Obsessed by ‘The Test’

Anya Kamenetz’s new book, The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be, takes a simplistic view of testing, writes Robert Pondiscio on Education Gadfly.

jpeg“Tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness,” writes Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio.

Other than that, they’re OK.

Believing that testing “penalizes diversity,” Kamenetz ignores strong support for testing by civil rights activists, “who have used test scores to . . . highlight achievement gaps, all in the name of equality,” writes Pondiscio.

For example, a civil rights coalition has called for annual testing to remain in the new ESEA. They want achievement gaps to remain visible.

Kamenetz advises parents on opting out of tests, writes Pondiscio.

Here’s the advice I wish she’d offered: March into the principal’s office with a simple demand. “Don’t waste a minute on test prep. Just teach our kids. The second you turn learning time into test prep, our kids are staying home!” Imagine if Kamenetz and her fellow progressive Brooklyn public school parents did exactly that—teachers and parents could have the hands-on, play-based, child-centered schools of their dreams, and test day would be just another day at school. Unless, of course, the test scores came back weak. Then Kamenetz might write another, more complicated book. And that’s the one I want to read.

Dana Goldstein’s New York Times review highlights the book’s discussion of alternatives to standardized testing.

 . . . She reports on artificial-­intelligence experts who would harness the addictive qualities of gaming to instruct and assess kids online; computer programmers who seek to perfect the flawed software currently used to grade essays and track student performance over time; and school administrators experimenting with new measures of social-emotional growth, like student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

Kamenetz advocates using “long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking” to assess students, writes Goldstein. That’s a return to an earlier era in American education.

It also allows everyone in Lake Wobegon to be above average.

From ‘algebra for all’ to ‘algebra for none’

Thanks to the “algebra for all” movement, nearly half of eighth-graders were taking algebra or geometry in 2013, writes Brookings researcher Tom Loveless in High Achievers, Tracking, and the Common Core. In the Common Core era, only advanced — and advantaged — students will be accelerated.

California pushed 59 percent of students into eighth-grade algebra, though not everyone passed. Now districts have no incentive to offer algebra (or geometry) in middle school. In well-to-do Silicon Valley districts, parents are demanding eighth-grade algebra so their kids will be prepared for AP Calculus by 12th grade.

But urban middle schools with low-income, minority students usually place all students in the same math classes, writes Loveless. Smarter students can’t get ahead.

Accelerated math will survive in affluent school districts, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Parent pressure has been fierce. But students in lower-income districts won’t be on track for AP Calculus, unless they catch up in summer school or double up in math in high school.

Hector Flores, of San Jose, tried to ensure his son was on track to take calculus in high school — even sending him to a summer math institute. But the Evergreen School District placed him in an “integrated” Common Core eighth-grade math class, where he’s reviewing much of what he already learned. “He’s literally caught in the crack” of the Common Core transition, said Flores, a former math teacher. Now, to take calculus, his son will have to take an extra class in high school.

Low-income, black and Latino students who excel in math should have the chance to take the algebra-to-calculus track, writes Loveless. It’s not elitism. It’s equity.

Because of their animus toward tracking, some critics seem to support a severe policy swing from Algebra for All, which was pursued for equity, to Algebra for None, which will be pursued for equity.  It’s as if either everyone or no one should be allowed to take algebra in eighth grade.

Barry Garelick taught in a middle school that lets very few students take algebra in eighth grade, he writes in Out in Left Field.  A student asked him if she’d qualified for Algebra I. “I don’t want to be with the stupid people,” she said.

“In the name of egalitarianism and the greater common good,” the vast majority of students will take a watered-down Core version of algebra in ninth grade, he writes. They’ll end up as “stupid people.”

Union spin: Don’t say ‘equity,’ ‘reform’ or ‘rich’

Don’t say “education reform,” advises talking points developed for National Education Association leaders. It’s OK to refer to “education improvement or “education excellence.” 

“Providing basic skills and information” is out, according to the PR memo.  “Inspire curiosity, imagination and desire to learn” is in.

It’s Orwellian doublespeak, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. But replacing “inequality” with “living in the right zip code” highlights the fact that “Zip Code Education” keeps lower-income students out of high-quality schools.

