Testing Abuse

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

What do we Tell the Teachers who Take Our Place?

When I came home yesterday my wife told me she received a phone call from one of my former students whom I had in my physics class in 1998-99. My wife said he was excited to connect with me as he has just finished his student teaching and would begin his first full time position in the fall. He will be teaching at-risk students. I called him and set up a time we could meet the next day.
Going to my computer to check my e-mail I found this e-mail he had sent me prior to our conversation:

Hi Coach,

In writing my master’s thesis: a policy position change proposition about transitioning away from the archaic and completely ineffective system of standardized tests in favor of a practice more in line with your physics mastery assessments, I stumbled upon your blog in Ed Week titled: Student Learning Can Only be Described, Not Measured. Immediately I knew I had to re-connect with you, since I have modeled many of my teaching practices after what I learned in your class. My students call me coach, we do not "test" concepts, we master them so we can explore and explain them backward, forward, and every other imaginable direction...I cannot begin to describe the tremendous impact you have had on my life and how much of my teaching repertoire can be traced directly back to you. It would mean a great deal to me if we could meet up for a cup of coffee and I could pick your brain. My memories may be sharp, but in all of the classroom excitement I'm sure some stuff passed me by...probably because I forgot to tell you "my elevator was full" at the time. I am off to try and find copies of your books to use as sources for my thesis as you have already put in words my exact feelings. Thank you again for the lessons you taught me that had nothing to do with inertia, mass, or velocity, and I hope to hear from and see you soon.



P.S. I will never forget the day of the Columbine school shooting on April 20th, 1999 when we came in from the bomb scare we had during second period and upon hearing of the shooting you threw out your lesson to have a heart to heart with all of us. This tragedy needed to be discussed so that we could all make sense of the senseless violence that had occurred and try to find out how someone could think this was a possible course of action...your composure and insight was what allowed each of us to make it through the rest of that day. While we all tried to hold back the tears, it was your guidance that allowed us to see the light at the end of that oh so grim tunnel, mere words cannot express the lasting impact that has had on my life.

Something happened to me during our meeting. Something I did not expect. Something that has been troubling me for a long time. That ‘something’ drove me to retire in 2004 after 38 years of teaching students physics. I became an activist, helping to found Educators and Parents Against Testing Abuse (EPATA) and writing a book, Educational Genocide-A Plague on our Children, about the pain in so many of my fellow teachers as they were being forced to give up their passion for teaching to become robots in teaching to the test in a process of following externally mandated scripted lessons. Out went the teachers’ professional opinions of what their individual student’s needed. In that place was substituted the system’s test preparation requirements. Eliminated was the opportunity for creative lessons and a pacing that was focused on individual student needs. The professional instructor was taken out of the process. I saw and am still seeing the repercussions of that. Teachers were beside themselves with angst. Not really understanding that their expertise, experience and passion was being diminished far beyond anything they may have imagined when they began teaching. Their academic and affective freedoms were ripped from their hearts and minds while they were still alive. They were like sheep being led to the slaughter.

As we sat there at our small table in front of Starbucks, I was taken up with his unadulterated enthusiasm for his first full time teaching position. He was telling me the things he was trying to do during his practice teaching experience with his master teacher. This had come to an abrupt end when he realized that a paradigm rift between him and his master teacher had become quite apparent. While he wanted to encourage his students with some positive feedback his master teacher was of the mind that student errors should be punished with critical comments as well as the assignment of mindless worksheets. Even though just a student teacher in this small school, he had been selected by the student body as the exemplary teacher for that year. On the verge of quitting rather than continuing to work under this master teacher he took his case to his superiors who had the insight to change his assignment and recommend the full time position that he was now so excited about.

I was listening to his story, privy to his longings and also fearful of his dreams being squashed by those who do not understand what profound thoughts and feelings are at the heart of his desire to teach. It is more than a job or a possible career; teaching it is a calling of the most personal kind. It reaches deep into our souls as a desire to help and be of service to those children whose ignorance of the world would limit their ability to contribute to its enhancement.

