There's a lot to get to that I've had to miss over the past couple of weeks, and I'll get to it all in due time. But it looks like we're still in the middle of the standardized test silly season, where all sorts of wild claims about the PARCC and other exams are made by folks who have consistently demonstrated that they really know very little about what these tests are and what their scores tell us.
So let's go over it one more time:
- All standardized tests, by design, yield normal, "bell curve" distributions of scores.
I will be the first to say that tests can vary significantly in their quality, reliability, and validity. But they all crank out bell curve score distributions. When New York switched to its "new" tests in 2014, the score distributions looked pretty much the same as the distributions back in 2009.
Same with New Jersey -- just ask Bruce Baker. This is by design - the tests are scored so that a few kids get low scores, a few kids get high scores, and most get somewhere in the middle.
Do I need to point out the obvious? When a test's scores are normalized, someone has got to be "below average." The notion that everyone can be high achieving makes no sense when achievement is judged in relative terms.
- Proficiency rates can be set any place those in power choose to set them.
You will hear reformy types say that proficient rates tanked because the PARCC is a more "rigorous" test than what came before. We could actually have a debate that -- if we were allowed to see the test. What isn't under debate, however, is that the proficiency rates are simply cut scores than can be set wherever those who have the power choose to set them. The NJASK and the PARCC yielded the same distribution of scores:
There was a bit of a ceiling effect on the old NJASK is some grades, but largely the distributions of the two tests are the same. All that changed was the cut score -- a score that could have been set anywhere.
The change in the test didn't cause the cut score to change; that was a completely different decision.
- The new proficiency rates are largely based on the scores of tests that are similarly normalized.
The PARCC proficiency rates were set using other tests, like the ACT and SAT, that also yield normal distributions of test scores.
The purpose of the SAT and the ACT is to order and rank students so college admissions offices can make decisions -- not to determine whether students meet some sort of objective standard of minimally acceptable education.
Colleges want to be able to judge the relative likelihood of different students achieving success in their institutions. The SAT cut score of 1550 -- often reported as the "college and career ready standard" -- roughly represents a cut score where there's about a fifty-fifty chance of a student getting a B or higher in a freshman course at a selected sample of four-year colleges or universities (most of which have competitive admissions; some, like Northwestern and Vanderbilt, are extremely competitive).
Note that about one in three Americans holds a bachelors degree. I am still waiting for my friends on the reformy side to reveal their plans to triple the number of four-year college seats in America. I'm also waiting to hear how much more they'll pay their own gardeners and dishwashers and home health care aides and garbage haulers when they all earn bachelor's degrees.
Oh, I forgot: these people don't rely on non-college educated workers. They clean their own offices and pick their own lettuce and bus their own dishes at their favorite restaurants...
- The idea that "proficiency" for all current students should be the cut score level attained by the top one-third of yesterday's students flies in the face of all reason.
Seriously: does anyone really think all students should achieve at an academic level that would track them toward getting a B in math or English at a competitive admission, four-year university? How does that make any sense?
But let's supposed by some miracle it actually happened -- then what? Again, are we going to admit everyone into a four year college? Who's going to fund that?
Some folks say that I am consigning certain students to a life of low standards by pointing all this out. But I didn't make the system; I'm just describing it. When you turn human learning into bell curves, this is what you get: somebody's got to be on the left side. There's a serious conversation to be had about how these tests convert class and race advantage into "merit," but even if we removed all of the biases in these tests, somebody would still have to be getting less than average scores.
If you can't even acknowledge this, I can't even talk to you. And, speaking of class and race...
The best predictor of a school's test scores is how many of its students are in economic disadvantage.
How many times must I show some variation of this?
So why aren't we doing anything about poverty if we want to equalize educational opportunity?
- Standardized tests could yield the same information about school effectiveness with far less cost and intrusion.
All of the above said, I still believe there is a place for strong academic standards and standardized tests. The truth is that this country does have a history of accepting unequal educational opportunity, and it's hard to make a case for, say, adequate and equitable school funding without some sort of metric that shows how students compare in academic achievement.
And I don't even have a problem with test scores, properly controlled for student characteristics, as markers for exploring whether certain schools could improve compared to others. Compulsory actions on test scores are idiotic, but using the data to inform decisions? Fine.
But why must we test every child in every grade for an accountability measure? If we're trying to determine if a school has "failed," we could do so with far less cost, far less intrusion, and far less Campbell's Law-type corruption. If the point is to show inequities in the system, we could do that with a lot less testing than we're currently doing.
- Testing supporters should be more concerned with what happens after a test raises a red flag.
Once we identify the schools in question that are lagging, what's our response? No Child Left Behind said: "Choice! Private tutoring! Shut 'em down!"
Turns out that is some seriously weak-ass tea. "Choice" hasn't come close to creating the large societal changes its adherents promise. "Turnarounds" aren't working out well either.
If we really cared about equalizing educational opportunities for all children, we'd start doing some stuff that actually seems to work, like:
- Lowering class sizes.
- Elevating the teaching profession.
- Spending more in our schools, especially the ones serving many children in disadvantage.
- Dismantling institutional segregation.
- Improving the lives of children and their families outside of school.
Of course, this would mean shifting some of the massive wealth accumulated by the wealthiest people in this country towards to the people who actually do most of the work. Given the historic inequality this county faces, I think the rich folks who support outlets like The 74 and Education Post could handle keeping a little less for themselves.
As we come out of the PARCC silly season, it behooves us to ask: If these tests are so damn important for showing that America's schools are unequal, why don't we actually do some meaningful stuff to help them after we get the scores back? Why do we waste our time with reformy nonsense that doesn't work?
Like vouchers. Stand by...
Again, once you find the "failing" schools, the real question becomes: what are you going to do?
From 2004 to 2015, Karen DeJarnette was the director of planning, research, and evaluation in the Little Rock school district, where she was in charge of monitoring black student achievement. In her inspections, she found that some schools, predominantly in the poorer (and minority) parts of town, were plagued with mold and asbestos, had water that dripped through the ceiling, and, sometimes, lacked functioning toilets. Most of the subpar schools were in the east and south parts of town, where test scores were lower, which is no coincidence, she told me. “There was a direct correlation with under or poorly-resourced schools and poor results of students on standardized tests,” she said.
DeJarnette pointed out the disparities in the reports she compiled for the district, but her comments weren’t acknowledged, she said. Instead, according to her, the board and administrators would talk about how badly some schools were performing, without talking about how under-resourced those schools were. [emphasis mine]
You don't cure a fever by yelling at the woman holding the thermometer.