More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work

My good friend and stellar colleague, Ken Lindblom, posted Should Students’ Grades Be Lowered for Lateness?, spurring a series of Tweets about grading late work.

Ken’s thoughtful post focuses on these foundational ideas:

As an educator, I try to base my decisions on a principle of authenticity. In other words, I try to make my decisions more on real-world norms than traditional school norms. I try to ensure that I am preparing students for the world beyond school, not for school. As a result, I try to make sure that the ways in which I assess students’ work is similar to the ways in which they would be assessed in a professional situation.

There are times when a professional can absolutely not be late: grant applications, proposals for conferences/speaking, . . . I’m not sure I can come up with a third example to make a series.

But adults can be late with almost anything else: publication deadlines, job evaluations, doctor’s appointments, taxes–even most bills have a grace period.

Here I want to tease out a few ideas related to feedback on student work (artifacts of learning), grades, and late work.

Like Ken’s concern for authenticity, I tend to work from a personal and professional aversion to hypocrisy based on 18 years teaching English in a rural South Carolina public high school and then 14-plus years in a selective liberal arts university, also in SC.

I have been practicing and refining de-grading and de-testing practices for over thirty years. Let me emphasize, since I have been challenged before, I have implemented—and thus currently advocate for—de-grading and de-testing in many school contexts, including public schools (not just at the university level).

So my path to rejecting grades and tests has many stages and elements. First, I had to confront that calculating grades bound only to averages often distorts grades unfairly for students. Mean, median, and mode are all credible ways to analyze data, and among them, in formal schooling, the mean (average) is both the norm and often the weakest.

I show students this simple example; a series of grades: 10, 10, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 100, 100 = 730.

The average is 73, which most teachers would assign, but the mode is 85, and if we note these grades are sequential and cumulative (10 as the first grade in terms of time, and 100 the last grade), a legitimate grade assignment would be the 100.

In other words, using the same data, a teacher could assign 73, 85, or 100 to this student, and all can be justified statistically.

My conclusion has been this greatly challenges the value of assigning grades because those who control the rules, control reality.

Thus, I do not assign grades to any student artifacts of learning (and I do not give traditional tests). Instead I offer feedback that supports students as they revise and resubmit those artifacts.

However, I cannot refuse to assign students grades for courses. Therefore, another distinction I have come to appreciate is the difference between grading an assignment and determining a grade for a grading period or course.

Therein lies my approach to late work, but first, let’s consider adult hypocrisy.

In my 30-plus years as an educator at nearly every level possible, I witness daily teachers and professors who fail to meet deadlines (regularly); talk, do other things (grade papers), stare at their computers/smart phones, etc., during meetings; and behave in a number of ways that they do not tolerate by students in their classes, behaviors that negatively impact students grades.

I also drive daily with adult motorists who exceed the speed limit without any punishment—as most of us have come to realize a grace zone of staying less than ten mph over that limit. In other words, the real world of rules is much fuzzier than the rules of formal schooling.

These are the behaviors I see when I am confronted with student late work.

About late work, then, I have some clear policies. First, I would never change a grade assigned to an artifact of learning that distorts the actual quality of that artifact. A “B” essay is a “B” essay regardless of when it is submitted.

As an educator, my primary concern is student learning, and I suffer no delusions that when that happens is more important than if it happens. I also ascribed to Rick Wormeli’s dictum that fair isn’t always equal; thus, I do not allow very narrow expectations that I treat all students exactly the same override that I am there to serve each student as well as all students.

Next, I always record “lateness” and then consider that when I assign a grade for a grading period or course. If a student has one or two assignments late (clearly an outlier), I may ignore that when determining the grading period/course grade, but if there is a pattern of lateness, then the grading period/course grade must reflect this.

In other words, I believe we must separate artifact quality (the basis of grading period or course grades) from grading period/course grades.

Feedback and grades on artifacts of learning send students clear messages about what they produce (their learning), and then grading period/course grades send a message about the totality of their accomplishments as students.

So if we return to Ken’s context, we can imagine a manager telling a habitually late worker: “Your work here is excellent, but if you aren’t here on time, we will have to let you go.”

Especially in the recent thirty-plus years of standards, educators have fallen prey to standardization, and as a result, we have too often abdicated our professional autonomy and allowed technical norms to supplant our much more important goals and obligations, the human dignity and learning of each child assigned to our care.

And because most people have greater regard for medical doctors than teachers (sigh), I’ll end with an example my major professor offered in my doctoral program.

A patient is admitted to the hospital running a dangerously high temperature. After several days, during all of which the nurses record that patient’s temperature hourly, the doctor comes in, adds those temperatures, calculates the average, and refuses to release the patient, although the current temperature is 98.6.

Right, no medical doctor would allow the norm of averages to override her/his medical authority. And neither should educators.

