The Religious Reasons My Kids Won’t be Taking the Test

As we head into several weeks of high-stakes-testing here in Pennsylvania, I would like to share with you the religious reasons my children will not be taking the state mandated PSSAs. Here is an open letter I sent to Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools; Dr. Lisa Augustin, Director of Assessment; Ms. Jamie Kinzel-Nath, Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 principal; and all of our children’s wonderful teachers.

April 10, 2015

Dear Dr. Lane and Ms. Kinzel-Nath:

Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(5) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my children, ____________, excused from PSSA testing on the grounds of my religious beliefs. Please allow ­­­­­­­­­___________ to pursue alternate educational activities such as a research project or volunteering in younger classrooms during testing.

I could stop my letter right there, as that is all that is legally required by the state in order to excuse our children from testing. However, as this is our third year writing such letters, I would like to explain the religious grounds we have for refusing to allow our children to be tested. Even though, under law, no state or school official is permitted to ask us about our faith nor require “proof” of our beliefs, I would like to share these religious reasons with you.

We belong to First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, a member of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), which is active in education justice. Every Sunday, we recite seven principles that unite Unitarian Universalists. Most of these principles are basic moral and philosophical statements shared by all of the world’s major religions. They reflect the common values of most faiths, from “love one another” and “do unto others,” to respect for the spark of the divine in each of us, and the ethical-humanist imperative to leave this world a better place. Please allow me to explain how each of these seven principles has led us to refuse high-stakes-testing for our own children, and on behalf of all children.

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Every child is valuable – priceless – and has the human right to a rich, full education. Respecting the inherent worth of every child also means treating each student as an individual, and not a widget being produced in a factory. Standardized testing, tied to an ever more standardized common core curriculum, sorts students into categories (“below basic,” “basic,” etc.) There are serious consequences to this sorting and labeling (see below), but the underlying premise of this standardized high-stakes-testing is to compare and rank students – not to support the individual learning of each student.

This is clearly evident when schools use standardized, normed tests, which force all students into a bell curve, guaranteeing that a large proportion of the children will fail. To get that nice bell shape of test results, with exactly half of the children falling on the “below average” side of the curve, the tests are carefully designed with purposefully misleading questions. For instance, test makers will use tricky sound-alike answers to intentionally trip up English language learners, or culturally specific clues most easily decoded only by students from wealthy families. Pittsburgh is subjecting students to the normed GRADE test not once, but three times a year (a result of accepting state money that came with testing strings attached). Teachers have been reporting the problematic GRADE test questions for years, but the test-maker has not changed them because this “assessment” requires a set failure rate. In what way does this kind of standardized testing respect the inherent worth of our students? When students’ test scores are then displayed for all to see on “data walls” (an increasingly common practice in our schools), how does this respect the dignity of each child?

  1. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

While advocates claim that high-stakes-testing will hold teachers and schools accountable for student learning and therefore promote equity, it often does the exact opposite by reinforcing inequality. High-stakes-testing labels our schools as “failures,” but never results in additional resources to actually help kids. Instead, “failing” schools are often targeted for closure. When you look at the pattern of school closures across the country – including here in Pittsburgh – you can see that districts have closed schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, displacing some students multiple times. Our communities of color have been harmed the most, with places like Oakland and Hazelwood turned into education deserts without a single neighborhood public school.

Schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of student test scores are often targeted with other “reforms” that rarely help children. Our own beloved Colfax provides an excellent example of the “disruptive innovation” imposed on supposedly failing schools. Nine years ago when our family first started at Colfax, its large achievement gap had recently earned it a designation as a “turnaround school.” The district fired every single teacher and the principal then handpicked an entirely new teaching staff. The idea, of course, was that we had to get rid of the “bad” teachers and hire only “great” teachers and that would solve the problem of low test scores. Fast forward almost a decade and you can see that this didn’t work: Colfax still has one of the largest achievement gaps in the city (which is really an opportunity gap made highly visible by the presence of families from some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest and poorest communities together in the same school).

During this same decade, Colfax students also experienced a relentless series of “reforms,” all aimed at increasing test scores. When we started, Colfax was a Spanish language immersion school, then we lost the extra language instruction to become an “Accelerated Learning Academy” focused on reading and math. We got an America’s Choice curriculum that was supposed to solve everything and added extra periods of reading. We got a longer school day and a longer school year. We got a Parent Engagement Specialist. Then we lost the curriculum, lost the extra time and days, and lost the parent specialist. The district changed to a 6 day week, so we could cram in extra reading and math periods, since these are tested subjects, resulting in a net loss of music, art, language, and physical education. With state budget cuts we lost more music and athletic programs, and we even lost our after school tutoring program aimed at those very students whose test scores continue to cause so much alarm. And class sizes ballooned to 30, sometimes 35 and more students.

Imposing constant churn and disruption on our most vulnerable students in the pursuit of higher test scores is not education justice. Worse, the relentless high-stakes-testing has served to re-inscribe inequality. We recently heard from Jon Parker, a Pittsburgh high school teacher, who explained what high-stakes-testing is doing to students’ sense of self worth in his classroom. Every year, he asks his students to write him a letter introducing themselves. In his class of struggling readers this year, over half of the students included their most recent PSSA rating as part of their introduction. They literally said things like, “I’ll work hard but I’m below basic.”

