Kevin Huffman Promotes Entrepreneurial School Agenda in Commentary about Pandemic-Driven School Closings

Kevin Huffman begins his recent Washington Post column with a warning about problems he expects to result from the widespread, coronavirus-driven school closures: “As the coronavirus pandemic closes schools, in some cases until September, American children this month met their new English, math, science and homeroom teachers: their iPads and their parents. Classes are going online, if they exist at all. The United States is embarking on a massive, months-long virtual-pedagogy experiment, and it is not likely to end well.”

This is pretty harsh. While in many places teachers are going to enormous lengths to create interesting projects to challenge children and keep them engaged, virtual schooling is a challenge. Online efforts school districts are undertaking to meet children’s needs during this long break are likely to be uneven.  Huffman describes Stanford University research on the problems with virtual schooling, problems that are being exacerbated today by inequitable access to technology.

But what Kevin Huffman neglects to tell readers is that his purpose is not entirely to analyze his subject—the ongoing shutdown of schools.  At the same time as he discusses the widespread school closure, he also manages to share the agenda of  his current employer, The City Fund, a relatively new national group that finances the election campaigns of of charter school advocates running for seats on local school boards, supports the rapid expansion of charter schools, and promotes portfolio school reform. And when the Washington Post tells readers that Huffman, “a former education commissioner of Tennessee, is a partner at the City Fund, a national education nonprofit,” the Post neglects to explain The City Fund’s agenda.

Huffman serves on the The City Fund’s staff, along with Chris Barbic who, under Huffman, was brought in to lead the now failed Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), a state school takeover body founded when Huffman was the Tennessee Commissioner of Education. In her new book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch describes Huffman and Barbic’s work in Tennessee: “The State Education department, headed by Disrupter Kevin Huffman, selected a charter school star, Chris Barbic to manage the new ASD.  Barbic had previously led the YES Prep charter chain in Houston. Barbic boldly pledged that the low-performing schools in the ASD would reach the top 25 percent in the state rankings within five years. The ASD opened in 2012 with six schools, and the countdown clock began ticking. The annual cost was estimated at $22 million a year for five years. In year four, Barbic had a heart attack and resigned from his leadership role to join the staff of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  By the end of year five, none of the initial six schools in the ASD had reached the top 25 percent. All but one were still mired in the bottom 5 percent… The ASD experiment failed.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 247)

Huffman’s tenure as Tennessee Commissioner of Education was not smooth. Huffman, Michelle Rhee’s former husband, came to Tennessee following work as an executive at Teach for America. When he resigned from his Tennessee position in 2014, reporters at the Chattanooga Times Free Press described his tenure as Tennessee’s state commissioner: “Last year, the former Teach for America executive drew complaints from nearly a third of local superintendents who wrote a letter to (Governor) Haslam complaining about Huffman’s leadership style, saying he showed little respect for their views and professional educators generally… (I)n June, 15 conservative GOP lawmakers wrote Haslam to demand Huffman resign or be fired. They listed grievances of school administrators and teachers.”

When Chris Barbic left the Tennessee Achievement School District, he moved to the staff of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  Now Barbic and Huffman are both on staff at The City Fund, an organization whose funding comes primarily from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and from Netflix founder, Reed Hastings.

Once one sets Huffman’s recent Washington Post commentary in this context, his recommendations and the sources he quotes are not surprising.  He compliments the “nimble and collaborative” approach of the no-excuses charter school chain, Achievement First and thanks Achievement First for offering to guide the Providence, Rhode Island public schools. Achievement First charter schools employ a strict, no-excuses learning philosophy that demands obedience enforced by punishment, a learning strategy that has been criticized as developmentally nappropriate for young children and contrary to fostering inquiry and curiosity.

During the coronavirus-driven school closures, Huffman encourages public school leaders to join in a virtual, online forum to be hosted by Chiefs for Change, where “school districts can share how they are collaborating with charter schools during this crisis.” Chiefs for Change is the state school superintendents’ organization founded by Jeb Bush to promote entrepreneurial and business-driven school accountability.  Huffman enthuses that charter school-public school collaboration—the ideology behind portfolio school reform—will support children while the schools are closed: “Hopefully, in the coming weeks, those jurisdictions struggling to support online coursework will catch up and find workarounds for students without access to technology, learning from the more entrepreneurial players.”

The City Fund is a promoter of “portfolio school reform” in which school district leadership treats charter schools and traditional public schools alike as though they are investments in a stock portfolio, managing them all, and supposedly promoting their collaboration, and then shedding the bad investments and investing in the successful experiments.  Portfolio school reform has not succeeded in fostering charter and traditional district school collaboration in the places where it has been tried—New York City, and Chicago, for example. The competition built into the model pits one school against another, especially when charters are given the freedom to choose the neighborhoods where they open and compete for students and budgets with the neighborhood public school.

Huffman concludes by recommending that as public schools open next fall, states should demand that schools administer the standardized tests most states have cancelled this spring because their public schools are closed: “(S)ince states are losing standardized testing this spring, they’ll need to administer tests at the start of the next school year to see what students know after the crisis. Assessments should be informative and not used to measure or rate schools or teachers. Without this, it will be impossible to know the extent of the challenge and where resources should be deployed to deal with it.”

The assumption here is that teachers themselves will not be able to assess children’s needs as they welcome their students back to school next fall.  Huffman is certainly correct that any standardized tests after the months’ long break should not be used to rate and rank the schools the students have been unable to attend during the pandemic.  But to assume that teachers need standardized tests—whose results are always released months after the tests are administered—is ridiculous.  Certified public school teachers and other local school professionals are trained to be able to assess each child’s needs. The best investment when schools reopen will be in small classes where teachers can devote time and attention to helping every child catch up.