What is the ‘something’ that this exchange awakened in me? Righteous indignation. This was and is my moral feeling response to not only what had happened to my former student at the hands of his master teacher but a projection on my part of what may happen to him in his future assignments. I was angry and justifiably so because it was personal to me as I saw so many of my fellow teachers giving up on what they knew were life-giving teaching practices and acquiescing to the high-stakes testing preparation programs that have infected so many of our schools. All they had wanted to do was teach their students using all their skills and experiences that produced a set of ‘best practices’ to the benefit of their students. When the light goes out of a teacher’s eyes, when their desire to teach is diluted by site and district test preparation practices, it is difficult to watch. It takes a lot to give up on a lifelong dream, especially if you have been able to see its effects on your students. What kind of force has been brought to bear to so thoroughly divest teachers of their highest aspirations?

For years teachers had been through educational trends that were here today and gone tomorrow. So, NCLB was viewed just another fad. Educator cooperation should be easy. But what was hidden from sight would be the insidious impact that fear and threats would have on teaching and learning as reliance on test score results and interpretations dominated school life from the classroom to staff meetings and teacher-administrator interactions. All of this was racing through my mind as I continued to listen to Chris’s hopes and dreams for his students in his new teaching position. While I wanted to protect him from the possible disillusion that might follow if his new principal would not allow him to actualize his plans, I kept quiet. I did not know what the future would hold for him and did not want to prematurely diminish his hopes and dreams. I held back expressing my angst over one possible future while silently hoping that he would find the right time and place to see his dreams realized.

The truth was that the career plans for so many new and also experienced teachers would drastically change. This new high-stakes test driven system had to be prepared to deal with any dissention within the educator ranks. And so was born ‘mean accountability’. This mindset is clearly portrayed in the article, “The Case for Being Mean” in 2003 by Fredrick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute- a pro-business, right wing think tank which includes this aggressive position:

Advocates of nice accountability presume that any line of work, most employees will resist changes that require them to take on more responsibility, disrupt their routines, or threaten their jobs or wages. To overcome such resistance, we need to make inaction more painful than the proposed action. In education, this means making a lack of improvement so unpleasant for local officials and educators that they are willing to reconsider work rules, require teachers to change routines, assign teachers to classes and schools in more effective ways, increase required homework, fire ineffective teachers, and otherwise take those painful steps that are regarded as "unrealistic" most of the time…. Today, district and school leaders spend their time pleading with their subordinates to cooperate because they can imagine no other ways to drive change, but they are mistaken. We can drive change by requiring educators to meet clear performance goals and attaching consequences to success or failure. -Hess(2003)

The strategy was clear: frighten educators into compliance, “If we can’t get education to be what we want it to be we will use suitable painful policies and practices to arrive at our goal.” And who is the ‘we’ heading up this attack on educators: those business leaders, legislators, school administrators and organizations who align themselves with this fear induced oppression.

So, what should I have said to Chris? Perhaps reminding him of how Gandhi and Martin Luther King dealt with those who used force to deny civil liberties to so many? My righteous indignation continues to cause me to bristle at the thought of the loss of educators’ academic freedoms and responsibilities. These are  clearly stated in both state http://www.ctc.ca.gov/educator-prep/standards/CSTP-2009.pdf   and national professional teaching standards (draft) http://www.ccsso.org/Documents/2010/Model_Core_Teaching_Standards_DRAFT_FOR_PUBLIC_COMMENT_2010.pdf .

Teachers’ rights and responsibilities are routinely ignored when considering day to day educators work on school sites. Who wins out when  teachers are handed  site/district pacing charts that tells them what they are to teach on any given day (and sometimes hour!) but yet the professional teaching standards say it is the teacher’s responsibility  to develop and sequence long-term and short-term instructional plans to support student learning? Should I have told Chris that his plans for any given day or unit may be usurped by the test prep program at his site? “Chris ,don’t get too excited about your plans for your students, someone else will know better.”

