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Cuts For School Kids, But More Tax Dollars For Tests?

Posted: 2011-05-20

Using evidence from just 0.3 percent of our school population, our politicos are fine with justifying the billions spent on testing math and reading. And now they want to roll that system out to every subject in every grade. And mostly for the purpose of following a pig-in-a-poke plan for evaluating teachers.

This commentary is from Daily Kos, May 19, 2011. Follow the hot links. They provide an overview of current assaults on public schools.





While America's political leaders happily take a meat axe to our nation's public school system, the national media continues to turn our gaze toward more pressing issues. But down here on the ground, the outlook for the nation's school children is looking grimmer and grimmer by the day.



This week's cavalcade of education cuts included Florida's decision to turn back the clock of education funding to 2003. What that looks like for those folks living in the reality community is vanishing stocks of school supplies, canceled bus transportation for school bands and sports teams, and unpainted school interiors with aging air conditioning and electrical systems.



Elsewhere, schools are laying off their very best teachers, telling working families to pay for daycare on Mondays because they've cut back to four-day weeks, and charging parents $100 or more for their kids to ride the bus to school.



But it would be a mistake to assume that all these slash-and-burn education budgets mean that there won't be any new spending increases related to education at all. Because despite what parents see happening to their pocketbooks and what children experience in the classroom, there's a sector of the education economy that is enjoying boom times.



That state legislature in Florida, for instance, that just cut to "the breaking point" spending on school personnel, supplies, and maintenance, also just approved a bill that will require massive new outlays for the makers of standardized tests.



And Florida isn't alone. Across, the nation, while lawmakers at the federal, state, and local levels put public schools and the families who rely on them on a starvation diet, those very same officials are overflowing the troughs of cash for the testing industry. Texas legislators, for instance, approved 13 percent cuts in funding for K-12 kids only six months after approving a $470 million contract extension with testing company Pearson Assessment and Information Group.



In North Carolina, state legislators are pushing for drastic cuts of up to $1 billion in education spending while at the same time, imposing on the state's second-largest school district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a massive new program to test every student in every subject, K-12 -- 52 tests in all, given twice each school year.



Colorado also imposed on its schools a testing regime for every student, in every grade, and in every subject while simultaneously looking at cutting school spending back to 2007-08 levels, despite the addition of almost 11,000 more students.



Propelled by the requirements mandated by the No Child Left Behind legislation passed by the Bush administration nearly ten years ago, the size of the K-12 testing industry has ballooned to an estimated $1.9 - $5.3 billion behemoth. That rapid expansion was due to NCLB's requirements for "“interpretive, descriptive, and diagnostic reports” to annually gauge whether schools were making "adequate yearly progress" with specific populations of students. But the rationale for this new outbreak of testing contagion is something a good deal different.



What's driving new outlays for testing now is the idea, incentivized by the Obama administration's Race to the Top competitive grant program, to use standardized tests to evaluate teacher performance. In the case of Charlotte-Mecklenberg and the state of Colorado, this means creating and implementing reams and reams of new bubble tests for subjects such as art, physical education, and music to specialties such as technology, reading, and English language learners.



The desired outcome for this massive undertaking is so the nation can evaluate how well teachers everywhere are prepping school children to respond correctly to crucially important questions like this item on a first-grade art exam in Colorado:



The test asked the first-graders to look at [the painting] "Weeping Woman" [by Pablo Picasso] and "write three colors Picasso used to show feeling or emotion." (Acceptable answers: blue, green, purple, and yellow.) Another question asked, "In each box below, draw three different shapes that Picasso used to show feeling or emotion." (Acceptable drawings: triangles, ovals, and rectangles.)





Once that valuable "data" has been captured, the children will be confronted with yet another assessment with similarly designed items some time later in the academic calendar to determine how well their art teacher has improved their ability to handle such weighty tasks. Then the art teacher can, in turn, be either rewarded with "merit pay" or punished with a "de-merit" of some sort, for his or her "effectiveness" at pushing children through these hurdles. Or, as in the case of Los Angeles, the teacher can be publically humiliated in the local newspaper.



The whole concept of this assessment process, called "value added measures," is flawed from the git-go, as psychology professor Daniel Willingham explains in this YouTube



Despite the valid criticisms of VAM, the makers of these tests continue to assure our political leaders that they can develop "better" tests that avoid these vagaries, and the advocates for their use continue to persuade lawmakers that these tests should at least comprise a percentage of the criteria used to evaluate teachers -- currently 51 percent in Colorado, 40 percent in New York.



Even teachers unions have had to give ground on these standardized test-based teacher evaluations. The American Federation of Teachers currently has over 50 locals piloting teacher evaluation systems that include test scores, and the National Education Association, at least at the national level just recently showed a willingness to include "valid, reliable, high-quality standardized tests" in teacher evaluations.



To get a grip on the real science of these evaluation systems, it's really easy to get deep into the weeds as Bruce Baker demonstrated at his blog School Finance 101 the other day, when he concluded that the evaluation to end all evaluation of evaluation systems, "Passing Muster" from The Brookings Institution, was itself not a very good evaluation.



Instead of throwing more and more money at the problem (a phrase conservatives love to use to criticize school teachers), what makes better sense is to take a step back to review the bigger picture of what this test obsession hath wrought. Earlier this week at Huffington Post John Thompson did just that and concluded that it's time to throw test-obsessed "data-driven accountability hawks on the ash pile of history,"



Citing a report from the Education Trust, he pointed out that "data-driven accountability has largely failed" in the two states subjected to the report's analysis: Maryland and Indiana. And he brought up a McKinsey Group study that argued the worth of test-based accountability for schools using evidence from "just three school systems serving less than 157,000 students have moved from 'fair' to 'good.' That represents 0.3 percent of the nation's public school students."



Got that? Using evidence from just 0.3 percent of our school population, we're fine with justifying the billions spent on testing math and reading. And now we want to roll that system out to every subject in every grade? And mostly for the purpose of following a pig-in-a-poke plan for evaluating teachers?



Clearly it's time for someone to stop the madness. And this week it looks like someone may have. As edu-blog Thoughts on Public Education reported, California governor Jerry Brown is proposing to suspend funding for the state's student longitudinal data system and to stop further planning the teacher database that's tied to it. Expressing skepticism for the idea that it makes sound policy to shell out billions while cutting kindergarten and books, the governor is calling for a hiatus to, according to the blog post, "involve parents, scholars, teachers and administrators to develop policies that will reduce the time devoted to standardized testing, eliminate data collecting that’s not useful to local schools."



So let's hope that California, often considered a bellwether state, is the first sign of a major course correction in our nation's education policy.

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