We’ll Have to Reduce Test-and-Punish. Talking about Social Emotional Learning Isn’t Enough

Silly me!  I didn’t realize until a couple of weeks ago that SEL is a thing.  SEL is a new term in educational circles: Social Emotional Learning.  I heard Linda Darling-Hammond—Stanford University emeritus professor, CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, and chair of an Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development—present the work of the commission, and then I started reading more about Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

It would appear that many of the educational academics promoting SEL are doing so as an effort to shift our schools’ focus away from the incessant drilling on basic language arts and math that has been driven by the high-stakes testing embedded in the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  NCLB and Race to the Top, that compounded NCLB’s punitive grasp on our public schools, have created fear-driven pressure to raise scores at any cost. The stakes are high: Schools have been closed or charterized, teachers fired or their salaries cut, and school districts trapped in state takeover.  And worse—in terms of the social and emotional health of children—students whose reading scores are too low at the end of third grade have been retained in grade for an extra remedial year.

The Learning Policy Institute has been intent about trying to help state education departments take advantage of the way the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) tweaks accountability.  ESSA eliminates direct federal punishments for low test scores by turning accountability over to states, but it says states must have their own plans to hold public schools accountable.  Beyond the required reporting of test scores and graduation rates, states can now add new factors, as long as the new factors are research-based. For example, the Learning Policy Institute has been explaining how research backs up the establishment of wraparound Community Schools.  Its publications have shown states how to demonstrate through research that Community Schools are a worthy of inclusion in states’ dashboards of factors by which schools can be judged and held accountable.

Now, it would appear that Darling-Hammond’s support of Social Emotional Learning, through her leadership on the Aspen SEL Commission, is an attempt to help states position SEL as a factor in their Every Student Succeeds dashboards by which schools can be held accountable.  In Education Week a year ago after Aspen released coverage of its new SEL Commission, Evie Blad reported: “The new federal education law requires schools to report new factors, like chronic absenteeism rates, in their public report cards, and it requires states to broaden how they measure school success.  No state decided to include direct measures of social-emotional learning in its accountability system.  Most cited cautions from researchers who’ve said existing measures are not sophisticated enough to be used for high-stakes purposes.  But mindfulness of students’ emotions, relationships, and development can help schools show improvement in other areas covered by the law, like attendance and achievement commissioners said.”  The Aspen Commission, we should assume, hopes its new report will beef up the research base on SEL.

I suppose it s worth establishing a research base to support education of the whole child if in some way measuring SEL will help states be more humane in evaluating what is being accomplished at school.  However, it is also essential to remember that the Every Student Succeeds Act makes two other factors primary in the states’ ESSA accountability reports: standardized test scores and high school graduation rates.  I wonder if inserting Social Emotional Learning right on top of test-and-punish doesn’t merely represent a contradiction in strategies. And figuring out metrics by which a state can judge how a district is doing at SEL and then holding schools accountable for SEL in the state’s accountability system seems bizarre.

Some of the puzzling language in the Aspen Institute Commission’s report is about showing states and school districts how to measure SEL so that it will count for school accountability: “Develop and use measures to track progress across school and out-of-school settings, with a focus on continuous improvement rather than rewards and sanctions.”  So far the advice seems pretty positive compared to what we’re doing now which is focusing on rewards and sanctions. But the report later vaguely suggests some kind of measurable outcomes: “Use a broader range of assessments and other demonstrations of learning that capture the full gamut of young people’s knowledge and skills… Use data to identify and address gaps in students’ access to the full range of learning opportunities in and out of school.”

Recently in his personal blog, the writer and education professor at UCLA, Mike Rose raised concerns about Social Emotional Learning: “(D)o we need all these studies to demonstrate what any good teacher knows: that the nature and quality of the relationship between teachers and students matter?… More broadly I worry that as we pay needed attention to the full scope of a child’s being, we will inadvertently reinforce the false dichotomy between thought and emotion.”

Rose harks back to a piece he wrote in 2013 in which he worried that, “Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to mean the skills measured by standardized tests of reading and mathematics.  And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they’ve needed quantitative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models….”  Rose worries about dividing education into a “cognitive/non-cognitive binary.”  “The problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned way economists carve up and define mental activity.  If cognition is represented by scores on ability or achievement tests, then anything not captured in those scores—like the desired qualities of character—is, de facto, non-cognitive.  We’re now left with a pinched notion of cognition and a reductive dichotomy to boot.”

For Rose, social and emotional work must be an essential part of every teacher’s daily practice—and something children learn in their experience of schooling. In an excellent 2014 article published by The American Scholar, Rose describes the characteristics of the best classrooms he visited on a journey across the United States to research his fine book, Possible Lives: “For all the variation… the classrooms shared certain qualities… The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration.  But there was also safety from insult and diminishment… And there was safety to take intellectual risks… Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Respect also has a cognitive dimension.  As a New York principal put it, ‘It’s not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to be challenging enough that it’s respectful.’  Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space.  And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed.  Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing.  These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility… (O)verall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

The people who are trying to make Social Emotional Learning part of states’ Every Student Succeeds accountability dashboards undoubtedly have good intentions. They are trying, once again to make normal child development and attention to the needs of the whole child primary goals in America’s public school classrooms.  Unfortunately, however, because standardized test scores and high school graduation rates—both highly measurable data sets—remain at the very center of ESSA’s federal demand for school accountability, Social Emotional Learning will always be on the side.

To improve the social and emotional climate in our schools today, we’ll need do go after what is really the problem—what Harvard’s Daniel Koretz calls “the testing charade.”

NAEP Scores Stagnate; Test-and-Punish Flops; But Duncan’s New Plan Fails to Change Course

The biennial NAEP scores were released yesterday.  Diane Ravitch knows a lot about the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the NAEP.  Appointed by President Bill Clinton, she served on the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years. She describes what this test is: “NAEP is an audit test. It is given every other year to samples of students in every state and in about 20 urban districts. No one can prepare for it, and no one gets a grade. NAEP measures the rise or fall of average scores for states in fourth grade and eighth grade in reading and math and reports them by race, gender, disability status, English language ability, economic status, and a variety of other measures. The 2015 NAEP scores showed no gains nationally in either grade and in either subject… The best single word to describe NAEP 2015 is stagnation.”

