Friday, April 4, 2014

Dear WaPo: Opt Out Is NOT the Wrong Answer

Why? Just.... why??

When the media need somebody to comment on modern surgical techniques, editors do not bark out, "Find me a surgeon with a super-high mortality rate who left the profession in disgrace!" ESPN bosses do not holler, "Find me a failed t-ball coach to do commentary for pro football!" And yet, time and again, media outlets call on the queen of mediocre mouth-taping TFA classroom temping, the sultaness of testing shenanigans, a woman who has never done anything successfully in education (except make money), she-who-must-not-be-named, to provide expert commentary on the education issues of the day.

Today it was the Washington Post providing column inches so that she could tell us that Opting Out of Standardized Tests is the Wrong Answer. Regular readers know that I am drawn to this kind of towering pile of wrong like a fly to poop, and yet I am sworn not to give That Woman more bandwidth. So as a compromise with my principles, I will attempt to deconstruct today's exercise in columnar ridiculousness without giving her a name check. Boy, that'll show her.

Let's start with false analogies, shall we:

No, tests are not fun — but they’re necessary. Stepping on the bathroom scale can be nerve-racking, but it tells us if that exercise routine is working. Going to the dentist for a checkup every six months might be unpleasant, but it lets us know if there are cavities to address. In education, tests provide an objective measurement of how students are progressing — information that’s critical to improving public schools.

Except that the current crop of Standardized Tests are not like stepping on a scale or going to the dentist. They are like trying to find out a child's weight by waterboarding him. They are like having your teeth checked by a blind blacksmith. Because, in education, tests NEVER provide an objective measure of anything, because tests are made by people. Yes, tests are useful-- but only good tests. And do you know what good tests are useful for? They are useful for providing information critical to helping further the education of students.

I am not a Systems True Devotee. STDs believe that we just have to create a well-oiled precision machine and it will spit out Smarterer Student Products like toasters off an assembly line. I would stop to further develop the point, but we're only one paragraph in. These woods are dark and deep, but we have miles to go.

From this diving board, That Woman proceeds to register her stunned amazement that in various places, there's a movement that is convincing parents to pull kids out of these tests! Really!!! These marvelous tests that will tell us how schools are doing!! What in the name of God are they thinking!?!?!!?

This makes no sense. All parents want to know how their children are progressing and how good the teachers are in the classroom. Good educators also want an assessment of how well they are serving students, because they want kids to have the skills and knowledge to succeed.

Allow to help you comprehend this, O She. You are correct that parents and educators do want to know these things. Your mistake is in believing that they can only know this by looking at standardized test results.

Yes, the Great and Powerful Woman Who No Longer Has a Curtain To Hide Behind imagines a world where parents sit at home after eight months of school, wringing their hands and saying, "Oh, jehosephat, I wish we knew how Janey was doing in school. But we have no idea." Meanwhile, at school, teachers sit and the lounge and say, "Yeah, I've been with this kid for eight months but I just don't know how he's doing. Thank God we're going to be giving a high stakes high pressure badly written unproven standardized test soon so that I'll know how it's going."

In That Woman's universe, parents and teachers (sorry-- public school parents and teachers) are dumber than dirt. In fact, the list of People Standing in the Way of Educational Excellence gets longer and longer. Parents, teachers, democratically elected school boards-- reformy fans have an enemies list that keeps lengthening.

What’s next: Shut down the county health department because we don’t care whether restaurants are clean? Defund the water-quality office because we don’t want to know if what’s streaming out of our kitchen faucets is safe to drink?

This is She Who Shall Not Be Silenced's specialty-- the argument to refute things that nobody actually said. A direct rebuttal to her would be simply to point out that, no, nobody has suggested either of those things. A counter-thrust of equal sarcastic weight would be, "No, what's next should be couples who take a standardized test to find out if they're in love, or people standing in the rain waiting for the government to tell them whether they're wet or not."

She would also like you to know that these students of today will be competing with Indians and Chinese for the sweatshop jobs of tomorrow. Also, we are getting beat on taking standardized tests, and everyone knows that world supremacy depends on standardized test results. Everyone remembers when Hitler gave up WWII in shame when his SAT scores were revealed to be far below Roosevelt's.

Why do people do this crazy opt-out thing? She gets the concern about over-testing:

My daughter came home from public school one day and said class was a breeze now that “the test” was over. And I thought, “Geez, what are we communicating to our kids if they think the test is the most important thing — and once it’s over, learning ends?”

My cynical side wonders if "one day" is the exact number of days that Her child came home from a public school, but okay, maybe not. She agrees that over-test-happy schools must be reined in, but a new study by Teacher Plus (one more of these hydra-headed pro-reformy groups), testing takes up a minuscule amount of time. Also, getting punched in the face takes up a split second of a twenty-four hour day, so it should not bother you if someone does it.

