The Very Persistent Delusions of Billionaire-Edureformers

Billionaire-Edureformer extraordinaire Bill Gates “sat in a gray easy chair” at Clemson University’s Tillman Hall (yes, that Tillman Hall) to pontificate once more on education reform.

Gates soothed the crowd by explaining “that if they get frustrated at the lack of change in American education policy, they should ‘go into a charter school’ to see quality change,” reported Nathaniel Cary.

And, on que, “Gates defended the Common Core,” and of course, “innovation,” before tossing out his old standby: “Improving the quality of teachers across the country is the only way to close the gap for all students, an initiative his foundation supports [read: ‘purchases’], he said.”

Delusion 1: Gates has financed and perpetuated the same accountability policies started in the early 1980s. If there is a “lack of change” in education (and there is), it is very much at Gates’s feet (or enormous wallet).

Delusion 2: School choice, including charter schools and public school choice, has resulted in outcomes that are indistinguishable from traditional public schools, as I detailed in 2010, and as the Center for Public Education concludes in this October 2015 analysis:

In general, we find that school choices work for some students sometimes, are worse for some students sometimes, and are usually no better or worse than traditional public schools. We hope that this report will inform the ongoing conversation about the efficacy of school choice in the nation’s efforts to assure every child is prepared for college, careers and citizenship.

Delusion 3: After thirty-plus years of education accountability driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes testing, what does the research reveal?:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced test score advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum….

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.

Delusion 4: What do we know about teacher quality and its impact on student achievement—or, is teacher quality the “only way” to close the gap? Teacher quality, in fact, is less significant than “unexplained”:

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).

With apologies to George Saunders, Gates lounging comfortably in a state university building named for a murderous racist while spouting what at best are misrepresentations and at worst out-and-out lies about education reform is just another example of the very persistent delusions of billionaire-edureformers.

Dear USDOE, Testing Disaster Is Yours, and You Still Don’t Get It: A Reader

Let’s not miss that in the same week that vice president (and plagiarist) Joe Biden holds a press conference to announce what he plans not to do (o, the narcissism of the ruling class!), the U.S. Department of Education has come to some sort of Onion-esque realization that students are being subjected to an inordinate number of standardized tests (although it seems the USDOE is able only to worry about the redundancy and excessive number of tests).

The Ozymandias (I mean, Obama) administration has announced:

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

And let’s not fail to acknowledge that such vapid bureaucratic nonsense is inevitably the result of know-nothings being appointed to positions of power (think never-taught Arne Duncan serving as Secretary of Education in the wake of Margaret Dishonest-or-Incompetent Spellings turning her hollow SOE gig into becoming president of the University of North Carolina, resulting in her bragging about having none of the background experiences typical of leading higher education).

You see, U.S. education became a test-corrupted venture in the early decades of the twentieth century, which was documented and confronted by Raymond Callahan in 1962 as the cult of efficiency.

Yes, 1962.

But know-nothings in positions of power can only confirm the truism: those unaware of the past are doomed to repeat it.

Finally, let’s be very clear that the number of unnecessary standardized tests equals anything greater than zero.

And to confirm that we are over-testing students—and that it isn’t a problem of bad tests or redundant tests, but the test fetish itself—here is a reader:

Confirmed: Standardized testing has taken over our schools. But who’s to blame?

Whatever Happened to Scientifically Based Research in Education Policy?

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

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

Is There an Alternative to Accountability-Based, Corporate Education Reform?

Corporations Are Behind The Common Core State Standards — And That’s Why They’ll Never Work

Common Core State Standards, William Mathis (NEPC)

Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

Do High-Stakes Tests Improve Learning?


Looking across all of the combinations of incentives, the committee found that when evaluated using low-stakes tests, incentives’ overall effects on achievement tend to be small and are effectively zero for a number of programs. Even when evaluated using the high-stakes tests attached to the incentives, a number of programs show only small effects.

The largest effects resulted from incentives applied to schools, such as those used in NCLB. Even here, however, the effect size of 0.08 is the equivalent of moving a student performing at the 50th percentile to the 53rd percentile. Raising student achievement in the United States to reach the level of the highest-performing nations would require a gain equivalent to moving a student at the 50th percentile to the 84th percentile. Unfortunately, no intervention has been demonstrated to produce an increase that dramatic. The improvement generated by school-based incentives is no less than that shown by other successful educational interventions.