Mr. Parker explains, “the tragic message from our high stakes test environment is ‘you are your score.’ And if we tell a student he’s below basic regularly from the time he’s in kindergarten, what else would we expect of him? One of the stated goals of No Child Left Behind was to combat the ‘soft racism of low expectations.’ But instead it has created a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. ‘You have failed in the past; you will fail forever.’ I cannot imagine where I would be if I had that school experience, but I can guarantee you I wouldn’t be here.”

Mr. Parker also examined the ways in which high-stakes-tests are used to exclude students from high-quality courses and programs. He gave the example of a young woman of color in his class right now with a 4.0 GPA – “one of the most well-rounded and motivated students I’ve ever had” – who will be excluded from taking the advanced math and science courses she would like to take next year solely because of a test score.

What’s more, Mr. Parker argued that if high-stakes-tests are meant to indicate which students need support so teachers can help them, they are miserably failing this most basic task. Instead, administrators and teachers makes lists of “bubble students” who are close to the passing mark and focus their energy on moving these students up to “proficient.” The students with the most needs, struggling at the very bottom, are passed over: “they are neglected, perpetuating what has probably been the whole of their educational experience. ‘You’re a failure; you’re not worth our time.’ Then we wonder why we have such disparity in opportunities, a lack of student or family buy-in, negative attention seeking behaviors (for which we then suspend students).”

So if our students who need the most help never get that help, where is the equity? If a young woman of color with 4.0 GPA wants to take advanced math and science classes but and can’t because of a single test score, where is the justice? If children now label themselves with their own test scores and literally believe themselves to be “below basic,” where is our compassion?

  1. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

Part of accepting one another is recognizing that we each have unique gifts and strengths. We are not all the same. Some students excel in trombone or slam poetry, or are highly empathetic or fantastic story tellers: none of which gets measured by high stakes testing. I am concerned about the intellectual growth of our students as well as the nurturing of their individual spirits. I believe in real learning and more learning time for our children. I support quality assessments that help our children learn and provide meaningful information to teachers to help them meet the needs of individual students. I want tests, ideally designed by teachers, which align with the curriculum and give timely, informative results to parents and students.

  1. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

As a scholar, I am committed to a free and responsible search for truth and I highly value data and evidence in that quest. We now have a mountain of evidence about the negative consequences of the high-stakes attached to testing, as well as the over-use and mis-use of testing. To summarize, these are some of the high-stakes for students:

  • Lost learning time: there’s less time for learning with testing and test prep (for instance, Pittsburgh students now take 20-25, or more, high-stakes tests a year). We have reports in the district this week of students covering up the walls to prepare for testing, rather than spending their time learning.
  • Reduced content knowledge: research shows that students are learning how to take high-stakes-tests, but cannot demonstrate subject mastery when tested in a different format. In other words, they are not actually learning. [Koretz, 2008]
  • Narrowed curriculum: with a focus on reading and math scores, students lose history, civics, world languages, the arts, and other programs.
  • Decreased ability to write: writing portions of high-stakes standardized tests are graded by hourly employees – not teachers – who are often recruited from Craig’s list and paid minimum wage. To “pass” these tests, students are taught a narrowly confined way to answer writing prompts.
  • Subjected to stale, dull methods: educators report that the focus on high-stakes-testing and test-prep means they cannot be creative and innovative in their teaching.
  • Missed teachers and classes: intense security measures prevent teachers from overseeing testing in their own classrooms, so teachers from non-testing classrooms (such as Kindergarten teachers) are frequently pulled from their students to proctor exams.
  • Used as guinea pigs: schools and districts routinely agree to allow their students to “field test” new questions and entire exams for testing corporations without notifying parents or compensating students. Teachers are expected to give a test they did not design, on material they did not teach, to students who will not learn anything from the experience. Those teachers, students, and their parents will never see the results. Last year when the district field-tested text dependent analysis, one principal told us students ripped up the tests and said they couldn’t do it. Field testing further reduces actual learning time and contributes to the stress imposed on our children.
  • Shut out of programs: high stakes exclude students when test results count as extra weight in magnet lotteries or for entrance to gifted programs or advanced courses.
  • Diverted resources: the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on testing in Pennsylvania are not available for classroom education. Most high-stakes tests are written by and benefit the bottom line of a handful of large international corporations. For instance, the new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, cost Pennsylvania taxpayers $2.7 million to develop and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. This does not include the five-year, $201.1 million contract with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. Dr. Greg Taranto, Pennsylvania Middle School Teacher of the Year and member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team, recently shared with us that state testing will cost us $58 million this year!
  • School closures: schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of test scores can be threatened with closure. These schools are usually in communities of color.
  • Loss of curiosity and love of learning: bubble tests are developmentally inappropriate for the youngest learners, yet are routinely being pushed down into Kindergarten in an attempt to get students “test ready.” The emphasis on “skill drill and kill” fails to stimulate children’s imagination and limits their natural curiosity. At Colfax, I’m concerned this has meant that our “enrichment” period has turned into an extra period of reading skills for most students.
  • Blocked access to facilities: as more and more tests are given on-line, many schools find their computer labs taken over by testing for weeks on end and not available for learning.
  • Harmful stress: children are pressured to not only demonstrate their knowledge but to represent the effectiveness of their teachers and their schools. Teachers are reporting children throwing up, losing control of their bowels, and increased commitments for psychiatric and anxiety issues. Mandated testing conditions, particularly for some special education students, border on child-abuse and some parents are reporting evidence of self-harming behaviors.
  • Internalized failure: struggling students forced to repeatedly take tests that label them “below basic” begin to believe they are “bad” or “worthless” students who cannot succeed in school.
  • Grades: some high-stakes tests are included in students’ grades.
  • Graduation requirements: as Pennsylvania introduces the Keystone graduation exams, evidence suggests that up to 60% of our students of color will be forced out of school without a diploma on the basis of a single score.
  • Altered school culture: schools must empty their walls and hallways for many weeks; classes are under lock-down with limited access to restrooms; some turn to daily announcements or even pep rallies to “prepare” students for testing and all-school field trips to “celebrate” testing (rather than actual learning).
  • Private data tracked: testing companies are tracking an enormous amount of information on our students, from test scores to even discipline data on children. Dr. Taranto told us, “this fact is not disclosed to parents” and he asks, “Who has access to this information? Who will have access to this student data down the road?”
  • Loss of enrichment: schools are eliminating academic field trips and pressuring teachers not to participate in activities that would take students out of school to maximize classroom time (for test prep). During PSSA testing, Pittsburgh’s gifted center also closes so those teachers can be reassigned to proctor the exams in other district schools.

