Opting out gets press — or is it hype?

Grassroots resistance to Common Core tests — the  “opt out” movement — is getting more press than it deserves, argues Alexander Russo in Columbia Journalism Review.

. . . much of the media’s coverage of this spring’s Common Core testing rollout has been guilty of over-emphasizing the extent of the conflict, speculating dire consequences based on little information, and over-relying on anecdotes and activists’ claims rather than digging for a broader sampling of verified numbers. The real story—that the rollout of these new, more challenging tests is proceeding surprisingly well—could be getting lost.

He hits John Merrow’s PBS NewsHour report on resistance to Core-aligned exams in New Jersey and elsewhere.

Merrow responds here.

Saying no to tests — and to the Core

Opt Out Tonight on PBS Newshour, John Merrow reports on the Opt Out Movement.

Fifteen million students are taking — or refusing to take — the first round of Common Core-aligned tests this month. What happens to the new standards if too many students opt out?

Opting out of opting out

Brooklyn parents protest new Common Core-aligned tests. Photo: Girlray/Flickr

Mike Thomas, who writes for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, is opting in to testing for his children.

Amanda Ripley, who wrote The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, tweeted: “What would you like to opt your kid out of?”

Thomas lists his favorite responses:

We really have had people opt out of lice checks. Apparently we have right to lice.

We should not be labeling kids w/lice as failures. “I AM MORE THAN MY LICE CHECK RESULTS!!!!

I’d opt my kid out of going to school w/kids whose parents opted them out of vaccinations.

Lockdown drills. Acne. Writing bibliographies.

Braces. They make kids cry. Also: cavities.

Birthday parties for kids you kind of know.

Lice, acne, braces, bibliographies — and school tests — are the challenges of life, Thomas concludes.

Ann Whalen rounds up opt-out and opt-in news on Education Post.

Rebecca Mead’s son attends a Brooklyn school where 70 percent of parents have opted out of testing.

Anti-testers want to dump data, end reform

“Opt-out activists are targeting more than just the tests themselves,” writes Owen Davis in Alternet’s 7 Big Public Education Stories of 2014. “As an assistant principal in New York explained to me in October, ‘The whole school reform machine falls down without the data’.”

“Indeed, the school reform movement DOES fall down without the data,” writes Lynnell Mickelsen on Put Kids First. So why do progressives want to dump the evidence showing that children of color are failing in traditional public schools?

LA Johnson, NPR

LA Johnson, NPR

No Child Left Behind required schools to test annually in grades 3 to 8 and report the results by demographic subgroups, writes Mickelsen, who describes herself as a progressive Democrat and recovering journalist. “The resulting data showed stark, systematic gaps between white kids and children of color that couldn’t be dismissed simply by income levels.”

Schools aren’t solely to blame for the gap, she writes. But, “this is what institutional racism looks like, folks: starkly different outcomes for different groups.”

In addition, analyzing the data has shown that “different teachers consistently had very different results,” Mickelsen adds.

 This data made it harder for the teachers’ union to claim that no one could really tell who was a good teacher or not—it was all so subjective and personality-driven, which is why seniority had to be the top criteria in almost all staffing decisions, etc.

In recent years, more states have “required that teachers be evaluated in part  by the progress their students make on these exams,” she writes. “And ding, ding, ding, this is when the organized backlash against ‘high-stakes,’ ‘high-stress’ testing seems to truly have started.”

When the sole responsibility for test outcomes was on the children, there was little to no organized test resistance. But as soon as some of the responsibility shifted to the adults, oh my God!  Let the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. Oh, the inhumanity! Oh, the stress of “high-stakes”! Oh, the loss of childhood! Oh, the corporate conspiracy of Pearson! And so forth.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the anti-test movement. Some districts test too much. Endless rote test prep is dumb. Art, music and gym are all crucial and belong in the curriculum.

But the organized movement to dump standardized testing and replace it with projects or individual teacher’s tests, also strikes me as blatant attempt to dump the evidence.

Most opt-out parents are white, “Crunchy Mamas,” she writes. Their kids are doing fine, or so they believe. “Check your privilege, people,” she writes. “Just sayin’.”

Forget about “fixing” black kids and try fixing white liberals, Mickelsen writes in the MinnPost.