However, although some types of incentives perform as well as other interventions, given the immense amount of policy emphasis that incentives have received during the past three decades, the amount of improvement they have produced so far is strikingly small. The study committee concluded that despite using incentives in various forms for 30 years, policymakers and educational administrators still do not know how to use them to consistently generate positive effects on student achievement and drive improvements in education.

De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization

At-Risk Students, Bad Teachers, Failing Schools: Our Blinding Accusatory Finger Pointing

Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

“The Scientist,” Coldplay

The absolute greatest gift of being a teacher by profession is accumulating throughout your career the young people gifted you by your classroom.

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a former student and current teacher, Ali Williams, who teaches English at a majority-minority, high-poverty high school in the school district that serves the county where I teach.

Among the ramblings of our nerdfest, we talked about language, about the challenges of trying to be a good teacher, and about the fields of psychology and sociology, a tension that has more and more fascinated me over a thirty-plus years career as a teacher.

For anyone who doesn’t know Ali personally or who has never spent time at her school or with her students (I have had several teacher candidates placed at the school and thus have observed there often), the reality today is that the students are likely and uncritically viewed as at-risk, the school is believed to be failing, and Ali could very easily be labeled a bad teacher.

Those pronouncements occur all across the state of South Carolina and the U.S.—an accusatory finger pointing that blinds political leaders and the public from the corrosive social forces that are reflected by students, teachers, and schools (but not created by those students, teachers, or schools).

Because the U.S. remains trapped within the lies of rugged individualism and believing the country is a meritocracy, the influence of psychology (mostly quantified claims about individual qualities and behaviors) is more readily and almost entirely uncritically and inaccurately embraced while sociology (often broad and descriptive explorations of social forces) is either ignored or carelessly discounted—often as “excuses.”

If we did deeper, another division is embedded in the disciplinary tension above—the power of numbers.

Numbers give the compelling appearance of objectivity and certainty while rich description offers complexity and uncertainty.

And the U.S. has a disturbing propensity for being a blowhard nation; we seem to like our columnists, radio personalities, and even presidential candidates to hold forth with the simplistic bloviating found among privileged white men who have never reconsidered anything, especially their own privilege.

The 10,000-hour rule, humans use only 10% of their brains, poor children have smaller vocabularies that wealthy children, high rates of black-on-black crime—each of these remains incredibly common claims throughout mainstream media, politics, and private conversations, but each is also bad numbers—at best cited in misleading ways and at worst simply wrong.

Numbers are compelling, especially when they can be used to promote “objectively” our worst prejudices.

If we focus on the black-on-black crime claim (which I believe is representative of this problem), that data are misleading because essentially most crime is within race (white-on-white crime is about 84% and black-on-black, 91%).

Crime is also strongly connected with poverty, and then poverty disproportionately impacts blacks.

In other words, a rich and detailed description of crime, one that is more accurate and not accusatory, pulls back from focusing the gaze on individuals and raises questions about why so much crime is among family members and acquaintances, why so much crime is within lives overburdened by poverty, and why the criminal justice system also disproportionately targets some people (blacks, the poor) while somehow turning away from other people (whites, the affluent).

The black-on-black crime lie is not much different than the at-risk students, bad teachers, and failing schools lies.

The accountability movement in education has embraced and perpetuated high-stakes testing in order to increase the quantification of blame, to make sure the accusatory finger pointing remains on individuals and not the social forces creating those things being measured.

As a result, satire is hard to separate from reality:

In an effort to hold classroom instructors more accountable, the Illinois State Board of Education unveiled new statewide education standards Friday that require public school teachers to forever change the lives of at least 30 percent of their students. “Under our updated educator evaluation policy, teachers must make an unforgettable, lifelong impact on at least three of every 10 students and instill a love of learning in them that lasts the rest of their lives,” said chairman James Meeks, adding that based on the annual assessments, if 30 percent of students don’t recall a particular teacher’s name when asked to identify the most influential and inspiring person in their lives, that instructor would be promptly dismissed. “We are imposing these standards to make certain that a significant proportion of students in any given classroom can someday look back and say, ‘That teacher changed the course of my life, making me who I am today, and there’s no way I could ever repay them.’ Anything less is failure.” Meeks also confirmed the implementation of another rule aimed at ensuring that no more than 40 percent of a teacher’s students end up in prison.