With all of that evidence that high-stakes-testing is hurting students, changing their schools for the worse, and reducing real learning, why are we still giving so many standardized tests? Steve Singer, a teacher in the Steel Valley School District, points out that some tests can serve a political purpose. For instance, the DIBELS test, used to evaluate reading, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and “cut scores are being artificially raised to make it look like more students are failing and thus our schools aren’t doing a good job.” Yet Mr. Singer explains that the DIBELS “doesn’t assess comprehension,” and “rewards someone who reads quickly but not someone who understands what she’s reading.” Also, he explains that, “focusing on pronunciation separate from comprehension narrows the curriculum and takes away time from proven strategies that actually would help [a student] become a better reader.”

My son’s experience with the DIBELS illustrates the way in which standardized tests can be used as gatekeepers, excluding even very high achieving students from accessing appropriate programs. My son was a “late” reader (which is not really true: he learned to read when he was developmentally ready in the third grade, and became a voracious, wonderful reader). But when he was in second grade, we were told his DIBELS score was too low to allow him to take an accelerated math class. He had taught himself multiplication at the age of four and was bored out of his mind in class. But the teacher had her orders: students needed to be reading 100 words per minute or could not advance to anything else. During our conversation with her about this, she called our son over and said, “I notice that you spend a lot of time looking out the window, like you were just now. Why are you daydreaming?” To which he answered, “Well, I was thinking about how if you have a ball in your hand, and drop it, and it hits the floor but doesn’t come all the way back up, where did that energy go?” I kid you not. He was seven years old and this was his response. The teacher looked right at us and said, “But see? He’s not reading 100 words per minute.”

Ideally, teachers are able to use test scores as just one data point among many to determine what students need to support their learning. But the hyper-focus on testing – and accountability measures that hold teachers responsible for getting every student over developmentally-arbitrary thresholds – means that time and again students are not treated as whole, complex learners, but rather reduced to a single score.

Testing advocates tell us that we must test every child, every year in order to identify inequality and drive reform (something no other high-education-achieving nation in the world does). But we have ample evidence from education researchers that high-stakes-testing is not improving schools. Over 2,000 education researchers recently sent an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress: citing reams of data, the researchers wrote, “we strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” The letter went on to quote evidence at length from a new policy memo from the National Education Policy Center, which effectively summarizes a “broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform.”

Evidence also shows serious problems with using high-stakes-testing to evaluate and rate schools. For example, a detailed analysis of the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) rating system found that – despite its claim to use “multiple measures” to evaluate schools and teachers – 90% of the calculation is based on high-stakes standardized tests. Yet “these measures are closely associated with student poverty rates and other out- of-school factors.” In other words, the tests are very good at measuring one thing: a family’s socio-economic status. Even the much-touted Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS) component of the score, which is supposed to calculate projected student growth while controlling for out-of-school factors, instead strongly correlates with poverty. The report raises “questions about whether the measures are a valid and reliable measure for purposes of school accountability.” In essence, schools are being held accountable, not for what students learn, but for the poverty level of the families they serve.

Similarly, teachers are being evaluated on the basis of the test scores of their students. This is an invalid use of data, violating a basic principle of assessment, since those tests were never designed to measure teacher effectiveness. You can’t take a test created to measure one thing and use it to measure another. Nevertheless, the entire teacher evaluation system is built on just this assumption. In fact, the Value Added Model (VAM) used to evaluate teacher “effectiveness,” assumes that student test scores are the result of a specific teacher, independent of all other factors. Yet the American Statistical Association (ASA) released a report last spring strongly warning about the limitations of VAM models, explaining, “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores” and that “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” The statistical researchers concluded, “This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.”

