Myths of the anti-testing backlash

Test haters have become myth makers, write Kathleen Porter-Magee and Jennifer Borgioli on Gadfly.

The idea is that teachers know best and that standardized testing—or any kind of testing, really, other than the teacher-built kind—is a distracting nuisance that saps valuable instructional time, deflects instructors from what’s most essential, and yields very little useful information about student learning.

. . . research has consistently demonstrated that, absent independent checks, many teachers hold low-income and minority students to different standards than their affluent, white peers.

. . . Standardized tests not only help us unearth these biases but also put the spotlight on achievement gaps that need to be closed, students who need extra help, schools that are struggling, and on. And by doing so, they drive critical conversations about the curriculum, pedagogy, and state and district policies that we need to catch kids up and get them back on the path to success.

Testing also is blamed for “drill-and-kill” instruction that existed long before the testing-and-accountability era, they write.

All else being equal, the students who typically fare better on state tests are those whose teachers focus not on empty test-taking tricks but rather on content-rich and intellectually engaging curriculum.

Ironically, an anti-testing position paper by the Chicago Teachers Union showed test-prepping teachers’ students scored lower on the ACT than students who were given “intellectually demanding work.”

Standardized tests don’t measure “what really matters” in education, such as critical thinking or social and emotional skills, critics complain. No test can measure everything, concede Porter-Magee and Borgioli. But many skills can be evaluated.

Anti-testers argue that setting standards and aligning assessments to them doesn’t work because it’s not what the Finns do.

Our own history suggests that it is exactly the states that have set rigorous standards connected to strong accountability regimes—most notably, Massachusetts—that have seen the greatest gains for all students, not just our most disadvantaged.

Meaningful reform will “require the effective measurement of student achievement that tests make possible,” they conclude.

Huck Finn and the bias biddies

While new Common Core State Standards call for students to read classic literature, tests will avoid “emotionally charged language,” race, sex, religion or anything that anyone might find offensive, writes Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory, in How to Keep All of Huck Finn in the Classroom.

The standards say students should to read “classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.”

To measure them, tests will have to include passages from “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” Henry Thoreau’s “Walden,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and Emily Dickinson’s verse.

However, test aligned to the new standards must heed “bias and sensitivity guidelines” that rule out “race and sex imbalances, stereotypes and pretty much anything that might upset or disserve any particular group of students.”

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, for instance, is writing questions “free of offensive, demeaning or emotionally-charged language” and “reflective of a balance of authors by gender, race, and ethnicity,” Bauerlein writes. There will be no “religious references” either.

But in trying to make the experience of every test-taker free of conflict, in removing virtually all racial, sexual or religious elements from the readings, test developers can’t properly assess Common Core’s literary-historical mandates. A full sample of the classics would upset the balance demanded of bias review — too many white men — and many canonical works display scenes charged with racism and sexism.

Think of all the central episodes that wouldn’t survive — Shylock’s speech, Hester Prynne emerging from her cell brandishing a sparkling golden “A,” Douglass fighting back against the sadistic slave-breaker Mr. Covey, and hundreds more. If reading tests genuinely addressed the classics, bias and sensitivity reviewers would denounce them outright.

In addition to a sanitized, bias- and content-free test of reading skills, developers should add “a test on literary-historical knowledge, including open questions that make students draw on Twain, Shakespeare, ancient myths, Edith Wharton and so on.”

The literary-history exam would be an essay test, raising a theme, style, genre or other topic and asking students to draw copiously from literary history, for instance, asking students to address the theme of individualism in six foundational works of American literature.

The essay test would see “how much knowledge students have of the best works of American civilization, a special duty of public schooling necessary to the formation of responsible, independent and informed citizens,” Bauerlein concludes.

But there’s already push back against too much time spent taking tests. Why not dump the silly sensitivity guidelines?

Federal discipline rules could hurt blacks

Sen. Dick Durbin’s hearing on the “school to prison pipeline” may lead to federal mandates to curtail the use of out-of-school suspensions,  make suspension policies uniform across schools, or both, writes Andrew Coulson of Cato @ Liberty, who testified against zero-tolerance policies at the hearing.

Black students are more likely to be suspended than whites. However, requiring lenient discipline policies would hurt black students the most, Coulson writes.

In Understanding the Black-White School Discipline Gap, Rochester University Professor Joshua Kinsler concludes that black and white students are suspended at the same rates for the same offenses at the same schools, Coulson writes.

