Anna Jacopetti recently retired after a career in education of 50 years. She taught every grade from 1-14, she was an administrator, and she taught teachers. In this article, she shows the contrast between today’s emphasis on high-stakes testing and deep learning.

 

She reflects on a different approach to education, one that is definitely discouraged now by federal policy. What is in favor now is data-driven decision-making, scripted lessons, and Common Core-aligned readings.

 

She writes:

 

I found a job teaching reading in a school that still encouraged teacher initiative. I chose to use the Junior Great Books, a series that employs rich and varied language to tell age appropriate stories. Second Grade children are word sponges, full of curiosity and pleasure as they gain understanding of the world around them through expanding vocabularies This is not a rote learning process. These children enjoyed the fairy tales and legends that they could vividly imagine through the rich language, but they were most excited about learning new words that they could use in their own stories and in their conversations. We wrote their favorite new words on the board . Soon the children were bringing in other words that they had heard (but not understood) from their reading or from conversations overheard at home. We added these to our Words of Power and the list grew, with words like soporific, synchronicity, catastrophe, and surreptitious to remember only a few. The whole class was now engaged and there were no discipline problems. Reading fluency improved by leaps and bounds.

 

After Easter break, we had exhausted our Jr. Great Books and I turned to an Open Court textbook series that the school had purchased. I was pleased that it presented classic stories and myths, but after a few days the children balked. They told me that they didn’t like the new book. When I asked them why, they quickly consensed that all the Words of Power had been taken out of the stories. Open Court had carefully limited the language to words that were prescribed for Second Graders and these words were declared “boring” by the class. So I asked them to tell me what made a word “powerful” and they were quiet for a few minutes. Then Esme raised her hand and said ,“When you look up a word of power in the dictionary and you read all the definitions, you still don’t know everything it means.” I have never forgotten this moment. Moments such as these kept me going through decades of teaching. In such moments learning is palpable and children’s eyes light up with understanding and pride. These moments can’t be scripted or measured, but they are exemplary of an emergent, radiant process of learning that education should nurture, respect and protect at all costs.

 

I am highlighting here what it means to nurture capacities rather than “teach to standards”. Had I introduced vocabulary lists, assigned all the children to look up words in the dictionary as homework and then tested them to see if they had “learned” the words, I would have had a very different result. Children have a capacity for language acquisition in early childhood that is quite remarkable. They master complex syntax and the basic grammatical constructions of English before they go to school. They have learned subject verb agreement, verb tenses and proper use of adjectives and adverbs by kindergarten. They learn through conversation and by listening. The richer and more omnipresent language is in their surroundings, the more stories they hear, the stronger their language skills and their imaginative faculties become. Many first and second graders will know the lines to a play or a story “by heart” after hearing them only a few times – faster than older children and much faster than adults. Nurturing and building on this innate capacity is a key for language instruction in the early grades. Reciting and retelling come before writing. Dictating and then finally writing their own stories is a very engaging and empowering process for children that ideally precedes reading.

 

As we move deeper into the era of test-based accountability, teachers like Ms. Jacopetti will retire, and what she knows will disappear. Will teachers still know how to think for themselves? Will it be permitted by the state or the federal government? Will they still exercise their judgment? Or will they act as robots, programmed for compliance?

 

 

A reader posted this comment, in response to the story about Vietnamese students getting higher scores on PISA tests of math and science than U.S. students;

“According to the United Nations Statistics, only 77% of Vietnamese students are enrolled in secondary school, which means that the bottom 23% of test scores are eliminated for the Vietnamese case because those students are not in school to take the tests. (http://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/SE.SEC.ENRR)

“I taught in China in the late 1990’s and have since taught hundreds of Chinese nationals in the US. My Chinese students who come here to study have explained to me multiple times that a large percentage of Chinese students don’t make it into an academic high school and therefore never study for these tests. By the way, the students come here to escape their test-driven system.