See Also

Missing Assignments–and the Real World, Nancy Flanagan

The Perils of Late Work and How to Make It Count, Starr Stackstein

Mainstream Media in (Perpetual) Crisis: More Education Meat Grinder

“‘Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college’”: This spells doom for the U.S. economy, or to be more accurate, this spelled doom for the U.S. economy.

Except it didn’t, of course, as it is a quote in a 1947 issue of Time from John Ward Studebaker, a former school superintendent who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education (analogous to today’s Secretary of Education) in the mid-1940s.

Jump forward to 26 December 2015 and The New York TimesAs Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short. Motoko Rich, as in the Time article, builds her case on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as Susan Ohanian confronts:

Here’s a front page. above-the-fold New York Times non-story that’s a perfect depiction of damning schools every-which-way. Schools with low graduation rates are depicted as failures; improve graduation rates, and then the diplomas they’re handing out are judged to have no meaning. And the Times gives the departing Secretary of Education star billing on this issue.

Quotation of the Day
The goal is not just high school graduation. The goal is being truly college and career ready.

–ARNE DUNCAN, the departing secretary of
education, on the United States 82 percent graduation rate in 2013-14, the highest on record.–New York Times, Dec. 27, 2015

Along with the meat grinder of incessantly new high-stakes accountability standards and testing over the past thirty-plus years, U.S. public education has been demonized since the mid-1900s and relentlessly framed within crisis discourse by the mainstream media for a century.

Rich’s cover piece spends an inordinate amount of energy to twist public schools into that crisis image while making no effort to investigate or challenge Duncan (a life-long appointee with no expertise in education and no credibility as a leader in education) or to unpack the stale platitudes and unsubstantiated claims about education reaching back at least to the Time article.

Duncan and Rich share, in fact, no experience or education in teaching as well as the disproportionate power of their voices in the field despite that lack of expertise.

On the other hand, I taught public high school English in rural South Carolina (not far from the school Rich highlights), have been an educator in SC over 30 years total, have a doctorate in education that emphasized the history of the field, and now am a teacher educator at a university just a couple miles from the school in Rich’s piece (I know teachers there, and have had several teacher candidates placed there for field work). As well, I taught journalism and was the faculty sponsor of the school newspaper, and have been a professional writer for about the same amount of time as I have been teaching, including writing and publishing a good deal of journalism (mostly about education).

This is not, however, an attack on Duncan or Rich—because they are not unique but typical of the mismatch of high-level voice with a lack of expertise.

Mainstream media appear fatally wed to only one version of the U.S. public education story: crisis.

And thus, journalists reach out to the same know-nothings (political leaders, political appointees, think-tank talking heads) and reproduce the same stories over and over and over [1].

Here, then, let me offer a few keys to moving beyond the reductive crisis-meme-as-education-journalism:

  • Public education has never been and is not now in crisis. “Crisis” is the wrong metaphor for entrenched patterns that have existed over a century. A jet plane crash landing into the Hudson River is a crisis; public education suffers under forces far more complicated than a crisis.
  • Metrics such as highs-takes test scores and graduation rates have always and currently tell us more about the conditions of children’s lives than to what degree public schools are effective.
  • Short-hand terms such as “college and career ready” and “grade-level reading” are little more than hokum; they are the inadequate verbal versions of the metrics noted above.
  • The nebulous relationship between the quality of education in the U.S. and the fragility of the U.S. economy simply has never existed. Throughout the past century, no one has ever found any direct or clear positive correlation between measures of educational quality in the U.S. and the strength of the U.S. economy.
  • Yes, racial and class segregation is on the rise in the U.S., and so-called majority-minority schools as well as high-poverty schools are quickly becoming the norm of public education. While demographics of race and class remain strongly correlated with the metrics we use to label schools as failing, the problem lies in the data (high-stakes tests remain race, class, and gender biased), not necessarily the students, teachers, or administrators.
  • However, historically and currently, public education’s great failures are two-fold: (1) public schools reflect the staggering social inequities of the U.S. culture, and (2) public schools too often perpetuate those same inequities (for example, tracking and disciplinary policies).

The mainstream media’s meat grinder of crisis-only reporting on public education achieves some extremely powerful and corrosive consequences.

First, the public remains grossly misinformed about public schools as a foundational institution in a democracy.

Next, that misleading and inaccurate crisis narrative fuels the political myopia behind remaining within the same education policy paradigm that has never addressed the real problems and never achieved the promises attached to each new policy (see from NCLB to ESSA).

And finally, this fact remains: Political and public will in the U.S. has failed public education; it has not failed us.

Mainstream media remain trapped in the education crisis narrative, I think, because neither the media nor the collective political/public consciousness is willing to confront some really ugly truths beneath the cultural commitment to the powerful and flawed rugged individual mythology in the U.S.: America is a classist, racist, and sexist society.

We are committed to allowing privilege beget privilege and to pretending that fruits of privilege are the result of effort and merit.

