Saturday, March 5, 2016

How Is My Test PR Doing?

The test manufacturing industry continues to search for new and creative ways to push back against the opt out movement. Some of this propaganda is pretty pedestrian, but occasionally they come up with stuff that's very extra special. Meet the website "How is my kid doing?"

This PR initiative is being led by the Council for a Strong America, a DC-based umbrella organization composed of  "Law enforcement leaders, retired admirals and generals, business executives, pastors and other faith leaders, and athletes, coaches and sports administrators united in our mission to build a stronger nation by preparing all young people to be productive citizens." The umbrella covers five different organizations which correspond to the five groups listed above and which boast "unexpected messengers" who are "extraordinarily effective at reaching policy-makers to help win major victories for kids." The council gets its money from just 14 contributors, including two in the Over A Million club. That includes grants from Gates-- and it's the Gates Foundation alone that is thanked for funding "in part" the How Is My Kid Doing PR drive. The HIMKD list of partners includes High Achievement New York, CCSSO (co-holders of the CCSS copyright), and the National PTA.

How Is My Kid Doing is designed to be warm and fuzzy. The staff introduces itself by first names only, accompanied by friendly childhood pictures. The font is soft and rounded. The subheading for one tab is "It starts with love."

The project is focused on story-telling. Sandra Bishop is the head of research for CSA, but her most recent contribution is a story about how in tenth grade she was moved to a higher-level English class because someone noticed her PSAT results. "Somehow, when I’d moved from junior high to high school, I’d been placed in lower level classes. I had no idea that was the case, nor did my parents, until I took a test."

As one might expect, this is the ongoing theme of the site-- parents, teachers and schools that are somehow clueless until they are enlightened by standardized test results. The other recurring theme is a constant blurring of the lines between the different kinds of tests we're talking about. Bishop cites a study that showed that opening up Washington's third grade gifted screening test to all students resulted in the identification of more gifted students. Which is a good thing, but has nothing to do with, say, taking the PARCC.

Project chief Carla tells a story about her son taking a bath, and announcing that he wants to be a scientist, and her overwhelming realization that to be a scientist they will have to take standardized tests all along the way to make sure he is on the right path.

And I realized that THIS represented why I’m so committed to this project. Because my little boy has a dream. And kids have dreams, and they start out strong and confident. And we as parents will give our last breath to protect them, to nurture them… and all we want, literally, is what’s best for them. To see them happy and safe and healthy. To see them pursue and achieve that dream. When our kids are young, to teach them that we value that dream, even if it changes every week. As they get older, to help shape that dream into reality.

And for each step,he had to know how he was doing. If he didn’t know, how was he to get there? How was I to help him and guide him?

There are so many things wrong here.

First, he said his dream was scientist, so he's need to know math, which happens to be on the Big Standardized Test. What if he had said musician? Or welder? Or museum curator? Or website designer? Would the BS Test still be helpful.

He also said that he's need to know how to cooperate, which is not measured by the BS Test at all. How will she know if he's on that correct path? How will she know if he's learning how to cooperate?

The program creators' devotion to their tiny humans is not in question, but their parental sense is. Here is one of the great quotes from the site:

The love and the anxiety we have over these little beings. It makes you put blinders on, you know? I mean, people could say to me, if you wear a green hat on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, your kid will be spared from X, Y, and Z. I'd be like, OK, put on the green hat, as silly as it makes me look, I'll do it!

Would you? Because as the father of a couple of formerly tiny humans, I would make damn sure that the people who were advocating green hats knew what the hell they were talking about and that there was some rational reason to believe that green hats actually prevented X, Y and Z. I would be particularly cautious of arguments claiming that since a motorcycle prevents head trauma in accidents, obviously a green wool hat prevents cholera and halitosis. And I would be particularly suspicious if the people telling me about the wonders of green hats all made their living in the green hat industry.

Look, following the LinkedIN tail on these folks, I didn't find Teach for America and a lifetime career of astro-turfing as we often do. But there are four huge problems with their arguments.

