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credit: learningtrust.org

I last updated this series of article in 2014. Much has changed since then, but the problems presented by mandatory, high stakes testing remain. As is always the case, I don’t know where the series–and the interests of readers–will take me. I simply hope I can provide some useful and thought-provoking ideas.

The school year has drawn to a close.  It’s always a bittersweet time.  It is good to bring the year to a close, to finish all that we’ve worked on for a year and to take some small satisfaction in all we’ve learned.  But it’s a sad time as well, for each of my classes, made up of all of my students, will never meet again.  Each class had its own unique personality made of the personalities of all of my students.  I’ll miss them.

This year was different, because after 15 years of teaching Sophomore English, I’ve returned to teaching Junior English–American literature. This means, after 15 years, I no longer have to worry about state mandated, high stakes testing. In Texas, the English STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) test is forced down student’s throats during their sophomore year. We really don’t know how much stress we’re under until it’s gone.

In 2015-2016 I badly failed my students.  How?  Here’s an example.  Each year I keep track of all of the inadvertently funny things my students write.  I normally collect around 120 of these gems, but last year, I managed only about 70

Why only 70?  State mandated testing.  Last 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–when aroused by excessive governmental arrogance–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.

For the 2016-17 school year, all of that changed again. The State got rid of the short answer section of the test, replacing it with multiple choice items and a single essay. Why, it’s easier and quicker to grade, and theoretically, less expensive. I’d like to think this is foreshadowing the eventual abandonment of the STAAR tests, but that’s, sadly, unlikely. Once government gets its hands on a new source of power, it’s very reluctant to relinquish it, and the entire STAAR regime is money and power indeed.

All of this is costing real money, even by Texas standards. How much? About $90 million per year. Isn’t it bizarre that after eight years of Obama, with a national debt of $20 trillion or more, $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. And the best part? KUT.org has the story:

Update: The Texas State Auditor has uncovered problems with the $462 million contract between the Texas Education Agency and the testing company, Pearson. The auditor released a report Tuesday. It found TEA doesn’t have a process or the training in place to monitor the contract.

The report also found the contract doesn’t require the TEA to specifically itemize costs and services in invoices with Pearson. According to the report, that means it’ll be harder for the agency to determine the cost or savings with the implementation of HB 5, the bill that reduces the number of high school end of course exams from 15 to five.

The report also found the TEA didn’t properly disclose whether Pearson employees used to work with the agency.

As I’m sure is the case everywhere in America, taxpayer dollars are being very well spent and the accounting involved is scrupulous. Just a few facts to keep in mind at this early stage of this series:

(1) The TEA actually reduced the writing from a two-page essay, to a far more simplistic, single paged format, but required two of them. This essentially requires an essay of no more than five paragraphs, and now, one essay and virtually no depth. Of course, they’re much faster and cheaper to grade, hence more profit.

(2) The STAAR test is supposed to be far more “rigorous” than the old TAKS test. This is done primarily by requiring abstract reasoning of 15 year-old students. Developmental psychologists note that kids aren’t normally capable of abstract reasoning until the age of 17 or 18. I’m sure readers won’t be surprised to learn that abstract reasoning is also being required of elementary school kids.

(3) The English test is given in the 9th and 10th grades. Any student failing the 9th grade test will find them self under the horrific pressure of having to take two of the tests within days of each other their sophomore year, the second supposedly being more difficult than the first. To any rational person, this would clearly indicate that the kids will be studying for two somewhat different tests, and the testing schedules will conflict with each other, making success more difficult. Such rationality escapes educrats.

I’ll be dealing with many testing related issues in the next, related article to be posted next Monday, and for as many Mondays that follow as necessary.  But this article is focused on one of a teacher’s most precious resources: time.

State law requires a school year of no less than 180 days, which is common around the nation.  But in the pursuit of educational excellence, we’re now forced to calculate that not in days, but in minutes. I’m sure you can see the wisdom in that. And this takes me back to the comic writings.  Last year I collected only about 58% of the usual number of comic writings.  That’s significant in that these come to me as a result of unintentional mistakes made in a variety of writings.  This means, in essence, we were able, as a direct result of mandated testing, to write only about 58% as much as usual.  In other words, my students lost 42% of their writing opportunities last year.  Much writing we do in English comes as a direct result of our readings, including essays, short stories, fiction and non-fiction, so the kids experienced substantially less literature as well.

Were you the parent of one of my students, would you find that acceptable?

My last year teaching STAAR, and last year, for the sophomore teachers, we struggled to know what to teach. The TEA was forced to release the first, massive test they used, so we had something of an idea of the kinds of questions they would use and their general format for 2015-2016, but my school also demanded copies of every essay our students wrote, and I read them all. One might think this would be helpful. One would be wrong.