She Who Must Be Paid observes that your child's grades might not show how she's doing compared to the world, because your child's grades come from incompetent lazy liars.

And now She admits that standardized tests really only provide one small data picture that does not tell the whole story. Can you guess what her absolutely awesome solution is?

We don’t need to opt out of standardized tests; we need better and more rigorous standardized tests in public schools. 

Yes!! When you're doing something stupid and bad and non-productive, do it More Harder!!

We also shouldn’t accept the false argument that testing restricts educators too much, stifles innovation in the classroom or takes the joy out of teaching. That line of thought assumes that the test is the be-all and end-all — and if that’s the perspective, the joy is already long gone. 

Here's a multiple choice test for you, dear, exhausted reader. Select which statement best reflects the meaning of the above excerpt:

1) Do not assume that the test is the be-all and end-all. It will just be-all the way we decide to end-all teaching careers, school existence, and student futures.

2) You cannot claim that this year's testing is sucking up all the joy of teaching, because we actually drained that lake long ago and killed the fish flopping in the mud with fire and big pointy sticks.

The most valuable teachers are those who impart knowledge, not just information, and do so in a way that engages students and makes school interesting.

I wouldn't have stopped for this sentence except for that last bit-- "makes school interesting." Do you know why I don't have a plan for making water wet? Because it's intrinsically wet! Anyone who thinks you have to MAKE learning interesting doesn't get it. Do you know why I teach stuff with energy and excitement and perhaps a certain freakish intensity-- because the stuff I teach IS interesting. Really interesting. I don't have to make it that way. Just saying. Let's move on.

She Who Shall Not Be Named then moves on to the newest Testing Flavor of the Month, Justification #1428B for Why We Give Tests. Not to evaluate students! No, not at all. We give tests to evaluate schools, to make sure the taxpayers are getting their money's worth. Because, like parents and teachers, taxpayers are brainless slugs who know nothing unless the gummint tells them.

“Okay,” the opt-out crowd replies, “what about kids who are stressed out and suffering from anxiety because of standardized tests?” You know what? Life can be stressful; it can be challenging. The alternative is to hand out trophies just for participating, give out straight A’s for fear of damaging a kid’s ego — and continue to fall further and further behind as a country. I reject that mind-set.

No. No, no, no. Those are NOT the only alternatives. Our two choices are not A) punch kids in the face and tell them to suck it up or B) give them ponies and never let them be sad ever. And no, a refusal to choose A does not mean we fall further and further behind in international test-taking supremacy. I am GLAD that you "reject that mind-set," if by "that mind-set" you mean "a mind-set that only believes in two equally stupid possible choices." My God in Heaven, woman-- if somebody gives you a puppy do you look at it and say, "Well, only two choices here. Either I can tie it to the bumper and make it drag along behind the car, or I can feed it caviar and let it sleep on my bed while I go stay on the couch." (See? I can build big fat straw men, too)

How about-- and I'm just talking crazy here-- but how about we give our students reasonable and useful challenges and then we work side by side with them to help them succeed? How about we hire a whole bunch of trained and experienced professionals to personally oversee young peoples' intellectual development and then give them the tools, trust and autonomy to do that job well? We could skip both the part where we subject children to pointless, unproductive, stressful wastes of time that generate next-to-zero useful data (but lots of useful profits) and the part where we raise children in a bubble. We could, I don't know, put the needs of the students first!

She Who Must Be Paid wraps it up:

Rather than encouraging parents to opt out of testing, it would be much more productive for the leaders of this distracting movement to help improve the assessments. Make the exams more rigorous and more reflective of student learning. Ultimately, students and educators need test data — opting out does a disservice to both. And it risks endangering the progress that all of our children need. 

So, what? Tell the children, "Just go in there and get punched in the face, because next year it won't be so bad"? Oh, and stop using that word "rigorous"-- I do not think it means what you think it means. Opting out doesn't endanger a damn thing, and ultimately nobody anywhere at all on God's green earth needs the kind of useless invalid squeezed out of children under stress and duress faux data that these tests are generating.

Damn. All this space wasted and once again, She Who Must Not Be Named doesn't get much of anything right. And she gets space in the Washington Freaking Post while millions of teachers who know better are still trying to get someone to listen to them. What a world, what a world. I'm nobody; just a classroom teacher. Nobody is paying me to write this, and nobody is going to pay me to go speak about education somewhere (and they wouldn't have to do either), but somehow She Who Is The Kim Kardashian of Ed Reform gets a big platform to spew a bunch of Wrong into the universe. I'm no education thought leader or great writer, but I still know education better than to write something so ridiculous.