Ravitch describes what she believes is the meaning of this year’s scores, and I agree with her: “For nearly 15 years, Presidents Bush and Obama and the Congress have bet billions of dollars—both federal and state—on a strategy of testing, accountability, and choice.  They believed that if every student was tested in reading and mathematics every year from grades 3 to 8, test scores would go up and up. In those schools where test scores did not go up, the principals and teachers would be fired and replaced. Where scores didn’t go up for five years in a row, the schools would be closed. Thousands of educators were fired, and thousands of public schools were closed, based on the theory that sticks and carrots, rewards and punishments, would improve education.”  But it hasn’t worked.

Carol Burris, the retired NY high school principal and now executive director of the Network for Public Education, interprets the 2015 NAEP scores: “NAEP is a truth teller. There is no NAEP test prep industry, or high-stakes consequence that promotes teaching to the test. NAEP is what it was intended to be—a national report card by which we can gauge our national progress in educating our youth.  During the 1970s and ’80s, at the height of school desegregation efforts, the gap in scores between our nation’s white and black students dramatically narrowed. You could see the effects of good, national policy reflected in NAEP gains. The gaps have remained, however, and this year, the ever so slight narrowing of gaps between white and black students is due to drops in the scores of white students—hardly a civil rights victory.”

Last weekend, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced what some people have seen as a significant pivot in education policy—a turning away from reliance on so much testing and a limit of 2 percent on the amount of time students are spending taking standardized tests at school. Here is what the U.S. Department of Education’s press release says about the anticipated change: “In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students. The Administration bears some of the responsibility for this and we are committed to being part of the solution.”

The Department’s new Testing Action Plan describes seven principles that will govern a new testing policy whose formal guidance document will be released in 2016: Tests should be “worth taking,” “high quality,” “time-limited,” “fair—and supportive of fairness,” “fully transparent to students and parents,” “just one of multiple measures,” and “tied to improved learning.”  Duncan proposes to make funds available to help states and school districts “develop less-burdensome assessments,” to review their tests and make them more innovative, to pay for experts to guide states on how to reduce time on testing, and to provide technical assistance and even technical assistance centers and labs to “provide targeted assessment audit support.”

Duncan also indicates that the Department of Education will be more flexible in its demands relating to testing and its uses: “The Administration will invite states that wish to request waivers of federal rules that stand in the way of innovative approaches to testing to work with the Department to promote high-quality, comparable, statewide measures.”  Duncan continues: “The Department will work with external assessment experts to implement a more transparent assessment peer review process of state assessments… To avoid double-testing of students, the Department will offer states flexibility from No Child Left Behind’s requirement that all 8th graders be tested on the same, statewide 8th grade math and reading tests, when such students are taking advanced high-school level coursework in 8th grade.”  He adds: “The Administration has adjusted its policies to provide greater flexibility to states in determining how much weight to ascribe to statewide standardized test results in educator evaluation systems required under the Administration’s ESEA flexibility policy.”

The Department of Education’s proposal to adjust its testing policies follows a major report released last week by the Council of the Great City Schools that deplores the amount of standardized testing being required by the federal government and states.  The report explains that, “401 unique tests were administered across subjects in the 66 Great City School systems.  Students… were required to take an average of 112.3 tests between pre-K and grade 12… The average student in these districts will typically take about eight standardized tests per year… Some of these tests are administered to fulfill federal requirements under No Child Left Behind, NCLB waivers, or Race to the Top, while many others originate at the state and local levels… Testing pursuant to NCLB in grade three through eight and once in high school in reading and mathematics is universal across all cities.  Science testing is also universal according to the grade bands specified in NCLB.  Testing in grades PK-2 is less prevalent than in other grades, but survey results indicate that testing in these grades is common as well… Urban school districts have more tests designed for diagnostic purposes than any other use, while having the fewest tests in place for purposes of international comparisons… Some 39 percent of districts reported having to wait between two and four months before final state test results were available at the school level, thereby minimizing their utility for instructional purposes… There is some redundancy in the exams districts give… The findings suggest that some tests are not well aligned to each other, are not specifically aligned with college-or career-ready standards, and often do not assess student mastery of any specific content.”

I don’t believe the Department’s change of plans will significantly address the challenges described so thoroughly by the Council for the Great City Schools.  America’s educational philosophy, formalized in 2002 in the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and perpetuated for more than a dozen years now in federal policies like Race to the Top and the NCLB Waivers, is a two-pronged strategy: first test and then punish the districts and schools that cannot quickly raise scores on the tests.  It is the PUNISH strand of this policy that has caused the explosion of testing.  NCLB’s mandate of an annual test was the mere beginning.  Fear is the motivator in a system driven by sanctions and punishments.  In the school districts where scores are lowest, school officials, driven by fear, have added practice tests and benchmark tests and more practice tests and hours of test-prep—anything that might raise test scores. If students are tested again and again, says the logic of a test-and-punish plan, maybe students will get better at taking tests and their scores will rise.

Here are the problems I see in the new testing ideas announced last weekend by the Department of Education.

  • In the first place, as Diane Ravitch points out so clearly, limiting testing to 2 percent of the school year is not really much of a change: “Actually that wasn’t a true reduction, because 2% translates into between 18-24 hours of testing, which is a staggering amount of annual testing for children in grades 3-8 and not different from the status quo in most states.”
  • Secretary Duncan’s new plan does not cut testing as the centerpiece of current proposals in Congress for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (that we currently call NCLB). Duncan proposes neither to move from annual testing to grade-span testing (once in elementary, middle and high school) nor to eliminate the high stakes for school districts and schools (and their teachers) unable quickly to raise students’ scores.
  • High stakes will continue to frighten school district officials into narrowly focusing on the tested subjects of reading and math and to fill too much time with test prep lessons.
  • Somehow, says Duncan, there is to be more flexibility about basing teachers’ evaluations on students’ scores, particularly for teachers in subjects that are not tested. This presumably means we won’t be adding more tests in previously non-tested subjects just to be able to judge teachers by the tests.
  • It seems to me that—quite typically for this Administration—there will be more money made available for consultants to evaluate and re-calibrate the testing system.

