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One thing way worse than standardized testing is unstandardized testing

Sometimes I feel like I’m the last man standing in favor of standardized testing.

I don’t think people know that when I ask “how are the children,” I’m usually asking about their intellectual care and development. I’m an education activist so when you answer, I expect to hear results from a relatively objective source.

Like standardized test scores.

I can hear your collective sighs and hisses. Heresy, I know. Am I unaware that testing students, as a practice, was invented by the Klan?

Don’t I know the tests states give school children in 2020 are actually the product of mad scientists in 1940. (Because that’s totally plausible).

While those are fascinating questions, I have my own questions.

What is the rate of reading, math, and science proficiency in your city or school district? What gaps do you see when you disaggregate the testing results by race, class, and gender? Which schools are accelerating the academic growth of their students, and which ones aren’t?

If you can find a way to answer those questions without testing, let’s talk.

For now I realize you will ignore all the ways the knowledge of psychometricians outstrips yours. You will call them “high stakes tests” when in fact the highest stakes are suffered by people graduating from K-12 schools nominally illiterate or functionally innumerate.

You will repeat the language produced in teachers’ union focus groups, “test and punish,” but you won’t say the alternative is to ignore how mass miseducation sets up millions of students for the greatest punishment of all: poverty.

Researcher Richard Phelps, a longtime defender of standardized testing, articulates one of my biggest concerns about removing standardized testing from the landscape.

He says:

Without standardized tests (or standardized grading protocols) in education, we would increase our reliance on individual teacher grading and testing. Are teacher evaluations free of standardized testing’s alleged failings? No. Individual teachers can narrow the curriculum to that which they prefer. Grades are susceptible to inflation with ordinary teachers, as students get to know a teacher better and learn his idiosyncrasies. A teacher’s (or school’s) grades and test scores are far less likely to be generalizable than any standardized tests’ (See, for example, Gullickson & Ellwein, 1985; Impara & Plake, 1996; Stiggins, Frisbee, & Griswold, 1989; Woodruff & Ziomek, 2004a, 2004b). (In Phelps, 2008, Table 1 lists some common fallacies proffered by testing opponents, along with citations to responsible refutations.)

I know we’re supposed to say “trust teachers.” I’m ok with that only if we add “but verify” to that sentiment.

Which brings me to a new report authored by Lynn Olsen and Craig Jerald for FutureEd that details the weirdly bi-partisan coalition (Tea Party and teacher unions?) who would have us blow up the accountability totem and send us all back to the bad data stone age.

This is how they summarize their report:

Standardized testing has been a cornerstone of school reform for two decades. But a bipartisan backlash against testing in recent years and the suspension of statewide testing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have left the future of state assessments in question.

That’s the conclusion of a new FutureEd report, The Big Test: The Future of State Standardized Assessments. Written by senior fellow Lynn Olson and education analyst Craig Jerald, the report examines the evolution of the testing backlash, the current landscape, and how state testing systems must change to survive.

Drawing on a comprehensive, new 50-state analysis of testing legislation from 2014 through 2019, Olson and Jerald examine the striking scale of the pushback against testing and how the backlash is likely to play out in the dramatically different education landscape we suddenly find ourselves in.

I will go down clinging to the utility of standardized tests for civil rights monitoring, public policymaking, and system improvements. Yet, I fear the hull of that boat is below sea level.

You can read the report here:

The Big Test by Chris Stewart on Scribd

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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  1. Brett Powers

    April 22, 2020 at 2:59 pm

    Excellent work here, good sir.