NEA leaders will then have to explain why their affiliates, along with that of AFT,  fight . . . against the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice that have proven to improve graduation rates for black and Latino children.

. . . (Teachers’ unions) work together with traditional districts to oppose any overall of school finance systems that will lead to dollars following children out of failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity to any high-quality school, public, private or charter, that provides them with teaching and curricula they need.

 Conor Williams also sees the irony in complaining about zip codes while opposing choice and charters. The NEA doesn’t want to talk about “equity,” he notes.

. . . black and Latino children are more than four times as likely to attend high-poverty urban schools than their white peers. . . . Yet the NEA recommends that members instead talk about being “committed to the success of every child.”

Should we use “research driven practices” and “measure what matters” using “meaningful, rigorous evaluations?” No—apparently we should “get serious about what works,” because “love of learning can’t be measured,” and “testing takes time from learning.”

Schools are not supposed to be “effective learning environments” in the fuzzy new world. Schools are “where childhood happens.”

If that’s not completely meaningless, it’s wrong. Childhood happens at home, in the playground, where ever kids happen to be. Schools claim to be places where children learn important skills, knowledge and habits. If they’re just “where childhood happens,” we could save a lot of money.

Onion: White girl will be tried as black adult

A photogenic white girl will be tried for murder as a 300-pound black man, ruled a judge in a 2011 Onion satire.

The accused killer’s father says: “This is America! Nobody deserves to be treated as a black man.”

Black girls face harsher discipline


Mikia Hutchings, 12, and her lawyer, Michael J. Tafelski, at a hearing on school discipline. Credit(Photo: Kevin Liles for The New York Times)

Black girls’ face harsher school discipline than whites, according to a New York Times‘ story.

In Stockbridge, Georgia, 12-year-old Mikia Hutchings, who’s black, and a white friend got into trouble for writing graffiti on the walls of a gym bathroom. Both girls were suspended for a few days.

The white girl’s parents paid restitution, ending the incident. Mikia’s family “disputed the role she was accused of playing in the vandalism and said it could not pay about $100 in restitution,” reports the Times.

. . .  Mikia had to face a school disciplinary hearing and, a few weeks later, a visit by a uniformed officer from the local Sheriff’s Department, who served her grandmother with papers accusing Mikia of a trespassing misdemeanor and, potentially, a felony.

As part of an agreement with the state to have the charges dismissed in juvenile court, Mikia admitted to the allegations of criminal trespassing. Mikia, who is African-American, spent her summer on probation, under a 7 p.m. curfew, and had to complete 16 hours of community service in addition to writing an apology letter to a student whose sneakers were defaced in the incident.

According to Mikia, she wrote “Hi” on a bathroom stall door, while her friend scribbled the rest of the graffiti. “It isn’t fair,” she told the Times.

Disparities in school discipline affect black girls as well as boys, according to the NAACP.

Data from the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education show that from 2011 to 2012, black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12 percent, compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls, and more than girls of any other race or ethnicity.

Darker-skinned girls are disciplined more harshly than light-skinned ones, say researchers.

NY charter parents sue for equal funding

New York underfunds charter schools, discriminating against low-income, black and Latino students and denying them an equal education, charges a lawsuit filed today by Buffalo and Rochester parents.

Buffalo’s district-run schools get $23,524 per student, while charter schools receive $13,700, according to the suit, filed with the help of the Northeast Charter Schools Network. That’s about 60 percent of district funding. In Rochester and New York City, charters get 68 percent of the per-student funding allotted to district schools.

“New York’s charter students receive a fraction of what their friends in district schools receive—that’s unfair, unconstitutional, and discriminatory,” said NESCN Interim President Kyle Rosenkrans. “And because the formula provides no money for buildings, charters must divert their already shortchanged classroom dollars to pay the rent.”

Some 107,000 New York students attend charters and more than 50,000 are on charter school waiting lists. Ninety percent of charter school students are black and Hispanic compared to 41 percent in district schools. Some 80 percent are considered economically disadvantaged vs. 52 percent in regular district schools.

