Sunday, October 25, 2015

Obama's Testing Action Plan Sucks (And Changes Nothing)

As I noted yesterday, the administrative announcement of "Wow, this testing things sure is out of control. We should do something." is absolutely nothing new-- we went through the exact same exercise last year. I know I have readers who don't care for the snark or language over something so serious, but damn-- this makes me so frustrated and angry that it's what I do to cope. So, warning, snark ahead, because I cannot believe that we are going through this same dance of lies and obfuscation again.

What's new this time around is a Presidential video and an action plan. But there's a problem with the action plan. The problem is that it sucks. More specifically, it doesn't represent any shift in administrative policy at all.

Let's take a look at this action plan that some folks are so excited about.

Start with the first three sentences:

One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners.

Read those sentences carefully, because they make one thing crystal clear-- the administrations philosophy on Big Standardized Testing has not shifted so much as a micro-millimeter. The rest of the document simply underlines that.

The preamble goes on to talk about "bad" tests that have been proliferating out there:

--unintended effects of policies that have aimed to provide more useful information to educators, families, students, and policymakers and to ensure attention to the learning progress of low-income and minority students, English learners, students with disabilities, and members of other groups that have been traditionally underserved. These aims are right, but support in implementing them well has been inadequate, including from this Administration. We have focused on encouraging states to take on these challenges and to provide them with flexibility. One of the results of this approach is that we have not provided clear enough assistance for how to thoughtfully approach testing and assessment.

Emphasis mine. Because before you get excited about the administration taking "some" blame for the testing mess, please notice what they think their mistake was-- not telling states specifically enough what they were supposed to do. They provided states with flexibility when they should have provided hard and fast crystal clear commands directions for what they were supposed to do.

Because yes-- the problem with education reform has been not enough federal control of state education departments.

Now, here come the guidelines for getting "fewer and smarter assessments."

1. Worth taking.

The assessment should provide info about how the student is doing in a quick and actionable manner. It should be part of good instruction. And, my favorite line, "No standardized test should be given solely for educator evaluation." Emphasis on "solely" is mine.

2. High quality.

That means it covers all the state standards (looking forward to those speaking, listening and collaborating tests), elicits complex demonstration of knowledge, accurately measures student achievement, and provides accurate measure of student growth. Now personally, I think they just ruled out every single BS Test currently on the market. But I'm pretty sure the administration believes the opposite-- that they have just described the PARCC, SBA, and all their bastard cousins.

3. Time-limited

Here's the famous 2% rule. Only 2% of instructional time can be spent on testing. I've seen many computations here, but my back-of-envelope figures say 180 days times 6 hours a day times 2% equals 21.6 hours for testing. Thanks a lot.

The action plan also forbids "drill and kill" test prep, and while they're at it, banning quill pens would be great, too. Let's also ban riding penny-farthings. Test prep, of which we all do a great deal, and of which we continue to do a great deal, is not drill and kill.

4. Fairness

There's a bunch of pretty language, but what it boils down to is the same old administrative position-- the BS Test, unmodified and unadapted, must be taken by all students, including students with special needs and English language learners (because taking the same test will magically erase all their obstacles).

5. Fully transparent to students and parents.

This sounds great until you look at the fine print. "Transparent" here means that students and parents are told the purpose of the test, the source of the test requirement, when the information from the test comes back to teachers, how the school uses info from the test, and how parents can use it. So the content of the test, the validity and reliability of the test, the questions on the test, the development of cut scores, and the exact questions that resulted in the student's score-- all of that will remain completely opaque.

But extra kudos to that second requirement, which is basically that the school has to say "This is not a federally required test" whenever they're doing local assessments or one of those many pre-test practice test tests (like LWEA's MAP).

6. Just one of multiple measures.

Sooooo... states must have fewer assessments, but those tests are only allowable if they are conbined with other assessments. Plus other measures. Don't worry. The feds will have a handy list of exactly what is needed.

7. Improve student learning

Test results have to be used to shape teachers, instruction, etc etc etc.

Things the Department of Education Will Do To Help Out

The feds will be providing money for getting rid of excess unnecessary tests that aren't as awesome as the tests that meet the above criteria. The feds will also provide "expertise" which seems to mean "guidelines" for what states should do and somebody sitting by a phone that states can call for consultation. The feds will provide more flexibility to meet their more specific mandates-- good lord, but what kind of mind-twist does one have to go through to do government work?

They also note that they will reduce reliance on test results for decision making. Then they elaborate the opposite. For instance, remember how they had that wacky idea to evaluate teacher education programs based on the student test scores of the teacher program graduates? Yeah, they're still totally doing that. They'll just throw in some more data, of some sort, on top. They also still want student test scores to factor in teacher evaluations, but states can go ahead and throw in other measures "such as student and parent surveys, and observation and feedback systems." So, a combination of Things States Already Do and Really Terrible Ideas.