    • Michelle Tenam-Zemach

      May 28, 2020 at 11:10 am

      While I respect the intentions of Mr. Stewart, he fails to understand the underlying causes of poverty and inequity in American society. No amount of education can, to scale, ameliorate these issues without first addressing the policies and practices across all institutions in this country that are inherently racist, especially when schools themselves are racist institutions. Mr. Stewart ignores basic facts to argue in favor for standardized testing. But there is a myriad of evidence to support that the underlying causes of poverty have little to do with how we educate students. But we needn’t dig that deep to argue against his point that testing is the most “objective” way to see inequity. What data (and since he is a big believer in “data” he should be able to support his arguments with it) can Mr. Stewart provide to demonstrate that the testing regime has produced the results its proponents claim it does. From NCLB onward, we have not budged the inequities in the “achievement gap.” Even the most recent NAEP scores attest to this reality. Yet, he insists that we keep testing to show that the gap exists. We do, however, have a great deal of data supporting how testing has narrowed the curriculum, further impacted and marginalized ELL students, students in poverty and color (which have a strong correlation). He also asks the questions “What is the rate of reading, math, and science proficiency in your city or school district? What gaps do you see when you disaggregate the testing results by race, class, and gender? Which schools are accelerating the academic growth of their students, and which ones aren’t?” Well, these are the wrong questions. What he should be asking is how testing has contributed to the derailment of student progress, in particular the students for which he claims to be advocating. He could be asking how testing contributes to the school to prison pipeline and how it further marginalizes vulnerable students. He could also be asking how schools that emphasize social-emotional learning and other student centered practices perform in terms of students’ perceptions of their education. He could be asking many things, but instead, he asks questions that ignore what schooling is truly about. I can cite many studies, books and sources that attest to each of these points. But given that Stewart cites absolutely no empirical evidence to support the efficacy of testing, I won’t do so unless requested to.

      • Citizen Stewart

        May 28, 2020 at 8:57 pm

        My goodness, condescend much?

        I reject Ms. Tenam-Zemach’s attempt to support educational essentialism which basically says that children without two white college-educated parents who have money are doomed to poor educational outcomes -regardless of pedagogical interventions, the quality of teaching, and the practices of their classroom teachers. Demography is destiny, why measure their learning in any way. We already know they can’t learn, so why test their ability to master concepts.

        This is the reason people of color should remove their children from the care of a largely white, female workforce who are shown by research to have low-expectations and self-preserving ideas about why their work isn’t strong enough to get results. The belief gap is real and the compensatory thinking teachers use to cover over their poor teaching weaponized by their unions and their unionized sisters in academia.

        She asks: “What data (and since he is a big believer in “data” he should be able to support his arguments with it) can Mr. Stewart provide to demonstrate that the testing regime has produced the results its proponents claim it does.”

        The question is a stupid one because no intelligent person says assessing students in itself closes the “achievement gap.” It’s telling that Ms. Tenam-Zemach uses NAEP testing returns to prove her point that testing doesn’t move the needle on student achievement.

        Testing is diagnostic, not a stand-alone cure. Blood pressure tests don’t reduce hypertension. Equity audits don’t solve racism. Surveying the labor market doesn’t fix workplace discrimination. People who claim they support “equity” should realize that it starts with numbers and information.

        She says: “We do, however, have a great deal of data supporting how testing has narrowed the curriculum, further impacted and marginalized ELL students, students in poverty and color (which have a strong correlation).”

        This is a common point made by academics who embarrass their universities because it lacks too much context. Having student assessment data doesn’t necessarily drive people to take the worst path (narrowing curriculum because they know too little about how to achieve goals and standards). In fact, for schools and educators that know how to educate, data is a tool for not just meeting standards, but exceeding them.

        I could cite plenty of research about the importance of teacher efficacy, bias, beliefs, preparation, and induction that impact student achievement regardless of the out-of-school factors students encounter. But I won’t bother offering that information since Ms. Tenam-Zemach’s level of “education” should have already taught her what is empirically true about those critical in-school issues. Any ignorance of the findings of this large body of work is, in my estimation, intentional and for a political purpose.

        All the more reason we can’t trust the judgment of her people without objective measurements to track outcomes.

  2. Frank Smith

    April 23, 2020 at 6:34 pm

    I am supportive of standardized testing but the fact remains that the implications of the results of that standardized testing can be out of line with what is required to eduatonal issues as the options become politicized. Above you indicate that teachers and students converge to a spot where grades are maximized. I agree, generally but not always, most teachers are more supportive to positions presented that line up with what they teach and present.