One test to judge them all!

The nation’s entire K-12 curriculum will be replaced by a single standardized test, reports The Onion. (Yes, satire.)

Students will be able to take the test at any time between age 5 and 18, said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Onion

The four-hour-long Universal Education Assessment will take the place of classroom instruction and homework assignments, The Onion reports.

It will “cover all topics formerly taught in K-12 classrooms, including algebra, World War I, cursive penmanship, pre-algebra, state capitals, biology, letters of the alphabet, environmental science, civics, French, Newtonian mechanics, parts of speech, and the Cold War.” In addition, “sources said students will also be expected to demonstrate their knowledge of 19th-century American pioneer life, photosynthesis, and telling time.”

The test will include an essay section in which students will be able to choose from one of several prompts, ranging from “Describe the American system of federalism,” to “If I could be any animal in the world, I would be a…,” to “Write a book report on Lois Lowry’s The Giver.”

Teachers give low grade to PARCC exam

PARCC — the biggest Common Core testing consortium — has put sample test questions online.

Teacher Peter Greene, who blogs at Curmudgucation, found lots of problems with the practice test for high school English.

To start with, PARCC must be taken on a computer. It’s “a massive pain in the patoot,” writes Greene.

 The reading selection is in its own little window and I have to scroll the reading within that window. The two questions run further down the page, so when I’m looking at the second question, the window with the selection in it is halfway off the screen, so to look back to the reading I have to scroll up in the main window and then scroll up and down in the selection window and then take a minute to punch myself in the brain in frustration.

Teachers will have to prep students to handle the format.

Questions focus very heavily on finding things in the text that support answers. The first question asks which three out of seven terms in the text on DNA testing in agriculture “help clarify” the meaning of  “DNA fingerprint.”

If I already understand the term, none of them help (what helped you learn how to write your name today?), and if I don’t understand the term, apparently there is only one path to understanding. If I decide that I have to factor in the context in which the phrase is used, I’m back to scrolling in the little window . . . I count at least four possible answers here, but only three are allowed. Three of them are the only answers to use “genetics” in the answer.

I tried the practice reading test for grades 3-5. I picked the meaning of “master” with no trouble. Which sentence — out of four choices — helped me do so? None of them.

When the high school test moves on to literature, it demands that poetry has one meaning only, complains Greene.

Reading the text closely is a waste of time, he writes. He can do better by reading the questions and answers closely, then using the text “as a set of clues about which answer to pick.” 

Another section features Abigail Adams’ letter to John Adams calling for women’s rights. Questions focus on “her use of ‘tyrant’ based entirely on context,” Greene writes. “Because no conversation between Abigail and John Adams mentioning tyranny in 1776 could possibly be informed by any historical or personal context.”

In short, he concludes PARCC is “unnecessarily complicated, heavily favoring students who have prior background knowledge, and absolutely demanding that test prep be done with students.”

PARCC won’t produce reliable results, writes Michael Mazenko, a Colorado teacher. He tried the seventh-grade reading test, which contains passages from The Count of Monte Cristo.  That’s too hard for seventh graders, Mazenko writes.

And, like Greene, he thinks the computerized format strongly favors the most computer-savvy students.

Why suburban moms fear the Core

Hysteria about Common Core teaching and testing has gripped suburban moms, writes Laura McKenna in The Atlantic. She likens it to anti-vaccination fears.

Millions of children will take new Core-aligned tests this spring.  “Conspiracy theories . .  .have grown out of parents’ natural instinct to protect their children from bureaucracies and self-styled experts,” writes McKenna, who’s a suburban mom herself.

White, middle-class parents, often very involved in their kids’ education “worry that they won’t be able to help kids with homework, because the new learning materials rely on teaching methods foreign to them,” she writes. They feel powerless to stop the juggernaut.

Social media fans the fears.

There are those Facebook posts promoting articles with click-bait titles like “Parents Opting Kids Out of Common Core Face Threats From Schools,” or “Common Core Test Fail Kids In New York Again. Here’s How,” or “5 Reasons the Common Core Is Ruining Childhood.”

 I can picture it in my head: articles with stock photos of children sitting miserably at a desk or ominous images of broken pencils.