How is this substantially different than No Child Left Behind requiring 100% proficiency by 2014? How is this substantially different than legislation demanding teachers and schools close the achievement gap (a coded lie again no different from the black-on-black crime claim)?

Labeling students at-risk, teachers bad, and schools failing is itself the real failure because it keeps our eyes focused on the consequences—not the causes—of the problems we claim to be addressing.

My former student Ali who is now a wonderful and dedicated young teacher can never be accurately reduced to a number, just as her students can never be rightfully represented by a number.

But our words matter also.

Overwhelmingly, the labels we assign to students, teachers, and schools reflect the conditions of lives and communities not created by those being labeled.

We must end the use of deficit language that points the accusatory finger at people who are the victims of situations beyond their control because that absolves the few who do have the power both to create and tolerate the great inequities that now characterize the U.S.

Distorting numbers and simplistic labels, in fact, make it less likely that we can and will confront when individuals are to blame and when we do fail students, education, and our communities (and, yes, those failures do exist, although not in the ways we hear daily among those prone to blame).

At-risk students? How about looking at some data and asking some fundamental questions?

Those students we tend to label “at-risk”—black, brown, poor, ELL, and special needs—are disproportionately likely to be taught by un-/under-qualified and early career teachers. Why?

If we answer that—along with why they live in homes and communities overburdened by poverty—and then do something about those conditions, we would find our urge to label those students suddenly different.

If we somehow swapped children in so-called failing schools with so-called exemplary schools (both in their homes and their schools), the labels would stick with the conditions, not the children.

This would hold true if we swapped faculty between so-called failing and so-called exemplary schools.

If we genuinely believe in universal public education as essential to democracy and equity, then we must resist the corrosive power of quantifying and labeling that has become entrenched in how we talk about students, teachers, and schools.

I am a teacher, and many of my former students, like Ali, are teachers.

“Nobody said it was easy,” could be about this profession we share. “No one ever said it would be this hard.”

As formal schooling begins again this fall, however, many students, teachers, and schools are facing conditions that now make education even more difficult because of accusatory finger pointing, numbers and labels that mask the lingering stereotypes and biases that create so called at-risk students, bad teachers, and failing schools.

Dueling Frying Pans: O, Arkansas

As are many states, Arkansas is trapped in a silly but expensive game of dueling frying pans: PARCC or ACT?

Political leaders and the public appear unable to understanding the bitter lessons of chasing better tests.

So, let’s consider this: Everything you need to know about the world (and frying pans) can be learned on Saturday morning cartoons—as Cyril from Break Away explains:

Cyril: You know what I’d like to be? A cartoon of some kind. You know, like when they get hit in the head with a frying pan or something, and their head looks like the frying pan, with the handle and everything? They they just go *booiing*

[shakes head]

Cyril: and their head comes back to normal? Wouldn’t that be great?

Mike: How’d you get to be so stupid, Cyril?

Cyril: I don’t know… I guess I just have a dumb heredity. What’s your excuse, Michael?

Of course, Tom and Jerry provides the ultimate visual:

And so we are left with a truly disturbing soundtrack to the standards and high-stakes testing Merry-Go-Round:

High-stakes, Standardized Tests Are “Master’s Tools,” Not Tools for Social Justice

Christina Duncan Evans argues that the high-stakes testing opt-out movement “ignores a major function of testing,” which she identifies as: “A major reason we use standardized tests is to make the case that there’s large-scale educational injustice in our nation.”

As an advocate for educational equity and social justice, Evans explains:

States don’t have a very good track record of providing equitable access to education to all of their students, and the federal government should ensure that American school quality is consistent. This has made me an advocate of standardized testing, following the logic that we can’t solve achievement gaps unless we measure them first.

Before examining this commitment to standardized testing (also found among civil rights organizations), I want to highlight that public education and state government have had a long history, continuing today, of failing miserably black, brown, and poor children and adults.

The evidence of lingering race and class inequity in the U.S. is staggering, and that inequity is too often replicated and perpetuated in public schooling—through inequitable access to rich curriculum and experienced, qualified teachers, for example.

