Vader TestingIn “The Tyranny of Testing, Part I,” I focused on how mandatory, high stakes testing is destroying the canon, removing enormous amounts of already scarce classroom time, and leaving little time for not only the classics, but for the kinds of writings and other assignments that actually build new abilities and form the foundation for others from year to year. And in the place of building the bigger, better brains of students? The enrichment of Pearson–the company that writes the tests and provides all related “services”–building a political power base for state educrats, and the production of data that is the primary reason educrats exist.

The setting of the first article was primarily Texas, where I teach. Because Texas, by the very virtue of its size, is a national trend-setter, this is not an unreasonable focus, and in truth, the difficulties testing imposes on Texas teachers and students are visited on the teachers and students of virtually every other state, not only because Pearson has what amounts to a stranglehold on the testing industry, but because the Federal government is also involved and always straining mightily to impose one-size-fits-all federal orthodoxy on every school district in America.

This edition of the series will focus on taking a glance at trends and outrages from around the nation. You will notice, gentle readers, Texas is not alone in fighting to actually educate children rather than beating them into data production machines. What is being done in the name of testing is jaw dropping and quite insane. Our first stop on the high speed testing trainwreck, New York:   

A New York elementary school recently cancelled its scheduled kindergarten play in order for kids to be more ready for college.

In a letter than went home last Friday, the principal explains to parents the rationale behind canceling the annual event.

‘The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.

Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.’

‘This didn’t come out of the blue. Kindergarten (and even preschool) has increasingly become academic — at the expense of things such as recess and the arts — in this era of standardized test-based school reform. In most states, educators are evaluated in large part on test scores of students (sometimes students they don’t have) and on showing that their students are ‘college and career ready,’ the mantra of the Obama administration’s education initiatives.

And of what might “…preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills…” consist? Why, “…having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers…” And how would that be done? Most kindergarten children are just beginning to read and are learning only the basics of the alphabet and forming letters. Considering most kids don’t make anything resembling firm college decisions until they are juniors in high school–if then–is there no time for a kindergarten play? Doesn’t learning dialogue, working with others, speaking in public and being a part of a production count toward being “coworkers”?

I suppose it’s never too early to turn children into little testing drones. There was a time when this would have been considered child abuse and parents would have been lined up outside such a principal’s office impatiently waiting their turn to engage in close range social interaction. Or is this just an east coast thing?

Last time I mentioned Pearson’s testing contract with Texas to the tune of some $90 Million per year. It’s worthwhile to briefly revisit that situation for a little additional detail and perspective:

Last fall, several media personalities noted that Texas’ $468 million contract with Pearson dwarfed the company’s contract with New York State by more than ten times. New York’s contract, also lasting five years, is worth a paltry $32 million.

Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary for Education under President George H.W. Bush – and an outspoken critic of the new wave of standardized testing – cited those numbers in an Austin television interview last fall. And the same comparison appeared in a New York Times op-ed by Gail Collins.

As it stands right now, Texas is paying Pearson $88,312,333 for the 2012-13 school year. That includes about $9 million for “Program Management,” $3 million in “Quality Assurance,” $15 million in “Test & Measurement Services,” and $9 million in ‘Other Direct Costs.’

Take the case of the March language arts tests for students in grades three through eight. The materials cost $1.4 million, packaging and distribution $1 million and change, and processing and scoring cost $5 million. The total price of delivering the test statewide was just over $8 million.

Remember that the product delivered to students, parents and teachers for more than $8 million dollars is merely the result of a single test taken on a single day. There are those that would have us believe this single bit of data is far more meaningful than the hundreds, even thousands of assignments given, graded and discussed with students during their school years. After all, who knows best the abilities of any student, the teachers with whom they work every day, or an educrat in a distant state capital with the ability to retrieve a few data points on a computer monitor? Such people are, of course, deluded, or holders of Pearson stock. Even so, it’s very difficult for taxpayers–what do they know?–to tell where the money is going and for what:

A report last year from the Brookings Institution tabulated the average cost of testing per student, and Texas ranked somewhere near the middle – in between a frugal $7 per-pupil in New York, and the whopping $114 per-pupil in the District of Columbia. (This is a separate figure than Texas’ total spending per pupil, which is near the bottom, ranking 49th out of 50 states.)