“When I started teaching high school in the US in the late 1990’s I was struck by how willing my American students were to take risks, experiment, and involve themselves in class discussions. They were intellectual risk-takers compared to the college students I had in China, who I could barely get to speak because of their fear of being wrong and their lack of experience with class discussion. (this is not a cultural observation – it is an institutional one)

“My college students in the US now, all products of the NCLB era, are more similar to my students in China. They are completely grade-focused, fail to see the bigger picture in the issues we are studying, and lack creativity or initiative. Every time I think we have just had a meaningful discussion about something important, one will pipe up and say, “how are you going to grade this?”

“I am tired of data and people’s unfailing belief that it there is a number attached to something, that means it is true. I have a master’s degree in Economics and was basically taught how to “massage the data,” which basically means make it say whatever your grant needs it say.

“I just watched a teacher spend 5 minutes yelling at a third grader about how to spell the word orange. Her face was red with anger and she was shouting, “is that the sound it makes?” No doubt this teacher was thinking of the student’s ability to make the grade on her upcoming exam and how the teacher might lose her job if she was rated ineffective.

“We have gone mad and our children are paying the price.”

As I wrote in an earlier post, Governor Andrew Cuomo is very proud of the 2% tax cap that he placed (through legislation) on all school districts. They cannot pass a budget with an increase greater than 2% unless a supermajority of 60% of voters approve. This is undemocratic on its face, since 55% or 50.1% wins the election in a democratic society. But Cuomo wanted to show that he was a fiscal conservative. At the election a few days ago, 99% of the state’s school districts approved increases in their school budget, and the average increase was 1.9%, obviously to avoid the governor’s cap. Eighteen districts asked voters to approve an increase greater than 2%, and 12 districts did. New York spends a lot on public schools, but its funding is highly inequitable. The legislators from the most affluent districts take care of their own.

 

Want to know the real effects of Cuomo’s budget cap? Here is a comment by a reader who calls himself “Memphis Louie”:

 

 

Cuomo’s tax cap locked in a wide existing disparity in funding–and insures that the funding gaps will widen every year–and he calls this one of his great successes as governor. At the present time NY State’s wealthiest school districts spend $8,500 more per pupil than the 100 poorest school districts. Looking forward a 1% increase in the local tax levy in wealthy districts will raise over $400 per pupil while a similar increase in the levy in the poorest districts will generate an additional $51 per pupil. Project that out over a decade and our existing spending gaps widen into chasms. The result is that the students most likely to experience success are offered lavish programs while the students who come from the most challenging circumstances get barebones programs. Then our governor calls out the failing schools–the ones with the most challenging demographics….lots of noise–but never a solution from Cuomo! NY State’s funding formulas are highly politicized and contrived to drive state funds into the districts of key political leaders–essentially, school funding is distributed like pigs at the trough. The big pigs eat until they are full and the rest get the scraps! Cuomo touts this a one of his greatest successes and the TEAPublicans want to make it permanent (because even in our heavily gerrymandered state they feel threatened that enough people will go to the polls in 2016 that they will lose their majority!

Thousands of teachers marched in Seattle to demand better funding for the schools.

In Newark, hundreds of students marched and blocked traffic to protest the destruction of their public schools

Last February, Professor Gene Glass posted a hard-hitting post about conflicts of interest in Arizona. I reposted it on this blog.

Recently, Glass went looking for his post, and strange to say, it had disappeared! Gone!

Here is the post. Enjoy!

As historian-teacher John Thompson explains, reform spokesmen were really outraged by John Oliver’s brilliant send-up and put down of our nation’s obsession with standardized testing and its primary beneficiary: Pearson.

Some used the typical manipulation of test data to claim big gains in 1999 allegedly caused by NCLB, signed into law in 2002.

Others must have been embarrassed by scenes of children chanting pro-testing propaganda, like happy robots.

The fear and trembling by reformers showed that Oliver hit exactly the right spots.

Thompson writes:

“Its hard to say which is more awful – the way that stressed out children vomit on their test booklets or schools trying to root inner-directedness out of children. On the other hand, even reformers should celebrate the way that students and families are fighting back, demanding schools that respect children as individuals. Even opponents of the Opt Out movement should respect the way it embodies the creative insubordination that public schools should nourish. …,

“Reformers need to understand two things. First, their obsession with the punitive is showing. The more they condemn others for not understanding that George Bush was right and “accountability must have consequences,” the more they convince the general public that their devotion to reward and punish is bad for children.

