Monday, February 2, 2015

No Grad Exams for PA?

Pennsylvania, where I live and teach, has been steadily moving toward a full array of graduation exams.

Currently we have what we call the Keystone exams for math and reading. We are one of the last states to do our examing on paper; this may be related to an attempt a few years back to do our 4Sights (test prep tests for the old exam, known as the PSSA's, which we still give to elementary students because--) well , anyway, we tried to do the testing online and it was a massive clusterfinagle that wasted a week of school and resulted in zero actual scoreable tests. When it comes to online testing, we haven't been all the way around the block because we got in a ten-car pileup on the way.

The math and reading Keystones are exams that you would recognize even if you were from out of state. I attended a state-mounted training last year and the presenter used all PARCC materials, and the message was that it was perfectly comparable to the Keystones.

Our Class of 2017 has to pass math algebra, reading literature, and biology Keystones in order to graduate. Depending on who's talking, there are as many as seven more subject-specific tests coming, just as soon as Harrisburg can scrape together the money to get them made.

Students are already taking the Keystones every year, partly as a way of meeting federal testing requirements and partly as a way to warm up for 2017 (everyone just tries not to tell the students that the Keystones currently mean nothing at all to them). So our students have been taking the tests, and we can see how they're doing. And as 2017 gets closer and closer, one thing becomes increasingly clear-- many students are about to have huge problems getting out of high school.

Students get two tries, and then they move onto a project-based assessment, known to my students as The Binder (or, out of my earshot, that Bigass Stupid Binder) which is essentially an independent study course in looseleaf form. There are now adapted or modified forms for students with special needs. And things could be worse-- you should have been around for the first concept for the science test which was to test all science disciplines, forcing high schools to implement a bio-chem-physics-physiology sequence for ninth and tenth grade.

But it's going to be ugly, and lawmakers are starting to take note.

State Senator Andrew Dinneman (D-Chester County) has been trying to de-testify us for a while. But most recently a group of Republicans have gotten on the Get Off The Testing Bandwagon bandwagon.

Over at newsworks, Kevin McCorry reports about a new bill proposed by state Rep. Mike Tobash (R- Dauphin County) to flat-out repeal the state graduation test mandate.

"The children of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, they need to learn, they need to be assessed, but when we've gone so far that we end up handcuffing our educational system with really an overwhelming amount of standardized assessment, we need to stop and put the brakes on here, take a look at it," said Tobash.

Much of the conversation has centered on the tests as unfunded mandates-- schools are required to get the students through them, but have not been given the resources to meet the challenge. And that's not untrue, but it's beside the real problem.

The real problem is that the Keystone exams aren't very good.

As this discussion ramps up, many supporters of the testing are going to make an obvious comment-- if the students aren't doing well on the tests, can't teachers just fix that by doing their jobs better?

McCorry catches Tobash having close to the right thought in response.

Tobash, who testified on the matter at a hearing at Philadelphia City Hall in November, is skeptical that the tests are actually judging students on material that's applicable to modern workforce.

The Keystones are like every other standardized test-- what they measure best is the student's ability to take a standardized test.

So we play the test prep game-- how much can we do in order to get test results without sacrificing the students' actual education? In reading, the Keystones require a particular vocabulary so that we teach the words they want to have covered with the meanings they prefer. This is part of the standard technique of using tests to dictate local curriculum.

More problematic is the whole approach to reading required by the test. Every selection on the test can be read only one way; there's only one acceptable response to the work. The Keystone also has a keen interest in student's psychic powers, regularly asking them to reach conclusions about what the author intended. Some of the interpretive questions, like the author's intent questions, really are topics that are generally considered fair game in an English classroom-- but we have those discussions as open-ended inquiries, where many ideas can be proposed and supported, but no absolute truth can be known. The exam requires the reverse.

And so the exam requires one more reading skill-- the ability to read a standardized test question and figure out what the exam writer wants you to say. This has nothing to do with learning how to be an active, capable reader of literature, and everything to do with being a compliant tool who can take instructions.

So the biggest problem with the Keystones is not that there are too many of them or they take up too much time, though that's a huge problem. The biggest problem is not that they are unfunded mandates, though that's a problem, particularly in a state that as a matter of policy rips the guts out of public school budgets so that charter and cybercharter operators get rich.

No, the biggest problem is that the Keystones twist instruction and education all out of shape, foster educational malpractice, and ultimately don't provide any of the data that their supporters think they're supposed to provide. The Keystones don't tell Harrisburg how well we're doing. They are supposed to provide all sorts of information to teachers to help us address student needs, and that's baloney as well. There's only one thing we find out from test results-- which sorts of questions our students found most tricky. Keystone results are good for refining test prep, and nothing else.The Keystone exams tell one thing and one thing only-- how well students did on the Keystone exams.

McCorry offers this quote from a rep of our new governor:

Gov. Wolf knows we need tools to measure students' progress and ensure they are equipped the skills needed to flourish in the 21st century, but testing should not be the only measurement.

And there's our continuing problem. Not only should testing be the single measurement, but it shouldn't be any measurement.

Even if standardized testing didn't heap unnecessary stress on young students, even if it didn't require wasting time on test prep that has no educational value, even if it didn't put unfunded financial demands on already-strapped districts-- even if it didn't do any of those things, the Keystone exam would still be a bad idea because it simply doesn't tell anyone what they want to know. Repealing state requirements for a graduation exam is the right choice. We'll see if Harrisburg actually makes it.

1 comment:

  1. NY has had a 5 test requirement for graduation for years. ELA, Math,US History, Global History and Geography, and one Science. Global History is most often failed, so instead of eliminating it, the NY Regents have endorsed Regent Pathways, a Chinese menu of subjects to study and and then be tested.

    There used to be RCTs for special ed students, but those are now gone. Students have a safety net of 55 as passing the 5 Regents, but if they pass ELA or Math with a 65 or better then they can borrow up to 10 points to raise a 45 to a 55 for Science, US History or Global.

    The January Regents were given (with special allowance around the snow days this year because too many students would end up not graduating, and who is going to pay for this). Keep in mind, the majority of students taking a Regents in January are SPED students taking it for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th time. So, the NYSED scheduled the Common Core English regents in the morning, and the traditional ELA regents in the afternoon, at the same time as the Common Core Algebra Regents. So, if you are retaking ELA and Algebra, there would be three exams back to back. If you had extended (double) time, that would be 12 hours. Add on top of that, the ELA regents was all text based, and it has been reported that there was a passage on string theory, and another of an translated African text that was too obscure.

    I wish, I wish, I was making this up.