As well, there is a troubling aspect to the opt-out movement along with the backlash against Common Core; as Andre Perry states, reinforcing Evans:

Take it from black and brown children who are used to being tested. Students will overcome. However, privileged adults who aren’t used to being tested may never stop crying.

The opt-out and Common Core backlash have exposed an unintended lesson about U.S. public education and society: As long as punitive and biased practices impact mostly or exclusively black, brown, and poor children (think “grit” and “no excuses”), the mainstream world of white privilege and wealth remains silent.

However, Perry also concedes that “having the ability to compare performances among groups hasn’t brought educational justice to black and brown students.”

In other words, and this is my main concern, the accountability era over the past thirty years—based significantly on standards and high-stakes testing—has not confronted and eroded race and class inequity, but in fact, and notably because of the central roles of standardized testing, race and class inequity has become even more entrenched in our schools and society.

Standardized testing remains biased by race, class, and gender, and thus, continues a warped tradition in the U.S. of masking bias as science; consider IQ testing and the current claims about “grit.”

High-stakes, standardized tests are, as Audre Lorde stresses, “the master’s tools.”

For those of us seeking educational and social equity and justice, then, we must heed Lorde’s call:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change….

The essential flaw with continuing to cling to high-stakes standardized testing is two-fold: (1) the tests are race, class, and gender biased, and (2) the demand that we raise test scores keeps all the attention on outcomes (and not the policies and practices that create the inequity).

As such, the demand remains that black, brown, and poor children (and adults) are themselves flawed and must be “fixed” (see Paul Gorski on “blaming the victim”).

This second flaw is also addressed by Lorde: “This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.”

Testing is never any better than a proxy, a representation of something else (student learning, teacher quality, school quality), but testing is never a valid proxy for equity or justice—always instead a fatal distraction. As I have argued before:

Testing, in effect, does not provide data for addressing the equity/achievement gap, testing has created those gaps, labeled those gaps, and marginalized those below the codified level of standard.

The accountability movement and the increased stakes linked to standardized testing have focused the gaze even more narrowly on individual children and educators. That tunnel-vision allows the privileged to avoid addressing social and educational inequity because marginalized groups are forced to work at the “master’s concerns,” not their own.

If we are determined to find data to highlight educational inequity so that we can address it, let us turn that gaze to the inequity of opportunity. For example, Rebecca Klein reports:

In Mississippi’s Carroll County school district, there are no advanced placement courses, no foreign language classes and not enough textbooks for children to take home at night. Until last year, students on the high school football team had to change clothes in a makeshift room that previously functioned as a chicken coop….

Schools in Mississippi are provided with some of the lowest levels of state and local funding in the nation, according to two reports released simultaneously Monday detailing disparities in school resources around the country. For most of the past 10 years, the state has failed to live up to its own law requiring certain funding levels for schools.

Unfortunate circumstances like the ones in Carroll County can be seen across the country, say the reports from the Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Education Law Center, a New Jersey legal and advocacy group.

The abundance of evidence of social and educational inequity is overwhelming, and continuing to mis-measure it through relentless and punitive standardized testing is inexcusable.

Lorde concludes:

Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

Advocating for social justice in our schools must include the choice not to bend to high-stakes standardized testing, but to unmask “raising test scores” as the “master’s tools”—and then to demand we turn our gaze to the inequity of opportunities condemning another generation of children to the “master’s concerns,” and not their own.

Quality of So-Called “Education” Journalism Actually Low

In both my May Experience course on education documentaries and my foundations in education course, we view and discuss the 2008 HBO documentary Hard Times at Douglass High:

Shot in classic cinema verité style, the film captures the complex realities of life at Douglass, and provides a context for the national debate over the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, focusing on the brutal inequalities of American minority education, considered an American tragedy by many.

Although many scenes are powerful, one in particular remains disturbingly relevant in 2015: The camera captures with a voice-over students taking the standardized test that is being field-tested for students (no stakes), but will be high-stakes for the school and teachers; many of the students are shown with their heads down, essentially making no effort on the test.

Hard Times ends by noting that the administration has been replaced and Douglass High (Baltimore, MD) joins one of many narratives that too often we read about in the on-going era of high-stakes accountability: failed schools, schools “taken over” by the state, closed schools.