UW seeks ‘equity’ in grades, majors

Blacks and Latinos should achieve “equity” in grades and high-demand majors at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, according to the Framework for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence passed by the Faculty Senate. No one challenged the plan or debated the consequences, charges W. Lee Hansen, an emeritus economics professor, in Madness in Madison.

The framework is vague, a “thicket of cliches,” writes Hansen. However, an Ad Hoc Diversity Planning Committee has formulated goals and recommendations based on “Inclusive Excellence” framework  adopted earlier by the Board of Regents.

The  “representational equity” section calls for “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades.”

What does that mean?

 Suppose there were a surge of interest in a high demand field such as computer science. Under the “equity” policy, it seems that some of those who want to study this field would be told that they’ll have to choose another major because computer science already has “enough” students from their “difference” group.

Especially shocking is the language about “equity” in the distribution of grades. Professors, instead of just awarding the grade that each student earns, would apparently have to adjust them so that academically weaker, “historically underrepresented racial/ethnic” students perform at the same level and receive the same grades as academically stronger students.

At the very least, this means even greater expenditures on special tutoring for weaker targeted minority students. It is also likely to trigger a new outbreak of grade inflation, as professors find out that they can avoid trouble over “inequitable” grade distributions by giving every student a high grade.

I’m sure “equity” in grades and majors is a goal, not a mandate. UW professors wouldn’t turn Asian-American males away from computer science majors and tell them to try sociology, Spanish or African-American Studies instead. They wouldn’t set different grading standards by race and ethnicity or give everyone A’s to erase an achievement gap.


If UW wants to help underprepared students succeed in demanding majors, there are real things the university could do. Work with high schools and community colleges to improve readiness. Rethink counseling and tutoring. Set up summer jobs in STEM fields.

Helping minority students earn good grades is a worthy goal, writes Ann Althouse, also a UW professor. “We want all our students to do well.” 

The unfairness of education

Today (or, rather, within the next half-hour) I am going to take up the idea that education is at least somewhat unfair at the core. In the many discussions I have heard about “education for all,” those who say “education is never for all” end up playing the role of lone heretics. So my purpose here will be to take examine this claim and follow it where it might lead.

Let us define fairness as the principle of giving to each according to his or her deserts. Let us also assume that each student deserves a good education as much as the next. (Each of these assumptions could be contested, but let’s leave them for now.) Thus, fairness in education would consist of offering each student a good education.

Already, there is a complication: education is not only an offering; the student must also participate in it. More about that shortly.

Consider this basic truth (forgetting for the moment about qualifications): Any given lesson, no matter what it contains and how it’s taught, will be more helpful, appropriate, interesting, or accessible (physically or intellectually) for some than for others.

You can mitigate this unfairness by “differentiating” instruction or by dividing students into homogeneous groupings. Each of these solutions brings its own drawbacks, its own kind of unfairness. Differentiating can fragment instruction; tracking can result in limited opportunities for those in the lower tracks.

As a student, you can mitigate the situation by altering your own situation. For instance, if your class isn’t challenging enough, you can seek out additional challenge. If it’s too difficult, you can seek assistance.

None of these adjustments takes away the basic unfairness of the setup. This unfairness has a hidden good: although not all students receive the same thing from a lesson, it remains an offering; in other words, there is something to be received from it. In addition, quality and “reach” are not always at odds with each other; a course can begin by reaching only a few students and end by reaching the majority, simply because of the influence of the instruction.

So I will posit that the unfairness of education should not be eradicated across the board; to the contrary, educators should consider which aspects of the unfairness to preserve, and which to discard or mitigate.

Let us take the controversy over the “specialized” high schools (that is, elite public high schools such as Stuyvesant) in New York City. There is currently great pressure on these schools to increase their racial and ethnic diversity. This brings up a dilemma.

On the one hand, there’s good reason for them to retain their admissions standards. The entrance exam does test math and reading proficiency and mental stamina–prerequisites for the academic work that the schools require. Granted, any single test is an imperfect measure, for a variety of reasons–but once you get into “multiple measures,” you risk lowering the standards for admission. On the other hand, there are plenty of highly intelligent, competent, and focused African American and Hispanic students. It’s worth asking what could be done to admit more of them to the specialized schools.