But those numbers are misleading. Washington D.C. is relatively small, as a testing district, and in New York, much of the cost of testing is borne by local school districts instead of an outside company like Pearson. Those costs did not show up in the Brookings report.

Bob Schaeffer, from Fairtest, an organization which advocates against standardized testing, said, in an email, ‘We are certain that New York and Texas do not provide an ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison.’

‘The New York State Board of Regents maintains a large, in-house staff, which is largely responsible for test design and item selection,’ he continued. So, in New York, ‘Pearson primarily handles test administration and scoring, while Texas pays Pearson for a full range of assessment services.

This is surprising in that Texas has an enormous and costly state education bureaucracy, including multiple regional “education service centers,” full of well paid “consultants” involved in virtually every aspect of education, going far beyond merely tracking teacher certification and licensing.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) claims that “assessment”–its euphemism for testing–represents only “…0.19 percent of the $47.4 billion K-12 education budget in Texas for 2011-2012.” What the TEA always neglects to mention is how many of its employees, and what amount of their time, is directly or indirectly related to mandatory testing. I suspect that too is not an inconsiderable amount of taxpayer money. This is not the only problem:

What concerns me about Pearson is that they’re buying every aspect of the educational process,’ Diane Ravitch said last fall. ‘The teacher performance assessment belongs to Pearson, the GED belongs to Pearson, and the testing belongs to Pearson.’

With 1,800 staff members in offices in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, the state is essentially contracting Pearson to act as a for-profit arm of the state’s educational infrastructure. Texas is testing more students each year due to population growth, and, according to TEA, ‘additional retesters.’ Even with a reduced number of tests, as long as Texas’ population continues to grow, and the state continues to demand more complex standardized tests, delivered by for-profit companies, Pearson’s position and experience means its influence is likely to continue.

Ah yes, “additional retesters.” This is another way Pearson–and any testing company–makes considerable money and the state employs innumerable educrats. Any student failing a state test must retake it–sometimes multiple times. This is part of the political balancing act of mandatory testing. If too many kids fail a test, particularly a new test as is being imposed on Texas student this year and next, this raises obvioius questions of the competence and intentions of the TEA and Pearson, because huge numbers of students that passed previous tests surely aren’t suddenly becoming stupid, nor are their teachers. Yet, a high failure rate forces retests, which are money in the bank for Pearson, and states want a failure rate of some level to demonstrate the “rigor” of their perfect tests. It’s hard to be an educrat.

And what are we teaching those kids between retests? Nothing more than what little we learn about how to take those specific tests. Not new knowledge, not new capabilities, not new neural connections that make student’s brains more flexible and capable, just mindless, repetitive test drill, day after day. We pay Pearson–and countless educrats–plenty for the privilege of preventing our kids from actually learning and growing.  For them, testing is far, far more important than the faceless human beings forced to endure their latest testing scheme.

Yet another significant problem with testing is the Lake Wobegon Syndrome, the pretense that all kids are above average and all kids can take and pass mandatory tests. To understand the absurdity of this, imagine that we mandate every child dunk a basketball to graduate from high school. We immediately recognize this as absurd, and for some children, even the attempt might be dangerous, perhaps chargeable as child abuse, yet this is precisely what states do with handicapped students.

I know of special education teachers who have had to guide students through these tests, students so profoundly handicapped that they were confined to wheelchairs, could not speak, feed themselves, read, write, or even so much as hold a pencil.  These are children that will always wear diapers and that will never be able to so much as wipe themselves.  And they aren’t the only kids forced to take tests. Imagine being the teacher of a child who can walk and more or less feed himself, but whose mental capacity is that of an 18 month old. Imagine children who cannot read, remember, who cannot add, subtract, or write more than their name–that, badly indeed–forced to take even “modified” versions of these tests.

In past years, my wife, who works with special education students like these, was allowed to help kids take tests by the “hand on hand” method. In other words, they would take a student’s hand in theirs, hold a pencil in their hand, read questions and multiple choice answers aloud and mark answers for them, keeping up the bizarre pretense the child was actually taking the test. This is no longer allowed, and in some states, there are no “modified” tests, or modifications are slight indeed. Yet these student’s test scores are a part of each school’s and each school district’s accountability grades. Schools that excel in helping these vulnerable children, and as a result have a large population of them, are in effect punished for their altruism and expertise.