A few years ago, I was working on an Op-Ed for The State (Columbia, SC), but I was challenged about my outline of the accountability movement in South Carolina by the editor. Just for context, I began teaching in SC in 1984, when the first implementation of accountability began, linked to higher teacher pay, greater educational funding, and the start of the standards/high-stakes testing movement.

The editor insisted that accountability was a child of the late 1990s, but I was able to send her links to the first SC laws in the late 1970s and explained my own life as a teacher at a school where we were actively teaching to the exit exam in the early and mid-1980s (including double-tracking students in math and ELA courses as tenth graders to help them pass the tests to graduate).

What do these two topics above have to do with each other?

For thirty years, journalism addressing education and more specifically education reform has been inadequate to the point of being a huge part of the education reform problem.

Take for yet another example this piece from The Hechinger Report (and a repost in Education Week): Stakes for “high-stakes” tests are actually pretty low.

The maps, data, and serious tone are likely to have masked the flippant headline as well as terse “gotcha” lede: “It turns out that the stakes for this spring’s Common Core-aligned tests are not quite as high as they might seem.”

Seems all that opt-out nonsense and teacher caterwauling has been for naught, right?

Just as I suspected. As the article clarifies early, “both sides” are truly out-of-bounds:

“I think the stakes are either overstated or understated depending on which side of the argument you’re on,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Both sides need to take a step back and just take a look at this map.”

As one point of concern, however, let’s consider another piece in the same publication: More than 5,000 Mississippi third-graders could be held back this year for low reading scores:

Results of the new third-grade reading test announced Thursday that aimed to make it tougher for students to advance if they don’t read at grade level could mean 15 percent of the test-takers will repeat third grade.

Some 38,000 public school students took the Third-Grade Reading Summative Assessment, widely known as the “third-grade gate,” created under state law to address lagging reading skills and prevent the practice of “social promotions.”

I wonder how these children being mis-served by callous legislation refuted by decades of research on grade retention and rejected by the National Council of Teachers of English feel about flippant and misleading journalism? [1]

Where has the mainstream press examined that grade retention doesn’t have “two sides,” but one very clear position supported by evidence?

Where has the mainstream press examined that standardized testing remains biased against racial minorities, the impoverished, English language learners, special needs students, and females?

Where has the mainstream press exposed that the entire accountability era has failed?

Don’t bother looking, the mainstream media is too busy being snarking, inadequate, and lead by the nose in the era of press-release journalism that has coincided with educational accountability.

The press is a willing participant in the “miracle” school lies, as long as they are about charter schools [2], but quick to vilify teachers who cheat.

Journalists serve as bridges between a more technical and complex world (political, academic, etc.) and the general public, many of whom spend little time beyond the headlines and a few sentences at the beginning and maybe the handy-dandy charts, graphs, and maps.

So let me return to the claim that “both sides” are misrepresenting the stakes surrounding the on-going accountability/standards/testing game that has now lingered for thirty years in the U.S.

Please, mainstream media, identify for me and your audience any states in which accountability/standards/testing are not ultimately geared toward high-stakes for students, teachers, and schools? (Note: That data point, by the way, would be 0).

And since all aspects of accountability are linked ultimately to high-stakes, in what way is this incomplete, misleading, and snarking “report” helping anyone—especially the children who have been and are now having their lives irrevocably changed due to inexcusable legislation with no basis in solid research?

The original breezy piece now includes an UPDATE, but even so, the essential problem remains that most people will see only the headline, maybe the lede, and then the maps. The conversation has been established by this piece even to its shoddy conclusion that includes a convenient Oliver North passive voice evasion:

All of which is to say, yes, the tests are important. Decisions will be made based on how students perform on them [emphasis added]. But the vast majority of states will use the scores only as one measure in a web of other factors when making staffing decisions. And most states have no plans to use the scores to make student advancement decisions.

Although the process would probably be pointless since journalists are trained to chase “both sides” (which tends to be one side that is credible and then another that is not), this piece could have been saved to some degree by talking with educators and assessment experts who could share that in the evidence around exit exams, grade retention, and teacher evaluations linked to test scores, a clear pattern has emerged: even when test scores are “one measure in a web of other factors,” those scores either distort that “web” or ultimately become the determining factor in that “web.”

As I have detailed before, at universities that use a “web” of factors to determine college admission, the SAT, even when weighted low, serves as a gatekeeper as those “other factors” cancel each other out. In other words, “one measure in a web of other factors” is a political scam being perpetuated by a non-critical press.

