Thursday, March 5, 2015

PTA Believes in Unicorns

While local PTA's have been feisty and dedicated engines of resistance against the giant testing machine of modern education reformsterdom, the national organization has been more interested in playing ball with the Masters of Reformy Nonsense (could be the infusion of Gates-flavored money into their finances).

Witness their two-page "factsheet" that borrows its title from a speech that Arne Duncan delivered at the national PTA convention in 2010-- Moving Beyond the Bubble.

This particular Sheet O'Facts celebrates that "Improved Tests Are Finally Here!" Yes, "in 2014-15, schools will replace their old tests with new assessments built to let parents and teachers know how well students are learning the skills and knowledge they need to success in today's world." Phew. That's sure a load off my mind.

So what's new about these new tests of newly renewed newosity? Well, here's what the "new tests are trying to accomplish." (Trying? So, will students be getting points on these tests for trying? Or will the have to do, instead?)

Measure real-world skills. Those skills are, apparently, critical thinking, analytical writing, and problem solving. How do we know that these skills are required in the real world? We just do. How do we know that the test actually measures them? I'm particularly curious about a test for analytical writing, because I'm thinking that would involve doing actual analytical writing, and that can be rather a time-consuming operation, prone to a wide, world spanning variety of responses (so wide, I'd say, that judging them would be highly resistant to any sort of standardized process).

End teaching to the test. The idea here is that the tests somehow "mirror" activities that students are learning in class. The tests are supposed to be great because students have to "show and apply" instead of picking the right answer from a multiple choice question. Except that this is simply wrong. Take a look at the sample PARCC-- it is almost entirely pick an answer activities. Again-- authentic assessment would allow for far too many variables to be quickly and cheaply computer-graded.

Identify whether students are on the path to success. Only if you define "success" as "doing well on standardized tests." Show me the research that demonstrates how the tested items are related to future success.

Use technology to provide better information for teachers and parents. Oh, well, if they're using technology, it must be awesome. The speed of online scoring is supposed to be a selling point here, but so far turnaround time on test results has been unimpressive and the actual report of results looks like it will be the kind of vague generalities that wouldn't even make for a good report card. PTA touts the "heightened" security, but of course that security means that teachers, students, and parents never get to see how they did on actual questions; parents and teachers are forbidden to see the questions at all.

Provide opportunities for early intervention. Again, how does this work when teachers cannot see exactly where the students went wrong? The PTA says "when teachers have information about students' strengths and weaknesses, they can better support their learning." That's true (at least, assuming the unclear pronoun references mean what they are most likely to mean), but what does it have to do with these tests. Teachers already collect plenty of information about student strengths and weaknesses, and they collect it on a daily basis. What is the test offering that teachers do not already have better and greater supplies of?

Replace state tests in English and Math. PTA doesn't even pretend to suggest a reason that the replacements are improvements-- they just claim the tests are created by experts and educators.

Support students with special needs. Well, no. Mostly the new tests demand that students with special needs simply behave as if they have no special needs.

The factsheet includes other standard-issue baloney.

Results take time. Scores may go down as students and teachers adjust to the new standards and tests, which makes me wonder about the part where we said these tests more closely mirrored what students actually do.

They can tell what students have learned, or which students are ready to move on, or find the students who need help.

In fact they mention many swell things that the Big Standardized Test can do, which would be swell except the list is entirely composed of things that classroom teachers and schools already do outside of BS Testing. What PTA fails to explain is how BS Tests can help, what they can provide that teachers and schools don't already have.

But the PTA has found tests somewhere that work like magical unicorns carrying tiny dancing hippogryphs on their backs. It's baloney, and it's a shame that the PTA lowered themselves to peddling it.

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