My son’s situation reveals how inappropriate the entire VAM system can be. He is now several years ahead in math and takes his class at the high school each morning, before returning to Colfax for the rest of the day. However, the state would require him to take a PSSA several grade levels below where he is currently working. In what way would this assess his actual learning this year? This test is clearly not about helping my son in any way: it’s about evaluating his teacher. But if he scores at the very top of the PSSA, as he is bound to do, he is simply demonstrating the ceiling effect – there is no way to “show growth” for this student. Yet his teachers are accountable for the “growth” in each student’s test score. Furthermore, which teacher should we hold accountable for his score – the math teacher at Colfax who does not even have him in school this year? His math teacher at the high school who is not teaching him the material covered on the PSSA?

The American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education released a report showing that VAM models are highly unstable: teachers rated highly effective one year, are frequently rated ineffective the next. Their ratings also differed substantially between classes taught in a single year. The report also confirmed that teachers’ VAM ratings were significantly affected by the demographics of the students they taught: even when VAM calculations tried to account for this, teachers’ scores were negatively impacted by working with poor students, English language learners, and students with special education needs. Finally, this report demonstrated that VAM ratings “cannot disentangle the many influences on students progress” and stated “most researchers have concluded that VAM is not appropriate as a primary measure for evaluating individual teachers.”

Yet as we place more and more emphasis on holding teachers, principals, and entire schools accountable for student test scores, we have seen a plague of adult cheating scandals erupt across the country. We should not be surprised, since Campbell’s Law in social science states that the more a quantitative measurement is used to make decisions, the more subject it becomes to corruption and the more likely it is to corrupt the thing it was supposed to measure. This is exactly what has happened, with the conviction of 11 former teachers in Atlanta this week who are now facing 5-20 years in prison for changing answers on student tests to raise scores. The superintendent of El Paso, Texas is currently in prison for taking low-performing students out of classes in order to increase the district’s test scores. In Ohio several cities apparently listed low-performing students as “withdrawn” to remove their scores from school totals. Some charter schools are well known for the “charter dump,” pushing students out just before testing season in order to inflate their test scores (sending students back into traditional public schools, where their new teachers will be held accountable for their learning). In Washington D.C. former superintendent Michelle Rhee – now the darling of the corporate reform movement who is famous for publicly firing a principal and massive school closures – oversaw her own “Erasure-gate” but was never held accountable. And right here in Pennsylvania our own former state Secretary of Education, Rom Tomalis, was caught both lying and cheating about student test scores (and then went on to occupy a ghost-job in the state capitol, making $140,000 a year but not showing up for work).

So why are we doing this? Why are we using our children’s test scores to feed a teacher evaluation system that not only doesn’t work, but actually harms teachers who work with our most vulnerable children? Finally, this Unitarian principle requires a commitment to a responsible search for truth, which means we have to be willing to examine the consequences of our own seeking. What if the collection and use of data on student achievement, as measured by test scores, is actually causing harm?

  1. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

I am exercising my right of conscience by refusing to allow my children to take these tests. Our family cannot and will not be complicit in a system that we see harming others and damaging our common good.

High-stakes testing has also interfered with the democratic process. In many cities that lack democratically elected school boards, mayoral appointees have used high-stakes testing to label schools as failures and then moved to close them in unprecedented waves. Chicago is still reeling from the mass closure of 50 schools in 2013, almost entirely in communities of color. In cities like Philadelphia and New York, state or mayoral control has resulted in the privatization of public schools, handing over large numbers to private charter operators. Where is the democratic process when parents and communities no longer have a voice in public education and what is best for their children? When hedge fund managers are pouring enormous amounts of money into local school board races across the country to stack the deck in favor of privatization? When private charter operators are some of the biggest political donors in the state and refuse to comply with Pennsylvania’s sunshine open-records laws?

  1. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Pennsylvania’s new Keystone exams pose a particular concern for education justice, as they threaten to fail enormous numbers of poor students and students of color, preventing them from graduating (one of the highest stakes of all for students). The Pennsylvania NAACP has demanded the removal of the Keystones as graduation requirements, calling the use of these tests a “present day form of Eugenics.” With pass rates last year at some impoverished schools in the single digits, how will this form of high-stakes-testing create justice for all? And where there is no justice, there is no peace.

In a letter to the PA Department of Education, the NAACP wrote, “Attaching the Keystone Examinations to graduation is clearly based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society through selective scores on a paper and pencil test. … Pushing masses of students out of high school without a diploma will create a subculture of poverty comprised of potentially 60 percent of our young citizens.” The letter uses strong language to object to the impact of high-stakes-testing on our most vulnerable children, including: “human rights violation…unspeakable horror…holocaust on our youth and society…life-long trauma… a system of entrapment for the youth of Pennsylvania…depraved indifference…deficient in a moral sense of concern…lacks regard for the lives of the children who will be harmed, and puts their lives and futures at risk…lynching of our own young.”

If we are serious about the goal of education justice, how can we ignore the impact these tests will have on an entire generation of children denied diplomas, with life-long consequences? Where is their liberty and their freedom?

  1. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

To me, this principle evokes Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are all connected – in an interdependent web of existence – and the oppression and harm caused to other people’s children, causes harm to all of us. We are all harmed by allowing oppression and oppressive systems to continue.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This entire system is only about 15 years in the making. Other countries that we admire greatly for their highly effective education systems do not test like this. If researchers need data to compare we could test sample groups of students, rather than every child. We could test every few years, instead of every year. We could remove the high-stakes for kids and teachers, and go back to using assessments to measure student learning, with the goal of helping students. We could admit that our most vulnerable students – our students living in poverty, our English language learners, our students with special education needs – don’t need more testing, but rather smaller class sizes; a rich, engaging, culturally relevant curriculum; and well supported teachers with adequate resources.