We travel now to Florida to explore who is truly brain damaged: unfortunate students, or the educrats determined to force tests on them at any cost:

Andrea Rediske’s 11-year-old son Ethan, is dying. Last year, Ethan, who was born with brain damage, has cerebral palsy and is blind, was forced to take a version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test over the space of two weeks last year because the state of Florida required that every student take one. Now his mom has to prove that Ethan, now in a morphine coma, is in no condition to take another test this year.

Ethan wasn’t the only brain-damaged child in Florida to be forced to take a standardized test; I have written in the past about Michael, another Florida boy who was born with only a brain stem — not a brain — and can’t tell the difference between an apple and an orange, but was also forced to take a version of the FCAT last year. (See here, here and here.) There are many others in Florida and across the country as well.

Why does Florida — and other states, as well as the U.S. Department of Education — force kids with impaired cognitive ability to take standardized tests? Because, they say, nearly every child can learn something and be assessed in some fashion.  Even, apparently, a boy born without a brain.

The idea that every child can learn something might make a trite platitude for a classroom wall, but in fact, what some children can learn is heartbreakingly small, and the idea that multiple choice testing instruments can “assess” their ability to transfer a bit of pudding from their plate to their mouth, or their ability to make some kind of signal when they need to use the bathroom is the height of lunacy, even cruelty.  The scores produced by such children are utterly meaningless.  Yet educrats will spout that platitude–I’ve seen them do it and been tempted to strangle them then and there–and tests are put before these children. In many cases, they don’t so much as recognize them as tests. In fact, it’s impossible to tell if they recognize them at all or what they think them to be if they do. More capable children might understand they are tests, but have no more ability to answer than a child given test questions in Chinese.

So single-minded are federal and state educrats, the plight of these profoundly handicapped children means little or nothing, certainly not to them:

Publicity last year in Florida about some of these cases sparked interest among some state lawmakers to pass legislation to make it easier for severely disabled students to get waivers from taking these tests. The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter warning lawmakers to keep assessing all children, and one Florida Education Department spokesman told me that “waivers do not apply to students with a chronic situation.” Legislation did get passed but it wasn’t what some had hoped. It allows parents to request a waiver (Michael’s parents abandoned him shortly after he was born, and he lives in an Orlando care facility for children called the Russell House), and the state has set out a long series of actions that have to be taken — including approval by the education commission — to get a waiver.

Ethan, despite actually dying in a morphine coma, is apparently still able to be “assessed.” Read on, but be sure your blood pressure medication has kicked in:

Ethan Rediske credit: theblaze.com

Ethan Rediske
credit: theblaze.com

Ethan got a waiver, but now there is a new obscenity transpiring. His mother sent an e-mail Tuesday to Orange County School Board member Rick Roach and to Scott Maxwell, who has movingly written about Ethan and similar cases for the Orlando Sentinel, that the state is requiring her to prove that her son still can’t take another standardized test and can therefore keep his waiver. The e-mail says:

‘Rick and Scott,

I’m writing to appeal for your advocacy on our behalf. Ethan is dying. He has been in hospice care for the past month. We are in the last days of his life. His loving and dedicated teacher, Jennifer Rose has been visiting him every day, bringing some love, peace, and light into these last days. How do we know that he knows that she is there? Because he opens his eyes and gives her a little smile. He is content and comforted after she leaves.

Jennifer is the greatest example of what a dedicated teacher should be.  About a week ago, Jennifer hesitantly told me that the district required a medical update for continuation of the med waiver for the adapted FCAT. Apparently, my communication through her that he was in hospice wasn’t enough: they required a letter from the hospice company to say that he was dying. Every day that she comes to visit, she is required to do paperwork to document his ‘progress.’ Seriously? Why is Ethan Rediske not meeting his 6th-grade hospital homebound curriculum requirements? BECAUSE HE IS IN A MORPHINE COMA. We expect him to go any day. He is tenaciously clinging to life.

This madness has got to stop. Please help us.

Thank you,

Andrea Rediske

I’m unaware of any testing instrument that can assess opening a child’s eyes and producing a little smile, and I’m certain multiple choice questions can’t measure Ethan’s contentment and comfort, nor the heart and kindness of a teacher like Jennifer who actually knows and cares about Ethan.

