Tuesday, March 1, 2016

PTA Sells Out

Shannon Sevier, vice-president for advocacy of the National PTA, took to the Huffinmgton Post this week to shill for the testing industry. It was not a particularly artful defense, with Sevier parroting most of the talking points put forth by test manufacturers and their hired government guns.

Sevier starts out by reminiscing about when her children took their Big Standardized Tests, and while there was fear and trepidation, she also claims to remembers "the importance of the assessments in helping my children's teachers and school better support their success through data-driven planning and decision-making."

I'm a little fuzzy on what time frame we'd be talking about, because Sevier's LinkedIN profile seems to indicate that she was working in Europe from 2009-2014. Pre-2009 tests would be a different animal than the current crop. But even if she was commuting, or her children were here in the states, that line is a load of bull.

"Support their success through data-driven planning and decision-making" is fancy talk for "helped design more targeted test prep in order to make sure that test scores went up." No BS Tests help teachers teach. Not one of them. There is no useful educational feedback. There is no detailed educational breakdown of educational goals provided to teachers on a timely basis, and, in fact, in most cases no such feedback is possible because teachers are forbidden to know what questions and answers are on the test.

So, no, Ms. Sevier. That never happened anywhere except in the feverishly excited PR materials of test manufacturers.

Mass opt-out comes at a real cost to the goals of educational equity and individual student achievement while leaving the question of assessment quality unanswered.

Like most of Sevier's piece, this is fuzzier than a year-old gumball from under the bed. Exactly what are the costs to equity and individual student achievement? In what universe can we expect to find sad, unemployed men and women sitting in their van down by the river saying ruefully, "If only I had taken that big standardized test in school. Then my life would have turned out differently."

The consequences of non-participation in state assessments can have detrimental impacts on students and schools. Non-participation can result in a loss of funding, diminished resources and decreased interventions for students. Such ramifications would impact minorities and students with special needs disparately, thereby widening the achievement gap.

Did I mention that Sevier is a lawyer? This is some mighty fine word salad, but its Croutons of Truth are sad, soggy and sucky. While it is true that theoretically, the capacity to withhold some funding from schools is there in the law, it has never happened, ever (though Sevier does point out that some schools in New York got a letter. A letter! Possibly even a strongly worded letter! Horrors!! Did it go on their permanent record??) The number of schools punished for low participation rates is zero, which is roughly the same number as the number of politicians willing to tell parents that their school is going to lose funding because they exercised their legal rights.

And when we talk about the "achievement gap," always remember that this is reformster-speak for "difference in test scores" and nobody has tied test scores to anything except test scores.

More to the point, while test advocates repeatedly insist that test results are an important way of getting needed assistance and support to struggling students in struggling schools, it has never worked that way. Low test scores don't target students for assistance-- they target schools for takeover, turnaround, or termination.

The Sevier segues into the National PTA's position, which is exactly like the administration's position-- that maybe there are too many tests, and we should totally get rid of redundant and unnecessary tests and look at keeping other tests out of the classroom as well, by which they mean every test other than the BS Tests. They agree that we should get rid of bad tests, "while protecting the vital role that good assessments play in measuring student progress so parents and educators have the best information to support teaching and learning, improve outcomes and ensure equity for all children."

But BS Tests don't provide "the best information." The best information is provided by teacher-created, day-to-day, formal and informal classroom assessments. Tests such as PARCC, SBA, etc do not provide any useful information except to measure how well students do on the PARCC, SBA, etc-- and there is not a lick of evidence that good performance on the BS Tests is indicative of anything at all.

I'll give Sevier credit for stopping just sort of the usual assertion that teachers and parents are all thick headed ninnimuggins who cannot tell how students are doing unless they have access to revelatory standardized test scores. But PTA's stalwart and unwavering support seems to be for some imaginary set of tests that don't exist. Their policy statement on testing, says Sevier, advocates for tests that (1) ensure appropriate development; (2) guarantee reliability and implementation of high quality assessments; (3) clearly articulate to parents the assessment and accountability system in place at their child's school and (4) bring schools and families together to use the data to support student growth and learning.

BS Tests like the PARCC don't actually do any of these things. What's even more notable about the PTA policies is that in its full version, it's pretty much a cut and paste of the Obama administrations dreadful Test Action Plan which is in turn basically a marketing reboot for test manufacturers.

Did the PTA cave because they get a boatload of money from Bill Gates? Who knows. But what is clear is that when Sevier writes "National PTA strongly advocates for and continues to support increased inclusion of the parent voice in educational decision making at all levels," what she means is that parents should play nice, follow the government's rules, and count on policy makers to Do The Right Thing.

