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At the end of May, 2013, I began what would turn into a four part series on the problem of mandatory, high stakes testing in education. I updated the series again in 2014, but haven’t revisited it since.  It’s about time.  I no longer teach 10thgrade, the level at which kids suffer the Texas English STAAR test in high school, but even so, no one can entirely escape it. I have a sense the testing fad may be on the downhill slide to extinction, but there is so much money involved, so many educrat’s careers dependent upon it, it will probably continue to plague us for many years to come.  Here’s the first of the updated series:

In 2014 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 utterly insane this was. Merely administering the tests would have taken a month, and benchmark testing and test prep, easily half the school year.  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 a Godzilla-sized 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.

NOTE: in 2015, Pearson lost most of its contract, and was replaced by Education Testing Services–ETS.

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.  Circa 2018, only a single, one-page essay is required.

All of this is costing real money, even by Texas standards: about $90 million per year. Actually, no one really knows exactly how much the tests cost, but historically, it has been about a half billion–with a “B” every five years. That’s real money, even in Texas.  Consider this from The Texas Observer:  

Texas’ standardized testing program wasn’t exactly popular before the 2015-2016 school year, but this year’s State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) has been an especially frustrating experience for Texas students, parents and school officials. New testing contractor Educational Testing Service, in the first year of a four-year, $280 million contract to administer the STAAR, has seemed overwhelmed by the task: It misdelivered tests, lost records of test answers, and took weeks longer than promised to deliver test scores. Meanwhile, new Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) are under fire for how they’ve handled the STAAR so far, with critics saying they haven’t adequately recognized the magnitude of the problems schools faced — some of which, like missing student records and an unfinished website for teachers to access test data, were apparent even before the tests even arrived.

credit: learningtrust.org

Things have not improved. Just a few facts to keep in mind:

(1) The TEA initially reduced the writing from a two-page essay, to a far more simplistic, single paged format, but required two of them. When that proved a disaster, they changed it to one single page essay..This essentially requires an essay of no more than five paragraphs 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 falls under the horrific pressure of having to take two of the tests within days of each other their sophomore year. 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, but this article is focused on one of a teacher’s most precious resources: time.

State law used to require a school year of no less than 180 days, which is common around the nation.  But contemporary education is all about inventing new, brilliant concepts and acronyms that will transform education, so in 2016, the state legislature changed the law to required 75,600 minutes of school instead.  The law also defines a school day as 420 minutes.  But wait a minute: 75,600 divided by 420 is 180 days!  See how much better that is for education, gentle readers, what a brilliant innovation?  We don’t pay state legislators and educrats nearly enough.

The TEA (Texas Education Agency) and ETS are very sensitive to the politics of adjusting the difficulty level of the tests. They must pretend the tests are 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 ETS have to rewrite the tests, which–and do not doubt this for a moment–will cost additional tens of millions?  Consider this 2018 editorial from The Monitor.com:  

But this year’s State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness tests, which students began taking this week, were marred by technical online failures in several school districts, including the Rio Grande Valley. Some students, including some in Mission ISD, were unable to code in answers; could not log back into tests, and some answers disappeared from children’s test screens.

Commissioner of Education Mike Morath called the situation ‘unacceptable.’ We consider that a major understatement.

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 are absolutely prohibited from saying a word about the tests upon pain of having teaching certificates revoked.

But wait–as they say in late night TV commercials–there’s more! teachers are also simultaneously required to look at kid’s 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 can’t actually look at them to do it.  The TEA says things like “glance at the answer document…” apparently without actually seeing or understanding anything at which one “glances.” This, gentle readers, is the educrat mindset. This apparently makes sense to them.

The state does release past tests from time to time, and rubrics supposedly giving teachers a clear idea how the essays will be graded.  The current test is an essay and the rest, multiple choice; it’s easy to grade.  However, after years of reading the rubrics and every student’s essays, I discovered the people grading the essays do not follow the rubrics.  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.  That’s right; the state does not hire people with English doctorates to grade the essays, but pretty much anybody they can find, which usually means people without full time jobs.

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 test is not given until mid-April, and results aren’t available until the end of the school year. 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 March, 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 far 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.

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.  The benchmark tests are usually released STAAR tests from past years, so any problems on those tests–there are always many–are not corrected.  Factor in the reality that kids could care less about how they do on benchmark tests, and the entire effort is an exercise in futility and a waste of scarce classroom minutes.

Like state educrats, local administrators, more and more, are all about the production of data rather than education.  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, benchmark test results–all that data–are essentially meaningless, which is particularly so because the kids just don’t care.  However, teachers everywhere must produce data, which is now nearly the entire point of education.

Interestingly, the state legislature wrote a law making it illegal for any school to give students more than two benchmark tests per year. A weak attempt to cut down on the data mentality. However, many local school districts responded by the subterfuge of renaming the benchmark tests. They’re the same tests 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’s the ticket.

Benchmark tests cost about five days of classes. That’s 180-5=175 or about 3% of the school year.  Those tests alone cost three percent of potential learning time.  Understand that when I speak of lost “days,” I mean that I see each of my classes for 45ish 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 makeanyone learn anything—and the most important factor is time.  Much of what we do isn’t accomplished in 45-minute blocks.  Killing one 45-minute class can disrupt or even wipe out the effectiveness of instruction for an entire week.

We lose at least two days to testing each year, and I’m being very conservative in this, as the number of days is 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 lose 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 ieach 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.

We spend about 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, we spend at least 8 days doing exercises directly related to the STAAR test formats as we understand 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 have only about 59% of the entire school year available to teach the normal curriculum.  See what I mean when I say education is about testing and data production, gentle readers?

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. Losing 41% of the school year before the first class of the year begins, means kids will miss a huge amount of literature and a huge amount of 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.

Everything is shortened or omitted entirely.  It means drastically curtailing the discussion of literary works necessary for true understanding.  It means studying only about half of the poetry that should be done.  We did not do story writing, and read only a few short stories.  We don’t make vital neural connections, but oh, we produce data!

Yet 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.

Who knows more about the abilities and needs of any student? Their teacher who reads and grades countless essays and other assignments, who talks with them, encourages them, and cares about them, or a faceless educrat in a state capital glancing at a single data point?  Which represents the best use of education dollars?

Don’t think for a moment, gentle readers, that my experience in Texas is substantially different than where you live.  It’s not.

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.