right-wing thinktank, the American Enterprise Institute but this is a man who thinks.
He wrote a great article back in the Fall 2011 called "Our Achievement Gap Mania."   It's long but is worthwhile reading. 
A decade ago, the No Child Left Behind Act ushered in an era of federally driven educational accountability focused on narrowing the chasms between the test scores and graduation rates of students of different incomes and races. The result was a whole new way of speaking and thinking about the issue: "Achievement gaps" became reformers' catch phrase, and closing those gaps became the goal of American education policy.

Such sentiments are admirable, and helping the lowest-achieving students do better is of course a worthy and important aim. But the effort to close gaps has hardly been an unmitigated blessing. In their glib self-confidence, the champions of that effort have refused to confront its costs and unintended consequences, and have been far too quick to silence skeptics by branding them blind defenders of the status quo (if not calling them outright racists).

The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.

Along the way, reformers have casually abandoned more ambitious visions of democratic education, as well as the credo that every child deserves an opportunity to fulfill his potential. It is crucial to recognize that "reformers," not educators, have driven this shift.

Today, school reformers, state and local education officials, exemplary charter-school operators, and managers of philanthropic foundations make it very clear that they are primarily in the business of educating poor black and Hispanic children. Indeed, anyone who has spent much time in the company of school reformers in the past decade has seen this practice turn almost comical, as when charter-school operators try to one-up one another over who can claim the most disadvantaged student population.

All of this has eroded traditional notions of what constitutes a complete education. Because of the way "achievement gaps" are measured — using scores on standardized reading and math tests — any effort to "close the achievement gap" must necessarily focus on instruction in reading and math. Hence many schools, particularly those at risk of getting failing grades under NCLB, have fixated on reading and math exclusively; other subjects — art and music, foreign language, history, even science — have been set aside to make more time and resources available for remedial instruction.

Sound familiar?

 Ed reformers' focus is NOT better education for ALL students but a narrow focus that somehow doesn't really serve the students they claim to want to help AND makes a wide-ranging public education for all students more difficult to achieve.


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