For 2016-2017, there were no previous tests to be released, so the sophomore teachers were in the dark, as were their students.

The TEA also publishes rubrics, the criteria it supposedly uses in grading the essays. In analyzing the grades given our students for 2015-2016, I discovered that the people grading the tests didn’t consistently follow their own rubrics. In addition, they changed them for the newest iteration of the tests, but we cannot trust that they will actually use those criteria either. We were able to have outstanding success on the TAKS tests because after about three years, we were able to figure out what the state was actually doing in grading rather than what they said they were doing and adapted our instruction accordingly. It will take another few years before we can do that again and our overall test scores will rise to TAKS levels, if they don’t change the tests again in the meantime.

With entirely new tests, the TEA is very sensitive to the politics of adjusting the difficulty level. They must pretend that the new tests are far more advanced and rigorous, hence, far more perfect, than the old tests, yet political reality dictates that not too many kids fail the tests, which would tend to indicate they are less perfect than the educrats pretend. This is a delicate political balancing act. How many kids failing is too many? How many can be explained away by blaming teachers and schools and parents before the educrats and Pearson have to rewrite the tests, which–and do not doubt this for a moment–will cost additional tens of millions?

Another problem is that state educrats throw a veil of secrecy over all testing, ostensibly to prevent cheating.  So irrational are they that teachers aren’t allowed to so much as look at any of the tests or the student’s answer documents, and we are absolutely prohibited from saying a word about the tests upon pain of having our teaching certificates revoked.

But wait–as they say in late night TV commercials–there’s more! We’re also simultaneously required to look at their answer documents to ensure they’re not cheating, they’re working on the correct sections of the test, and they filled them out completely and correctly, but we can’t actually look at them to do it.  They tell us things like “glance at the answer document…” apparently without actually seeing or understanding anything at which we “glance.” This, gentle readers, is the educrat mindset. This apparently makes sense to them.

While test security is important, we all know what’s going on.  They don’t want teachers—people who actually know how tests should be constructed—to see the tests, so badly constructed are they, at least not before the TEA has a chance to deal with them before they’re released–if they’re released. They absolutely don’t want parents to know.

So, as always, we lacked the most important information: a solid idea of how the tests would be graded. We had only a vague idea of what to teach the kids to pass tests that would, in large part, determine whether they would graduate from high school.  We knew, of course, how they were graded last year–inconsistently–but much of this test was new, and we were certain there would be differences. Grading essays is enormously subjective regardless of the tripe educrats pass out about the brilliance and consistency of people hired via Craigslist to do the grading.

There were a variety of Internet sources purporting to have some idea, tests given by other states that may or may not have been similar, but we could not be sure.  You begin to understand the teacher’s dilemma?

Consider too that the test results were only given to us a few days before school was out. Students failing the test had no idea why they failed or what they could have done differently–we won’t get copies of their essays until the summer–and will spend the summer in agony, either retaking the test with whatever help we can give, or waiting until the next school year.

Consider too that STAAR tests are supposed to be “end of course” tests, but actually aren’t and can’t be. Yet, much depends on that fiction, and many mandates emanate from it. The tests are given around the first of April. I have no doubt the educrats have no idea of the irony.

What this means is stark and frustrating. Most of the academic work of the school year must be done the first semester, yet test preparation weighs heavily on that time. After the first of the year, little is done except test drilling until the tests in April and May. Thereafter, little is possible, because every class and club and activity waits until testing is over to take their field trips and special events that pull huge numbers of students out of classes. In addition spring sports, which normally involve more students than fall sports, are constantly taking kids out of class. It’s not uncommon to have 1/3 of classes missing on any given post-testing day, and sometimes, nearly entire classes.

But there are additional problems.  Anxious about test scores, and in many cases invested in the very idea of mandatory testing, school administrators everywhere demand “benchmark” testing to give them an idea how the kids might do on the STAAR tests.  Like the state educrats, local administrators, more and more, are all about the production of data rather than learning.  It doesn’t matter that since no one has any real idea what to expect, no one has any real idea what to test with benchmark tests, or how the STAAR test will eventually be graded, therefore, benchmark test results–all that data–are essentially meaningless.  However, teachers everywhere must produce data, which is now nearly the entire point of education.

Interestingly, the state legislature wrote a new law making it illegal for any school to give students more than two benchmark tests per year. At least they’re trying to cut down on the data mentality. However, many local school districts responded by the clever–I suppose they think it clever–subterfuge of renaming the benchmark tests. They’re the same tests they’ve always given as benchmark tests, but since they have another name, they think they don’t violate the law. “But officer, I wasn’t speeding! I was merely conducting enhanced wind resistance testing!” Yeah. That’ll work.