As if this isn’t enough most teachers keep all the threats of retribution from higher ups to themselves. They dare not tell parents how they are being hog-tied in their lesson preparations and the consequences for their children as students are daily led to believe in the cult of test prep. What ways do you see out of this quagmire? What do we say to all the other Chrises, parents and students? Is righteous indignation as far as one can go?

We cannot measure student learning- only describe it

Year after year, Mario takes district, state and national tests. Each year Mario’s individual scores are combined with others in his class, school, district, and state. The scores are sent home to parents, analyzed by teachers, districts and departments of education. Decisions are made about Mario, his teachers and his school. Belief in the validity of the scores is so strong that most people uncritically accept their truth.

All high-stakes testing is based on the paradigm that learning can be ‘measured’ by using a device that produces a number. Tests play the role of this measuring device and the resulting numbers are translated into scores. These scores are then compared and contrasted and by selecting arbitrary criteria are used to categorize students, teachers, schools, districts and states. But what if the paradigm is wrong. What if learning cannot be ‘measured’? 

Under the current line of thinking we have had tests for a long time in our classrooms and schools. Every such test has supported the idea that once Mario’s test is scored it can be used as the basis for judgments about his progress and comprehension of the taught concepts. The idea appears to be very simple: ask Mario a set of questions, arrive at a number for each correct answer, add up these numbers and there is his score.

There is a fatal flaw in this line of thought. The process of adding scores must be based on a simple scientific principle: Items can only be added if they have the same units. One apple plus one apple is two apples. We can add one plus one and arrive at two because of the same units: apple.

One apple plus one orange has no sum because they are different items. Attempting to collect them into a new entity is contradictory to their essence. The combination of one apple plus one orange does not produce an ‘apple-orange’. In reality this mathematical computation does not produce one or two of anything. In fact this process cannot be done.

In current high stakes test construction each test question is based on a singular standard. For example, let’s say that the standard is: “Students will understand the slope of a line.” There are an infinite set of questions that can address this standard, but each question will be different from the others or otherwise they would be identical questions. If the test asks five diverse questions on the slope of a line and Mario gets three of them correct we cannot say that his score on slope of a line is three. These are five different questions like adding 1 apple to 1 orange to 1 banana. Three correct answers cannot produce a score of 3. Each question is really a test unto itself and cannot be combined with others. Each question is unique; it stands alone and cannot be added to another unique question. 

Imagine a singular test that has questions from mathematics, English, science, and social studies. It is quite obvious that combining the number correct from these different disciplines provides no clarity as to what this score would mean. What is not so obvious is when the exam is a ‘math’ test with questions on slope added to those on geometry to those on equations etc.. This same concept holds true for tests in any subject with differing standards and an infinite set of questions for each.  

The very act of counting the number of Mario’s correct responses in the category ‘questions’ can only specify that the number of questions correct is ‘such and such’ and not that this number defines any type of conceptual understanding.

We delude ourselves into thinking we have measured learning because we uncritically accept the premise that ‘learning is measurable’. Adding the number of correct responses along with some mathematical formulation cannot produce a score. We have been duped!

Therefore, if it is impossible to arrive at a score for Mario and any compilation of questions we call a ‘test’ then what can be done to find out what he really knows? Answering a question with a correct choice does not mean he has correct understanding. Not only can Mario guess, but also he can have wrong reasons for the correct answer. Surely, if Mario’s score is without merit, combining it with other invalid scores in the classroom, in the school, in the state tells us nothing. Can there be evidence of Mario’s learning there? Yes.

The evaluator of the test-usually the teacher- can describe the student’s level of understanding by using words to articulate their comprehension of each question.

Well, can’t numerical scores also describe? No. A score is a number… is a number… is a number. It is not a description. It is the interpretation of the scored number that forms a description in words. I am suggesting that we significantly reduce the number of questions on a test to provide the time for a knowledgeable evaluator or teacher to discuss with each student the justification for their answers.

To do this they need to be in dialogue with each student about their answers and record the justification for their commentary. Describing learning uses words just like an artist uses media of varying colors and type as the means to paint the picture of the learning. “Helen you have great skills in calculating the slope of a line but you are not yet able to explain its meaning.” See http://www.learningrecord.org/compare.html for one example of such a process.