There is no crisis in education, but our democracy is being held hostage by incompetent politicians and a compliant mainstream media—all of which, ironically, would be served well by the sort of universal public education envisioned by the tarnished founding fathers’ idealistic (and hypocritical) rhetoric [2].

[1] See Educational Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence, Joel R. Malin and Christopher Lubienski; The Research that Reaches the Public: Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?, Holly Yettick; The Media and Educational Research: What We Know vs. What the Public Hears, Alex Molnar

[2] See Thomas Jefferson’s argument for a democracy embracing education:

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. ([1817], pp. 275-276)

The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)

To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university.  (p. 275)

By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)

The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)

Doubling Down (Again) by Reverting, Not Changing: The Exponential Failures of Education Legislation

Political grandstanding about education and proposed as well as adopted education legislation make me feel trapped in something between a George Orwell dystopian novel (“WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH) and a Firesign Theatre skit (“The Department of Redundancy Department”).

One of my most recent experiences with the political process exposed me to the horrors (real, not fictional or comical) of compromise while I witnessed people and organizations typically associated with being strong supporters of public education defer to what became the Read to Succeed act in South Carolina despite the addition of third-grade retention [1]; the justification was that the compromise brought more funding to reading in the state.

Political compromise for education legislation, I regret, results in more dystopian fiction: Ursula K. Le Guin’s allegory of privilege in which she illustrates how some prosper while knowingly sacrificing a child as the “other.”

Now after much sound and fury, public education is poised to be bludgeoned once again as the federal government has committed to doubling down (again) by reverting to state-based accountability and continuing its ominous tradition of Orwellian names for education legislation: the Every Student Succeeds Act [2].

A couple of decades of patchwork state-based accountability throughout the 1980s and 1990s convinced the feds that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the answer, and now about a decade and a half of NCLB-style federal accountability has failed just a miserably (mostly causing more harm than good); thus, as Alyson Klein reports, “The ESSA is in many ways a U-turn from the current, much-maligned version of the ESEA law, the No Child Left Behind Act.”

And just as I experienced in SC with Read to Succeed, those we would hope are on the right side of children, families, and public education are scrambling (as many of them did to embrace Common Core) to praise ESSA—although this newest iteration is “really about the same.”

At best, ESSA is a very slight shuffling of the test-mania element of the accountability era; however, this reverting to state-based accountability will guarantee another round of new standards and new tests—all of which will drain state and federal funding for processes that have never and will never achieve what they claim to achieve (Mathis, 2012).

ESSA will be another boondoggle for education-related corporations, but once again, that profit will be on the backs of children and underserved communities.

Yet, ESSA is not all U-turn since it has remnants of the nastiest elements of the snowballing accountability era; while some of the unsavory teacher-bashing is waning, ESSA nudges forward the dismantling of teacher education (a sneaky way to keep bashing teachers, by the way).

ESSA is finding oneself in a hole and continuing to dig. For those who jumped in, it is time to climb out. For those standing at the edge, back away.

Although now tarnished by Obama’s promises of “hope and change” (the Obama administration has been no friend of education), education legislation and policy need change, real substantive change that confronts what is truly wrong with teaching, learning, and teacher education—none of which has anything to do with accountability.

That change rejects accountability based on standards and testing (a “no excuses” ideology) and seeks social context reform that addresses equity in both the lives and schooling of children.

As I have detailed before, those new commitments should include:

  • Food security for all children and their families.
  • Universal healthcare with a priority on children.
  • Stable work opportunities that offer robust wages and are divorced from insurance and other so-called “benefits.”
  • Ending the accountability era based on standards and high-stakes testing.
  • Developing a small-scale assessment system that captures trends but avoids student, teacher, and school labeling and punitive structures.
  • Ending tracking of students.
  • Ending grade retention.
  • Insuring equitable teacher assignments (experience and certification levels) for all students.
  • Decreasing the bureaucracy of teacher certification (standards and accreditation) and increase the academic integrity of education degrees to be comparable with other disciplines.
  • Supporting teacher and school professional autonomy and implement mechanisms for transparency, not accountability.
  • Addressing the inequity of schooling based on race and social class related to funding, class size, technology, facilities, and discipline.
  • Resisting ranking students, teachers, schools, or states.
  • Reimagining testing/assessment and grades.
  • Adopting a culture of patience, and rejecting the on-going culture of crisis.

When will we tire of “finding only the same old stupid plan”?

When “[t]he lone and level sands stretch far away” where public education used to reside, it will be too late.

See Also

There’s a Way to Help Inner-City Schools. Obama’s New Education Law Isn’t It., Kristina Rizga interviews Pedro Noguera

[1] See the National Council of Teachers of English’s Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing.

[2] Possibly the greatest flaw with NCLB was the requirement of 100% proficiency by 2014. We have to go no further that the ridiculous name of the act to see politicians (ironically) haven’t learned a thing: “every” is 100%.

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?

Conclusions

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.