Teachers across the country, including those in her suburban New Jersey district, are turning against the Core, especially if scores are tied to teacher evaluations, writes McKenna.  That’s influenced parents.

Some states have pulled out of the Common Core.  “More than half of the 26 states that initially signed onto the PARCC exam in 2010 have dropped out,” notes McKenna. A dozen states will use the test this spring, while 17 states will take the rival SBAC. The rest will use their own tests.

Who backs testing? Liberal reformers

Now that school testing is unpopular, its enemies see it as “conservative,” writes Rick Hess. But, liberal reformers are the most enthusiastic advocates of testing, which they see as the way to close the “achievement gap.”

“Conservative enthusiasm for testing has been tempered by an appreciation for school choice,” Hess writes. Liberals are all in.

In 2009, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top pushed states to sign on to the yet-to-be-developed Common Core tests and to promise they’d start judging teachers based on test scores. Since that time, the administration’s dubious practice of granting states “waivers” from No Child Left Behind if they agree to pay fealty to administration priorities when it comes to things such as teacher testing has continued to herd states down this path. The teacher-evaluation systems, in particular, require a spate of new tests for the three-quarters of teachers not captured by those NCLB reading and math tests.

Well-intentioned liberal reform groups such as the Education Trust, Center for American Progress, and Democrats for Education Reform have led the gap-closing charge, Hess concludes.

Why we need annual testing

Credit: Christopher King

Credit: Christopher King

The bipartisan campaign to roll back testing would “roll back progress” for students, argues Bellweather’s Chad Aldeman in the New York Times.

Improve test quality, he writes. (He thinks better tests are coming soon.) Cut back on time-wasting tests for benchmarking or teacher evaluations. But keep annual state exams to measure “how much students learn and grow over time.”

Grade-span testing — for example, testing only in fifth, eighth and 10th grade — would let many schools off the hook for the achievement of low-achieving subgroups, Aldeman writes.

A school with 10 Hispanic students in each grade would no longer be held accountable for whether those students were making sufficient progress, because the 10 fifth graders wouldn’t be enough to count as a meaningful population size.

To get a sense of how many students could become newly “invisible,” consider public elementary schools in Washington, D.C. Applying the same minimum group size currently used for entire schools to the fifth grade only, about half of the city’s 119 elementary schools with fifth graders taking math tests would not be held accountable for the progress of low-income or African-American students, because there aren’t enough of them in that grade to constitute a reliable sample size. For that same reason, less than 10 percent of schools would be responsible for Hispanic students or English language learners, and not a single elementary school would be accountable for the progress of students with disabilities.

No Child Left Behind has worked, argues Aldeman. Fourth and eighth grade achievement scores of black, Hispanic and low-income students are at an all-time  high, along with high school graduation rates.

The retreat from school accountability threatens disadvantaged students’ progress, warns the Bush Institute. Its Big Idea report defends annual statewide testing, but blames districts for overloading students with unnecessary benchmark exams.

An Atlantic story quotes Anya Kamenetz, author of The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be.

Citing a study of students in North Carolina that indicated 85 percent of variation in test scores could be predicted by family income, she asked, why — if income is such a strong predictor — do “we need to administer a test to define what’s happening to these children?”

Well, if we think that all low-income kids will score badly and that it’s impossible to help any of them improve, then there’s no point in testing. We don’t need to test the rich kids either. They’re predestined to succeed. Schools could spend no time on testing — or instruction. After all, family income is the thing that matters. Let the kids play!

Less testing is less effective

Congress is moving — finally — to revise No Child Left Behind, aka the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. There’s bipartisan support for rolling back the federal requirement for annual tests in grades three through eight, reports Education Week. One proposal is to require states to test only once in elementary, middle and high school.

Annual statewide testing is critical to judging school quality, write Matthew M. Chingos and Martin R. West in a Brookings paper. Annual testing shows students’ growth, making it possible to identify “the schools that contribute the least to students’ learning” and those that “perform well despite difficult circumstances.”

By contrast, testing once per grade span produces an average score that “judges schools based on the students they serve, not how well they serve them.”

Percent of Low-Income and High-Minority Schools Identified as Bottom-15%, by Measure