March 31, we “gave” the English/Language Arts STAAR test. Actually, all of the schools in Texas did. It wasn’t really “given.” It was imposed, stuffed down the throats of not only every tenth grade kid in the state, but their parents, their teachers, and every taxpaying citizen.
Because I am an English teacher, and because our school administrators recognize that English teachers tend to be resoundingly whacked with every administrative task that comes around simply because every kid has to take English and is therefore easy to find, I only had to be a hall monitor rather than administering the test to a room full of anxious and annoyed kids. This consisted of spending the entire day sitting in a hallway, giving fellow teachers that were administering the test bathroom breaks, being a gofer, and a wide variety of related tasks. I ended up not seeing a single one of my classes all day.
That day ended a bit more than two solid months of emphasis on virtually nothing other than drilling for the test. And that wasn’t all. There were multiple “benchmark” tests, stand-alone exercises/drills, and related tasks that consumed, conservatively at least another month of the school year. The day after the test was lost as well because the kids were so brain-damaged, trying to do real work would avail nothing, though we did a little review and preparation for the coming week. About 40% of the school year gone to produce, at incredible cost, a single score in a year of around 150 scores.
What, gentle readers, do you think most valuable? A single test score, or 150 scores from 150 assignments gathered over the course of a year? Which is most representative of the abilities and accomplishments of a given student?
Glancing over the SMM archives, I realized I’ve written a great deal on this topic, so I thought you, gentle readers, might enjoy a bit of a review, beginning with The Tyranny Of Testing, Part I, first posted back in May of 2013. In each of the articles to which I’ll refer in this article, there are multiple links to interesting articles and facts.
This year, Texas switched from the old STAAR tests to the new STAAR tests. Perhaps I should explain. During the 2012-2013 school year, politicians and the testing educrats went berserk, and given their head, mandated no fewer than 15 separate tests kids would have to pass to graduate from high school. There were, of course, myriad new regulations and mandates attached, and it quickly became obvious how insane this was. Parents informed their state legislators of their displeasure–probably in the colorful language for which Texans are justly famous and delightful–and the educrats were reined in, but not before forcing an brobdingnagian English test on every sophomore in the state.
The test was enormously long and required three separate essays, one of which was a developmental essay for Pearson, the British-based company that sold the tests to Texas. In other words, Texas children were writing essays for free for Pearson to use to develop future tests. There was no way for anyone to know which of the three essays would be used as the developmental test–everything relating to testing is more top secret than the handling of nuclear weapons (OK, I exaggerate. A little.)–so the poor kids had to sweat all three of them.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, state mandated tests are absolutely perfect, the best human beings can create, absolutely state of the art. And so it was with the TASS tests that came before the TAKS tests. And the TAKS tests were the pinnacle of perfection, which is why they were replaced by the 2012-2013 STAAR tests. And since those 15 perfect tests were reduced to a mere five for the 2013-2014 school year, Pearson had to write a shorter test with only two essays–one a developmental essay–for Texas sophomores.
All of this is costing real money, even by Texas standards. How much: About $90 million per year. Isn’t it bizarre how in the age of Obama, $90 million doesn’t seem like that much money? That’s a Texas-sized increase from the 2000 contract with Pearson for about $9.5 million.
Consider this from The Tyranny Of Testing, Part II, which spoke of a NY Elementary school that cancelled its school play to better prepare kids for college readiness. “College readiness” is a contemporary education fad closely aligned with the testing craze.
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?
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.
State and federal level educrats are invested in testing to the level of madness:
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. [skip]
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.
For Ethan, at least, there was, if not a happy, then a just ending:
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.
A final thought about the state Commissioner of Education:
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.
Consider this from The Tyranny Of Testing, Part III:
Now we return to the reality that mandatory, high stakes tests cost 40%+ of available teaching time. What is more revealing of a student’s actual learning and abilities, the knowledge of a teacher that has read and remarked upon 150 assignments over a year, that has discussed those assignments with that student, that knows their strengths and weaknesses, and that sees them daily, or the scores of a few tests given once in their life? Unless you believe that the score of a single test can reveal anything meaningful about a person, to the extent that test should determine whether they graduate from high school, and should take 40%+ of their available time for learning, the answer should be obvious.
And consider this from The Tyranny Of Testing, Part IV:
It [mandatory, high stakes testing] also imposes the Lake Woebegon effect. Lake Woebegon, for those not familiar with Garrision Keillor, is a fictional Midwestern community where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.
Let’s say, for example, that the educrats decide, for our own good of course, that along with testing, our children must demonstrate a robust level of physical fitness. They come up with standards and performance goals, and tests to measure the attainment of those standards and goals (just as they do for academic testing):
By 2016, every 15 year old in America will:
(1) Run 100 yards in 10.2 seconds.
(2) Run a mile in 5 minutes.
(3) Bench press 240 pounds.
(4) Dunk a basketball, being allowed to start, running, from the free throw line.
I trust, gentle readers, you recognize this as completely impossible. The idea that even the minority of 15 year olds would be able to do these four tasks is absurd, so absurd I need not explain why, yet we do just that where education and testing are concerned.
And this, which gets to primary issue: Of what value, are such tests? Do they produce benefits worthy of the huge amounts of time and money involved?
But aren’t high stakes, mandatory tests good for something? That depends upon your point of view and how much of other people’s money you’re willing to spend. They’re great for educrats and politicians. For teachers, they’re good for nothing. Remember that these tests produce nothing more than a single test score, one bit of data. If the test was properly designed and written, that bit of data might indicate some degree of mastery of some material.
Educrats and politicians will tell you that the data is enormously valuable because it allows everyone to compare the performance of schools, and school districts, and states, and…yeah. If you’re making toasters, perhaps. People are a bit more complex.
If we discover that Smithville High School in Smithville has a 87% passing rate on the test, but Jonesburg High School in Jonesburg has a 91% passing rate, of what practical value is that information? If you believe that single bit of data truly tells us something about the kind of educational opportunity being provided in those schools, you’re probably an educrat or politician. If you’re a real human being, you know better. Will you try to sell your home and move to Jonesburg?
The issue is, and will remain, how best to use our educational resources, and here I speak primarily of time, and to a lesser degree, money. Is the score produced by a single test truly worth months of class time and truckloads of dollars? Are all local schools truly so incompetent that only the intervention and mandates of state and federal educrats can provide what amounts to a limited and mediocre education–the ability to pass a specific type of test? Is the solution to every educational problem testing and all that goes with it?
I suspect, that within ten years, the educational fad pendulum will have once again swung the opposite way. That Texans were able to beat back the educrats and reduce the testing load on high school kids from 15 to 5 tests may be an indicator of this trend. If the trend proves durable, eventually few, if any, will be able to recall why anyone thought mandatory, high-stakes testing a good idea. However, these fads have costs, and at a time where government is seizing powers it has never been granted and dictating the course of more and more of our lives, the consequences, personally and for society, are greater than ever.
It might be a good idea, for everyone’s sake, if the pendulum swung a bit more rapidly.
That day cannot come soon enough.