Jane Sanders: Testing is a ‘disaster’

If Bernie Sanders is elected president, he’ll take education policy “in the exact opposite direction,” said his wife Jane in a Nation interview.

“We don’t really believe in standardized testing,” said the former college president. “I think the standardized tests that they say: do you know fourth-grade English or fourth-grade history? I think is a disaster and absolutely would not support that.”

Bernie and Jane Sanders campaign together.

Bernie and Jane Sanders campaign together.

“Schooling is meant to help people be creative, to have their curiosity stimulated, and have them be actively thinking whatever they’re thinking about — whether it’s the stars, the universe, climate change, anything,” she said. “Having them be able to feel they can explore anything, learn anything.”

A former social worker and political consultant, Jane Sanders earned a doctorate in leadership studies and became interim president of Goddard College and then president of tiny Burlington College, an alternative school with a 25 percent six-year graduation rate. (She left the latter school in deep financial trouble.)

She’s a big fan of progressive education, which she defined as “just having the students have more of a say in what it is they want to learn.”

You might be studying philosophy, math, or English, but you’re learning about what your passion is. Instead of having there be a prescribed set of study — that has a person conveying that knowledge to you — the teacher, the professor is a facilitator to try to meet your needs and to get you thinking critically and writing clearly and communicating effectively.

What if thinking and writing aren’t the student’s passion? He can’t study philosophy or literature because he never learned “fourth-grade English.”

Why my Catholic schools are opting in to testing

As superintendent of Partnership Schools, a network of six urban Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx, Kathleen Porter-Magee is opting in to state testing.  Results are used to “benchmark . . .  our students’ academic growth, and to ensure we are keeping expectations high,” she writes on The 74.

At St. Mark the Evangelist in Harlem, students take New York state tests, but don't do test prep.

At St. Mark the Evangelist in Harlem, a Partnership school, students take New York state tests, but don’t do test prep.

Union-backed organizations are trying to persuade parents to reject testing, she writes. One letter claims that “excessive standardized testing is consuming a child’s academic year” and that it “forces [teachers] to ‘teach to test’ and takes the joy out of learning”

New York state’s English and math tests take up less than one percent of the school year, writes Porter-Magee.

The test doesn’t “force” anything, she adds. “Decisions to scrap core content instruction in favor of test prep are leadership decisions, not policy decisions.”

“Independent measures” are needed to “ensure all students are being held to the same bar regardless of race or socioeconomic status,” writes Porter-Magee.

Recently, a Johns Hopkins University study found that “when evaluating a black student, white teachers expect significantly less academic success than black teachers,” and that “this is especially true for black boys.”

Moreover, “for black students, particularly black boys, having a non-black teacher in a 10th grade subject made them much less likely to pursue that subject by enrolling in similar classes. This suggests biased expectations by teachers have long-term effects on student outcomes.”

Relying only on “teacher-created tests and teacher-conferred grades” risks “systematizing the kind of unconscious bias that holds our most vulnerable children back,” she concludes. Standardized testing is “the best tool we have to expose” inequality.

Clinton abandons ed reform

Hillary Clinton is abandoning education reform, writes Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

In New York’s affluent suburban districts, test-hating parents “have joined forces with teachers unions, who see standardized tests as a tool that subjects them to unwanted accountability,” he writes.

Facing Bernie Sanders in the state’s presidential primary, Clinton is courting the “opt-out” vote.

Giving a national test once a year makes no sense, said Bill Clinton last week. Instead, he called for  “investing the same amount of money in helping the teachers to be better teachers.”

How would we know whether teachers are getting better?

“Testing is an important tool to measure racial and economic equality,” writes Chait.

A report this year by Ulrich Boser and Catherine Brown at the Center for American Progress found that states that use standards-based reform have produced better outcomes for low-income children. . . .  Not surprisingly, civil-rights organizations representing African-Americans and Latinos have argued to keep in place annual national testing.

. . . Bill Clinton framed his wife’s position in remarkable terms: “She thinks [the tests] are just too much, that it’s national overreach,” he said, “and the most it could ever do is to help people at the very bottom levels of achievement.”

Is “helping people at the bottom . . .  so insignificant that it’s not worth doing?” asks Chait. “What a thing for a Democrat to say!”