First, they have succumbed to a fallacy as old as the production of tiny humans-- that if we get the tiny human to do A, B, and C, the tiny human will eventually turn out exactly as we wish. This is appealing, but as every parent of fully grown tiny humans can tell you, it just doesn't work that way. Giving an eight-year-old a test and saying with authority, "Based on this test we can tell exactly what track this child is on," is absolute unvarnished baloney. Believe me-- I know that as the parent of a tiny human, you want to be certain that your child will turn out exactly okay and achieve all of their dreams. You can't know that, because

The second giant fallacy is that there is One True Path to success and happiness. There isn't. You can't put your child on that path because it doesn't exist, and if you insist on believing that it does exist, you will suffer a lifetime of unnecessary frustration about missing it as well as missing some awesome possibilities that you can't see because they aren't where you think the path is "supposed to" be.

The third problem with HIMKD is their worst one-- they show no awareness at all of the idea that there are different tests for different purposes. The folks at the site seem to believe that a test is a test is a test and the placement testing that a school does to assess a newly-adopted daughter is the same as a test at the end of the course is the same as a BS Test used to badly and inaccurately assess the caliber of the school.

The site is filled with Odes To Testing Joy, and yet somehow, none of the tests that are presented are the Big Standardized Tests. At times the site seems to be bizarrely, earnestly throwing its weight behind every test a teacher ever gives. Hooray for the weekly vocab quiz! If it's useful, all tests must be great.

But all tests are not created equal. They are not equally useful, equally valid, equally reliable, and equally well-written. This site argues that since I know a really nice girl over in my home town, you should marry that girl next door to you in another state.

Finally, the site relies on the classic reformster rhetorical trick-- the Skipping of the Proof. There's a really big problem, so you must accept my solution, but instead of offering proof that my solution solves the problem, I'll just keep hammering home the problem. Usually reformsters are more hectory ("Estonia is whipping our butts, so Common Core and testing!"). HIMKD is more warm and fuzzy. "I really love my child and want her to have a great life, so testing."

Reading through the site was a little surreal, because I could have written some of the stuff about overwhelming love for your personal tiny humans and hoping that they will have happy and fulfilling lives, and yet when I follow that thread, it does not at all lead me to conclude that the PARCC or SBA or any of the rest of their reformy spawn are a good idea. Like most parents of grown children, I am so not sitting here thinking, "Boy, if only my kids could have taken the PARCC when they were little. Their lives would be so better and different now."

HIMKD's idea of an argument is the green hat. If someone tells you something will help your child, you do it unthinkingly and blindly because that's what loving parenting is all about, and how could you possibly know how your child is doing otherwise. I'm certainly not saying do nothing-- but use a little thought about which snake oil you buy. The site is filled with perfectly fine observations like this one:

Young Americans, no matter where they live, deserve the best preparation possible for their future success in college and the workforce.

Nowhere on the site is there a lick of evidence that taking the Big Standardized Test has anything to do with getting children that preparation. There's nothing here to convincingly argue against opting out. My kid may be fine, but my testing PR push is continuing to waste a truckload of money.


  1. They've banned some people from their FB page. LOL For one person, it took one post. I picture some recent college grad thinking managing their message is going to be a cakewalk and then is met with, well, us.

  2. Just like getting a second opinion about medical procedures, it is a good idea to get a second opinion about a student's academic preparation. Second and third opinions are always useful, and if your physician argues you not to seek out a second opinion, you should find another physician.

    I certainly agree that there is not one true path to anything, but that leads me to the conclusion that teacher assigned grades are not the one true way to learn about student preparation. Here I can cite a personal story. My middle son was, we thought, very advanced in mathematics but received a B- in his pre-calculus mathematics class. We had been planning to pull him out of mathematics at our local public high school and have him begin taking classes at our local university. The B- meant that we had to entertain the possibility that this would be a great mistake, so we needed a second and finally third opinion. The second opinion was the MAP mathematics test. My son got within 2 points of a perfect score. Now which to believe was the true assessment of mathematics ability? The B- in the pre-calculus class or the near perfect score in the standardized test? Time for a third opinion. We asked a friend, a full professor of mathematics at our local university, to have a conversation about mathematics with our son. After that conversation she said he was obviously well prepared to take the challenging ten credit hour science engineering calculus sequence, and as it turned out, she was right. The took his first graduate class in mathematics the next year.

    It would have been a huge disservice to our son to depend on the teacher assigned grade as the one and only true evaluation of his mathematics ability.

    The importance of a second opinion is very important for boys. Boys score higher on standardized tests than their grades would predict, most strongly for African American boys.

    1. If your son had been earning an A, would you have still had him take the test?

  3. Shouldn't your "second opinion," assuming the first opinion you received was simply a letter of the alphabet, have been an actual explanation from the teacher of what he or she is seeing with your child and how his grade has come to be represented by a B? A simple conversation may have cleared it all up.

