Monday, June 15, 2015

Magical Magical Standardized Tests

We have become accustomed to teacher essay about magical Common Core Standards. "I used to stumble about my classroom drooling and pummeling my students with rote reading rocks until I discovered Common Core, and now I use reading and writing and thinking in the classroom which is awesome because no teacher ever thought of that before ever."

Well, now we're getting Magic of Standardized Tests Essay. Huffington Post has an essay from Teach Plus KIPPster Chris Hoffman about how deeply invaluable standardized tests are to his classroom practice, because with ESEA being discussed we need to remember how important Big Standardized Tests are for every student, every year in order for corporate profiteers to keep pulling in that sweet sweet tax money students to learn. (It should be noted that this was back in March, but somehow I missed it. It still cries for response.)

Hoffman's piece is short on words but long on baloney.

He begins with the story of Alex, a student that Hoffman saved by the power of testing. Alex was actually pumped full of two years worth of learning in just one year, and that reminds us once again that you can't actually measure learning in years, but okay. How did testing help Hoffman perform this feat?

Well, before Alex even entered the classroom, Hoffman checked out his standardized test results.* This means one of a couple of things:

1) Hoffman is playing fast and loose with the term "standardized test," because no BS Test that I low of gets results back to teachers before the next school year starts. So Hoffman is talking about some in-house standardized test, which is not at all what ESEA reauthorizers are talking about.

2) California, where Hoffman works, has a speedier turnaround on BS Tests than anyone else I've heard about which, hey, would not be the first time I didn't know something.

3) KIPP schools start in November.

Now, Hoffman acknowledges some limitations:

While these tests never paint a complete picture, they give me a great start. I am able to identify struggling students and make immediate efforts to remedy their skill and knowledge gaps. In the case of Alex, I was able to meet with his parents before the start of the school year to ensure support at home.

Seriously-- you need BS Tests for this? Do you not identify struggling students by talking to their previous teacher, who has  whole year's worth of data and personal first-hand information. Is KIPP's grade reporting so weak that it won't identify struggling students? How can that even be? Do the grades tell you what you need to know ("Hey, Alex got a 75 last year-- Alex must be struggling") or do they not reflect anything important ("Hey, Alex got a 95 last year, but the test shows Alex is struggling"). I mean, this is a KIPP school-- I thought you guys had a coherent carefully integrated program. Does it not give you consistent and reliable information about students? Is your school not small enough to allow teachers to communicate directly? And are you telling me that if not for the standardized test results, you would not have bothered to contact Alex's parents?

Hoffman says that talking to the parents clued him in to Alex's need to have a low-distraction seat in the classroom, and that's great-- but how do we give the standardized test credit for that. And once again, wouldn't that sort of information come easily through staff communication? Don't KIPP teachers talk to each other?

Hoffman makes the case for "every year" by admitting that a single test is just a single data point, so it could be an outlier. But hey-- three data points going into fourth grade. That would totally clarify the picture.

I fear that without yearly testing teachers would lose the perspective provided by a longitudinal view of their students.

Longitudinal picture my Aunt Fanny. Do KIPP teachers not give assignments and grades and stuff? Do they not talk to each other?

It looks like they do, because Hoffman's next paragraph paints a pictures of KIPP teachers in team meetings poring over BS Test results to find blind spots in their curriculum. So KIPP teachers do talk to each other.

Identifying a student's strengths and weaknesses, tweaking individual instruction, getting holes in the program filled in-- these are all perfectly good goals. What Hoffman and the other acolytes of BS Testing consistently fail to do is show why standardized testing is the best way to accomplish any of these goals. Even if I accepted that the tiny little sliver of bad data generated by these lousy tests did have some actual utility, I can still think of a dozen easier, cheaper, more accurate, just plain better ways to accomplish these goals.

But there are two problems with a solution as simple as having teachers talk to each other and share their regular classroom data from the year (because, yes, classroom teachers generate and collect and analyze their own data every minute of every day-- not just one time a year).

Problem number 1: Testing companies don't make money from teacher-generated data

Problem number 2: It's hard to keep teacher-generated data consistently available when your business plan depends on burning and churning staff every year.

But Hoffman's piece (which was apparently part of a weeklong onslaught) is a reminder that the test manufacturers are still working hard to get their product cemented into school law. Those of us who know better need to keep speaking up.

*Okay. In the comments section we learn that yes, CA does get tests back before school starts, but that schools haven't been giving tests long or consistently enough for his point to make sense.


  1. While I agree with the above piece, and abhor charters, Mr. Hoffman would be correct when he stated that he had the results of the test back before school started. In California, where I live, aggregate data used to be available to the schools in the end of June and parents receive scores in July. I am not sure this is currently the case since I opt my children out of BS Test, but it has been in the past, But, in CA, the test is only given to third grade and above, so we are assuming this student is struggling based on 3 days in May, and has dramatically improved in one year. The question is: what test, though? California did not give tests in 2014, with reportable results. We got a waiver from the USDOE. So what year is he talking about, 2013? Essentially this story is total BS. Much like the tests Hoffman is proclaiming to love.

  2. Been retired for four years, but it is my recollection that we got our CST (now SBAC) scores before school opened. My final seven years were spent in continuation, so we incentivized students to actually make an effort on tests that normally would have had no impact by offering credit on courses they had failed at the comprehensive high school. Since the CATs purported to test learning, then a passing score could be construed to show that the learning had taken place and that credit had been earned. It worked. We never gave credit for classes that students were taking for the first time with us.

  3. Forgot to mention this was in CA, so that answers one of your questions,

  4. To be fair, starting this year in Utah, the scores for all of the BS tests in May came back to students almost instantly. They got their raw score and 1-4 score. Of course, the scores are useless since they're not disaggregated in any way, but they DID get their scores. I believe the teachers got them, too. The writing test scores, which were hand-graded, aren't back yet, though. The writing test was in February.

  5. Dear Lord. Do grades not point the way to a kid that is struggling? Do last year's teachers not answer email in the summer? Can't he pinpoint kids who are struggling because of grades and then go to the textbook database to see the specific items they failed last year? If he is too lazy to look at the data that is available, and to contact the teachers, and read IEPs, then he needs a new job.