Some exemplars

The action plan lists some good examples, like-- hey, look! It's New York, the state previously goobered up by incoming Fake Secretary of Education John King, who previously tried to "reduce testing" by trying to get everyone to drop all tests except the BS Test.

And North Carolina is an example, which is impressive since these days North Carolina is mostly an exemplar of How To Turn Your State Into The Worst Place in America For Public Education. Their cliff-bound bus has been driven by conservative GOP leadership, prompting me to wonder for the sixty gazillionth time if our current administration remembers which party they theoretically belong to. But hey-- North Carolina has a Task Force! About Stuff! So, do that, everyone.

Exemplary states also include Tennessee, Florida, the District of Columbia and Delaware, among others. The array of examples are all completely in line with long-standing administration policies and represent absolutely no change in direction whatsoever. Just saying.

About the ESEA

The action plan has a wish list for the new ESEA. Since all of these items involve making states more accountable to and guided by the feds when it comes to all testing in public schools, I think we can safely say that these items have less future than a sculpted ice swan on the banquet tables of hell.

What the action plan doesn't include

The action plan does not address the issue of grad-span testing. There is not a word here, not a comma, to back one inch away from testing every student every year. Pretending to address over-testing without addressing every-student-every-year policies is a sham.

And it certainly doesn't examine the premise of whether or not we need any BS Tests at all, ever, for anything. 

The action plan does not address what test data will be, and what it will be used for. Talking about actionable data is great, but there's nothing here to address that the actual outcome of BS Testing is ranking a student as either Great, Okay, or Not So Hot-- and that's it. There is no depth or detail to the data, absolutely nothing that is of the slightest use to a classroom teacher over and above what we already collect ourselves on a daily basis. BS Testing is not just a waste of time-- when the "results" come back, it is a farce.

Nor does the administration back away from using test results to judge teachers, schools and students-- the number one policy choice responsible for the emphasis on testing in schools (an emphasis the policy was always meant to create). To ignore that policy linkage and its effects is to declare yourself uninterested in really changing the culture of testing that is poisoning public education.

The action plan does not address the question of test quality. Not really. It does not address the issue of doing the work necessary to see if the BS Tests actually measure any of the things they claim to measure.

And the action plan certainly doesn't include any statement about how the judgment of classroom teachers should not be superseded by a standardized test.

Have we been heard?

Despite the fact that the action plan offers no real change and no actual examination of the issues around test-driven education, many folks have been dancing the happy dance all weekend. They should probably stop.

Yes, I get it-- the POTUS actually made some mouth noises that he knows something is up with testing. But look.

When someone says, "I hear you," you have to wait for the rest of the sentence.

Because there is a difference between "I hear you, and we are going to find a way to fix this" and "I hear you, and we are going to find a way to shut you up."

The fact that the administration noticed, again, that there's an issue here is nice. But all they're doing is laying down a barrage of protective PR cover. This is, once again, worse than nothing because it not only doesn't really address the problem, but it encourages everyone to throw a victory party, put down their angry signs, and go home. Don't go to the party, and don't put down your signs.


  1. You, sir, are correct!

    This is propaganda not change! It is still test every kid every year with instruments that are completely useless for learning or evaluation. This announcement is indeed worse than saying nothing because it is subterfuge and nothing else.

  2. It seems more chilling that they are now not only prescribing tests, but that they are seeking to measure and make accountable schools for what happens during the school day, when, and how often.

    It is weird that their response to using far overreaching and far too generalized reqs, is fixed by taking even more power and control under the certain belief apparently that their policies are great, if they were implemented with fidelity to their vision of what school would look like.

  3. Gee. I was hoping for something more like, "We've been teaching to uniform standards for 20 years and high stakes testing for 16. It's not working. Changing the standards isn't working. Creating shiny new standards didnt work. More and harder tests isn't working. Maybe we should just let the teachers teach and see what happens."

    1. Nope. That would be to much like Daine Ravitch. And since we all know she is "one uniquely rare high caliber human being, don't hold your breath for any one in DC to likewise do a "Ravich 180 degree turn"...not any day soon.

  4. Gee. I was hoping for something more like, "We've been teaching to uniform standards for 20 years and high stakes testing for 16. It's not working. Changing the standards isn't working. Creating shiny new standards didnt work. More and harder tests isn't working. Maybe we should just let the teachers teach and see what happens."