Respectfully submitted,

Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D.

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A Plague of Cheating

With Passover ending tomorrow, perhaps we should add another plague to the list that gets repeated at this time of year. You know: frogs, locusts, hail, boils, and now cheating on high-stakes-tests. On Friday, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools was indicted along with 34 others, including teachers and principals, for widespread cheating – by adults – on the state’s standardized state tests. Investigators found 178 Atlanta educators had worked to change student answers, among other things, to increase the district’s performance. Eighty-two people have already confessed and the superintendent now faces up to 45 years in jail. [Washington Post, 3-30-13]

For a while, Atlanta appeared to be a testing success story, particularly given the number of poor and African American students in the district. Under Dr. Beverly Hall, student scores spiked – unbelievably high – and the American Association of School Administrators named her superintendent of the year. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited her to the White House and she earned over a half million dollars in bonus pay tied to student performance. But the house of cards fell apart when prosecutors convinced a teacher to wear a wire, revealing how some were selected to meet secretly in back rooms donning gloves to erase and correct student answers on test sheets. [New York Times, 3-29-13]

But this is not just happening in Atlanta. The national obsession with test results – and the corporate-style reforms such as privatization based on them – has produced a plague of cheating scandals. The superintendent of El Paso, Texas is now in prison for taking low-performing students out of classes in order to increase the district’s test scores. A similar situation is under investigation in Ohio, where it appears several cities listed low-performing students as “withdrawn” to remove their scores from school totals. [New York Times, 3-29-13] And let’s not forget right here in Pennsylvania where our own state Secretary of Education, Rom Tomalis, was caught both lying and cheating about student test scores. [See “A Liar and a Cheat”]

FairTest (the National Center for Fair and Open Testing) released a report last week showing confirmed cases of test score manipulations in at least 37 states and the District of Columbia. Washington D.C., of course, was the site of an Atlanta-style story under former superintendent Michelle Rhee – now the darling of the corporate reform movement who is famous for publicly firing a principal and massive school closures – who oversaw her own “Erasure-gate.” FairTest has documented more than 50 ways that schools improperly inflate test scores and the organization’s public education director Bob Shaeffer explains, “These corrupt practices are inevitable consequences of the politically mandated overuse and misuse of high-stakes exams.” [FairTest, 3-27-13]

Pedro Noguera, the New York University scholar hired by the Pittsburgh Public Schools as a consultant, put it simply: “I don’t condone cheating but I see what happened in Atlanta and the other districts where cheating has occurred as a direct result of the insane fixation on raising test scores at the expense of actually insuring that children are learning. The real fault lies with the federal and state governments that have been applying the pressure on school districts.” [DianeRavitch, 3-30-13]

Yet some legislators want to ratchet up the stakes attached to testing even more. One particularly cruel example comes from Tennessee where Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield has introduced a bill calling for the state to cut welfare benefits to parents when their children do not perform well on standardized tests. [FoxNews, 1-28-13] Talk about high-stakes.

Parents, students, and teachers all over the country are starting to fight this madness through the civil disobedience of opting-out. [For more on the movement here in PA, see “Time’s Up”] Yinzercator Kathy Newman wrote a wonderful Op-Ed, copied below, that appeared on the front page of yesterday’s Sunday Forum section explaining why her family is opting out. The piece has gone viral on social media, with over 4,000 Facebook shares from the Post-Gazette website alone (as of 10AM this morning and climbing fast by the minute). Be sure to also check out the terrific conversation it has sparked on-line, with many teachers weighing in to explain their support for the opt-out movement.

It’s time to change the stakes in student assessment and end this plague of cheating. Like another one of the famous Egyptian plagues that took the lives of children, high-stakes-testing is stealing the educational lives of our children.

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Why I Won’t Let My Son Take the PSSA:
The Opt Out Movement is Growing Because High Stakes Tests are Wrecking Our Schools

I am an English professor. So you can imagine how my pride was hurt when my 9-year-old son Jacob started bringing home low scores on his practice reading tests for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.

My husband and I have been helping Jacob with his test-prep reading homework every weeknight this year, and it has been a grim slog. At times I have found myself getting angry when Jacob has fidgeted, or when he has had trouble focusing. Sometimes I have gotten angry when he simply hasn’t been able to answer the questions.

Then one day this March it dawned on me. I am getting angry at my son about a test. A test that I do not like. A “high-stakes” test that will put so much pressure on Jacob that it probably will not reflect his true abilities. I also realized something else: Jacob does not love to read.

After doing some research and talking with other parents, my husband and I decided to “opt out” Jacob from the PSSA tests. We are opting him out because we do not like what high-stakes tests are doing to Jacob, to our family, to his teachers, to his school and, ultimately, to our entire education system.

High-stakes tests like the PSSAs are used to evaluate, close and punish public schools, including my son’s school, Pittsburgh Linden, a K-5 magnet school in Point Breeze. Linden’s Adequate Yearly Progress score is bound to Linden’s PSSA test results. According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, every public school in the United States must be 100 percent proficient in reading and math (based on test scores) by 2014.