“This is where the Learning Record shines. Because of its structure, information about student learning, no matter how diverse, is organized in consistent, meaningful sections that can be quickly accessed and understood by readers across all disciplines.”

‘Forgiving Learning’ as explained in the last chapter of my book is another:

“If not high-stakes testing, then how else are students, parents and to determine what students know and are able to do? What system can be placed within the structure of a classroom, school and district to provide authentic information about what students have learned? This assessment can take place in a mastery conference with the teacher in which the student must demonstrate their understanding in any form of presentation, demonstration, portfolio defense, etc. The key to any assessment is the requirement that the student is to justify their understanding.”

What should be the upshot of all of this? Our confidence in high-stakes testing scores should take a significant plunge. We should no longer believe that state and national test scores could measure learning. We may have thought we were measuring learning, but now we know that no measurement had ever taken place. We were performing mathematical manipulations that had no meaning in the real world. We thought we could extend these scores to teacher effectiveness, school and district rankings and comparisons across the US and the world. With invalid scores, all of this is nullified. Some schools had created ‘data’ walls but now we know they are bogus: there was really no valid data to display.

And so, it is finally over. The tyranny of high stakes test scores are laid to rest. We cannot accept purported test scores and the impact they have on individual students, teachers and schools without being grounded in a sound understanding of what they are and what they are not. All are now released from the paradigm that student learning can be measured. We are now free to describe student learning as we have done throughout history, “Mario, your paragraph is clear, concise and shows your mastery of English form and content. A terrific job.”   

Ten things teachers need to reclaim their profession

Ten things teachers need to reclaim their profession

Publication Date: 2011-05-21
By Horace B. Lucido

This is from Washington Post Answer Sheet, May 21, 2011, thanks to Valerie Strauss. Horace B. Lucido, a retired physics instructor, author and educational consultant, is a founding member of Educators and Parents Against Testing Abuse. He is the author of Educational Genocide: A Plague on Our Children .

Sports referees make split second decisions. Judges and doctors do too, sometimes decisions that are life changing. Despite the subjective nature of their judgments, they are given respect and trust because of their training and experience, and we most often accept their decisions as valid.

This was once the same type of respect given to our public school teachers, the professionals who work in the classroom. But since the onslaught of state and national high-stakes testing regimes, too many teachers have been relegated to mechanized assembly line workers who have little say about the process but are required to follow the company line. This is in direct conflict with the national Model Core Teaching Standards, which give the teacher responsibility to adjust, modify and pace the lessons according to the needs of their individual students.

In today's classrooms, though, teachers are taken out of the equation, becoming functionaries in a system of rigorous "manufacturing" controls by local, state and national directives. High-stakes tests are said by proponents to provide "objective" truth whereas teachers' opinions are classified as subjective and, thus, believed to be less trustworthy.

But test scores aren’t really objective. Who writes the test questions on these tests? People. Who chooses the test questions, the number of questions, the time allowed and when the test will be given? People. Who chooses the cut scores that decide where proficient or passing is? People. Who determines the meaning of these scores? People. These are all subjective not objective processes and most of these people are not even educators.

Teachers are trustworthy, trained professionals. Throughout the year they have a long sustained contact with strengths and weaknesses. Their judgments are based on multiple sources of information over the entire school year and are more valid than the results of a few hours of annual high-stakes testing. Why else would some states, like California, in their Testing Report to Parents, contain a clear disclaimer on the reporting sheet: A note on using this information: A single test can provide only limited information. A student taking this same test more than once might score higher or lower in each tested area in a small range. You should confirm your child's strengths and needs in these topics by reviewing classroom work, standards-based assessments, and your child's progress during the year.

California's Department of Education thus admits that assessments, assignments and progress provided by the classroom teacher should be the place to assess the real meaning and accuracy of standardized test results. But it doesn’t act like it really believes it because schools and districts are judged almost entirely by standardized test scores.