“Second, we live in the United States of America, not some sort of command and control system imposed by social engineers. Public education is supposed to prepare students to think and express themselves as individuals. Schools aren’t a farm club for the corporate world. They shouldn’t socialize children into being Organization Men and Women, conforming to dictates from above. Reformers may believe that they know the one right answer, but they should be ashamed of that their policies seek to produce only square pegs for square holes.”

Tom Pedroni and Karen Twomey write in the Detroit Free Press that it’s time to restore democratic governance to the public schools of Detroit.

Plans and proposals are flying around from every district but all of them involve state control and privatization.

This is ironic as Detroit has had its fill of failed state control.

“All three proposals place inexplicable faith in the state’s ability to rectify the very problems that it, more than any other government entity, has created. Under the state’s watch for 13 of the last 16 years, the district has lost two-thirds of its students — more than 100,000 kids. Meanwhile, long-term debt has ballooned from around $700 million in 1999 to more than $2.1 billion today. Worst of all, state-mandated assessments, including the MEAP, reveal that Detroit’s students have lost even more ground to their state peers since 2009, when the state imposed emergency management.

“The closure of nearly 200 schools since 2002 has exacerbated student flight from the district while hurting already fragile city neighborhoods. What little funding the district retains is increasingly steered by emergency management from the classroom to administrators, consultants and contractors. A district that under the elected board drove 55%-60% of its revenues to classroom instruction — a proportion similar to most suburban districts — now allots the classroom less than 47%.”

The status quo–state control–has failed. The authors propose a return to democratic governance, with state assumption of the District’s debt. They propose a series of common sense reforms that could put Detroit public schools on the path to revival instead of extinction.

Jon Pelto reports that the Connecticut Education Association voted to endorse parents’ right to opt out of state testing.

Pelto writes:

“As reported by the CEA Blog,

“Teacher leaders from across the state took decisive action today to strengthen the organization’s position on the right of parents to opt their children out of high-stakes standardized tests and re-elect CEA President Sheila Cohen and Vice President Jeff Leake overwhelmingly.

The motion on opting out was unanimously adopted by teachers who were delegates to the CEA Representative Assembly (CEA RA), the highest policymaking body of the Association.

[…]

CEA has long supported the right of parents to make critical decisions about their children’s education. Today’s vote goes a step further by putting the full weight the CEA RA behind that position and providing great detail about teachers’ objectives in ensuring less testing and more learning in Connecticut public schools.

[…]

“Essential components of the motion include:

“Call on state policymakers and local school districts to formulate and pass legislation and policies that allow school employees to discuss standardized tests with parents and inform them of their ability to exclude children from state and/or district standardized tests.

“Call on state lawmakers and school districts to formulate and pass legislation and policies that allow school employees to provide parents with their opinions on whether students would benefit from exclusion from a state/and or district standardized test and that no adverse action or discipline would be taken against employees who engage in such discussion.

“Provide that a school and its employees would not be negatively impacted due to a student not taking a state and/or district-level standardized test, such as by ensuring that students who are opted out of standardized tests by a parent or guardian are excluded from performance calculations for state and local accountability measures and from employee evaluations.

“Reexamine public school accountability systems throughout the state, and develop a system based on multiple forms of assessment that do not require extensive standardized testing, that more accurately reflects the broad range of student learning, and is used to support students and improve schools.”

The new Common Core tests funded by the federal government agreed to adopt the standard of “proficiency” used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Students who are not “proficient” are deemed to have “failed” to meet the standards. They are described as “not proficient,” which is a very bad thing indeed.

But what does NAEP proficiency mean?

I served on the NAEP governing board for seven years. I understood that “proficient” was a very high standard. There are four NAEP achievement levels: Advanced (typically reached by 5-8% of students); Proficient (typically reached by about 35-40% of students); Basic (typically reached by about 75% of students); and Below Basic (very poor performance, about 20-25% of students). Thus, by aligning its “pass” mark with NAEP proficient, the PARCC and SBAC (the two testing groups) were choosing a level that most students will not reach. Only in Massachusetts have as many as 50% of students reached NAEP proficient. Nearly half have not.