Duncan’s concept is to retain a test-and-punish system.  Writing for Education Week‘s federal policy blog, Andrew Ujifusa quotes Secretary Duncan’s own description of the new plans at a press conference: “The goal is to have good assessment that drives instruction, and if you reduce testing to 1 percent, and it isn’t relevant… it is not guiding instruction, that is a loss, that’s a failure, not a win.” Ujifusa paraphrases Duncan’s next comment: “However, if students spend slightly more than 2 percent of instructional time on testing and the assessments are helping teachers, parents understand them, and students are part of the solution, that’s a good outcome.”  This sounds to me as though we are going to continue with a test-based system.

Considering the stagnant NAEP test scores released yesterday, Kevin Welner, Director of the National Education Policy Center, comments on Duncan’s recently announced reassessment of the role of standardized testing: “It’s long past time to recognize that any benefits of test-based accountability policies are at best very small, and any meager benefits teased out are more than counterbalanced by negative unintended consequences.” “This (the focus on testing) is the tragedy. It has distracted policymakers’ attention away from the extensive research showing that, in a very meaningful way, achievement is caused by opportunities to learn. It has diverted them from the truth that the achievement gap is caused by the opportunity gap. Those advocating for today’s policies have pushed policymakers to disregard the reality that the opportunity gap arises more from out-of-school factors that inside-of-school factors… So schools with low test scores were labeled ‘failing’ and were shut down or reconstituted or turned over to private operators of charter schools… Teachers whose students’ test scores didn’t meet targets were publicly shamed or denied pay or even dismissed.  Our entire public schooling structure became intensively focused on increasing test scores. But once we admit that those test scores are driven overwhelmingly by students’ poverty- and racism-related experiences outside of school, then ‘failing’ schools are little more than schools enrolling the children in the communities that we as a society have failed.”

Motoko Rich’s Fuzzy Thinking in NY Times Piece on Common Core Tests

I am troubled by Motoko Rich’s NY Times piece earlier this week in which she worries that Test Scores Under Common Core Show That “Proficient” Varies by State.  Does Rich believe that the push for uniform academic standards (the Common Core standards) was really all about the tests? Does Rich really believe there is some kind of objective, universal, ideal test score standard—a model—to which we can compare all students and judge their academic standing?  Does she believe standardized tests are sufficiently comprehensive really to measure students’ accomplishments and compare them to each other?  Does she believe that cut scores derive from some kind of scientific principle?  Does Rich believe any of this matters?

Rich writes: “Ohio seems to have taken a page from Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.  Last month, state officials releasing an early batch of test scores declared that two-thirds of students at most grade levels were proficient on reading and math tests given last spring under the new Common Core requirements.  Yet similar scores on the same tests meant something quite different in Illinois, where education officials said only about a third of students were on track.  And in Massachusetts, typically one of the strongest academic performers, the state said about half of the students who took the same tests as Ohio’s children met expectations.  It all came down to the different labels each state used to describe the exact same scores on the same tests.”

Whether we need consistent academic expectations from place to place (the Common Core standards)  is a question that sparks enormous controversy, but that is not Rich’s topic this week.  She conflates two issues—consistent academic content and consistent cut scores from state to state on the Common Core tests: “That kind of inconsistency in educational standards is what the Common Core—academic guidelines for kindergarten through high school reading and math that were adopted by more than 40 states—was intended to redress.”  Rich writes her piece from Ohio, where the education department raised the cut score when it appeared that the mass of  children would fail the new tests.  In New York,  then state commissioner John King (our new acting U.S. Secretary of Education) set the cut score so high that 70 percent of the students appeared to fail.  Rich seems to believe that it is more important for students to appear to fail than for them to appear to succeed.  She would, I presume, advocate for cut scores that frighten America into toughening up.  What she fails to acknowledge is that cut scores are set by public officials, not by scientists.

Commenting on Rich’s piece, Diane Ravitch, who for several years was part of the governing board of the big test we call “the nation’s report card,” the National Assssment of Educational Progress, explains why consistency of cut scores across the states on the Common Core tests does not matter: “The good news is that we don’t need either of the Common Core tests to know how students in Oregon or Maine compare to students in other states. For that purpose, we have the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which compares states, measures achievement gaps. NAEP provides all the data anyone needs. I have yet to meet a parent who wanted to know how their child compared to children in other states. They want to know if they are getting along with other children, if they are doing the work that is right for their grade, if they are good citizens in school.”  About the Common Core tests themselves she adds: “The bad news is that Arne blew away $360 million on the tests, and the states have wasted hundreds of millions more to prepare for the tests, to buy new technology for the tests, and to change instruction to fit the tests.”

Arizona State University professor, Gene Glass, trained as a psychometrician, raises significant questions about our obsession in education with measuring and comparing and ranking. He writes:  “Around 1980, I served for a time on the committee that made most of the important decisions about the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  The project was under increasing pressure to ‘grade’ the NAEP results: Pass/Fail; A/B/C/D/F; Advanced/Proficient/Basic.  Our committee held firm: such grading was purely arbitrary, and worse, would only be used politically.  The contract was eventually taken from our organization and given to another that promised it could give the nation a grade, free of politics.  It couldn’t.”

Glass warns of the consequences: “Measurement has changed along with the nation.  In the last three decades, the public has largely withdrawn its commitment to public education.  The reasons are multiple: those who pay for public schools have less money, and those served by the public schools look less and less like those paying taxes.  The degrading of public education has involved impugning its effectiveness, cutting its budget, and busting its unions.  Educational measurement has been the perfect tool for accomplishing all three: cheap and scientific looking.”