(For instance, Brooklyn Latin had a practice–and maybe still does–of working with students who just barely fell short of the cut on the test. Another option would be to adopt a double measure: the test and a piece of academic work, for instance.)

In other words, there are several kinds of unfairness at work here. Some kinds are essential to the nature of the specialized schools; other kinds could be eradicated.

In short, certain kinds of unfairness in education are inevitable, even good, while other kinds are not. Making education completely fair will destroy its essence; complacency with all unfairness will make it brittle and cruel. One must sort out the different kinds of unfairness and decide which ones should stay and which should go.

Achievement gaps narrowed — till 2010

Achievement gaps narrowed under No Child Left Behind — until the Obama administration started handing out waivers, writes Brookings’ Mark Dynarski.

NCLB requires schools to analyze the achievement and progress of subgroups of low-income, black, Hispanic, special education and English Learner students.

. . .  if any subgroup failed to meet its targets for advancing, a school was designated “in need of improvement,” which triggered a set of increasing draconian consequences depending on how long the school remained in that category, e.g., mandatory school restructuring.

Since 2011, 43 states and the District of Columbia have received waivers from NCLB’s provisions. Many have combined subgroup data into a “super subgroup.”

The gap for all subgroups declined steadily throughout the early 2000s, with the largest improvements seen between 2000 and 2002. This progress seemed to slow by 2010, with gaps remaining unchanged or even ticking up slightly for some subgroups since then.

“It is possible waivers may impair equity,” Dynarski concludes.

SAT (and IQ) scores predict success

The SAT should be “abandoned and replaced,” argues Leon Botstein, former president of Bard, in Time.

Look at “the complex portrait” of college applicants’ lives rather than their test scores, writes Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times.

The test measures only SAT-taking skills, adds Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker.

Actually, the SAT predicts success in college “relatively well,” write David Z. Hambrick and Christopher Chabris, both psychology professors, in  Slate. It takes a few hours to administer and, unlike complex portraits, it can be scored in an objective way. 

SAT scores correlate very highly with IQ scores, they write. Harvard’s Howard Gardner, known for his theory of multiple intelligences, called the SAT and other measures “thinly disguised” intelligence tests.

A popular anti-SAT argument is that the test measures socioeconomic status rather than cognitive skill.

Boylan argued in her Times article that the SAT “favors the rich, who can afford preparatory crash courses” like those offered by Kaplan and the Princeton Review. Leon Botstein claimed in his Time article that “the only persistent statistical result from the SAT is the correlation between high income and high test scores.” And according to a Washington Post Wonkblog infographic (which is really more of a disinfographic) “your SAT score says more about your parents than about you.”

Test prep doesn’t make a big difference, write Hambrick and Chabris. And research shows a significant but “not huge” correlation between socioeconomic status and test scores. Plenty of low-income kids score well.

. .  .as it was originally designed to do, the SAT in fact goes a long way toward leveling the playing field, giving students an opportunity to distinguish themselves regardless of their background. Scoring well on the SAT may in fact be the only such opportunity for students who graduate from public high schools that are regarded by college admissions offices as academically weak.

“One person’s obstacle is another person’s springboard,” Dawn Harris Sherling wrote in response to Kolbert.

I am the daughter of a single, immigrant father who never attended college, and a good SAT score was one of the achievements that catapulted me into my state’s flagship university and, from there, on to medical school. Flawed though it is, the SAT afforded me, as it has thousands of others, a way to prove that a poor, public-school kid who never had any test prep can do just as well as, if not better than, her better-off peers.

Botstein advocates adjusting high school GPA “to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates” and abandoning the SAT, note Hambrick and Chabris. “A given high school GPA would be adjusted down for a poor, public-school kid, and adjusted up for a rich, private-school kid.”

A commenter responds: “The idea that standardized tests and ‘general intelligence’ are meaningless is wishful thinking.  People find it cruel that something essentially beyond your control—intrinsic intelligence—could matter so much.  But it does.”

Another commenter writes: “It’s like trying to argue that looks are meaningless.  Yeah, it sucks for most of us, but doesn’t mean it’s not true.”