In the accountability game, this reality is even uglier since there is only one constant in the standards/testing movement: the standards and tests are constantly changing.

If anyone wants to begin to understand the dual disasters which are the accountability movement of recent history and the historical failure of providing children of color and impoverished children the educational opportunities they deserve, I suggest avoiding the mainstream press and simply spending some time with Hard Times at Douglass High.

The documentary is a hard watch, but its stark and complex examination rises above simplistic and breezy claims that trivialize children and educators in ways that occur daily in mainstream education journalism.

[1] See Retaining 3rd Graders: Child Abuse, Mississippi Style and Mississippi Reader.

[2] See Bruce Baker’s excellent The Willful Ignorance of the NJ Star Ledger.

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

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.

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.

To Catch a Cheat: More on the Pearson Problem as Our Problem

“Cheating by test takers is becoming more common in the United States and throughout the world,” explains T.J. Bliss, adding:

In the past year, multiple news agencies have reported several instances of cheating on high-stakes tests. Recently, news broke that doctors in a variety of specialties had cheated to pass certification exams (Zamost, Griffen, & Ansari, 2012). In another instance, high school students were arrested and charged with misdemeanors and felonies for cheating on the SAT (Anderson, 2011). At a university in Florida, over 200 students admitted to cheating on a midterm exam when faced with accusations based on statistical evidence (Good, 2010).

So what are teachers to do? Bliss offers evidence-based solutions:

There are many ways to detect cheating, some more useful and reliable than others (Cizek, 1999). Proctors and invigilators can walk the exam room and directly observe some forms of cheating, like answer copying. This method will not work, though, if a person cheats by gaining pre-knowledge of exam items (Good, 2010), is taking the exam for someone else (Anderson, 2011), or is trying to memorize items to share with others (Zamost et al. 2012). Some cheating is detected through whistle-blowers, manual comparison of answer and seating charts, and other qualitative approaches (Cizek, 2006). However, in both large-scale and classroom testing situations, statistical approaches have also been used to identify suspected cheaters. Such methods have been successfully utilized to detect several different kinds of cheating, including answer copying, collusion, pre-knowledge, and attempts to memorize items.

And why the increased cheating? It seems legislation, competition, and technology have roles in that:

With the passage of legislation requiring increased school accountability (e.g. No Child Left Behind Act, 2001) and increased compet[ti]iveness for jobs requiring certification (United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010-2011) the stakes for passing standardized and licensure exams have increased dramatically. At the same time, technologies to enable cheating have also increased. For instance, some examinees have begun using smart phones, digital recorders, and other personal electronic devices to cheat during exams. Fortunately, the advent of new methods for administering exams (like Computer Adaptive Testing) and analyzing test results (like Item Response Theory) have led to the development of more complex and sensitive statistical methods to detect cheating.

For classroom teachers seeking ways to prevent cheating and catch students who cheat, the Internet offers a nearly endless supply of strategies:

To be honest, I could continue that list for dozens and dozens of bullets, all of which have about the same strategies.

How many of us as classroom teachers at all grade levels have given traditional tests such as multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, matching, etc., formats? How many of us have implemented some or many of the cheating prevention strategies commonly taught in methods courses such as creating several versions of the tests, asking students to cover their work, re-arranging desks and seating assignments, walking around the room during the tests?

And how many of us are outraged at Pearson and other testing corporations for monitoring social media in order to detect cheating and thus to protect the credibility of their product (as any business would do in a consumer society)?

How many of us as classroom teachers are rightfully angry about the misuse of value-added methods (VAM) for teacher evaluation and pay, and then hold our students accountable for tests in traditional formats in our classes?

How many of us help select, purchase, and then implement commercial programs for teaching and assessing our students?

I teach and co-teach several methods courses for candidates seeking certification to teach in high school. As a critical educator, my classes go something like this: For Topic A, here is what traditional/progressive educators say you should do, but here is what critical educators suggest.

Yes, this is a bit tedious, for me and, I suppose, my students.

In the methods course I co-teach, I am responsible for assessment, so the topics of tests and cheating are addressed.

In order to help my future teachers develop a critical lens, we often talk about their experiences with assessment and cheating while college students—by focusing on writing essays and being monitored for plagiarism.