Whether or not one likes the new academic standards established by the Common Core, it is important not to conflate the idea of  consistent academic content across the states with the issue of consistency of cut scores on the Common Core tests. And it is important to consider what one values.  Is the experience children and adolescents have at school the important thing, or is the measurement—by which we can compare students’ mastery of part of the academic content—what matters?

Gene Glass Gives Up on Psychometrics, Explains Danger of Test-and-Punish

Gene Glass is a seasoned professor of education—an expert in psychometrics, the science of measuring—who recently explained Why I am No Longer a Measurement Specialist.

Glass’s late career shift is a principled decision: “In the last three decades, the public has largely withdrawn its commitment to public education.  The reasons are multiple: those who pay for public schools have less money, and those served by the public schools look less and less like those paying the taxes.  The degrading of public education has involved impugning its effectiveness, cutting its budget, and busting its unions.  Educational measurement has been the perfect tool for accomplishing all three: cheap and scientific looking.”

In other words, Glass is tired of affiliating with the segment of educational academia that has created the tests used by cynical politicians and ideologues to justify blaming the schools that serve other people’s children along with the simultaneous underfunding of these schools.

Glass explains that after he was given an award for his 1966 dissertation, he was hired as a psychometrician by a major university. “Psychometrics,” he writes, “promised to help build a better world.  But twenty years later, the promises were still unfulfilled.  Both talent and tasks were too complex to yield to this simple plan. Instead, psychometricians grew enthralled with mathematical niceties.”

Then in 1980, Glass served for a time on the committee that governs the National Assessment of Education Progress, the test administered without any school identifiers or punitive consequences.  It is used to measure overall trends in American student achievement over time.  Glass reports, “The project was under increasing pressure to ‘grade’ the NAEP results: Pass/Fail; A/B/C/D/F; Advanced/ Proficient/Basic.  Our committee held firm: such grading was purely arbitrary, and worse, would only be used politically.”

But, of course, standardized testing has acquired political consequences over the years—culminating in the punitive test-and-punish federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002 and the Obama Race to the Top Program and NCLB waivers that have mandated that states use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their teachers.

Glass concludes: “When measurement became the instrument of accountability, testing companies prospered and schools suffered.  I have watched this happen for several years now.  I have slowly withdrawn my intellectual commitment to the field of measurement.  Recently I asked my dean to switch my affiliation from the measurement program to the policy program.  I am no longer comfortable being associated with the discipline of educational measurement.”

In the book Glass co-authored last year with long-time educational researcher, David Berliner, 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten American Public Education, the reader can see Glass and Berliner’s discontent with the way psychometrics is being manipulated by politicians to evaluate school teachers: “President Obama’s recent school reform initiative, Race to the Top, adds yet another seemingly sensible, but actually reprehensible, policy to the list of pressures on teachers…. One of the stipulations of the RTTT grant was that states had to implement a merit pay system based, in significant part, on student achievement scores.  States also are encouraged to base other personnel decisions (e.g. retention, tenure, termination, etc.) on student growth data… Most states have adopted a value-added measurement (VAM) method to statistically measure teacher performance based on student test scores.  VAMs are designed to measure student growth from year to year by controlling for non-teacher influence, such as student social class standing or English language competency.  But a host of other variables that are known to affect the growth of classroom achievement in any one year are totally unaccounted for.” (50 Myths & Lies, pp. 58-59)

Glass begins his recent column, “I was introduced to psychometrics in 1959. I thought it was really neat.”  Most of us don’t find the details of statistical measurement and control of variables “really neat.” We are paying the price for our own inattention to the details as politicians have sold us this latest bottle of snake oil. Gene Glass knows a lot about this arcane subject. We ought to listen to him as he gives up what he expected would be his lifelong calling.

Standardized Tests Distort Schooling: Experts Reflect on Authentic Learning

Federal school policy these days is limiting what children study at school.  The tests mandated by No Child Left Behind, the federal testing law, measure students’ progress in language arts and math.  Students are also tested in science once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school. And states had to promise to adopt college- and career-ready standards to qualify for Arne Duncan’s federal waivers from the most awful consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act.  College- and career-ready standards translate into the Common Core, one of two sets of curricula standards and the tests that accompany them. What all this means in practice is that much of what happens at school is driven by what is on the tests.

Our national obsession with standardized testing has motivated many people including parents and teachers to push back.  What about the skills that we all know determine people’s capacity to work together, to persist at their work, to question and talk about their work and about the issues citizens need to understand?  Test preparation doesn’t cover these things.  School needs to be more than test prep.

In late February Susan Engel, a professor of psychology at Williams College and founder and director of the Williams Program in Teaching, published a critique of standardized tests because, she said, neither do they show us much about what children know nor do they predict children’s success at school and in life:  “I have reviewed more than 300 studies of K-12 academic tests.  What I have discovered is startling.  Most tests used to evaluate students, teachers, and school districts predict almost nothing except the likelihood of achieving similar scores on subsequent tests.  I have found virtually no research demonstrating a relationship between those tests and measures of thinking or life outcomes.”

Engel then presents a list of seven abilities or dispositions she believes all children need to master at school. She suggests our testing ought to measure whether our schools are teaching these skills: “One key feature of the system I am suggesting is that it depends, like good research, on representative samples rather than on testing every child every year.  We’d use less data, to better effect, and free up the hours, days, and weeks now spent on standardized test prep and the tests themselves, time that could be spent on real teaching and learning.”  What are the seven abilities and dispositions Engel believes every child should develop at school?

  • Reading — Every child should be able to read well by the end of elementary school and should read regularly.
  • Inquiry — Schools should develop children’s natural desire to discover by helping them investigate deliberately, thoroughly and precisely.
  • Flexible thinking using evidence — Children need to be able to approach a topic in different ways, reason about it and write about it.
  • Conversation — Students need to practice listening and explaining, taking turns, marshalling evidence, exploring different points of view, telling stories.
  • Collaboration — Children must learn to navigate their social settings and be reflective about the way people treat each other.
  • Engagement — Children need to have opportunities to become absorbed and learn to concentrate.
  • Well-Being — Children need to expect to feel safe at school.