Ethan Died February 7, 2014. I have no doubt Ethan received his reward and the peace that passeth all understanding. May Florida’s educrats, and educrats everywhere that so bedevil children like Ethan and their parents and teachers, receive what they deserve.

UPDATE: Shortly after Ethan’s death, Andrea spoke before the Florida Board of Education, urging them to give local school districts the ability to exempt disabled students from mandatory tests.

My name is Andrea Rediske, and I am Ethan Rediske’s mother. Before you peg me as merely an angry and grieving mother, let me tell you a little bit about myself: I am an educator. I have a master’s degree in microbiology and have been an adjunct professor of microbiology for 11 years. I have a passion for education and I know how to write an exam that accurately assesses the abilities of my students.

Not only was the Florida Adapted Assessment inappropriate for the level of my son’s abilities, it endangered his health – the long, stressful testing sessions requiring him to sit in his wheelchair caused pressure sores, fluid to pool in his lungs, and increased seizures and spasticity that contributed to his deteriorating health.

Only after climbing a mountain of paperwork and garnering media attention was Ethan granted a medical waiver for the FAA. Despite assurances at his IEP meeting that the waiver would be granted again for this school year, the school district demanded paperwork proving his continued medical fragility. The insult to this injury was that he was on his deathbed – the school district and the state of Florida required a letter from hospice care stating he was unable to take the FAA.

This incident caused anguish to my family and his teacher, and shows a stunning lack of compassion and even common sense on the part of the Department of Education. His exceptionally talented teacher faced threats and sanctions because she continued to work with him even though he wasn’t preparing for the FAA. I wonder if these administrators are more concerned with policy, paperwork, and their bottom line than the children they have been elected to serve.

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart

Andrea’s pleas could draw tears from a stone, and break the heart of Ebeneezer Scrooge before his visits with the three spirits, but not the Florida Education Commissioner, one Pam Stewart. Here is the letter she issued to Florida teachers shortly after Andrea’s appearance:

Stewart Letter

It would be a moral outrage to deny that opportunity to any child based on any reason including special needs. For all students, it is important that we measure progress so that we educate all children regardless of their circumstances.

In a single paragraph, Stewart, whose heart must be a pitifully shriveled black lump, sums up the educrat mindset: every educratic initiative is far more important than the children forced to endure it.  Perhaps Stewart really does believe what she writes, but if so, what better proof of her utter lack of professional acumen and human compassion.  To experience moral outrage, Stewart need only gaze in the nearest mirror.

Any competent teacher understands that measuring the progress of any student is done through guided practice and accomplishment over time, not the data point produced by any single test. American children lived marvelously happy and productive lives long before the invention of mandatory, high-stakes testing. The sanity of those thinking otherwise should be doubted by any reasonable person. Yet Stewart, if Ethan were still alive, would zealously harry and bedevil him and his parents lest he be denied the marvelous opportunity to take a state mandated test that would actually harm his health and hasten his death. How else could his “progress” be measured, even as he lay dying? The state always knows what’s best for our children.

How empty the souls of Pam Stewart and any like her.

There is hope, however, and more and more students–and even their teachers–are refusing to participate in what they see as the destruction of education. Let’s return to New York:

Three teachers from P.S. 364 Earth School in New York have informed their administration and Chancellor Carmen Fariña that they will not proctor Common Core state standardized tests this year — or ever — saying in a letter (see below) that they ‘can no longer implement policies that seek to transform the broad promises of public education into a narrow obsession with the ranking and sorting of children.” They join a small but growing number of educators who are taking a strong stand against high-stakes testing, in Seattle last year, Chicago this year and in other places.

The three teachers — Colin Schumacher, Emmy Matias and Jia Lee — are part of a group called Teachers of Conscience, who have issued a position paper (which you can see below). The three have the outspoken support of their principal, Alison Hazut, and of parents opting out their children from the tests (and more than half of the families at P.S. 364 are doing so). Hazut has assigned these teachers to work with students who are opting out on independent writing, math, reading, and art projects during the tests. Contrast that with the “sit and stare” policies some other principals have enacted, which essentially force kids who are opting out to sit in their chairs during the test administration and do nothing but look around.

The teacher’s letter may be read at the link, and the position paper to which the article refers may be found here. 

My heart goes out to these brave and honest teachers. The State education bureaucracy will be moved to crush them and anyone like them. If students, and particularly teachers, will not play along, the entire mandatory testing house of cards must surely collapse.