“You can’t solve problems you don’t have information about,” says Derrell Bradford,  executive director at the New York Campaign for Achievement Now, in an Ed Week story on testing flip-flops. “Saying you don’t need test data to make decisions about how to improve schools is like saying we can solve wealth inequality without income data and job reports. It’s just not real.”

African-American parents are the strongest supporters of school testing, reports Education Post. Most think tests are “fair and necessary” and “should be used to help parents identify areas where their child needs extra help.”

SAT, ACT become high school tests

While some colleges are going “test optional” more high schools are requiring the SAT or ACT, reports the New York Times. The rival college-admissions exams are being used to assess high school performance, as required by federal education law. State are dumping the two federally funded Common Core tests, Smarter Balanced and Parcc.

In January, Delaware decided to use the SAT, instead of Smarter, Balanced, “to meet the federal requirement to test high school students,” reports the Times.  A month later, the University of Delaware “announced that it would no longer require in-state students to submit SAT scores, citing research that high school grades better predict college success.”

Montana will use the ACT instead of Smarter Balanced, and Colorado will use the SAT instead of Parcc. At least seven other states plan to replace Common Core-aligned tests with the SAT or ACT, according to the Times.

Some states see requiring a college-admissions test for all students, including those without college plans, as a way to raise aspirations.

For high school students already planning to take the SAT or ACT, the move means one less exam — with no fee. But these tests are supposed to judge college readiness, not high school performance.

Going “test optional” allows colleges to raise the number of applicants, while hiding their drop in standards, writes Gerald Bradshaw, a college-admissions consultant, in the Chicago Tribune.

Students who opt to report their scores tend to have higher scores. “Test optional colleges can admit lower scoring students while at the same time maintaining artificially higher test averages in the US News and World Report rankings.”

Core testing moms plan ‘Opt Out, Shop Out’ 

Opponents of Common Core testing will stage an “Opt Out, Shop Out” event at a chic Long Island mall today, reports Newsday.

Participants wearing “Opt Out” T-shirts will urge parents to boycott state tests being given in April to students in grades three through eight.

“The Stuart Weitzman boutique is having a sale on their popular “Mummy in Suede”sandals — only $465!,” notes Laura Waters on Head in the Sand, Education Post’s new blog.

Teachers’ union leaders are backing the “shop out.”

Opt-outers, please don’t mistake arrogance for awareness,” writes Tracy Dell’Angela, also on Head in the Sand. (The idea is that we need to get our heads out of the sand.)

 You don’t know what’s best for my biracial daughters. You don’t know what’s best for the families who are the real victims of the anti-accountability movement—black and brown students, disabled kids and students learning English, students from low-income families, all those students ill-served by our nation’s worst schools and some of our best schools too.

Opting out of testing is “a luxury, afforded to parents who are blessed with well-funded schools, stable teaching staffs, and some assurance that their privilege will pave the way for their child’s success,” she writes.

Opt-out leaders reject NY test changes

An anti-testing rally at Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in March. Photo: Justin Weiner

New York students will take untimed tests this spring, said Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia.

“Thousands of students boycotted last year’s tests, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to form a testing task force that called for a complete overhaul of the state’s learning standards and assessments,” reports Chalkbeat NY.

Elia also promised to give teachers more say in reviewing test questions and to shorten the length of tests.

Opt-out leaders weren’t impressed, saying parents won’t be appeased by minor changes.

“This is a pretty useless response to the opt-out movement,” Brooklyn teacher Jessica Klonsky wrote on Facebook. “People were not opting their children out of the tests because they didn’t have enough time to take them. They opted out because the tests and their preparation take up too much time as it is. Now they are going to take up more time!”

“More time for students to be frustrated on flawed state tests isn’t the answer,” Carl Korn, a state teachers’ union spokesman, responded in a statement.

Computer use widens writing gap

group elementary school students in computer class Writing essays on a computer, instead of using pencil and paper, helped high-performing fourth graders, but hurt average and low performers, concludes a new analysis of a 2012 federal study.  Computer use “may have widened the writing achievement gap,” warned researchers.