    Another scenario is also true. Schools that teach to the standardized tests do better. That does not mean the students know the material better but that the school/district has identified what type of questions are likley to be on the test and have usually spent time practicing the format of the test. Have you ever considered that some schools could have spent more time teaching new math skills but instead focused on improving standardised test results? This is the opportunity cost of standardized testing. The system is often gamed to the deteriment of non-standardised but important curriculum elements. Not to mention that schools with alot to loose often attempt to gerry mander thier populations to maximize benefits from anticipated results.

    Standarised tests are good for looking at anomolies. Expectations for example that students in high socio-econmic areas with high levels of support do well and looking for those that do not. The bar is not the same for the other extream where low socio-ecomic groups with low elvel of support (school/home/other) do not do as well. It is very difficult to compare effectively between group except at the margins. Often people try to compare the top schools with schools in other brackets (think of lists and ranking for a city with multiple different student populations) when they can/should not be directly compared. It maybe valueable to compare schools 1-10 together and schools 49-50 together but comparing #1 and #50 generally does little but that is the way resutls are presented. Ranking is a problem.

    I have generallised the above but as much as I like to see how my children and thier school compare to their peers I hate to see the the kids comming home and saying they could not finish a geography or art project becuase they had to practice the standardised test again today.

    My $0.02.

    • Aaron

      August 14, 2020 at 7:50 pm

      I am intrigued by your thoughts on this. I haven’t been much of a supporter of standardized testing and then I read Ibram X Kendi’s views so that made me against them even more. Would love to see a conversation between you both on the issue.

      There is one thing I was wondering that the first comment pointed to as well, how do you feel about how testing has seemed to narrow the curriculum to strictly math and reading? Do you think there is a way to reverse this trend? Also could districts not develop their own standardized testing not connected to profit motivated groups such as Pearson?

      I think testing of some kind, or more specifically, knowing where students are with data is really important. But would you be open to other methods if schools and districts were able to prove there value?

  3. Pingback: Don't expect teachers to reimagine public education - Citizen Stewart

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Public Schools

Cobb County public schools: academically excellent, racially backward

Forget the hype about democratically elected school board ensuring racial equity and local control in public education.

By the most basic measurements, Cobb County schools in Georgia exemplar the great American public school system.

With 112,000 students in 113 schools (22 of them are Blue Ribbon schools, and the state designates 56 as “schools of excellence”), the district is the second-largest in Georgia and the 23rd largest in the nation.

The student body here is racially balanced: 37% white, 30% Black, 22% Hispanic, and 6% Asian.

And, Cobb students have higher average ACT and SAT scores – 22.8 and 1,107 respectively – than the nation, while having a higher graduation rate too.

Above all, a democratically-elected school board governs this high-performing district, something that teachers’ unions and public education advocates nationally argue makes the schools accountable to the public they serve.

Those advocates should have seen the heated meeting Cobb County school board members held this past Thursday. During that meeting, one of the board’s three Black members (the board splits between four white Republicans and 3 Black Democrats), Jaha Howard, seemed to accuse his colleagues of participating in “systemic racism.”

His calmly delivered rebuke came after the board voted to abolish a community advisory committee scheduled to reconsider how schools and district buildings are named. A second proposal up for vote would require board members have four votes to put items on the public meeting agenda. Both of these proposals are anti-democratic in my eye, but what’s new?

It was the first proposal that drew the most heat. The East Cobb News reports that the community advisory group on school renaming was “approved by a 4-3 vote in August.” Back then, a Black school board member took issue because of the district’s 113 schools; there wasn’t one named after a Black person.

Cutting deeper into that wound, community members have complained that two of the district’s best schools are named for racially problematic people.

A student at Walton High School started a petition to rename the school, saying:

Walton High School is named after George Walton, one of Georgia’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence. For many in history class, that’s where the conversation stops. No one ever talks about how George Walton was a white supremacist, belonged to a slave owning family, and spent his political career championing white supremacy in Georgia by stripping Native Americans time and time again of their land. For a school well known on the national stage, it is sickening that they choose to carry themselves using a man who represents one thing: continuing white supremacy in the American South.