Last year, Linden did not make AYP. In fact, only six Pittsburgh Public Schools did. A neighboring school, Colfax, which is one of the best schools in the East End, has been labeled “low-achieving” and is currently under something called “Corrective Action II.” Under this label, a school can be reconstituted, chartered or privatized.

High-stakes tests also warp the educational environment. This March, as Linden is gearing up for the PSSAs, the hallways were stripped bare as per state law. Artwork, motivational slogans, student-made posters, the Women’s History display my kids helped to make, my daughter’s picture of herself as a “writer” when she grows up, the “dream” statements everyone filled out in January with the large cutout of Martin Luther King — all of it has come down. During testing season, access to Linden’s new iPads — for which I helped to write the grant that allowed us to acquire them — will also be curtailed.

The curriculum at Linden is narrowing, too. As testing has ratcheted up, and as Gov. Tom Corbett’s billion-dollar cut to Pennsylvania’s K-12 education budget have kicked in, schools across the state are dropping programs that are not measured by tests.

Last year at Linden the third-grade band program was cut, dozens of hours of music instruction were cut, our science programming was reduced, and we were slated to lose our art teacher (fortunately we were able to save her). We lost dozens of hours of library instruction, and children are allowed access to the library only once every two weeks. Ironically, the loss of our library hours will hurt the students more when it comes to testing. A recent study found that “[w]ith a full-time librarian, students are more likely to score ‘Advanced’ and less likely to score ‘Below Basic’ on reading and writing tests.”

Also, there is the stress. Jacob, only a third-grader, has cried, gotten dejected and thrown fits over his test-prep requirements, both at home and at school. Sixth graders in our district will take 23 different tests this year — up from nine the previous year.

During the tests, students are treated like prisoners, with limited bathroom breaks and constant monitoring. These conditions are especially hard for special-needs children and children with Individual Education Plans.

Teachers are also stressed. My son’s third-grade teacher has been working so hard this year that he arrives many days as early as 6 a.m. and stays for hours after school, sometimes as late as 9 p.m. From around the district I am hearing stories about teachers crying in the hall — devastated by the harm they believe the tests are inflicting.

Let me be clear. I believe in evaluation as a tool — I use quizzes and other testing techniques in my college classroom. But high-stakes tests, tests used to label schools, teachers and students as failures, are damaging our nation’s educational system.

Here in Pittsburgh and across southwestern Pennsylvania, the movement to opt out of standardized testing is taking root. In the Pittsburgh Public Schools there are parents at Colfax, Greenfield, Liberty, Linden, Montessori and Phillips who are opting their children out of the PSSAs. Across the region, some parents in Mt. Lebanon, Somerset County and Westmoreland County are doing so as well. In Mt. Lebanon, a group of parents opted out when their children’s school cut back on recess, extended the length of the school day and reduced other school services, such as counseling and nursing — all to make way for more testing.

The opt-out movement is also swelling nationwide. Earlier this year, teachers in several Seattle high schools refused to administer a high-stakes test called the MAP. In Portland, Ore.; Providence, R.I.; and Denver, Colo., students themselves have been leading the charge against the tests. Just last month in Texas, more than 10,000 parents rallied against an increase in testing and decrease in funding for Texas public schools. Some of these actions are coming under the banner of United Opt Out National (unitedoptout.com).

Next month, while Jacob’s classmates are nervously sharpening their pencils and getting hushed by their teachers, Jacob is going to be in the Linden library, reading for pleasure — a pastime I have encouraged and rewarded since I realized that Jacob isn’t keen on reading.

With this act of civil disobedience, our family will contribute to the revolt against the standardized testing that is hurting students, schools and the quality of education. I want my children to learn, but also to love to learn. Don’t you?

Kathy M. Newman is an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University (kn4@andrew.cmu.edu).

Talking Turkey about Charters

Pennsylvania’s education secretary Ron Tomalis may not have been feeling very thankful last week. The feds just slapped down his blatant attempt to change the reporting rules for charter schools that would have made their student achievement rates look better. As you may recall, earlier this fall Tomalis had just been caught lying about the supposed impact of teachers on falling student test scores, when an investigative piece by the Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call revealed that he was also trying to cheat the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) system, making it easier for charter schools to meet those student-testing benchmarks than traditional public schools. [See “A Liar and a Cheat”]

Secretary Tomalis made the change without first getting federal approval, allowing him to report that dozens more charter schools had made AYP this year. Using Tomalis’ new math, charter school proponents could claim that 59% of charter schools made AYP in 2012, compared to 50% of traditional public schools. But the federal Department of Education rejected the scheme and ordered Pennsylvania to re-evaluate charter schools using the same process applied to other public schools. That means that only 37% of charter schools will now make AYP this year. [Post-Gazette, 11-24-12] Obviously that is significantly worse than traditional public schools.

Assistant U.S. education secretary Deborah S. Delisle nailed it on the head when she made the order, noting, “Pennsylvania is obligated to make AYP decisions for all schools and hold all schools to the same standards.” [The Morning Call, 11-21-12] But Sec. Tomalis was clearly trying to distort the playing field and inflate the appearance of charter school performance at a crucial political moment, just as charter schools are being promoted as the “solution” to “failing” public schools.