I encourage you to read Engel’s essay to learn how she suggests testing can be designed to evaluate how well schools nurture these abilities.

In a profound new reflection, Mike Rose, the UCLA professor who has spent a long career observing teaching and learning, also critiques how standardized testing has narrowed what children are taught.  Rose agrees that we ought to push back against the narrowed emphasis on reading, math and a little science.  Valuing similar priorities to Engel’s, Rose wants us to think about what are often called “the soft skills”—“punctuality and responsibility, self-monitoring and time management, the ability to communicate and work with others,” but unlike Engel, Rose is not rethinking testing.

Rose worries about the way we have come to parse instruction and to imagine we can teach separate skills or dispositions each one on its own, for nobody really learns that way.  “An ineffective way to develop soft skills in children or adults is to focus on soft skills alone, to lecture about them in the abstract or run people through games or classroom exercises that aren’t grounded on meaningful, intellectually relevant activity.  If we want to foster soft skills, we’ll have to start thinking about them in close connection with the cognitive content and interpersonal dynamics of the work people do.” (Emphasis added.)

Rose describes watching adults learning in a community college setting: “I observed adults in community college occupational programs as they developed skill in areas as diverse as fashion and welding.  While it is true that some students were from the beginning better than others at showing up for class on time and organizing their assignments, as students collectively  acquired competence, soft skills developed apace.  Students became more assured, more attentive to detail, more committed to excellence, and they got better at communicating what they were doing and formed helping relationships with others.”

Rose is thinking about teaching and learning as an organic process of human development.  The things one learns and practices at school come together to form the person who is becoming more educated.

Notice that neither Engel nor Rose describes the kind of standardized testing that dominates our schools today as an essential part of education.

Should the Federal Government Be Determining How States Evaluate Teachers?

Senator Lamar Alexander, chair of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, held another hearing this week on the potential reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, since 2002 called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The subject of this week’s hearing was federal requirements for evaluating school teachers. While it is early yet to predict any sort of outcome for the NCLB deliberations, Lauren Camera of Education Week speculates: “Although members of the Senate education committee agreed at a hearing Tuesday that teacher evaluations are essential for a thriving public education system, it’s unlikely that the forthcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act will include specific requirements.”

Removing requirements for tying evaluation of teachers to students’ test scores would be a radical shift in federal policy. The Obama administration conditioned qualification for its competitive grant program Race to the Top on states’ basing evaluation of school teachers on their students’ standardized test scores.  And the Obama Department of Education’s waivers from the onerous punishments of NCLB have also been contingent upon states agreeing to connect teachers’ ratings to their students’ standardized test scores.

Describing Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate HELP Committee, Camera continues: “Republicans, including Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Washington shouldn’t mandate such policies, while Democrats, including ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., were wary of increasing the role student test scores play in evaluations and how those evaluations are used to compensate teachers.  The lack of language in the reauthorization requiring teacher evaluations will likely stop in its tracks the Obama administration’s efforts to push states to adopt evaluation systems based in part on student test scores and performance-based compensation systems, both of which were at the heart of U.S. Department of Education’s NCLB waivers.”  Camera reports on testimony presented to the Senate HELP Committee by Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s education commissioner, that evaluation of teachers should be collaborative and “not done to teachers and leaders.”

Coincidentally, the day after the Senate HELP’s hearing on evaluation of teachers, I attended a packed meeting here at home where a panel of teachers from my own school district’s elementary and middle schools and our high school spoke about how their teaching practice has been affected by standardized testing and the evaluation of teachers based on their students’ scores.  All of them were able to examine these relatively new experiences in the context of long careers that stretch before the passage of No Child Left Behind.

Natalie Wester was chosen as Ohio’s teacher of the year in 2010, but she told the crowd that she worried even as she received the award, because that year only 4 of her third grade students had passed the autumn practice exam leading up to the official state test. In the spring only 50 percent of her students achieved the “proficient” rating. What the state’s examination did not recognize and what no official rating will ever show is that every student in her class that year grew two or three performance levels. The test, like all the standardized assessments since the passage of NCLB, recognizes achievement only when children cross the passing benchmark. If a non-reader enters a third grade classroom in the fall, learns to read, and becomes a second-grade-level reader in that one year, the child still counts as a failure according to the assessment that credits success only when a child reads at grade level. Wester declared, “I fear that in a very real sense we are squashing dreams, confidence, and children’s belief in themselves through testing.”

Another teacher reported he is working this year with a small group of third graders whose reading test scores are so low the students are likely to fail the state mandated Third Grade Reading Guarantee test. Students who fail will be required to repeat third grade. This teacher says he watches his students “shut down” when they realize how far behind they are. “I see that spark of wanting to learn dying in my students. I feel we are abusing our students.”

A high school teacher of special education worried that some of her students are so far below the basic level at which the standardized test is constructed that the testing experience itself is emotionally defeating.  All of the teachers who spoke affirm the value of informal quizzes and check-ins with students—formative assessments—that provide the teachers with feedback to plan interventions, support students, readjust the lesson, and add extra challenge as the lesson is expanded.  Very often, according to all the speakers, standardized test scores come back a semester or a year after the test, long after a particular teacher can use the data to address challenges faced by the students who are no longer enrolled in their classes.

A teacher from a neighboring school district framed the evening by explaining the details of the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, created as a requirement when Ohio applied for the federal Race to the Top competition and included as a requirement for the state to receive a federal waiver from some of the worst problems in NCLB. This system evaluates teachers in large part based on their students’ standardized test scores.  In the context of listening to a panel of professionally expert teachers speaking to their long experience working with children, it was almost baffling to try to follow the details of the plan by which Ohio’s teachers are rated “accomplished, skilled, developing or ineffective.” Teachers are spending hours filing reams of data about their teaching and their students. These reports along with formal observations of their classes count for 50 percent of their evaluation with another 50 percent from their students’ standardized test scores. A new revision of the Ohio Department of Education’s evaluation rubric will allow a school district to create alternative components for 15 percent of the overall rating and then award 42.5 percent on reports and observations and another 42.5 percent for students’ test scores.