Most of these students are familiar with directly or indirectly faculty using to evaluate plagiarism in student essays. And like most of the faculty, my students see nothing problematic about using that technology both to discourage and detect cheating.

As high-achieving students, my students tend to be harsh about cheating—until we start investigating their own behavior as students. Until we start unpacking what counts as cheating (for example, allows each professor to manipulate the threshold for plagiarism, thus changing what counts as plagiarism from course to course).

Is sharing homework cheating? Is collaborating while writing an essay cheating? Is peer-editing an essay cheating?

And then we go further by asking why students cheat, and considering why students plagiarize.

Certainly all college students know not to plagiarize.

My larger point is about the conditions created in the classroom that foster cheating.

I explain to my students why I don’t give grades and don’t use traditional tests. My students submit multiple drafts of all essays and often spend a good deal of time in class drafting with me there to help.

I also detail how I incorporate a group midterm exam in my foundations of education course, the testing format being both small-group and whole class discussion with a focus on learning being a social construct.

I have consciously over 30-plus years sought ways to end the sort of testing culture that fosters cheating and instead implemented approaches to assessment that encourage full engagement that makes cheating (typically) not even an option.

Unable to avoid my English teacher Self, I tend to add that in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a powerful theme addresses the consequences of “reduced circumstances”; the main character Offred/June, who appears to be a decent person before the world crumbles, expresses murderous cravings—fantasizing about stabbing someone with a knitting needle and feeling the blood run warm over her hand.

This dystopian novel forces readers to consider the sources of the violent urges—are they inherent in Offred/June or prompted by her reduced circumstances?

That same sort of critical inspection must be a part of both the wider education reform movement and our own classrooms.

Under high-stakes accountability, why the cheating scandals in Atlanta, DC, and elsewhere?

But also, why are students cheating in our classes?

Why do students not read assigned works? Why do students claim they hate to read?

As teachers and public school advocates, to maintain our gaze only on outcomes is to miss the reasons for those outcomes, and to avoid our own culpability.

And then we come back to Pearson and the commercial boom connected directly to the accountability era.

A Software & Information Industry Association report reveals, “testing and assessment products–which include software, digital content and related digital services–now make up the largest single category of educational technology sales,” increasing by 57% since 2012-2013:

testing and assessment 57 percent

That tax-payer’s cash grab combined with what Anthony Cody calls “necessary surveillance” for national high-stakes testing is a cancer on the educational body—one that must be not only cured, but also eradicated and then prevented.

However, we must also admit that this cancer is the result of cancer-causing behavior.

As teachers and public education advocates, we must continue to fight the profits and surveillance of Pearson and other commercial interests, but we also must face our own bad habits.

While we raise our voices against misguided and harmful policy (including taking a professional and political stance), we should practice what we preach by creating classrooms that reflect our obligations and commitments.

So I completely agree when Peter Greene makes this pointed and accurate claim connected to Pearson: “You know what kind of test need this sort of extreme security? A crappy one.”

I also support Jersey Jazzman concluding:

But even more than that: a good teacher gives assessments that are largely cheat-proof. So if the PARCC people really think their exam can be gamed by students over social media, they are admitting they have created an inferior product. …

Further: if the assessment is any good, and is really measuring higher-order thinking, it likely can’t be gamed. It’s easy to cheat on a multiple choice exam; it’s much harder to cheat on a chemistry lab. And it’s nearly impossible to cheat on a choir concert, or a personal response to a novel, or number line manipulative. …

But if the PARCC is so vulnerable that a tweet by a student after the test compromises the entire exam, it must be useless — particularly as a measure of student learning.

However, I feel obligated to raise a concurrent point related to the opening of this post: If our own assessment practices need the amount of surveillance and diligence detailed for preventing cheating and catching cheaters, there is ample evidence some pretty suspect testing is happening in our classrooms as well.

Let’s end the tyranny of high-stakes standardized testing that has spawned Pearson et al., but let’s make sure we address that tyranny in our own practice as well.

For Further Reading

Who’s Cheating Whom?, Alfie Kohn

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

Grades Fail Student Engagement with Learning

“Students Today…”: On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization, Bower, Joe / Thomas, P.L. (eds.)

The Fatal Flaw of Teacher Education: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The Problem with Pearson (and Hyperbole)

Passive Progressivism