I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, December 26, 2014

Standardized Tests: The Stakes ARE High For Children

Laura Waters tells us that the stress teachers and principals are feeling over expanded standardized testing, like the PARCC, just isn't a problem for the wee ones:
Will NJ’s “toxic testing” movement peter out after the state’s teachers, students, and schools survive their first year of PARCC standardized tests?
If only it were so simple. Some of the opposition to the PARCC tests stems from concerns about overtesting kids. These tests are a little longer than New Jersey’s old standardized tests, and more challenging because they’re aligned with appropriate grade-level expectations. But the real hostility towards PARCC is driven by accountability measures embedded in the state’s 2012 TEACHNJ law. This legislation ties student outcomes on standardized tests to teacher and school evaluations. The assessments aren’t high stakes for children, but they’re high stakes for teachers and schools. That’s a basic premise of education reform: public schools should be responsive to the public and responsible for results. [emphasis mine]
"Responsive to the public" apparently doesn't mean giving every community local control over its schools. That's a privilege we reserve for districts with certain, shall we say, demographics...

But we've been over that point quite a bit on this blog; let's spend some time examining this other claim. Is it true that statewide, standardized tests "aren’t high stakes for children"?

To start: even Waters acknowledges that the tests are high-stakes for teachers and schools. The results  are used to target schools for accountability measures, even if the results are racially and socioeconomically biased (in part because the tests themselves are racially and socioeconomically biased). This means, as in Newark, schools can be forced to be "renewed" or turned over to charter school operators on the basis of test scores. It's silly to pretend this isn't a high-stakes outcome for children.

Further: let's not delude ourselves into thinking children don't feel pressure when their teacher's livelihood is on the line due to a standardized test. SGPs may be biased and noisy measures of teacher effectiveness, but that hasn't stopped the state from using them to hold teachers "accountable." This has a profound effect on a child's classroom -- how could it not?

But let's set aside these indirect but still meaningful effects and ask instead: are there direct effects on students from the increasing emphasis on standardized testing?

The answer, unquestionably, is yes. Off the top of my head, I can think of three big ways in which statewide standardized tests like the NJASK or the PARCC profoundly affect the lives of our public school students:

1) Placement into advanced courses. Because standardized tests have a patina of objectivity surrounding them, administrators often use them as assessments for children to gain entry into higher-level courses. Here's an example from -- surprise! -- Laura Waters's own district, Lawrence Township, where she currently serves as vice-president of the board of education.

Dear Parents and Guardians: 
We would like to welcome you and your child to Lawrence Middle School! 
Unlike other academic disciplines offered at LMS, there are different math courses for student placement.  In mathematics, understanding and competency in foundational skills is essential for success in the next course within a sequence and in higher math classes. A sequence of classes has been established to help ensure student success throughout their math career and preparation for standardized tests. LMS Math courses are aligned to the Common Core State Standards.  Student placement is based on specific placement criteria indicators.  Placing a student in a class that they are ready to receive instruction is paramount to their current and future success, as well as, concept understanding and application.  All math classes at LMS include skills and concepts addressed on the NJASK, a required state assessment, along with course specific skills. The curricula are rigorous and designed to challenge students at an appropriate level related to their abilities as demonstrated by his/her performance indicators. Pushing students beyond their readiness level may impact their understanding of essential prerequisite skills and hinder their success Students must complete pre algebra before they can enter into an algebra course. Below is a summary of key performance indicators used for placement and a possible math career progression for students as they enter LMS and high school. [emphasis mine]
Certainly, Lawrence uses multiple indicators to grant students placement into the higher math tracks. But what do you think the chances are of a student who is not "proficient" on the NJASK/PARCC getting into advanced math?

If I'm reading the charts on this page correctly, it's nearly impossible for a Lawrence student to get into AP Calculus in Grade 11 unless they were in advanced math in Grade 6. And students who take AP Calc that early undoubtedly have an advantage in their college applications.

If you're a student in Lawrence, you want to do well on the NJASK/PARCC; your future will definitely be affected by your score.

2) End-Of-Course Testing. The new PARCC tests are replacing the old HSPA as the standard requirement for graduation (the transition has been more than a little bumpy). But they are also serving as "end-of-course" tests in math and language arts. Which means districts are starting to move away from giving their own mid-terms and final exams, and toward prepping more for the PARCC.

Frankly, I find this as weird as the practice of eschewing finals for taking the AP exam, because the results of the tests don't come back until after a final grade is issued. Which means a student can take AP Biology, get an "A" in the course, but only get a "2" on the exam (conversely, that student could get a "D" in the course but score a "5" on the test).