The Department of Education is pushing computerized tests, which are “more efficient and cheaper to grade,” writes Hechinger’s Jill Barshay. That could affect black, Latino and low-income students disproportionately.

In the study, high-performing students — the top 20 percent of the test takers — produced an average of 179 words per assignment on the computer, three times the number of words that the bottom 20 percent produced.  They also used spellcheck, backspace and other editing tools far more often. The researchers found that these high-performing students were more likely to have access to a computer and the Internet at home.

Teaching keyboarding and editing, giving students practice writing on a computer and buying child-sized keyboards could help, says Steve Graham, an Arizona State professor. While some fourth graders type at 25 word per minute, the average 12 words per minute and some are even slower.

Even handwriting advocates back teaching students to type, writes Barshay. University of Washington Professor Virginia Berninger thinks cursive writing instruction has “neurological benefits to the developing brain.” But she also supports teaching touch typing. “If we’re going to give them the annual test by computer, by golly, teach them how to use the computer. It’s not fair if we don’t.”

NY asks more on algebra test — and more fail

“If the percentage of students passing the Algebra I exam falls to 63 percent from 72 percent, and the passing grade is scheduled to increase by 9 points in coming years, should the test be made easier?” That’s the question facing New York state education officials, according to the New York Times.

In 2013, the State Board of Regents decided too many high school graduates were unprepared for college. They revamped English and Algebra I exams required for graduation and made plans to raise the passing score to a “college-ready” level.

Pass rates have fallen on new Core-aligned exams. Statewide, less than a quarter of students met the “college-ready” level in Algebra I. Here are sample questions, which seem easy to me.

It’s even worse in New York City, where “only 52 percent of students passed the 2015 exam, down from 65 percent the previous year on the old exam,” reports the Times. “Just 16 percent reached the ‘college-ready’ level.”

Among the ideas the city is considering: having fifth graders take math with a specialized instructor instead of one teacher for all subjects; teaming up with local universities to get more sixth- and seventh-grade math teachers certified in math instruction; creating summer programs for middle- and high-school students who are struggling in math; and training middle-school and algebra teachers in how to address students’ “math anxiety.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged that all students will have access to algebra in eighth grade by 2022, and all students will complete algebra by the end of ninth grade.

At Park East High School in Manhattan, most students enter doing math below grade level, yet 91 percent of students who took the Algebra I Regents this year passed it.

Ninth graders have two periods of algebra each day, which crowds out art, music and health.

Overtested? Not really

“The U.S. is not a country of heavy testing,” says Andreas Schleicher, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education director.

Andreas Schleicher

Andreas Schleicher

Analyzing PISA survey data from more than 70 countries, Schleicher concludes that the U.S. ranks “just below average” in the frequency of standardized tests, writes Jill Barshay in the Hechinger Report.

High-performing Asian countries, the Netherlands and Belgium test often, he said. “More than a third of 15-year-olds in the Netherlands said they took a standardized test at least once a month,” reports Barshay. “In Israel, more than a fifth said they took a monthly standardized test.”

Only 2 percent of U.S. students take standardized tests every month, while the OECD average is 8 percent.

Ninety-seven percent of U.S. 15-year-olds said they took a standardized test once or twice a year. That’s “about the same share as in Finland,” writes Barshay.

Perhaps Finnish schools spend less time on test prep.

From No Child Left Behind to Every Student Succeeds 

The newest proposed version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — this one’s likely to become law by year’s end — has been released. Ed Week’s Politics K-12 has the details on what’s, unfortunately, named the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA). Did we learn nothing about overpromising from No Child Left Behind?

States would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different “subgroups” of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty).

But beyond that, states get wide discretion in setting goals, figuring out just what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. And while tests still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors that get at students’ opportunity to learn, like school-climate and teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

States and districts will have to use locally-developed, evidence-based interventions, though, in the bottom 5 percent of schools and in schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate.

Deciding on teacher qualifications will return to state and local control.

“ESSA doesn’t come close to getting it all right, but it’s a vast improvement on NCLB and the status quo,” concludes Rick Hess. “ESSA retains the big thing that NCLB got right for students (e.g. transparency) while stripping away ham-fisted dictates that created problems for students and schools.”