Millions Spent, No Results

Last night over 120 people came together to watch the new movie, “Standardized.” We had parents from the Northside to Hazelwood, Duquesne to Mt. Lebanon, and everywhere in between; teachers from Pittsburgh to Steel Valley; principals from Cannonsburg in Washington, County; at least four school board members; leaders of several community organizations; and many others. Following the film, we had a discussion that ran well over an hour, as we thought together about some of the issues it had raised: what tests are appropriate? how much testing is OK? what are the consequences of high-stakes testing that we are seeing in our schools and communities?

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One of the clear themes of the movie that came out in our conversation could be summed up in four words: millions spent, no results. After seeing the documentary, Greg Taranto, who was Pennsylvania’s 2012 Middle School Principal of the Year, tweeted: “Pts [parents] /taxpayers have 2 realize millions of tax $ going into tests tht tell us nothing.” When asked by twitter user @EdCampPgh what the big take-aways from the movie were, Dr. Taranto tweeted, “Need to stand up for quality education…too much time/$ spent on testing.” In response to that post, Michael Allison, principal of Hopewell high school in Aliquippa, tweeted “AMEN!”

The money really is astonishing. The new Keystone exams are costing us taxpayers $70 million to develop over a six-year period. [PA House Republican Caucus, 12-13-13] The new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, has already cost us $2.7 million to develop and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] Our legislators also signed a five-year, $201.1 million contract with Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. [, 12-1-11] This doesn’t include the millions that local school districts are paying to develop their own tests and purchase new test-prep materials.

Yesterday I shared with you nine ways we might work together to promote more learning and less testing. [“Strategies to Reduce High-Stakes Testing“] The film highlighted another strategy worth noting: Rep. Mike Tobash (R – Schuylkill/Berks Counties), has sponsored House Bill 1506, seeking “to halt the state Department of Education (PDE) from the development and implementation of further standardized testing for nine years.” [PA House Republican Caucus, 12-13-13] Rep. Tobash explained,

“I do not believe that standardized testing should be the focal point of education. Without knowing the potential outcomes and unintended consequences, pausing this exam process could be beneficial to everyone. … By pausing the development and implementation of the last five [Keystone] exams, our schools will have more time to adapt to the first five exams and the corresponding Pennsylvania Core Standards, and the state will have more time to get feedback on the results to better understand any unintended consequences of the tests. … The bottom line is that we all want our graduates to have satisfactory knowledge in the subjects of reading, math, writing, science and history, but there is so far no evidence that the Keystone Exams are producing that result.”

It’s worth noting that HB 1506 was introduced by a Republican, proving once again that great public education is not a partisan issue. The bill is currently in the House Education Committee. Where do our local legislators stand on it? “Standardized” makes it clear that there is real urgency to reducing the overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing: children are being harmed, schools are changing, the number of tests just keeps growing, and the stakes keep getting piled on. It’s going to take lots of us working on this from multiple angles, at the local, state, and federal level. What can you do?

Children are not Guinea Pigs

Warning! The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) will be using our children as guinea pigs this week ­– without telling parents. If this doesn’t make your whiskers twitch, I don’t know what will.

All public school students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade are supposed to take the “ELA: PSSA Writing Field Test” during the test window, Feb. 3-14 (meaning some Pennsylvania school districts may have already given it). Pittsburgh Public Schools will be giving the test this week, and most teachers just learned about it on Friday. This stand-alone field test is separate from the regular PSSA and Keystone state testing program, and allows a private corporation to try out material on kids without informing parents or getting their permission. This raises at least seven big questions:

1. Do field tests help students?

It is hard to see how field tests benefit students. They certainly have nothing to do with helping current students learn. In fact, our kids and their teachers won’t even see the results of this test. The PDE explains, “Information obtained from the 2014 ELA: Writing Field Test will be used to select items for future ELA assessments. Participating students will be ‘testing the items’ for future assessment consideration. No data will be returned to your school or district.” [PDE Assessment Update, Dec. 2013] So 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.

Some argue that field tests might benefit future students by allowing test companies to design “better” tests. Others argue that field tests might benefit current students by allowing teachers to preview the kinds of questions asked on the PSSA (since they are not permitted to view the actual PSSA). But these arguments don’t makes sense when you consider that the PSSAs themselves do not support student learning: teachers and students don’t even get the results back until the following school year. [See our satirical “How to Read the PSSA Report”] Instead of giving timely feedback to students, PSSAs are used – inappropriately – to evaluate teachers and entire schools. Should teachers be using a glimpse of a field test, to teach to the next test?

2. How do corporations benefit?

While students may not benefit from field tests, private corporations sure do. Parents in the grassroots group, Change the Stakes, explain, “Our children are essentially being used as free labor so that test companies can decide which of their experimental test questions are actually suitable to put on actual tests. Typically, parents are not notified when their children are having classroom time taken away for field tests that benefit for-profit test developers.”

In a recent alert, Change the Stakes elaborated, “Children are being used and classroom time given to a private vendor so it can make marketable tests. … Children are being treated as unknowing subjects in a testing laboratory – a form of exploitation. This must cease. Reputable studies spell out their aims, invite participation, and pay their subjects.” [“Why Field Tests are a Know-No,” 1-17-14] Legitimate education researchers get informed consent and go through rigorous human subjects review. Our children are not lab rats.