The Invaluable Michelle Malkin provides a broader perspective in an article titled “Revolt Against The Testing Tyrants.”  Great minds apparently think alike.

College-bound students in Orange County, Fla., for example, now take a total of 234 standardized diagnostic, benchmark and achievement tests from kindergarten through 12th grade. Reading instructor Brian Trutschel calculated that a typical 10th-grade English class will be disrupted 65 out of 180 school days this year alone for mandatory tests required by the state and district. ‘It’s a huge detriment to instruction,’ he told the Orlando Sentinel last month. The library at one Florida middle school is closed for a full three months out of the 10-month school year for computerized assessments.

‘It’s horrible, because all we do is test,’ Nancy Pace, the school’s testing coordinator, told the newspaper. ‘There’s something every month.’ My Colorado 8th-grader has been tied up all week on her TCAPs (Transitional Colorado Assessment Program), which used to be called CSAPs (Colorado Student Assessment Program), which will soon be replaced by something else.

If you’ve read the first article in this series, gentle readers, this should surely sound familiar. Malkin continues:

Now, pile on the latest avalanche of federal pilot testing schemes tied to the Common Core racket. When they’re not preoccupied with getting ready for Iowa basic skills tests, NAEPs, ACTs, PSATs, revamped SATs, CLEPs, FCATs, TCAPs and scores of other state exams, American kids will be busy testing new tests. Because the Common Core testing scheme mandates computerized administration and because the tests incorporate bandwidth-hogging videos and graphics, school districts across the country must spend gobs of time and money on test preparation.

The San Francisco Unified School District shelled out more than $800,000 this year for new computers, keyboards and headsets for testing, and will buy 5,300 Apple computers next year to start standardizing the district on a single operating system, according to the EdSource.org website. Rural students will be yanked out of the classroom and herded on buses over the course of several days to get to tech-connected districts, where they will spend several hours each day (on top of hours of travel) taking experimental Common Core-aligned field tests that won’t count until next year.

Is “Common Core” involved in this mania? It surely is:

The federally funded testing consortium called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), which raked in $186 million through Race to the Top to develop nationalized tests tied to the top-down Common Core program, will dragoon more than one million students into field testing this spring. The other federally funded testing consortium, the $180-million tax-subsidized Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, was supposed to start field tests this week for three million students in 23 states. But last-minute “glitches” have delayed the untested tests by at least a week, disrupting district instructional plans and calendars in 20,000 schools — and in some cases, interfering with other test schedules for high-stakes Advanced Placement and SAT exams that do count.

Malkin observes that some school districts around the nation are finally becoming fed up with at least some of the testing and are allowing parents to opt out their children. In fact, it’s not a matter of allowing parents to keep their children from being tested to death. Parents have always had that right, but have not always asserted it:

The testing tyrants, of course, are doing everything they can to stop parents from protecting their children: deceive, bully, intimidate and obfuscate. The state of Connecticut recently sent out a misleading letter to parents warning them that ‘all children enrolled in public schools’ are legally required to ‘take yearly assessments.’ But as parent Wendy Lecker points out, the bureaucrats failed to disclose that the mandate applies to ‘statewide mastery tests,’ not ‘o experimental field tests such as the PARCC and SBAC pilots, which “fail to satisfy the basic elements the law clearly sets forth of the required statewide test.

Some states deny high school diplomas to students refusing to take the tests, but few colleges will refuse admission to otherwise qualified students, particularly these days. Malkin is quite correct. Parents are the ”primary educational provider and decider.” While school districts routinely ignore teachers, they are often afraid of and responsive to enraged and rational parents. There is much power there. Enraged and involved parents forced Texas to back down from 15 tests to only five.

Educrats assume that mandatory testing must continue forever, and that more and more money be spent, because it is the only way to assess student progress, and as the execrable Pam Stewart said, they must not be denied that opportunity for assessment even if they cannot actually participate or understand the results. But as I’ve often noted, America built the most educated workforce and the most technologically advanced society in human history in a scant two hundred years all without mandatory, high-stakes testing. These tests could be–must be–swept away tomorrow and the only consequence would be tens of thousands of educrats out of a job. Actually, that’s more like a net benefit to society.

Join me next Monday for Part III of this continuing series. I hope to see you there!

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