The timing of the announcement also reeks of political motivations. The U.S. Department of Education issued its order on Monday, November 19th, but Sec. Tomalis waited until Wednesday, November 21st – the day before Thanksgiving – to release it, clearly hoping that the news would be buried on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Perhaps Sec. Tomalis also hoped that the news would not leak out before the public hearings scheduled to begin today on applications for eight new cyber charter schools. Despite their dismal performance, Pennsylvania has 16 cyber charter schools – more than any other state in the country – including four it approved just this past summer. And now it wants to consider eight more? That’s crazy.

Pennsylvania law actually requires the state to review cyber charter schools every year and revoke those charters when they fail to meet student performance standards. [See PA state law: 24 P.S. §Section 17-1741-A (3) and 17-1742-A(2)] Only one cyber charter school made AYP this year and abundant research has demonstrated their dismal track record for students. [See “Dueling Rallies” for summary of the data.] In calling for a state moratorium on approving any new cyber charters, Rhonda Brownstein, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, noted, “Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania have longstanding problems with poor academic outcomes for students, and the Department does not appear to have the current capacity to handle its legally mandated and critical oversight and accountability functions for these taxpayer-funded schools.” [ELC Release, 11-21-12]

The Education Law Center will be testifying today at the public hearing in Harrisburg. We here in the grassroots ought to lend our voices to this highly reasonable call for a moratorium on new cyber charter schools. When only 37% of all charter schools are making AYP and cyber charters are performing even worse, we must ask why the state would even contemplate opening more schools that fail our kids. Holiday weekend or not, we were paying attention – and now it’s time to talk turkey about what really works in education.

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Testing and More Testing

It’s National Education Week and it’s time to talk about testing. High-stakes-testing that is. These are not the old end-of-unit quizzes you and I took in school. We’re talking about an entirely new system of labeling and punishing schools that is having dire consequences for students. Hand in glove with other corporate-style “reform” measures and draconian state budget cuts such as we’ve seen here in Pennsylvania, high-stakes-testing lies at the heart of the modern attack on public education.

So where did this come from? The high-stakes-testing and accountability movement solidified under federal law in 2001 when President George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This legislation radically transformed public education policy by dramatically increasing the role of the federal government and mandating standardized testing to measure student achievement. It also created a culture of failure and blame, accusing teachers of poor performance when their students did not do well on the tests, and then labeling schools as failures when their students struggled. This effectively reinforced an existing national narrative of “failing public schools.” And while there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that narrative conveniently fits with what many people already believe about cities, urban schools, and minority students, lending the narrative even more power.

NCLB effectively created the system of “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula” giving teachers less and less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Students are certainly learning how to take standardized tests, but not actual content: when they are tested on the same material in a different format, they cannot demonstrate any real subject mastery. Even those students in districts that have shown impressive gains over the past few years under NCLB cannot transfer those skills, failing to perform on different tests of similar content. [Daniel Koretz, Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, 2008].

The massive increase in school time spent on test preparation inevitably detracts from time on other learning tasks. Yinzercator Pamela Harbin points out that this year Pittsburgh Public School sixth graders – including my own son – will take 23 of these tests, nine more than last year. Teachers are increasingly being evaluated on their students’ test scores and little else, even though these tests were never designed for this purpose. And schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the federal law are threatened with punitive sanctions, including loss of funding, and in the worst-case scenario, complete closure.

High-stakes-testing has therefore set the stage for a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. (See how this has made Pennsylvania’s own Secretary of Education “A Liar and a Cheat.”) NCLB set the unrealistic target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students in reading and math by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed. In a nationwide study of high-stakes-testing, Arizona State University researchers concluded, “The scores we get from high-stakes tests cannot be trusted—they are corrupted and distorted. Moreover, such tests cannot adequately measure the important things we really want to measure. Even worse … [h]igh- stakes testing programs corrupt and distort the people in the educational system.” [“The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High Stakes Testing, 2005”]

What’s more, high-stakes-testing has drastically narrowed school curricula with its laser focus on reading and math. These are essential skills, but our children have lost music, art, foreign languages, history, science, and much more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two areas. And when Governor Corbett cut nearly $1BILLION from our schools, many districts were forced to eliminate programs, keeping only those classes that would be measured on standardized tests. When we lament as a community empty library shelves and rally behind our very own Manchester Miracle, we must stop to consider how high-stakes-testing has created a climate in which libraries are expendable. [If you haven’t already, be sure to read why cutting libraries is so short-sighted in “Libraries (and Librarians) Matter.”]

And now we have new tests. Under new federal Common Core Standards, states are phasing in new standardized tests – here in Pennsylvania they will be called Keystone Exams – which will be significantly more difficult. Last year, Kentucky became the first state to use the new Common Core in its testing and “the percentage of students scoring proficient dropped by a third or more in elementary and middle school compared with the old test.” [Post-Gazette, 11-8-12] In an on-line comment to that story, the National Association of Secondary School Principals applauded the Pittsburgh Public School district for trying to “prepare their stakeholders” for what will in all likelihood be a “precipitous drop” in test scores. “Otherwise,” they noted, “a different narrative will be created for them, and the scores will just become one more bludgeon for public-school detractors.”

This is exactly the point. These high-stakes-tests are being used to hurt schools, not help them. Schools with low-scoring students do not get extra resources or offers of help. They get labeled as failures and threatened with sanctions. And despite all the additional tests, our children are not learning more – they are learning less. They are losing their libraries, arts education, tutoring, and so much more.