It is no surprise that Walton High School specifically chooses to exonerate a figure who oppressed minorities his entire life, as the same behaviors that the school is named after are behaviors that plague the halls of that school to this day. It is no coincidence that Walton High School is only 6% black, significantly lower than the county average of 30.2% and the state average of 36.3%. Walton has always been districted to block minority students and especially black students from enrolling in a sizable number, acting as a beacon of white supremacy in a majority-minority school district.

According to the East Cobb News, “Georgia Department of Education data…indicated that Walton, which opened in 1974, had 155 black students out of an enrollment of 2,616.”

I’d have to dig really hard to explain how that is possible in a district with 30% Black students.

Another high school was also under community pressure for a name change. Wheeler High School alumni formed a private Facebook group that led to a call for that school to rename.

The Wheeler “Wildcats” had this to say:

“Students do not deserve to attend a school whose namesake celebrates a Confederate history and one that was named for a hateful purpose: to hurt and shame Black youth that were, by court order, integrated into our county’s white school system. It does not go unnoticed that the school was named after the passing of Brown v Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. It does not go unnoticed that the school was named after the state of Georgia finally began to adhere to the ruling, seven years after it passed. It does not go unnoticed that the Cobb County School Board finally voted to desegregate in 1965—the same year they named Joseph Wheeler High School.”

In this dispatch from Cobb County, there should be plenty here for public education believers to address in stories like this one. Does an elected board really ensure accountability to local concerns when the power dynamics of those boards break down along racial and political lines?

Is this messy form of democracy, as practiced by school boards, a safeguard against discrimination and racial inequality?

Doesn’t the very idea that four board members could pass rules to prevent three other board members – all of whom are the voices of a public constituency that voted for them to have a say – from even putting items on the agenda create suspicion?

Shouldn’t it bother us that the white leaders of the Cobb County school board, in an effort to stifle Black thought, voted last year to prevent board members from making comments at the end of board meetings?

And, shouldn’t we all take note when one of America’s largest districts, one that prides itself on academic excellence for all, should lift up the names of dead Confederates over the objections of living educators, parents, and students?

I think you know the answers.

And, in keeping with Dr. Martin Luther King’s words “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I’d ask that you take an interest in letting the local leaders in Cobb County know that we are watching from afar. You can find their email addresses here, and perhaps you can send them a quick note to tell them they need to listen to communities of color.

Watch the contentious board meeting here:

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Public Schools

School boards have too much power they aren’t using to fix education

School board member shops during impassioned community member testimony

Considered me triggered. Again.

This past Sunday my 8 Black Hands crew did a show on the missing importance of school boards, and then this article pops up saying the National School Boards Association (NSBA) has launched a campaign called “Public School Transformation Now!”

The goal, flimsy as ever, is to “bring equity issues front and center.” I’m triggered because leaders, especially in education, consistently go for sophistry over function. They focus on the feel-good rather than the complex. They love the fashion instead of the fix.

If you read through the article and the NSBA’s Twitter timeline you’ll be browbeaten with the words “reinvent!” and “reimagine!” and “transform!” With America’s massively ineffective public schooling gasping for air from the shock of Covid, I don’t blame them for branding their effort in aspirational terms even as parents and journalists complain about the remote learning “disaster” across cities. And I certainly don’t blame them for ringing the bell on important issues like increasing teacher diversity, stemming potential teacher shortages, the urgent need for flexibility on how special education services are delivered, and the national need to ensure kids can access the internet. But it feels like some essentials are missing from their hubbub.

Look at the ten items Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond offered to the NSBA members during their recent webinar. She sees these things as critical for education school board members to focus on when “reimagining” their school systems.

