Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Feds Don't Get Testing Consequences

Valerie Strauss asked a fairly simple question of the White House and the Education Department: Are you aware that one consequence of the policy requiring test results in teacher evaluation is that many teachers' evaluations are based on subjects or students they don't teach.

For example, in New York City middle schools, it’s been estimated that over 60 percent of New York City teacher evaluations are out-of-subject. An art teacher would be evaluated in part on student math scores.  Are you aware of this state-level consequence of federal policy and do you think it is fair to teachers?

The White House response was, "Go ask the Education Department."

Strauss presents the entire USED answer without comment. I would like to go ahead and present some comment.

Their Answer

The feds open with the right general sorts of noises. Parents have a right to know how their kids are doing, and student performance should be assessed because otherwise some groups will be swept under the rug (and this has been the narrative for so long that you would think, by now, the USED would be holding up some students that they finally found hiding under a rug and hollering, "See, we never would have found these kids except for The Test" but no, that hasn't happened).

After "rug" the next sentence is "Communities deserve accountable schools" which somehow thrown into this same paragraph as if assessing student progress and evaluating schools and teachers are exactly the same subject, as if there were nothing at all to discuss about how directly student achievement is a straight-ahead measure of school effectiveness. Anyway, "multiple measures" in italics and underlined. "Only a handful of states" link non-tested subject teachers to test scores, which just seems unlikely, given that the feds required all states to use test scores in the waivers, and in fact spanked Washington State for refusing to do so.

The response now moves to the DC Public Schools as an exemplar, and when that happens you know you're in the weeds. Maybe you're in the weeds with an intern who was assigned this response and doesn't know any schools except DCPS. The DC bullet points discuss the use of the state tests in teacher assessments, while ignoring the question of whether those were used for teachers of non-tested subjects or not.

Then USED quotes from its own ESEA Flexibility Policy Document, which does include a part that says you can use another assessment as long as it -- holy crap!! -- after developing, piloting and implementing, it must do all of the following--

1) be used for continuous improvement of instruction
2) rank and sort students into at least three different levels
3) I have to just copy this one because it's such bureaucratic gobbledeegook
use multiple valid measures in determining performance levels, including as a significant factor data on student growth for all students (including English Learners and students with disabilities), and other measures of professional practice (which may be gathered through multiple formats and sources, such as observations based on rigorous teacher performance standards, teacher portfolios, and student and parent surveys);
4) evaluate teachers and principals on regular basis
5) provide clear, timely and useful feedback for instruction and PD
6) must be used as part of personnel decisions

Oh, and all personnel must be trained on the system. Annnnd the data must insure that poor and minority children are not taught by a disproportionate number of inexperienced, unqualified or out-of-field teachers.

Oh, Really

First of all, can we please note that the current Big Standardized Test system in place does not meet these requirements. I mean-- clear, useful, and timely feedback? Would that be the part where we aren't allowed to see the test and get nothing back but raw scores and don't get them till the following school year? I am also wondering if the prohibition against inexperienced and unqualified teachers for poor kids would bar TFA temps from working in high-poverty areas? Ha! Of course not.

Second-- this is the solution? The art teacher in my building is supposed to do all of this, including training all of us in how the art assessment works, on top of making sure that art students are sorted into "Great," "Okay," and "Sucky" because an important part of all education is ranking students into winners and losers.

But Mostly

I want to point out that the Education Department NEVER ANSWERED STRAUSS'S QUESTION!!

What they did was carefully outline what their regulations say could be happening, maybe. They did not say if they have any knowledge of that actually happening. Nor did they acknowledge the real-world conclusion of many states which is "We can either spend a bunch of everybody's time and money working up these assessments or we can just use the BS Tests in the formula, since the USED is clearly perfectly happy with that."

The Duncan USED is an abject failure in many ways, but that failure is facilitated by their absolute refusal to confront-- or even see-- the actual consequences of their ill-considered amateur hour policies. In particular, their insistence on putting the BS Tests in the drivers seat, in making those tests the focus and purpose of education, has been hugely destructive to public education and the teaching profession. Their continued attempts to paper that over with pretty words shows that either they are truly, deeply clueless about what they've done, or they understand perfectly and are just hugely cynical. I would ask them which is the case, but if a major education writer from a major American newspaper can't get an answer, I don't imagine I'd do any better.


  1. This was my take, except I wasn't able to clearly articulate it even in my mind. Maybe they need to be asked the question over and over and over again until they actually answer it. Maybe it would help if they had to answer in 10 words or less.

  2. "The Duncan USED is an abject failure in many ways...."

    Well, yes, but in the only way his puppetmasters care about, it's been a whopping success.

  3. This is the 64 million dollar question, and they have NO ANSWER. There is no bullshit response that could dribble out of Arne Duncan's mouth that any sane, objective, rational person would ever believe. Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it.

    Hopefully a sane, rational, objective judge will get to throw this nonsense out before any further damage is done.

    1. If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullsh--. Arne's got that latter thing down to an art.

  4. Your last paragraph alludes to the critical point: it's really all about the tests. All research, all evaluation, all "accountability" measures are ONLY about the BS tests. We've reached the point where test scores are the game. Yes, game. And some schools (charters) are playing it well. When controversy hit the highly defensive and short-fused Ravi Gupta of Nashville Prep, I watched their promotional / propaganda video in which he appears. He clearly and specifically noted that they spend about 75% of their K-8 day on English and math only. And it just so happens that those are the only tested subjects.

    It's the narrowing of the curriculum and the focus on tested subjects that is the true secret sauce (plus a dash of reverse engineered student selectivity). But their test scores are pretty good which means the school is pretty good according to USED methodology.

    Every instructional technique my district is stressing is nothing more than thinly veiled test prep. (My district is really pushing the Reader Apprenticeship model now. It's okay but it is mostly a really good way to maneuver through reading sections on tests. It's a strategy for answering questions about the reading mostly.) That's where we're at.

  5. The only hope for the Duncan USED is the assurance that it will eventually end (though not soon enough). But who will replace him? I can imagine that you might know of some people who have the vision, the integrity and the strength to set the whole operation on a different course, or at least try. Is there a high profile person who would be willing to take on all the heavy hitters and call a spade a spade? What specific things would you like to see happen from day one? Who is out there now who might be up to the task? We may not get a president we like (it isn't looking good) but we could still potentially get someone with both a heart and brains in the position of Secretary of Education.
    I would like to add an apology if my last comment was offensive in any way. I realize that since I am a complete stranger, offering something humorous after a heart-wrenching post would seem idiotic or simply rude. My first inclination was to try to lighten the heaviness of the situation you and so many people described. Dumb idea. It is heart breaking. And why doesn't it break Arne's heart? We need someone in there who has heart and guts and brains. It would be interesting to read about potential candidates for that job.

  6. Yeah, Arnie doesn't have a clue and doesn't seem to care.

    I still have hope that Bernie could become President; he's my only hope for President.

    The only names that come to my mind for Education Secretary are Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling Hammond, and Carol Burris, but I don't know if any of them would be able to "take on all the heavy hitters and call a spade a spade".

    As for your reference to your last comment, no worries and no judgements. : )
    I never know if anything I say is going to make sense to anyone else, but I appreciate the forum to exchange ideas, thoughts, and feelings, so it's all good.