  5. Concur that this move is to provide cover to Hillary and her National-level union backers.

  6. The Three Corporate Stooges are "rebranding" their mediocre and anti-academic hedge fund copy... again. :(

  7. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I am not a teacher, but a parent, and couldn't help but feel like something was very fishy and disingenuous and about this announcement. I searched the Internet, looking for an interpretation of the POTUS's message, and found your blog.

  8. Peter-I have gone down the rabbit hole of Competency-based learning. I fear that is the next phase of the privatization game. I live in Philadelphia. This RAND report goes into a lot of detail about a pilot program that took place here in 2012-13. I think there is a link to all the out-of-school-time activities (formerly after school) and competency-based learning (badges). If you have time, I think it's worth a look. Project Mastery as it's called was funded by the Gates Foundation:

  9. So Greene and the other teachers union shrills are PO'd that Obama said "there's an issue here" but didn't bow down and beg for forgiveness. And Greene sticks to the notion that, " ... the judgment of classroom teachers should not be superseded by a standardized test.

    Well, let me ask all of you something then ? Without some version of standardized tests, how do you know that some schools or some teachers are not effectively teaching their students ? How do you know ?

    Union defenders usually defer to "the judgement of teachers" but this has proven to be inadequate. As Gov Cuomo (a Democrat) said, "“In New York last year, about 99 percent of the teachers were rated effective while only 38 percent of high school graduates are ready for college or careers ... How can that be ?"
    In other words, you cannot trust teachers to police themselves since they invariably pass everyone.

    And yes, I know the teachers union excuses repeated endlessly:

    1. Tests aren't perfect - Of course, the tests aren't perfect and will likely improve over time. But the fact that the results on tests like PARCC correlate highly with tests like NAEP (which Greene has supported in the past) suggests that the issue isnt' the tests themselves but rather the fact that unions just don't like to have their work judged.

    2. Poverty - This is the other tired excuse that unions use - and which worked for decades. They say test scores are correlated with family income. (Yes, and the sky is blue.) But what the unions fail to offer is that there are differences WITHIN poor students. And several gold-standard studies have demonstrated that charters do a better job for poor, urban kids than traditional schools. And this scares unions to no end.

    3. Utopia - This has got to be among the more audacious excuses. Union defenders criticize a testing and charters who do well here by saying that they don't demonstrate "critical thinking" and the other skills that Greene suggests, "looking forward to those speaking, listening and collaborating test." - a rotten straw-man argument if I ever heard one. Tell me, union defenders, what makes you think that a school that is consistently failing its students does any better job than those dreaded charters in "critical thinking" or other such skills. Failure in some thing is not suggestive of success in another.

    What Obama's really doing is just more leading from behind. Look not just at this move but at several things going on: (1) Teachers unions purchase (sorry, support) Hillary early on in the process (2) Obama's friend, Duncan, leaves amidst criticism from left and right (3) New ESEA looks like it has support from left and right for less federal role in education.

    So what will such a step backward in federal role in education really do ? It will likely simply set up various lines in the sand. Republicans still control 31 States and many of these are pushing for educational reforms. In addition, several Democrats such as Cuomo and Raimondo are likewise supportive of reforms. But if the federal government steps back, then union friendly states like California will have no force to pressure them to stand up to the unions on behalf of kids. But hey, those kids don't pay union dues, so they don't matter, right ?

    1. How does one narrow-in-scope, developmentally inappropriate test with arbitrarily-set-after-the-fact passing scores show anything about students being "college and career ready"? And why would tests "likely improve"? Besides, it's said that what people need most nowadays to be successful is "soft skills" that tests don't measure.

      What are your sources for differences "WITHIN poor students"? And you can't tell me that schools that focus solely on test prep and submissive behavior can teach critical thinking.

      How do you know if teachers are effective? Well, you can ask the students and parents what they think. You can look at portfolios of student work. You can look at the final exam and at students' grades on them. For example.

    2. I saw this EXACT anti-union comment on another blog or article. I guess the "reformers" have been reduced to changing a few words at the beginning and then copying and pasting some statement cooked up by ALEC or some-such corporate-funded think tank. Pathetic.

  10. Mr. President could improve the situation greatly by simply rearranging the focus from testing of "uniform standards" to testing for "standard uniforms".

    It will be way more useful and cheaper to just buy the kids standard uniforms and call it all good.

    Please do that Mr. President and get out of our schools.

  11. Why 2%?
    Valerie Straus reports that number does not come from any research-based criteria but rather from... Johm King during his tenure in NY.
    More non reasearch based nonsense.

  12. Just a technical correction...a micro-millimeter should be called a nanometer but I understand the literary license involved.

  13. Just a technical correction...a micro-millimeter should be called a nanometer but I understand the literary license involved.