  4. Eric,

    The MAP exam is the required exam in my state, so there was no choice. Had he received an A in the class along with the MAP score, we probably would have thought the third opinion unnecessary.


    The teacher of that class was so very experienced that he retired and left the school before grades were released. In any case, a B- SHOULD indicate that a young student is not ready to skip over AP calculus in the high school and take the serious calculus sequence offered by a research one university.

    You do raise an interesting point: what do teacher's grades mean about a student. How can a college evaluate a student's transcript without speaking to every teacher about every grade they gave? A portfolio of external tests provides a second view. After all, your interpretation of a B- combined with a nearly perfect MAP exam is different from your interpretation of a B- and a poor MAP exam score, or a B- by itself, right?

    1. You didn't answer my question. If you son had had an A in the course and the MAP test was not required, would you have bothered with a standardized test?

      I have a child who always scores nearly 100% on everything in math. He is forced to take standardized math tests every year, and every year he gets 99%. What is the point? From his grades and my knowledge of his abilities, I already know what I need to know. This is a complete waste of time and does not give me additional information. (The idea that all parents don't know what their children are capable of without the school grades or the test scores is ridiculous. I'm sure that you already knew that your son was very good at math.)

      In your case, perhaps the test did give you some information. But we don't need to test every child every year for you to get that information. Optional testing would do that. Also, sampling would give school districts, states, and the federal government all the information that they need. There simply is no need to test every child every year in addition to all the other work that they are doing at school. The testing regimes that we are using are redundant and largely unnecessary.

      I live in North Carolina, and the end-grade-testing wastes about 7-8 weeks of instruction in grades 3-8 every year. The testing itself takes up an entire week. The four or five weeks before that a spent on mindless test prep. The more advanced kids are bored out of their minds doing grade level worksheets on material that they have already mastered. After the test, the last two weeks of class are spent tutoring the students who failed the tests. Those who passed watch Disney movies. Very educational.

      As for colleges, many are going test-optional. These colleges seem to have no problem using transcripts, and the test optional policy allows students who test well but have poorer grades to show what they can do. It's a win-win. I'd love to see test-optional spread so that some families can simply avoid wasting money on unnecessary tests and test prep.

    2. Eric,

      My apologies. I understood your question to presuppose that we did choose to have our child take the test. If it had not been a required test, I think it unlikely we would have gone out of our way to find a test if our son had received an A for that class.

      As your child becomes older, what you think of your son's performance will become relatively less important than what others think of your son's potential, whether the others are school officials, employers or admissions officers. One result of the high MAP score my son got was that the school principle (it was the highest MAP score he had ever heard about) was very cooperative with the logistics of having our son take his calculus class on the universities schedule and taking several independent studies to prepare for AP exams in classes that were not taught at the high school his junior year. The principle needed more evidence than testimony about his academic potential by his parents.

      It seems that your concerns about the pretest period is that too much time is spent on test preparation, and from your discrimination sounds largely correct in NC. No real time is spent on test preparation in my state. Post test the problem seems to be that the classes are not sufficiently tracked by ability.

      Chapel Hill is about 60% female under the current admission standards. If standardized test scores are ignored and only teacher assigned grades are used in admission, it will become even more female dominated because teacher assigned grades favor women while standardized test scores favor men. In a world where I think academic ability is likely to be equally distributed across the sexes, changing admission policies to more heavily favor women would be a wast of male talent.

  5. "Then I cried. And hugged him close, and got my t-shirt sopping wet, water all over the floor, and hugged him again, as tight and as close to me as I could. I told him I loved him, immeasurably grateful to him for his love, his trust, and his dreams."

    Aaaarrrggg! So we are to understand that the engine of ka-ching, ka-ching that is testing has come about because of the angst of the upper middle class of how their tiny precious one might fare out in the cold, cruel world. Also, I like how "Carla" drops in the bit about her wife giving the bath while Carla collapses on the bed, overwhelmed by the stresses of her workday: "So as I’m thinking about my day—kids, schools, tests, teachers, homework, and my overflowing inbox..." One might get the impression that Carla is a real live teacher who is gay! But nah, not. I think Carla is faux, I think Carla's wife is faux, I think Tomás is faux. I think the entire website is written by a computer algorithm programmed to churn out content for people with first world problems - all of which can be solved by some testing.