Now, about time: the benchmark tests cost us five days of classes. That’s 180-5=175 or about 3% of the school year.  Those tests alone cost us three percent of our potential time for learning.  Understand that when I speak of lost “days,” I mean that I see each of my classes for 50 minutes a day, five times a week.  If that class doesn’t meet or is testing, at a pep rally, etc., I’ve lost a day of learning opportunity for that class.  As I’ve often noted, all any teacher can do is provide the best possible opportunity to learn—we can’t make anyone learn anything—and the most important factor is time.  Much of what we do isn’t accomplished in 50-minute blocks.  Killing one 50-minute class can disrupt or even wipe out the effectiveness of instruction for an entire week.

We also lost two days to state mandated testing this year, and I’m being very conservative in this, as the number of days was actually greater, but let’s give the educrats the benefit of the doubt.  That cuts the school year down to only 173 days.

We also lost eight days to pep rallies, assemblies, other testing, and similar matters.  Again, I’m being conservative.  We’re down to about 165 days, or about 92% of the school year.

But wait, there’s more!  In order to construct a 30 minute tutoring period in the middle of each day so students could be drilled in various subjects in the hopes of passing the tests, the content of which was a secret, we took five minutes from each of our 50 minutes classes, which is the equivalent of 20 days of classes (5 minutes times 180 days = 900 minutes, divided by 45 minutes (the remaining class time) equals 20 class periods/days or 11% of the school year).  We’re now down to 145 days, or 81% of the year.

Because we had so little idea of the grading of the STAAR tests, we spent six weeks before the tests doing nothing but drilling for those tests.  That’s actually 30 days of avoiding the curriculum entirely, so now we’re down to 115 days.  However, from the beginning of the year, I spent at least 8 days doing exercises directly related to the STAAR test formats as we understood them. That leaves 107 days, or 59% of the school year.

All of this means that as a direct result of mandatory, high stakes testing, we had only 59% of the entire school year available to teach the normal curriculum.  Now do you see why I’ll likely collect only about 70 comic writings rather than the normal 120?  Those mathematically inclined readers will, by now, have noticed that 70 is 58% of 120.

It’s actually possible for many students to have less than 50% of the school year available for learning due to activities of various kinds.  An article I wrote for PJ Media explains how.

Imagine being given 41% less time to accomplish any job, yet being held accountable for the same, even enhanced, results, and you have some idea of what’s happening in education these days. The problem is we’re not talking of lessened profits, but of lost learning opportunities.  All of those days are forever gone, the opportunity for kids to learn all they should have learned and to grow as much as they should have grown are also forever gone.

But so what?  Aren’t kids learning something worthwhile in all of that test preparation?  Not much.

In learning to write very brief, simplistic essays, they’re not developing the analytical and writing abilities they need.  Ask any college English teacher about the kind of preparation that kind of writing produces. When I lost 41% of the school year before the first class of the year begins, my kids will miss a huge amount of literature and a huge amount of their classwork, which includes not just writing, but reading, analysis, and the practice necessary to build bigger, better brains.  Instead, we’re making them whizzes at passing highly specific tests of middling difficulty that simultaneously contain elements of abstract reasoning most aren’t capable of comprehending.

That means that instead of acting out at least three acts of Julius Caesar, we have time for only one.  It meant not reading three novels we normally do, and drastically cutting short the few we managed to read.  It meant drastically curtailing the discussion of those works necessary for true understanding.  It meant doing only about half of the poetry we normally do, and that had to be constrained to what we believed to be STAAR-style exercises.  We did not do story writing, and read only a few short stories.  We didn’t make vital neural connections, but oh, we produced data!  Data that we received too late for it to be of any use, not that a single test score is useful in the first place.

And because the kids and their parents won’t promptly get the results, and because the tests–and the criteria used to grade them–are changed each year, what will they be able to do to improve?  The fact is that in order to teach them to pass the tests, we teach a small amount of actual skill and content, but mostly, specific tricks and methods that provide the answers for temporary test graders that will be spending minutes, perhaps even seconds, grading their short answers and essays.  And for all of that, all that is produced is a tiny bit of data that tells us nothing more than how a given student fared on a given test on a single day.  Considering how much that tiny bit of data cost in taxpayer dollars, I suspect most people, if they knew the truth, wouldn’t be pleased.

Don’t think for moment, gentle readers, that my experience in Texas is substantially different than where you live.  It’s not.  While my students generally told me they felt they were well prepared for the tests, and the exercises we developed to prepare them seemed to make the test seem familiar to them, we never have any real idea until we finally get the test scores. Even if we guessed right, we have no idea how the temps will be told to grade the essays, which are always the most heavily weighted portion of the tests.

That’s my failure, forced upon me by considerations political and financial, not educational.

Stay tuned for the second in this series of articles, to be posted next week, which will explain the lunacy of the testing movement and how it does anything but educate children. Some might actually call it child abuse.

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