These include:

1. Closing the digital divide.
2. Strengthening distance and blended learning.
3. Assessing what students need.
4. Ensuring supports for social and emotional learning.
5. Redesigning schools for stronger relationships.
6. Emphasizing authentic, culturally responsive learning.
7. Providing expanded learning time.
8. Establishing community schools and wraparound supports.
9. Preparing educators for reinventing schools.
10. Leveraging more adequate and equitable school funding.

This is all good stuff. No sober person will quibble with school districts doing better with remote learning, increasing the range of supports for students, deepening important relationships, and making school funding “equitable.” Except for me. I am not sober. I’m tired of nicey-nice pablum. I’ll quibble.

School boards are powerful animals made up of elected or appointed individuals who collectively are to govern the budgets and curriculum of school districts through a single employee, the superintendent. Sticking with that basic frame, my list for school boards to earn their relevance during these tough times looks a little different than Dr. Darling-Hammond’s.

First, leaders should “reinvent!” public school fiscal stewardship. The lowest of hanging fruit on this front is to stop the routine practice of signing labor contracts behind closed doors that they know they cannot afford and that any reasonable observer can predict will cause financial instability that hurts children and families.

Going deeper, the NSBA could commit to a national campaign aimed at training board members and local leaders to spend public money wisely and equitably. School finance is in fact a form of rocket science, so I won’t attempt an insightful take on that issue here, but suffice to say, as a former school board member and student of the spending problem over a decade, I can tell you that as public education boosters speak globally about the need for increased school funding, they fail to act on the equally important issue of how local districts spend locally. If money matters, spending matters more.

Second, beyond the vague goal of “strengthening distance and blended learning,” which for my ears sounds like a plan to put Band-Aids on heart attacks, school leaders need to modernize their pedagogical schemes using evidence-based practices so that informed teaching results in demonstrative learning.

Third, wouldn’t it be nice if school boards focused on improving educational leadership, beginning with themselves? The pipeline for competent and sharp school board members and superintendents is among the most obvious weaknesses in public education. Who is working on it? What is the NSBA doing about the problem?

Not to be sensationalist, while many school boards are models of civic efficacy, many others descend into appalling dysfunction. Salt Lake City has school board members who have recently apologized for sending “vulgar and inappropriate” hate messages to each other. The East Baton Rouge’s school board is finding it difficult to execute on its very first job of hiring a superintendent. Nashville ran its first Black superintendent out of town because three of its school board members were drinking Diane Ravitch’s temperance tea from white dixie cups.

I could go on.

This leads to another area the NSBA could put their back into, educational democracy.

Even as we’re sold the mirage of public schooling as the “bedrock” of democracy because they are governed by we-the-people through transparent and open elections, the truth is that school board elections are often held during off-years from bigger elections, which virtually ensures the undemocratic problems that come with startling low voter turnout. School board elections are too often dominated by local public employees who bundle their dollars and marshal their free groundworkers to hire their own bosses. As for voters, election results are largely determined by white voters and the outcome is that 78% of school board members are white even as only 48% of America’s 50 million public school students are white. Add to that the fact that less than a third of school board members are parents of school-aged children and you can see the disconnect between the governors of schools and the governed.

Finally, if the NSBA wants to go for a true game-changing moonshot in public education, the one that attacks a fundamental problem that is within their power to fix; if they want to correct the one thing in public education that would do more damage to systemic inequities than a million professional development self-flagellants about racial inequality; if they want to truly reimagine, redesign, and reinvent public schools and transform them from being inequality’s greatest student sorting machine; then they will immediately put all of their attention on the foundational problems of educational redlining and school district gerrymandering. These two issues create the basic blueprint for educational inequality in our supposed cornerstone of democracy, yet, after a million popular journalism stories about integration and the supposed racist origins of school choice and the attempts of evil people to privatize education by offering redlined families roads out of their redlining, there are so few calls for immediate demands that the people ultimately responsible – the school board members who rule America’s 14,000 school districts.

Alas, school districts have an outsized role in determining district boundaries, and, subsequently, district boundaries play a determining role in how zip codes become deadly to the hopes, dreams, and potential of American children.