Which is a more valid predictor of student success in college: "objective" SAT and ACT college entrance scores or "subjective" teacher grades? Several studies have found that high school grades more accurately predict academic college achievement than any other factor. But still the standardized test remains dominant in admissions decisions.

In many detailed analysis of international tests such as the PISA and TIMSS, as well as our own national report card, National Assessment of Educational Progress, what is clearly evident is that poverty and the gap between the wealthy and the poor are the major contributors to test performance. Our top-performing students far outnumber other nations. They come from schools that have less than 10% poverty. When we compare these students to the other participating nations we are among the leaders. No analysis in any of these studies points to poorer teaching in America than elsewhere.

So what are some key elements in teachers regaining the professional respect and trust they deserve? State, district and site practices and policies should:

1. Allow our teachers to use best practices in lesson design and pedagogy rather than canned programs that require rigorous adherence to step-by-step procedures without flexibility.

2. Permit teachers to adjust and modify their lessons to fit their students' knowledge and skills rather than prepare them for high-stakes testing. Forgo all site and district high-stakes testing that is not required by state or national law. Do away with site and district tests used to prepare for more tests.

3. Test score 'data' can only become relevant when interpretation for individual students is corroborated by their teachers -- individually or groups -- who have evaluated said students using multiple sources of information. No judgments, placements or qualifications for individual students should be made solely on the basis of annual high-stakes testing.

4. Abolish all goal-setting based on annual high-stakes testing scores. This includes targeting students, teachers and schools for score improvement. Each should be evaluated using multiple sources of information before making plans for any corrective actions. Teams of educators, parents, psychologists and community members should be employed in developing helpful strategies.

5. Eliminate both scripted and paced lesson mandates. It is not in standardizing our classrooms that students learn to be creative and innovative-attributes that are highly prized in the world of work. Just as the diversity of plants and animals is the strength of the Earth’s ecosystem, our 'edusystem' should model that diversity in the manner in which teachers provide unique lessons using a variety of methods. Standardized sameness is not conducive to how students learn nor is it an attribute valued in our culture-otherwise we would all be driving only Fords and wearing only Levi jeans.

6. Eliminate all punitive policies that pronounce harsh judgments on students, teachers, schools and districts based on unchallenged interpretations of student test scores. Teacher evaluations of their students' knowledge and skills should be the hallmark and cornerstone of valid conclusions about what students know and are able to do. They are the professionals in the classroom.

7. Codify regulations against administrative use of direct and/or implied threats of repercussions to those teachers who follow their State Standards for the Teaching Profession rather than curricular and/or pedagogy directives which utilize a script-like pacing without allowing for teacher modification and adjustments to fit the classroom clientele.

8. State Standards for the Teaching Profession should be the guiding principles for all teacher evaluation protocols used by administrators. Terminate 'walkthroughs'. Thoughtful classroom visitations that respect the context of the lesson with pre and post discussion is vital to proper evaluation. Otherwise, walkthroughs become nothing more than "big brother" in a formal setting, keeping a critical eye rather than a supportive stance.

9. Teachers should have the freedom without fear of recrimination to express their professional opinions inside and outside of school sites regarding school practices and policies. Fellow teachers, parents and the larger community need to hear from the classroom professionals regarding the educational programs at their schools. This will provide open forums for discussion and the enhancement of the school environment.

10. Develop an enhanced parent-teacher communication protocol complete with translators for second language learner parents who are not fluent in English. Ongoing and frequent parent-teacher communication will both improve understanding and appreciation of the role each plays in the education of their students and also foster a greater mutual respect.

It will take a coalition of educators, parents and community members to take this agenda forward. Seeking changes in existing local, state and national educational mandates from school boards, legislatures and congress should be the focus of our actions. This should be of the highest priority. If we want the best for our students, then we need to have the best for their teachers. When they again have the highest community respect and when classroom autonomy is returned to them, students will then be able to experience the creativity of revived and energized instructors.

Stopping the culture of high-stakes testing will be the key step in initiating this process. How long will it take? That is up to us.