Monday, November 28, 2016

FL: Testing Students Into Oblivion

Friday the Tampa Bay Times reported on a great new program being pursued by Pinellas County schools to raise school ratings. The program could best be described as "Just stop having school and devote your time to test prep instead."

The article focuses on differences that are emerging between biweekly test results for 3-6 grade students and K-2 students. In doing so the article completely breezes past the fact that these schools are giving biweekly tests to K-2 students.

There is so much educational malpractice jammed into this whole stupid package.


The biweekly testing is being done in Pinellas "transformation zone" schools, aka "schools with lousy ratings" aka "poor schools." Pinellas County (that's St. Petersburg etc) schools have seen a transformation common in Florida, with shrinking enrollment and huge piles of money being funneled into mismanaged charter scams. But the story in Pinellas County is even worse than that, because the Pinellas County school board purposefully manufactured these failing schools. Let's pause for a history lesson.

You can read the full story here, or my shorter version here. But let me lay out the short ugly version. But if you remember the story of "failure factories" in Florida from a year or so ago-- well, that's where we are.





So the district created transformation zones in which they promised to focus on these poor schools and get them what they should have had (and used to have) all along. Last spring Pinellas County was looking for "transformational leaders" to run their elementary and middle schools. So what do transformational schools get?

They get Antonio Burt, a roving ronin of school transformation with experience within Tennessee's "innovation zone." What else do they get?

They get testing every other week for their littles. Every other week. What possible justification is there for biweekly testing? Well, according to the Tampa Bay Times:

The tests, which are new this year and are only being given in those schools, are being used to help teachers identify how well they have taught the state standards and to catch students' weak areas earlier in the year. 

Oh, bullshit. This is training. This is the rankest kind of test prep. This is making the students well-rehearsed little test-taking machines. It is throwing up your hands and admitting that the Big Standardized Tests are not legitimate measures of anything except test-taking prowess, and while I applaud the recognition of reality, this is terrible education malpractice.

First, a generation of students is being taught that you go to school to take a test, and that's all education is. This is the worst kind of lie, a selfish inexcusable lie told to our most vulnerable children.

Second, just what has been cut out of the curriculum to make room for all this testing? If each administration of the test only ate only one day, that would still be eighteen days of school given over to testing, which is a almost four weeks, a month. A month of actual instruction lost to these students.

Third, these are the students who are going to be least helped by an education that is all about doing well on a Big Standardized Test. The deck is already stacked against them, and being well-versed in the taking of standardized tests is not going to help them.

This kind of baloney is most damaging to the small children, but it's bad news for all the students in Pinellas County.

Other misguided "transformational" ideas are hinted at in the article.

Antonio Burt, who is leading the Pinellas transformation effort, said teachers are not waiting to expose students to advanced concepts. For example, a standard usually scheduled to be taught in February — one that could count as much as 40 percent on the Florida Standards Assessment — now is introduced to students in August, giving them more time to practice.

SMH. First of all, this is the very definition of test-centered curriculum, which is an absolutely indefensible practice. Second of all, how does this even work-- students, I know we haven't laid the groundwork for any of this, and it involves concepts you haven't been taught yet, but we're just going to skip to chapter twenty-three on the text-book. I mean, I guess this is genius-- we can just "introduce" the quadratic formula to Kindergartners because if we introduce it sooner, they'll do better on the test, right?

Transformational schools are all about the test. Here's one super-swell motivational piece--

At Sandy Lane Elementary, principal Tzeporaw Sahadeo adds some encouragement for the children. She created the 80 Percent Club to recognize students who scored at least an 80 percent on their biweekly tests. 

Those students get to cut the lunch line for the week and are given 80 "shark shillings" — enough for a bag of coveted Takis spicy chips from the school store. Incentives also are given for children who barely miss the mark and earn 70 percent.

Yes, the school ties when you get to eat to your test score. That's not just a bizarre example of an extrinsic motivator, which we've long known is not a healthy sort of motivation to saddle a kid with. It also means that every day at lunch, students are lined up publicly in the cafeteria according to test results. If you thought a data wall was bad, how do you feel about a data lunch line?

The hook for this article is the mystery of decreasing test scores. The littles do well on the tests, but older kids do not, particularly on the literacy test. What could explain it? The article considers two explanations. One is that the standards get harder and more complex. And Burt suggests that there are "pockets of teachers" who "need reinforcement on what the standards are." I would suggest some other theories. One is that the standards are bunk. Another is that standardized literacy tests don't really test literacy. Yet another would be that the older students get, the less inclined they are to jump compliantly through hoops that they see as useless and pointless and part of an educational system that is not offering to give anything to them, but instead only wants to get them to produce scores for the school's benefit.

Test-centered education is ultimately always backwards. The school is not there to serve the students by providing them with an education. Instead, the students are there to serve the school by generating the numbers the school wants to get.

It is possible to have some understanding for Pinellas school leaders, who are staring down the barrel of Florida's immensely stupid, damaging, and unhelpful test-based school grade system. Throughout Florida, many schools face that one basic choice-- do they actually work at providing students with a real education, or do they make their school test centered in an effort to avoid punishment for low scores? In a state that is determined to break down its public schools, the better to drive parents and students into the arms of the charter industry, that's not a small or easy dilemma for public schools to face.

But Pinellas County has chosen poorly (and the Tampa bay Times has, on this occasion, reported lazily by not asking for evidence that any of these practices actually work). Test-centered education isn't good for anybody except the businesses selling test materials. Pinellas County has lost its way, but it's the students who are getting abandoned in the wilderness.

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