Enough is enough. Since it’s National Education Week, let’s spend some time this week educating ourselves about the real consequences of high-stakes-testing. Stay tuned and we’ll talk some more about a growing national movement resisting this cancerous plague in our public schools.

A Liar and a Cheat

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis just got caught telling a whopper. He claimed that cheating caused the drop in standardized test scores all across Pennsylvania. Those scores, released a few weeks ago, show a steep decline and mean that 665 fewer schools in the state met education targets. Sec. Tomalis refused to admit that massive budget cuts could possibly have anything to do with the decline, and laid the blame on 100 teachers who remain under investigation for things such as unusual marking patterns on their students’ exams.

Ah yes. One hundred teachers – out of 148,500 education professionals in the state last year – caused scores to drop. The math here doesn’t even make sense. And if teachers helped their students cheat, wouldn’t their test scores have gone up? Never mind. This isn’t about logic. This is about denying that unprecedented state budget cuts have hurt students.

Yet we now have extensive evidence of just how bad Gov. Corbett’s gutting of the education budget has been for our kids. All across the state school districts have been forced to increase class sizes, eliminate tutoring and summer school programs, and lay off teachers. In the past two years, Pennsylvania school children have lost over 18,000 of their teachers and educational staff. (See “Cuts Have Consequences” for all the details.) And we’re supposed to pretend this has had no impact on their learning?

Sec. Tomalis boldly proclaimed that the state’s technical advisory committee reviewed the test scores and was asked, “Could budgets have impacted them? They said no.” In fact, Marianne Perie, a senior associate at the Center for Assessment in Dover, N.H. who facilitated that committee, said no such thing happened. They apparently talked about funding briefly but did not analyze its impact on test scores. “We walked out of there not feeling satisfied we had come up with a solid explanation for the drop,” she said. “As a technical advisory committee, we do not typically comment on policy issues. Funding is a policy issue. We had no data with which to make any analysis of the relationship between the decrease in funding and the drop in scores.” [Post-Gazette, 9-29-12]

Perie later told the Post-Gazette, “I wouldn’t say we ruled it out … I would say we had no comment on it.” [Post-Gazette, 10-8-12] That’s a far cry from concluding that 100 teachers caused test scores to drop in the entire state. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Education Department’s spokesman Tim Eller refused to provide a copy of the committee’s report saying, it’s “under review to determine what portions can be publicly shared.” [Post-Gazette, 9-29-12] Yes, wouldn’t want any of that pesky truth to misinform the public.

It’s bad enough that the state’s education secretary is lying about teachers and our students to cover up the devastatingly obvious effects of budget cuts. But now he seems bent on cheating to boost the appearance of charter school performance, too. You see, too many charter schools are not making education benchmarks, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), set under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Granted, NCLB is probably some of the worst education policy our country has ever passed. It has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by these highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing, prompted cheating scandals across the country, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.

In Pennsylvania only 60.9% of school districts made AYP this year, compared to 94% last year. This was the result of both falling test scores, but also a big step up in proficiency targets: this year 78% of students had to be proficient or advanced in math and 81% had to be proficient or advanced in reading in order to make AYP. [Post-Gazette, 9-21-12] Apparently the Corbett administration was not pleased with the way charter schools were stacking up, so Sec. Tomalis simply changed the rules so that it would be easier for charter schools to make AYP than traditional public schools.

Sec. Tomalis made the change without federal approval, which is required. The U.S. Department of Education says that Pennsylvania’s request to amend the rules is being considered, but that a state is not permitted to make changes without final approval. An investigation by the Lehigh Valley Morning Call revealed that Sec. Tomalis’ change “might have skewed the results of the 2011-12 PSSA scores to make it appear charter schools were outperforming traditional public schools.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12]

The paper found that “a higher percentage of charter schools made AYP in 2011-12 than they did in 2010-11, including 52 that had one or more grade spans that did not hit testing benchmarks. In addition, 14 charter schools that had failing grades last year moved into the passing category this year.” Traditional public schools are not allowed to have a single grade span miss testing benchmarks. But these new rules clearly favor charter schools. For instance, 21st Century Cyber Charter School was allowed to make AYP even though its 11th graders failed to meet benchmarks. And Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in Philadelphia made AYP even though its middle school failed on five of six reading targets and four of six math targets. [Morning Call, 10-5-12]

This is absurd. Stuart Knade, chief legal counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, also points out that “the change might give the Legislature the false impression that charter schools outperform traditional public schools.” That could have real consequences as our legislators “consider bills supported by Corbett to expand the number of charter schools and change how they are authorized in Pennsylvania.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12] The state already approved four new cyber charter schools this summer, despite massive evidence that cyber charters suck up far more public dollars than it actually costs them to educate students and that they deliver far worse learning outcomes than traditional public schools. [See “Trouble Seeing the Money” and “One Million Per Day” for details.] Knade correctly asserts, “The General Assembly needs to ask what is real and why are we being fed this kind of façade.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12]

So now we have Sec. Tomalis caught fibbing about the impact of 100 accused teachers on statewide test scores, denying that budget cuts have anything to do with those test score declines, and changing the rules so that charter schools look better. From where I sit, that makes him both a liar and a cheat. And what he’s really doing is cheating millions of Pennsylvania school children out of the adequately and equitably funded educations they deserve.