  1. A. I hope you were just being modest. I read. A lot. Blogs, newspaper/magazine articles, books, the backs of cereal boxes, etc. You're better than good. Let's just get that straight.

    B. Your Kim Kardashian analogy is spot on. Even among the Reformists, she's a lightweight. I guess we can blame it on Waiting for Superman. And, yes, it is frustrating that instead of talking to actual educators, they go to the self-appointed spokesperson for all things education. But I see this type of thing on a micro level as well. We just got new Special Transportation forms that are going to increase the paperwork load on ESE teachers. Were any ESE teachers, that is, anyone who will actually be using the form, consulted in its creation? Nope. Hey, but we're still considered stakeholders, so we have that going for us.

    C. The use of the word "rigor" or "rigorous." Out of all the inane things she said here, it's her use of that word that stands out. It's the reformists' equivalent to teenagers' "cool": Did you see Florida's assessment? He was, like, so completely not rigorous. She should totally dump him and go with that Parcc guy. Why reformists can't just say "hard," I don't know. I guess if you told people that the way to improve on a hard test is to make the test harder, it wouldn't go over very well, but for some reason if you say "we've got to help these poor kids by making their assessments more rigorous," it doesn't sound quite as asinine. Anyway, I used to like the word. Now I want to stab pencils into my ears any time I hear it.

    1. Thank you, your review was both spot on and very funny too. You've nailed it perfectly about having to hear the word "rigorous" one more time.

    2. I copied your C (and gave you credit for it) onto my FB wall. Thanks again, it was especially these sentences, " Anyway, I used to like the word {rigor, rigorous}. Now I want to stab pencils into my ears any time I hear it" ....that made me laugh out loud in agreement.

    3. lol, thank you. It's either laugh or cry when it comes to reformist's shenanigans, and I choose to laugh, for now, which is why I make it a point to read Peter's blog regularly. The dead horse named "Rigor" was beat into the ground at least three years ago as evidenced by this youtube video, which you may have seen:
      I suppose the plan is to keep beating it until they've gone clear through to China...

  2. Excellent read. Sharing this. Glad there are so many intelligent people (and educators) fighting the good fight.

  3. Awesome. Right on. "We are many and they are few, and that is why we will win!"

  4. UNCLE! UNCLE!!! (rolling on the floor laughing my butt off)... you made me spit out my coffee!!!

  5. MR writes, "Going to the dentist for a checkup every six months might be unpleasant, but it lets us know if there are cavities to address." What a brilliant analogy! Except, of course, that this dentist, who doesn't have a license to practice, takes months and months to give us the results of the exam, and then refuses to tell us which teeth have cavities.

    1. Additionally, a dentist is not evaluated on the dental health of his/her patients. Dentists are not blamed for cavities--inequities in dental health can be attributed to a number of factors beyond the dentist's control, and the dentist can only do certain things to remediate the situation.

  6. One of the best critiques I have read. You now stand with Stewart

  7. So have you submitted this, or an abbreviated version to WaPo? I think you should.

    1. I have trouble with the WaPo comments sections. Others are welcome to make the attempt to post or send this piece.

  8. Seriously Peter, you keep writing with this "freakish intensity" exposing the truth and you may land a new job writing for the Daily Show!

  9. Thanks for this unabashed critique. You are spot-on.

  10. Wonderful. Laughed too. Agree that you have the talent to do the Daily Show. How about some other words for the era--like " Are you impacting your kids?" asked with a perfectly straight face by an expert in professional development.

  11. This just made my day. I absolutely love it! You definitely need this posted by WaPo.

  12. I'm starting to become numb to all the stupidity in the reform movement, but this: "It would be much more productive for the leaders of this distracting movement to help improve the assessments," still really managed to get under my skin. How can people make the tests better when the whole problem is that all of these decisions are being made without transparency or public consent?

  13. Class size. Class size. Class size. Like the old adage : Location, location, location; the only thing that really matters is class size. Kinder garten, however many classes of eight to twelve max within walking distance of home. 36 students max. Elementary (grades 1-3; twelve or fourteen max. 72 students max. Primary (grades 4-6) also within walking distance of home. Jr. High (grades 7-9) 16-20 max, schools limited to 360 students. High School, 24-36 in class; specialized, as in 'college prep', business, industrial-engineering; arts; sciences; again, 360 students max..

  14. Heya, Peter, you got a mention in the Answer Sheet:

  15. Hey, Curmudgucation-- I hope you'll put my website/blog on your list of teacher/education-supportive blogs: . Also check out . And keep trying to get your voice into the wider media so more of the public hears it. We've got to get a counter-narrative going.