I know that’s a lot for the NSBA to chew on. I won’t blame them for opting to focus on their more reasonable goal of laying fiber-optic tracks so that every kid gets internet soon. That’s clearly more realistic and on task.

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Public Schools

Rev. Sharpton: Education problems are a ‘five-alarm’ fire

Rev. Sharpton continues his push for better education

Now would be a good time to listen to Rev. Al Shaprton.

You didn’t see that coming. Me, of all people, pointing to a left-of-center Civil Rights leader on the issue of education?

Mark the day.

I’m wore down by the scant attention the issues has seen during the run up to a historic election. After all of political campaigning and several mock debates, the two old men -both private school parents – vying for the American presidency failed to utter anything meaningful about the ineffective training our kids are getting.

It’s almost as pesky education problems that presidents have talked about solving for ages will suddenly go away like Trump’s Covid by spring (“like a miracle”).

Be patient folks. All we need is incremental changes through bold sounding and weak acting policy tweaks. That and a bazillion because that always works.


Maybewe may have tired of hearing the “failing schools” narrative and the subsequent lack of solutions that an exorbitant number of dollars thrown at it have failed to produce. I get it. Some might say, “we get it, not all kids are learning, but….”

I don’t know what the “but” is.

A problem doesn’t go away because you shut your eyes out of exasperation.

In fact, the same issues that fueled decades-long school reform movements continue to dog our students, our workforce, and our economy. The pandemic is raising that simmering pot to a rolling boil.

That’s why I’m happy to see a surprising piece from Rev. Al Sharpton show up in my feed that points to the specifics of how Covid is worsening educational failure for populations that already struggle economically.

He says:

Four out of 10 young black men don’t finish high school, and student absenteeism runs as high as 30% in some cities.  Education is about capturing the curiosity and imagination of young minds; how is our system failing so many young students of color?

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned this long-smoldering crisis into a five-alarm fire. The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population but 25% of its COVID-19 cases. The pandemic has torpedoed its way through the lives and wallets of Black and Hispanic communities with a vengeance, and the lash of this scourge is being felt just as acutely in our schools.

Nearly half of the nation’s public school students checked out of distance education when schools shuttered in March, and Black and Hispanic students fell even further behind.  Private schools saw just an 18% drop in student participation.

A full 70% of teachers say they weren’t adequately trained for the transition to distance education. Amazingly, only one in three districts expected teachers to teach live lessons and track student progress. But students in wealthy districts were twice as likely to get live, real-time learning.

Among teachers, 60% report that parents were unavailable to help their kids with online learning. Black and brown households — disproportionately headed by single parents working jobs where telecommuting just isn’t an option — were given a Sophie’s choice of either helping their children with schoolwork or taking a second or third job to keep a roof over their heads. Nearly half of our low-income workers lost jobs during the crisis, and many are just too exhausted to help after struggling to make ends meet and are, appallingly, offered next to no help.

One bright spot has been helping to get students connected.  A total of 95% of U.S. homes have broadband access, but still 15% of households with students haven’t signed up. Industry leaders, building on aggressive efforts to get everyone connected, stepped up with offerings of free broadband to low-income neighborhoods.

Chicago and Atlanta, led by African American woman mayors, forged groundbreaking public-private partnerships to make free home broadband service available to any public school students who need it.  And while the Trump administration dithers, Democratic leaders in Congress are pushing for an “Emergency Broadband Benefit” to get everyone connected to broadband.  This is an example where one of the key challenges for distance learning — residential broadband service — appears solvable by getting the key players to come to the table.

But this is only a start. One in four underprivileged teens has no computer in the house. Our failure to address digital literacy in low-income communities and to modernize digital curricula to stir the curiosity millions of students is another jaw-dropping failure. We will never win the future or achieve racial justice with festering ills like this unaddressed.

While I’d love to see more here in the way of support for direct educational funding to parents, more power for families to choose from an array of educational providers, and more roads to alternative learning opportunities, I give the Rev. props.

More leaders would keep their eye on the educational prize and focus the public’s attention on the problem, and then push policymakers to produce new policy solutions.

Read the whole story.

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