Yet these tests are being done at our expense, with public, taxpayer dollars, so that a private corporation can turn around and sell their test product back to us at a profit. Who is benefiting in Pennsylvania? Is it the Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corporation? They secured a five-year contract with PDE costing us hundreds of millions to develop the Keystone exams, in addition to the deal they already had administering the PSSAs. [, 5-14-11]

3. Do field tests harm students?

By imposing these optional field tests on our schools, the PDE is – yet again – reducing actual learning time. Our children are already experiencing an explosion in the number of high-stakes-tests given during the year (as I’ve mentioned before, my 7th grader is taking twenty-one high-stakes, standardized tests this year). Why are we voluntarily adding more to the list, further cutting into precious classroom time?

The addition of yet another PSSA-style test contributes to the stress felt by many of our children. Remember what that brave Pittsburgh teacher told us about the poorly designed GRADE test that she is forced to give to her students multiple times during the year? (If you haven’t already, please read our piece “Testing Madness,” which went viral when the Washington Post published it.) Tests like these are particularly pernicious for struggling students, undermining their learning and confidence, and causing literal harm to their education.

In addition, Change the Stakes points out that, “Children are not motivated to do well on extra tests and ‘trial’ items, so the tests yield misleading data. It is a lose-lose proposition: [companies] get unreliable data which lead [them] to build poor exams.” [“Why Field Tests are a Know-No,” 1-17-14]

4. Are parents being denied their rights?

By law, parents have a right to review assessments given to their children: Section 4.4 of Chapter 4 of the State Board of Education regulations guarantees “The right of the parent or guardian to review the State assessments in the school entity, at least 2 weeks prior to their administration.” The administrator’s manual for the ELA Writing Field Test itself specifies that, “Parental reviews of the assessment materials should be done on an individual basis by individual request and must be completed prior to the beginning of the assessment window.” However, parents are denied their right to do exactly this when PDE and school districts neglect to inform them that field tests will be given.

In this case, PDE has apparently set the assessment window for Feb. 3-14th. But most Pittsburgh teachers did not even learn about the field test until late last week. And no announcement was ever made to parents in the district. The field test does not even appear on the Pittsburgh Public School assessment calendar – which is available by request, but not on the PPS website, adding another hurdle for parents wishing to exercise their rights. [See our scanned version here: PPS 2013-14 Assessment Calendar]

What’s more, Section 4.4 of the Board of Ed regulations also guarantees parents, “The right to have their children excluded from research studies or surveys conducted by entities other than a school entity unless prior written consent has been obtained.” While PDE may argue that field tests are being conducted by a state-contracted “school entity,” parents – and all Pennsylvania taxpayers – might want to question that definition when a private corporation plans to use our children’s data, without compensation, to develop a product it will then sell back to us.

5. How much do they cost?

In 2011, Pennsylvania signed a five-year contract – reported variously as worth $176 million or $201.1 million – with Data Recognition Corporation (DRC). [, 5-14-11 and 12-1-11] The DRC agreed “to develop the model curriculum, classroom diagnostic tools to measure student progress and 10 end-of-the-year Keystone tests.” This deal was in addition to the “lucrative contract” DRC already had “with the state to administer the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments tests (more commonly known as PSSA exams).” How much money are these field tests costing Pennsylvania taxpayers at the very same time our students have lost everything from their teachers to tutoring?

6. What is the relationship between field tests and high-stakes-testing?

Field tests appear to be an integral part of the larger system of high-stakes-testing that is damaging our schools. Over the past decade, testing has exploded under federal No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies. Yet abundant evidence demonstrates that all this testing is not working, and the high-stakes attached to so many tests have actually had perverse consequences, harming the very students they were intended to help. In a nutshell:

  • High-stakes-tests do not accurately reflect what our students know, or how well our teachers teach.
  • These tests are not objective, reliable, or good measures of student achievement. [For a summary of data, see, “What’s wrong with standardized tests.”]
  • Students are learning how to take high-stakes-tests, but not actual content: when they are tested on the same material in a different format, they cannot demonstrate any real subject mastery. [Daniel Koretz, Measuring up: What educational testing really tells us (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).]
  • High-stakes-tests cause harmful stress for children by putting pressure on them to not only demonstrate their knowledge but to represent the effectiveness of their teachers and their schools. [For more examples, see Washington Post, 5-9-12 and 11-21-13.]
  • High-stakes-tests limit the curriculum, by narrowing the focus to reading and math.
  • The proliferation of high-stakes testing has dramatically reduced actual learning time as students spend more time in testing and on test-prep.
  • The majority of high-stakes tests are written by and benefit the bottom line of a handful of large international corporations.

7. What can we do?

Are school districts required by law to give field tests? Can superintendents, school boards, or individual principals refuse to impose field-testing on students? Certainly parents in other states have started standing up for their children on this issue. For instance, eighteen months ago, sparked by dozens of ridiculous questions on a field test designed by Pearson, including one about a talking pineapple, thousands of New York City parents staged a boycott. [Daily News, 6-7-12] Last spring, parents in Upper Nyack, NY, pulled over 70% of the fifth-grade students out of scheduled field tests. [Lohud Rockland, 6-6-13] And just two weeks ago, students in Providence, Rhode Island swarmed the state capitol dressed as lab rats to protest the experimental use of high-stakes-tests there. [Check out these great photos: RI, 1-30-14]

What can Pennsylvania parents do? Will school districts deny parents their right to review this assessment and opt their children out of it, if they choose? Our children are not guinea pigs and this ever-growing maze of tests is causing real harm.