As Catherine Gewertz wrote in Education Week, “The two common-assessment consortia are taking early steps to align the “college readiness” achievement levels on their tests with the rigorous proficiency standard of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a move that is expected to set many states up for a steep drop in scores.
After all, fewer than four in 10 children reached the “proficient” level on the 2013 NAEP in reading and math.”

So, if these consortia intend to align with the very rigorous standards of NAEP, most students will fail the tests. They will fail them every year. Will the test results be used for promotion and/or graduation? If so, we can expect a majority of the current generation of students not to be promoted or graduate from high school. What will we do with them?

It is time to ask whether NAEP proficient is the right “cut score” (passing mark). I think it is not. To me, given my knowledge of NAEP achievement levels, proficient represents solid academic performance, a high level of achievement. I think of it as an A. Advanced, to me, is A+. Anyone who expects the majority of students to score an A on their state exams is being, I think, wildly unrealistic. Please remember that NAEP proficient represents a high level of achievement, not a grade level mark or a pass-fail mark. NAEP basic would be a proper benchmark as a passing grade, not NAEP proficient.

Furthermore, the NAEP achievements levels have been controversial ever since they were first promulgated in the early 1990s when Checker Finn was chairman of the NAEP governing board. Checker was subsequently president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation/Institute, and he has long believed that American students are slackers and need rigorous standards (as a member of his board for many years, I agreed with him then, not now). He believed that the NAEP scale scores (0-500) did not show the public how American students were doing, and he was a strong proponent of the achievement levels, which were set very high.

James Harvey, a former superintendent who runs the National Superintendents’ Roundtable, wrote an article in 2011 that explains just how controversial the NAEP achievement levels are.

He wrote then:

Since definition is crucial in any discussion of standards, let’s define the terms of the discussion. The No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress in 2001 as the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, permitted states to develop their own assessments and set their own proficiency standards to measure student achievement. Most states, for their purposes, quite sensibly defined proficiency as performance at grade level.

What about NAEP? Oddly, NAEP’s proficient standard has little to do with grade-level performance or even proficiency as most people understand the term. NAEP officials like to think of the assessment standard as “aspirational.” In 2001, long before the current contretemps around state assessments, two experts associated with the National Assessment Governing Board—Mary Lynne Bourque, staff member to the governing board, and Susan Loomis, a member of the board—made it clear that “the proficient achievement level does not refer to ‘at grade’ performance. Nor is performance at the proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject. That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that most state assessments aimed at establishing proficiency as “at grade” produce results different from a NAEP standard in which proficiency does not refer to “at grade” performance or even describe students that most would think of as proficient. Far from supporting the NAEP proficient level as an appropriate benchmark for state assessments, many analysts endorse the NAEP basic level as the more appropriate standard because NAEP’s current standard sets an unreasonably high bar.

What is striking in reviewing the history of NAEP is how easily its governing board has shrugged off criticisms about the board’s standards-setting processes.

In 1993, the National Academy of Education argued that NAEP’s achievement-setting processes were “fundamentally flawed” and “indefensible.” That same year, the General Accounting Office concluded that “the standard-setting approach was procedurally flawed, and that the interpretations of the resulting NAEP scores were of doubtful validity.” The National Assessment Governing Board, or NAGB, which oversees NAEP, was so incensed by an unfavorable report it received from Western Michigan University in 1991 that it looked into firing the contractor before hiring other experts to take issue with the university researchers’ conclusions that counseled against releasing NAEP scores without warning about NAEP’s “conceptual and technical shortcomings.”

“Most state assessments aimed at establishing proficiency as ‘at grade’ produce results different from a NAEP standard.”
In addition, NAGB absorbed savage criticism from the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded in 1999 that “NAEP’s current achievement-level-setting procedures remain fundamentally flawed. The judgment tasks are difficult and confusing; raters’ judgments of different item types are internally inconsistent; appropriate validity evidence for the cut scores is lacking; and the process has produced unreasonable results. … The results are not believable.”