However principals at predominantly black schools issue more and longer suspensions to all students — black and white — while discipline policies are more lenient for all students at predominantly white schools.

In a subsequent empirical study, Kinsler investigated what would happen if all schools were compelled to observe a more lenient suspension policy, to close the black/white discipline gap. He found that this would disproportionately hurt the achievement of African American students, widening the black/white achievement gap.  The reason for this, according to Kinsler’s findings, is that serious suspensions do in fact discourage misbehavior, and that removing disruptive students from the class does improve the achievement of the other students.

In his written testimony, Coulson proposed alternatives to out-of-school suspensions that motivate students to behave while protecting their classmates from disruption.

Feds will monitor suspensions for racial bias

Federal officials will monitor 38 Oakland schools charged with suspending too many black male students, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Almost 20 percent of the district’s African American males were suspended at least once last year, six times the rate of white boys.

In middle school, 1 out of every 3 black boys was suspended at least once.

The board approved a five-year plan that includes mentoring, teacher training, parent education and programs to address the impact of trauma and community violence on student behavior. In addition, the plan calls for “restorative justice” as an alternative to suspension. Students, parents and school officials meet to encourage  ”the offender taking responsibility and making amends.”

The district already has an Office of African-American Male Achievement, which has created programs such as a daily after-school “manhood development” class at Edna Brewer Middle School for 24 black males.

As the boys built drums out of wood and tape, their instructor, who goes only by Jahi, described the benefit of working with the boys, giving them help with their homework and encouragement to focus on school and their futures.

“We try to create this culture of success,” he said. “We can’t change what’s happening outside in the world.”

Eighth-grader William Bolanos, 13, said he’d had some trouble in the past at school, with a few suspensions on his record.

But that won’t happen this year, with help from Jahi’s class.

“It just shows you how to be a man, a leader, a big brother to people,” he said. “I’m just going to try to get honor roll this year.”

Brewer Middle, a relatively high-scoring school, is 34 percent Asian, 31 percent black, 16 percent Latino and 13 percent white. And, no, the district doesn’t have a special office for any other racial or ethnic group.

Implementing the plan — including  ”comprehensive and frequent documentation to prove compliance with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964″ — will cost the district “millions,” according to the Chronicle.

Elite students excuse cheating

Cheating is easy to rationalize, say students at New York City’s elite Stuyvesant High School in the New York Times.

The night before one of the “5 to 10” times he has cheated on a test, a senior at Stuyvesant High School said, he copied a table of chemical reactions onto a scrap of paper he would peek at in his chemistry exam. He had decided that memorizing the table was a waste of time — time he could spend completing other assignments or catching up on sleep.

“It’s like, ‘I’ll keep my integrity and fail this test’ — no. No one wants to fail a test,” he said, explaining how he and others persuaded themselves to cheat. “You could study for two hours and get an 80, or you could take a risk and get a 90.”

A recent alumnus said that by the time he took his French final exam one year, he, along with his classmates, had lost all respect for the teacher. He framed the decision to cheat as a choice between pursuing the computer science and politics projects he loved or studying for a class he believed was a joke.

“When it came to French class, where the teacher had literally taught me nothing all year, and during the final the students around me were openly discussing the answers, should I not listen?” he said.

Stuyvesant students are competing for highly selective colleges. They work very hard in the classes they care about, but try to limit their workload in other classes. Copying homework is considered OK, students told the Times. Cheating on tests requires some extra excuse-making.

In June, 71 juniors were caught texting his each other answers to state Regents exams.

Education and civil rights group charge the elite high schools’ admissions test screens out black and Hispanic students, reports the Times. The Specialized High School Admissions Test is the sole criterion for admission to eight specialized schools.

According to the complaint, 733 of the 12,525 black and Hispanic students who took the exam were offered seats this year. For whites, 1,253 of the 4,101 test takers were offered seats. Of 7,119 Asian students who took the test, 2,490 were offered seats. At Stuyvesant High School, the most sought-after school, 19 blacks were offered seats in a freshman class of 967.

“Stuyvesant and these other schools are as fair as fair can be,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a news conference. “You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is.”

Title IX in science: Quotas for men?

In its zeal for gender balance in science, technology engineering and math courses, the Education Department could impose quotas on male STEM students by 2013, warns Hans Bader, who once worked for the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. The White House has promised new Title IX guidelines in STEM fields.

