Wednesday, February 24, 2016

MD: Asking the Wrong Questions about Testing

The Maryland state school board has noticed what many other folks have noticed as well-- if you make the PARCC test your state graduation requirement, a huge number of young'uns in your state are not going to graduate from high school.

Maryland rolled out the PARCC last year, and over half of their students performed below expectations, or as folks put it more colloquially, "failed." Had the PARCC been a graduation requirement, it would have created a mess of epic proportions. So the Maryland board had what the Baltimore Sun called a "spirited debate" about the topic.

Some of the spirit was predictable, given the players. Chester Finn, a long-time reformster and former chief of the Fordham Institute, a right-tilted thinky tank that has reliably and relentlessly pushed the Common Core, Big Standardized Tests, and charter schools.

"I thought the move to PARCC was to increase standards," he said. "We are headed toward telling Maryland students they will get a Maryland diploma and they are not ready." He said a low standard would mislead the public.

Mislead in what way is not entirely clear, but Finn has a solution-- a two-tier diploma system: "one for students who passed PARCC and are considered ready for college and a second diploma, equivalent to what is given today, for students who have fulfilled the course requirements and achieve minimum passing grades on state tests."

Board member James H. DeGraffenreid, one more guy whose educational expertise consists of his time in corporate offices, thinks that's a bad idea because it would institutionalize the achievement gap instead of closing it. He wants to phase the standards in, which is admittedly marginally less foolish than simply dumping them on the schools like a bathtub full of ice water.

The Sun dug up some more comments, like this one:

"There is no state in the U.S. that has made the high school graduation requirement the same as a college-readiness requirement," said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

While the board was debating these issues, here are some questions they did not ask:

Is there any reason to believe that making 100% of high school graduates college-ready is a worthwhile goal? Is it realistically achievable, and will it provide the students or society with any actual benefits?

Is there any reason to believe that scores on PARCC's BS Test of reading and math skills are actually a true measure of a student's college readiness?

Is there any reason to believe that colleges and universities would be prepared to deny students admission because those students had only a Old Standard Diploma and not a Shiny PARCC Super-diploma?

And other than supposedly gaining students admission to colleges or universities, what other benefits would Finn's Super-Duper PARCC Diploma provide? Better pay on the job? Happier life? More attractive spouse? Exactly why would high school students give a rat's rear whether they got a shiny PARCC diploma?

We tried this in Pennsylvania about fifteen years ago. The problem with our BS Tests at the time was exactly the same fundamental problem with the current crop--  students know an irrelevant, pointless waste of their time when they see one. This repeatedly drives the Powers That Be to alternately offer threats and bribes like an incompetent camp counselor. If you don't take this test seriously, it will go directly on your permanent record, young man! And if you do take it seriously, we'll give you a sticker.

PA was going to slap "diploma seals," aka "shiny stickers" on the diplomas of PA grads who had done well on the BS Tests. Those yielded almost immediately to "certificates" that were to become part of student transcripts. (Ha! You thought I was just kidding with those "sticker' and "permanent record" cracks.) People were pretty worked up about them at the time, but within just a few years, it didn't matter, because nobody cared. Colleges did not, and do not, care about student BS Test scores. Students really did not and do not care beyond the need to surmount one more pointless obstacle to get that diploma.

So Maryland could probably go ahead and give Finn his Super-Special PARCC Super-diplomas, because odds are not a soul will care.

Reformsters and ed leaders get so invested in this stuff, they just lose sight of how silly their antics will look on the ground. They are absolutely invited to come to a classroom full of sixteen year olds and solemnly explain that if the students try really hard on the BS Test, they will get an extra piece of paper that no college, employer or any other human being will ever care about. See how that goes over.

When any performer takes the stage, she either commands the attention of the audience, or she doesn't. If she doesn't, no amount of cajoling or bribery will make the audience take her seriously. The PARCC (and the rest of its BS Test brethren) are failed performers on a stunted stage, and neither threats nor shiny toys will change the audience's mind. There is no reason to take it seriously, no reason to believe that it measures any of the things it claims to measure, no reason to believe that it adds one iota of value to students' educational experience. And if reformsters think teenagers don't know all that, they are kidding themselves in addition to trying to con the rest of us.

The last question that the board didn't debate, but should have, is this:

Even if you have your two-tiered diploma system, what makes you think that Maryland's teenagers will be moved or motivated by it?


  1. If we need a graduation test to ensure that the high school grades are accurate or valid, then we will need a second test to make sure that the first test is accurate or valid. But this means we will need a third test to validate the second test, and so on. This is the problem of the criterion. How can we really know if our criterion is giving us the truth?

    I suggest that we just use the high school grades and forget about all the testing. It is much cheaper and doesn't waste so much time.

    Some universities and colleges are moving in this direction. A bunch of colleges have gone test-optional recently, and community colleges are starting to use high school grades in making determinations about the need for remediation.

  2. I don't understand... if students pass each subject that they take in high school (like my classmates and I did), shouldn't that be proof that we are worthy of a high school diploma??

  3. I was just thinking that another area that always gets cut, like Art and Music, whenever there's not enough money or to make way for test prep, is Family and Consumer Education/Science (what we used to call Home Economics, and what you could also call Life Skills.) At least here in Ohio, that means classes like Nutrition and Fitness, Relationships, Parenting, Personal Money Management, and Career Choices. They're all electives, and strong academic students will turn their noses up at them because they're not difficult college prep classes, but I've had a lot of students who said they got a lot out of them, and that they were really useful.

  4. We had a student yesterday in tears because the community college she applied to won't let her in the nursing program because she did not have an 85 on each of her Math Regents here in NY. The colleges seem totally unaware of how incredibly difficult and tricky the Math Regents have become ( Alg 2 topics on Alg 1, Alg 2 level Trig in Geometry, Pre-Calc in Alg 2) and how VERY few get an 85 or above. We are now happy if we can get them to pass...
    The colleges are going to have very few in their nursing programs if they don't understand how things have changed. You'd think they would at least give them a chance.