For the most part, such pointed criticism has rolled off the governing board like so much water off a duck’s back.
As recently as 2009, the U.S. Department of Education received a report on NAEP from the University of Nebraska’s Buros Institute. This latest document expressed worries about NAEP’s “validity framework” and asked for a “transparent, organized validity framework, beginning with a clear definition of the intended and unintended uses of the NAEP assessment scores. We recommend that NAGB continue to explore achievement-level methodologies.” In short, for the last 20 years, it has been hard to find any expert not on the Education Department’s payroll who will accept the NAEP benchmarks uncritically.

Those benchmarks might be more convincing if most students outside the United States could meet them. That’s a hard case to make, judging by a 2007 analysis from Gary Phillips, a former acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. Phillips set out to map NAEP benchmarks onto international assessments in science and mathematics and found that only Taipei (or Taiwan) and Singapore have a significantly higher percentage of proficient students in 8th grade science than the United States does. In math, the average performance of 8th grade students in six jurisdictions could be classified as proficient: Singapore, South Korea, Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, and Flemish Belgium. Judging by Phillips’ results, it seems that when average results, by jurisdiction, place typical students at the NAEP proficient level, the jurisdictions involved are typically wealthy—many with “tiger mothers” or histories of excluding low-income students or those with disabilities.

None of this is to say that the method of determining the NAEP achievement levels is entirely indefensible. Like other large-scale assessments—the International Mathematics and Science Study, the Progress on International Reading Literacy Survey, and the Program on International Student Assessment—NAEP is an extremely complex endeavor, depending on procedures in which experts make judgments about what students should know and construct assessment items to distinguish between student responses. Panels then make judgments about specific items, and trained scorers, in turn, bring judgment to bear on constructed-response items, which typically make up about 40 percent of the assessment.

That said, it is hard to avoid some obvious conclusions. First, NAEP’s achievement levels, far from being engraved on stone tablets, are administered, as Congress has insisted, on a “trial basis.” Second, NAEP achievement levels are based on judgment and educated guesses, not science. Third, the proficiency benchmark seems reachable by most students in only a handful of wealthy or Asian jurisdictions.

It is important to know this history when looking at the results of the Common Core tests (PARCC and SBAC). The fact that they have chosen NAEP proficient as their cut score guarantees that most students will “fail” and will continue to “fail.” Exactly what is the point? It is a good thing to have high standards, but they should be reasonable and attainable. NAEP proficient is not attainable by most students. Not because they are dumb, but because it is the wrong cut score for a state examination. It is “aspirational,” like running a four-minute mile. Some runners will be able to run a four-minute mile, but most cannot and never will. Virtually every major league pitcher aspires to pitch a no-hitter, but very few will do it. The rest will not, and they are not failures.

What parents and teachers need to know is that the testing consortia have chosen a passing mark that is inappropriate, that is not objective, and that is certain to fail most students. That’s not right, and that’s not fair.

As you probably know, No Child Left Behind saddled the schools with a heavy dose of annual testing from grades 3-8, and Race to the Top required states to use those test scores to evaluate teachers. Testing is out of control. The curriculum is narrowed, especially in schools that enroll low-income students, where the scores are lowest. Educators have cheated to save their jobs, and some lost their jobs, their reputations, and their freedom because they cheated.

No high-performing nation in the world has annual testing or evaluates teachers by test scores. The current revision of NCLB retains annual testing unfortunately. However, Senator Tester (ironic name) has written an amendment to change annual testing to grade span testing: once in elementary school, once in middle school, once in high school. My preference would be to have no federally-mandated testing at all, given how abusive this policy has proven to be. But grade-span testing is far preferable to annual testing.

Learn here how to support his sensible proposal. Write your Senator now. There is no time to waste.

Those who say that annual tests are needed to protect children of color, children with special needs, and English language learners have not looked at the racist history of standardized tests. These are the children most likely to be on the bottom half of the normal curve that governs standardized tests. They are the very children most likely to be labeled and stigmatized by the tests. What children need most are reduced class sizes, a rich curriculum, experienced teachers, fully resourced schools, and the opportunity to learn. This is what they need, not more testing. A test is a measure, not the goal or purpose of education. And it is a flawed measure.

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