To comply with Title IX, colleges have eliminated men’s sports teams to create a gender balance. “Title IX isn’t just about sports,” President Obama wrote in Newsweek. It’s also about “inequality in math and science education” and “a much broader range of fields, including engineering and technology. I’ve said that women will shape the destiny of this country, and I mean it.”

By the Title IX model in sports, that means if 60 percent of undergrads are women — common in many colleges and universities — then 60 percent of engineering and physics students must be female.

Gender disparities in college majors reflect the “differing preferences of men and women,” writes Bader.

The fact that engineering departments are filled mostly with men does not mean they discriminate against women anymore than the fact that English departments are filled mostly with women proves that English departments discriminate against men. The arts and humanities have well over 60 percent female students, yet no one seems to view that gender disparity as a sign of sexism against men.

Women gravitate to scientific fields that involve interaction with people, writes Bader.

As The New York Times’ John Tierney noted, “Despite supposed obstacles like “unconscious bias” and a shortage of role models and mentors, women now constitute about half of medical students, 60 percent of biology majors, and 70 percent of psychology Ph.D.’s. They earn the majority of doctorates in both the life sciences and the social sciences.” By contrast, “They remain a minority in the physical sciences and engineering,” which deal more with inanimate objects rather than people.

My younger stepdaughter majored in bio-engineering at Cornell, but decided she wanted a career with more human interaction. She’s now a nutritionist, a nearly all-female profession.

It’s hard to believe colleges will be forced to turn away aspiring male engineers because not enough young women could be lured into the field. But perhaps they’ll create new “pink” engineering courses with more talk and less math to create a faux gender balance.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Title IX enforcers to crack down on college English departments.

Study: Teachers go soft on minority students’ work

After reading a poorly written essay, teachers offered comments and advice. Those who thought the writer was black or Latino provided more praise and less criticism, according to a Rutgers study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology (JEP), reports Science Daily.

(The study) involved 113 white middle school and high school teachers in two public school districts located in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area, one middle class and white, and the other more working class and racially mixed.

“Many minority students might not be getting input from instructors that stimulates intellectual growth and fosters achievement,” said Kent Harber, Rutgers-Newark psychology professor.

George W. Bush called it “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Study: Teachers think white girls can’t do math

High school teachers think white girls can’t do math, concludes a University of Texas study.  “Even with the same grades and the same test scores, the teachers are still ranking the girls as less good at math than the boys,” says Catherine Riegle-Crumb, co-author of the bias study. By contrast, teachers’ perceptions of minority students’ math abilities matched their achievement.

 

Counseling student can sue university

A conservative Christian, Julea Ward was expelled from a master’s program in counseling because she referred a gay client who wanted to discuss his orientation to another counselor. Ward said she couldn’t be supportive.  When Eastern Michigan University kicked her out of the program for anti-gay bias, she sued, charging religious bias and infringement of her free-speech rights. Ward’s suit was revived by a federal appeals court, which threw out a summary judgment, reports Education Week.

“Although the university submits it dismissed Ward from the program because her request for a referral violated the ACA code of ethics, a reasonable jury could find otherwise — that the code of ethics contains no such bar and that the university deployed it as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech,” Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton wrote for the panel. “What exactly did Ward do wrong in making the referral request?” Sutton added. “If one thing is clear after three years of classes, it is that Ward is acutely aware of her own values. The point of the referral request was to avoid imposing her values on gay and lesbian clients.”

If a counselor disapproved of my lifestyle or beliefs, I’d prefer a referral to a pretense of support.

Ruling: Ethnic studies classes break Arizona law

Tucson schools must drop Mexican-American Studies or lose 10 percent of state funding, ruled an administrative law judge, who found the ethnic classes violate Arizona law. The 2010 law bans courses that are “designed for a specific ethnic group” or advocate “ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” It also bans fanning “racial resentment.”

Ignoring the history of  ”oppression and racism” will promote resentment, a school district witness testified. But Judge Lewis Kowal found the classes went beyond “teaching oppression objectively” to “actively presenting material in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.”

“Teaching in such a manner promotes social or political activism against the white people, promotes racial resentment, and advocates ethnic solidarity, instead of treating pupils as individuals,” Kowal wrote. He cited a lesson that taught students that the historic treatment of Mexican-Americans was “marked by the use of force, fraud and exploitation,” and a parent’s complaint that one of her daughters, who was white, was shunned by Latino classmates after a government course was taught “in an extremely biased manner.”

A group of teachers are challenging the law in federal court, arguing it was motivated by “a racial bias and anti-Hispanic beliefs and sentiments.”