That's a foolish plan. Over a decade of reformy policy shows us that what reformsters want from parents, teachers and students is compliance, and that as long as they get that, they are happy to stay the course. The Opt Out movement arguably forced what little accommodation is marked by the Test Action Plan and ESSA's assertion of a parent's legal right to opt out. Cheerful obedience in hopes of a Seat at the Table has not accomplished jack, and the National PTA should be ashamed of itself for insisting that parents should stay home, submit their children to the tyranny of time-wasting testing, and just hope that Important People will spontaneously improve the tests. Instead, the National PTA should be joining the chorus of voices demanding that the whole premise of BS Testing should be questioned, challenged, and ultimately rejected so that students can get back to learning and teachers can get back to teaching.

Sevier and the PTA have failed on two levels. First, they have failed in insisting that quiet compliance is the way to get policymakers to tweak and improve test-driven education policies. Second, they have failed in refusing to challenge the very notion of re-organizing America's schools around standardized testing.


  1. National PTA is hopelessly out of touch.

  2. Peter, I love your blog. I write a similar piece last night (https://medium.com/p/9ceb11b9e738). Please note that Ms. Sevier is not an attorney. She is currently enrolled in a masters of jurisprudence program. So, you get to think like a lawyer but you aren't one.

  3. Check out the comments on the article. I read every single one of them - and there are a lot. As of 6:46 pm there is not a single comment that doesn't rail against the authors message.
    Not one person read that and was inclined to comment positively.
    Clearly the PTA is nis-named.

  4. Peter,

    I just found this odd pro-standardized-testing website with videos of real families ... you know, just plain ol' regular folks chatting away ... condemning the "opt out" movement, and celebrating the joys of standardized testing:

    "How Is My Kid Doing?" (HIMKD)

    Amazingly, these regular folks can spout all the usual talking points --- kids need testing; the "opt out" movement exists because of the irresponsible media, etc.

    Here's a sample from:


    HIMKD: "Why was Ben so eager to share his story?

    "Ben is one of many parents who not only accept the idea of testing as a part of life, but have experienced the benefits of how tests provide insights that leave parents more informed and less in the dark, especially if their kids are tackling learning challenges.

    "That’s not something you hear a lot about these days.

    "Ben’s story highlights how the dreaded word 'test' can actually change a kid’s life for the better. For Ben, that kid was one of his foster daughters, Jayden. And she had some very specific learning hurdles."

    Here are some of those videos:






    QUESTION: "Who's funding this?" I can't find anything on the home page except this bizarre manifesto:

    "Why we’re doing this.

    "As parents around the country form opinions about the value of testing in schools, they’re raising lots of questions: Are the tests good? What do they do? Why do they matter? Are there too many of them? Are they fair?

    "Many parents accept tests as a part of life. They shrug and see the general value of good tests—in limited amounts—to help keep track of how kids are doing in school. But some parents are very opposed to this—so much that they’ve decided to not let their kids take standardized tests.

    "But there’s a bigger story out there beyond whether or not to take standardized tests. What drives parents to form these opinions about testing?

    "What all parents have in common is love for their kids and a need to help their kids turn dreams into reality. How parents engage in their kids’ learning, how they motivate their kids through challenges and failure, how they build resilience and independence in their children to prepare them not just for school and careers, but for life—these attitudes help shape parent perspectives on everything from the value of strong relationships with teachers to the value of knowing how kids are doing through assessments and tests.

    "We’re travelling around the country meeting parents and getting their candid, unscripted observations on the power of knowing how their kids are doing. That includes tests, but it includes so much more. And that’s part of the story."

    1. Its right there on the website: howismykiddoing.com is funded by the good folks at the "Council for Strong America," whose board consists of ex-military, cops and DA's, and a board member of a major airline (not a single educator), and also funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

    2. Are those folks on the videos getting paid... or like John King's underling testifying for that House committee used to do ... were they given "an honorarium" as thanks for their service?

  5. Made this comment at the HuffPo article:
    What an odd and self-defeating position for the PTA to take. They sound just like the teacher's unions: "we took Gates money, so we'll ignore the membership's opinion." You'd think the PTA (and the teachers' unions) would realize that whatever future they have left depends on a strong, healthy national public school system. Über-stdzd-testing is one of the features pushing families away from public schools.

  6. Reformers are anxious to make it all about the tests, after (of course) selling the dream of "choice". The choice language is market talk, because not all parents are present, productive, positive enough to make good choices for their children and in the end the "choice" school will choose (or not) the students it wants. In order to convince the public of their worth, the choice schools trumpet their test scores with the assistance of the press, politicians, non-profit organizations...all of whom feed at the trough of funding from non-profit organization and the opportunity to play education expert. These schools, by engineering their enrollment in a way that allows for test success, are served (right along with test corporations and the previously mentioned trough-feeders) in a system that makes tests the primary message and forces as many to participate. Artificial comparison that verifies artificial education.

    crafted to convince the public that it will really mean

  7. I completely agree that Sevier and the PTA have sold their souls. Is it because they are getting their thirty pieces of silver, or is Sevier just liking the power? At any rate, teachers do not need these tests. They have done me no good. I can test students and know their abilities without having to pay a company millions of dollars. This support of testing has nothing to do with students and everything to do with Mammon. I am not especially religious, but the allusions seem to fit.