We'll have to see how high schools deal with this; we'll also have to see if the trend creeps down to middle schools. In any case, replacing finals and mid-terms with the PARCC certainly makes it a high-stakes assessment for students.

3) Self-image. As a lifelong educator, I'm going to claim some authority to argue this point. Children -- particularly young children -- take these tests seriously, and their self-image is inevitably affected by the results.

One of the least-reported but most fascinating studies of the last few years looked at the correlation between ADHD diagnosis and test-based accountability policies:
It turned out that there were indeed educational policies that vary from state to state that link to the rates of ADHD diagnosis.
Specifically, Drs. Hinshaw and Scheffler's team found a correlation between the states with the highest rates of ADHD diagnosis and laws that penalize school districts when students fail. Some of these laws are what they call "consequential accountability statutes"—that is, laws like No Child Left Behind, which make school funding contingent on the number of students who pass standardized tests.  Another kind of accountability law passed by many states requires exams for high school seniors to qualify for graduation.
"In 2001, No Child Left Behind put the whole country on notice that districts are accountable for scores," Dr. Hinshaw notes. "But if you go back two decades earlier, in the early 1980s, some states got on the consequential assessment bandwagon earlier or the high school exam bandwagon earlier."
What the team found is that in states that enacted these measures early, within a couple of years rates of ADHD diagnoses started going up, especially for kids near the poverty line. This isn't surprising as the diagnosis helps the school comply in several different ways, Dr. Hinshaw notes. If kids who are struggling with ADHD get treated, it should improve their functioning in school and hence their test scores. But it's also the case he adds, that in many jurisdictions, if you get an ADHD diagnosis your test scores don't count. And, of course, there's an added bonus that, since kids with untreated ADHD are often disruptive in the classroom, getting them to settle down (or sending them to segregated classrooms) could have positive impact on a whole class—and that class's test scores.
In other words: When schools are given financial incentives to improve student success rates, students are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and given medication to treat it. [emphasis mine]
I can't think of a higher stake for a student than being saddled with a diagnosis that requires a years of brain-altering medication. What a powerful impact this must have on a child's sense of her self.

The association between self-image and academic outcomes is very complex; I'm certainly not going to say that how a child does on the PARCC completely determines their self-image. But it would be foolish to ignore significant evidence showing tests are correlated with self-concept, and that can have serious implications.

The issue certainly deserves more than Waters's insouciant take on the matter:
While NJEA was temporarily appeased and even took credit for the compromise, Save Our Schools and other Tea Party groups were outraged. Currently a number of suburban bargaining units are sponsoring opt-out tutorials for parents who have the means to keep kids home on testing days and the NJEA is hosting an opt-out page on its website. However, my guess is that the antitesting fervor will diminish by the end of 2015 after everyone emerges unscathed by the first implementation of PARCC. Look: students take tests. Teachers prepare students for tests, even new assessments that require mastery of meaningful standards. It’s called school.[emphasis mine]
Yes, it is. But as the reformy keep telling over and over, school has a profound influence over a student's life. And if standardized testing increasingly defines how well a student performs, it stands to reason that a student has a greater stake in the results of that test.

So let's not pretend the expanded testing regime being foisted on our schools is nothing more than a passing concern for our children. These tests most certainly come attached with high stakes for our kids.

And our students deserve better than breezy denials of this reality.

"It's called school."

ADDING: Some folks on social media are pointing to this sentence from Waters:
While NJEA was temporarily appeased and even took credit for the compromise, Save Our Schools and other Tea Party groups were outraged. [emphasis mine]
Full disclosure: SOSNJ is hosting the NJ charter report I wrote with Julia Sass Rubin, one of the founders. Maybe you agree with the group; maybe you don't. That's fine...

But to conflate SOSNJ with the Tea Party is simply ridiculous. In no way, shape, or form is SOSNJ even remotely related to the Tea Party. Yes, they may both oppose things like the PARCC, but they do so for completely different reasons.

Calling SOSNJ a "Tea Party group" is like saying Mets fans are really Yankee fans because they both love baseball and come from New York. As any fan of one or the other ball club will tell you: the differences far outweigh any similarities.


Giuseppe said...

THAT woman, oy vay! Reading her opinion pieces is an exercise in intellectual torture. Slogging through all her reform bromides, recycled blather and bumper stickerisms is vomit inducing. It's as if she lives in some alternate universe in a galaxy far far away.

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