As I listened to  the description of the burdensome evaluation system set up by the Ohio Department of Education, I know I was not the only person thinking about Natalie Wester’s students.  Each one of them gained at least two or three performance levels in her class, but only 50 percent of her children passed the state’s proficiency benchmark that year. Even if they have made substantial academic progress, children’s failures to reach a particular cut score affect not only them and their confidence and will to persist, but also shape the formal state evaluation scores of their teachers—even for Ohio’s teacher of the year.

NCLB Reauthorization Debate Focuses on Role of Testing, Ignores Expanding Opportunity

Test-and-punish, the strategy of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, has not been working. The goal of the law, drafted right after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001 and signed into law the following January, was to close academic achievement gaps by race and family income. Even though the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) version of the law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has been in operation for 13 years now and NCLB has utterly failed to close achievement gaps, Congress has never been able to agree on a reauthorization. Now our new Congress—both houses dominated by Republicans—has been talking about a reauthorization and has even been scheduling hearings.  In the past week advocacy groups have rushed to take sides on its central mandate: annual standardized testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

However, because there is not another compelling educational vision to replace test-and-punish accountability, it looks as though a compromise reauthorization of ESEA may move forward, but that any new version will be unlikely to change the direction of federal policy in public education.

Last Sunday, in coordination with a speech planned by Education Secretary Arne Duncan to follow on Monday, a group of 19 civil rights and advocacy organizations issued a statement insisting that any new federal education law require annual standardized testing.  The statement demands that any ESEA reauthorization include, “Annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting the state’s college and career-ready standards…” These organizations assert that annual test scores reported by demographic groups have shone a bright light on the persistent achievement gaps.  They advocate for the retention of annual testing as a way to continue to hold public schools accountable for addressing the needs of all children.

Then on Monday, in a major policy address, Education Secretary Arne Duncan also insisted on the retention of annual testing.  Duncan has not threatened a veto by President Barack Obama but he has pretty much made the retention of annual standardized testing non-negotiable, despite that in the past he has criticized “too many tests that take up too much time.”  Alyson Klein reports for Education Week that “Duncan…. wants any ESEA rewrite to continue teacher evaluations through student outcomes, the targeting of resources to the lowest-performing schools, and—most relevant to the current debate over updating the law—the law’s current regime of annual, statewide assessments.”

On Tuesday, Senator Lamar Alexander, the new Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a discussion draft of a new ESEA. Senator Alexander advocates reducing the federal role in education and substituting what is called “grade span” testing for annual testing.  Under Alexander’s grade-span proposal, schools would continue to be held accountable through testing, but students would be tested only once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

Lindsey Layton reports in the Washington Post that Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate HELP Committee, endorses Duncan’s insistence on annual testing:  “Murray said Monday she wants to keep the annual testing mandate but wants to eliminate the myriad other tests states and local school districts administer.”

The National Education Association has reiterated its support for grade-span testing (once in elementary, once in middle school, once in high school) and its reasons for rejecting No Child Left Behind’s mandate for annual standardized testing.  NEA’s president, Lily Eskelsen García, released a statement on Monday that explains: “We are pleased the Administration is calling for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act… Our focus is on providing equal opportunity to every child so that they may be prepared for college and career… In order to do this, we must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas… We support grade span testing to free up time and resources for students, diminish ‘teaching to the test,’ expand extracurricular activities, and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students.”

In a surprise on Wednesday, the American Federation of Teachers, which has historically opposed annual testing, joined with the Center on American Progress, whose education priorities generally mirror the policies of the Obama/Duncan Department of Education, to propose a compromise: retain annual standardized testing for diagnostic purposes but use grade-span testing to hold schools accountable: “We propose that in order to inform instruction, to provide parents and communities information about whether students are working at grade level or are struggling, and to allow teachers to diagnose and help their students, the federal requirement for annual statewide testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school should be maintained… However, we also believe it is critical to relieve the unintended yet detrimental pressure of high-stakes tests by basing federal accountability on a robust system of multiple measures.  While these systems should include assessment results, states should only be required to include tests taken once per grade span… in their school accountability systems.”

The debate about the long-overdue reauthorization of ESEA seems to have been reduced to a conversation about annual versus grade-span standardized testing.  Some pretty basic things are missing from this conversation.  Our society tolerates an alarming child poverty rate well over 20 percent, among the highest among industrialized nations. On top of segregation by race and ethnicity, our society is experiencing rapid segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich.  This growing segregation by economics is mirrored by a widening income inequality achievement gap that is even greater than the racial achievement gaps.  A drop in state budgetary allocations for public education means that 30 states are spending less on public education than in 2007 before the great recession.  Children who live in racially and economically marginalized communities where schools are poorly funded by state legislatures are the victims of enormous opportunity gaps.

These days politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the real problems posed by child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in budgets across the states with a regime of standardized tests and accompanying punishments for schools and school districts whose test scores do not rise quickly.  The punishments—prescribed by No Child Left Behind and also embedded the competitive programs such as Race to the Top initiated by the Obama administration— include blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, closing so-called “failing” schools, and expanding charters and privatization.

Our most urgent educational priority as a society must instead be to invest in improving public schools in communities where poverty is concentrated.  The paucity of ideas being discussed in Congress and important advocacy groups about an alternative to No Child Left Behind’s “test-and-punish” strategy demonstrates that right now there is a lack of public will and a lack of political leadership to invest in addressing the opportunity gaps that cause achievement gaps.

Protests Against Testing Grow but We’re Not There Yet

Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, warns that we have a ways to go before the tide of standardized testing will significantly ebb.  Valerie Strauss reprinted Welner’s comments on Sunday in her column at the Washington Post.

Welner would like to see what seems to be an escalating protest movement—against too much testing of the wrong kind—against filling the school day and school year with endless standardized tests—against evaluating teachers and rating them and ranking them according to their students’ standardized test scores—successfully turn the tide.

He strongly opposes the demands being made by the U.S. Department of Education to evaluate teachers by students’ scores: “If politicians are to hold teachers and principals accountable for students’ test scores, they must have comprehensive data sets that allow for the possibility of following small differences in those scores over time.  A large and convincing body of authoritative evidence suggests this is a fool’s errand—that attempts to somehow attribute these small differences to teachers and principals run into insurmountable validity hurdles.  This is true even when the test focuses on the teacher’s subject—e.g., scores from reading comprehension tests used to evaluate a language arts teacher.  It’s even more true when students’ test scores are attributed to teachers who don’t teach the subject of those tests or to teachers who are measured on students they never taught.”

Welner would like to believe the opt-out protests that keep growing among parents and even boards of education mean that a change is going to come, but he worries:  “In short, we’ve seen dissatisfaction with the status quo of education reform, and we’ve seen acknowledgement of that dissatisfaction.  But what we’ve not seen is a widespread, deeper rethinking of school improvement or an embrace of an alternative…. It’s highly unlikely that the nation will move away from the status quo until it has a different pathway forward.” “Reforms like test-based accountability give us the feeling of doing something—of demanding excellence—without providing the capacity to achieve our goals.”

Welner defines what real reform would have to include: “We must… accept the reality that real reform requires much more than we as a society have been willing to do.  It requires demanding more of students and teachers but also of lawmakers and taxpayers.  It requires a sustained commitment to ensuring rich opportunities to learn, particularly for students with fewer resources and opportunities outside of the school.”

Such reform will necessarily require more taxes, greater expenditures on the public schools in impoverished communities, smaller classes, more counselors, and so on—the really expensive investments our society has until now refused to undertake.  We will also need to confront segregation by economics and race that has now been solidifying for years across America’s metropolitan areas.  Protests like opting out of testing can be an important first step, but such protests are only the preface to deeper changes that must follow.

“Rethinking Schools” Magazine: Standardized Tests Disguise Privilege as Merit

Our federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, passed under President Bush, and the programs of the Obama Administration that have amplified its dire consequences in poor communities of color—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants,  No Child Left Behind waivers, and college and career-ready standards and accompanying tests (that are taking the form of the Common Core in most states)—all rest on a foundation of high-stakes, standardized testing.  These days standardized tests determine who can be promoted to fourth grade, who can graduate from high school, which teachers get a raise, which teachers are terminated, which schools are ranked as “excellent” or A,  which schools are “failing” or F, which schools will be closed, and which schools will be turned into charter schools.

While the majority of parents view the tsunami of standardized testing through the lens of their children’s experiences at school, the implications are more complex than too much test prep, too much practice testing, and too many weeks of learning set aside for the administration of tests.  The editorial in the new, spring 2014 issue of Rethinking Schools addresses the complex ramifications of test-based accountability in American public schools and makes the plea for advocates to become more inclusive as they organize to pressure policy makers to reduce testing.

While the majority of parents opting their children out of testing have been white and middle class, the editors caution us to recognize other kinds of protest—against rampant school closures in big cities, for example—as facets of the anti-testing movement.  “And yet, for this movement to truly fulfill its potential, it needs a deeper understanding of how different communities are being affected by these tests.  If the power of solidarity is going to reclaim our schools, more affluent, predominantly white activists will need to develop an anti-racist understanding of the movement against standardized testing and the barrier that communities of color face to joining—including the very real fear from parents of color that their children’s schools will be shut down if they don’t encourage them to score well on the tests.  In some instances, parents of color have expressed support for standardized tests as a way to hold school systems accountable for the education of their children who have far too often been systematically neglected, disproportionately disciplined, and left to cope in the most under-resourced schools.”

Rethinking Schools‘ editors continue:  “Because the stakes attached to these tests are different for different communities, this new movement against standardized testing would do well to embrace a multifaceted approach.  Opting out and boycotting tests can be exemplary individual acts of resistance.  But this tactic becomes most powerful when it grows beyond individual to collective action and becomes part of a mass movement of resistance and protest that includes many entry points and expressions.”  Parents will benefit by allying with teachers.  For example, the Chicago Teachers Union has been organizing with groups across the city and Karen Lewis, CTU’s president, has launched the “Let Us Teach!” campaign. “A multiracial fightback against the testing industrial complex—one that is explicitly anti-racist and takes up issues of class inequality—has the potential to change the terms of the education reform debate….”

In Ohio, my state, I feel personally hurt every time our state’s school rating system (based entirely on standardized test scores) is trotted out—something that happens routinely in newspaper reports and comments by politicians.  In the fall of 2014, Ohio will go to an A-F school rating system, but for years the press and even public education advocates have often just accepted without question that our schools and school districts fit into a system that classifies them as Excellent (Some are even Excellent with Distinction.), Effective, Continuous Improvement, Academic Watch, and Academic Emergency.   People will tell you their school district is “Excellent with Distinction” without adding that it is 99 percent white and 100 percent affluent as an outer-ring suburb.  This system feeds the belief that teachers in the wealthiest suburbs know how to teach and “produce excellent results” while city school teachers and teachers in Appalachian rural areas don’t know how to “produce results.”  In Ohio’s metropolitan areas this system has been feeding white flight to outer suburbs for several years now, and it also feeds the stereotype that poor children and children of color cannot learn.

My own personal experience with test-based rating and ranking of schools—and their teachers—and their children—makes me especially gratified to see the following analysis in the Rethinking Schools editorial:

“The United States has a long history of using intelligence tests to support white supremacy and class stratification.  Standardized tests first entered the public schools in the 1920s, pushed by eugenicists….  High-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since.  The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a ‘mental ability’ gap and now an ‘achievement’ gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.”