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, April 29, 2016

A Few More PARCC Thoughts

Since my last post about the PARCC appears to be getting passed around a bit, let me add a few more quick thoughts before moving on:

- One notion I see coming from some school leaders these days is that PARCC is a "better" test because it breaks down skills and abilities into subgroups, and that can help districts and schools make good curricular and instructional decisions.

In general, I really don't have a problem with this idea... provided these school leaders approach the data correctly. How should a school or district administrator view PARCC scores? As a limited source of data, subject to noise and validity problems as much, if not more, than any other assessment.

According to the PARCC folks themselves, the Math tests have about 30 to 40 items each. Break that down into a set of several different skills, and you're talking about a scant few questions for each individual area of content. Which is fine! I'm not saying the PARCC should be much longer so that it can be comprehensive -- that would be absurd.

I'm just saying that you have to look at the limitations of the test before you act on it. Maybe your Grade 7 students didn't do so well on calculating the areas of circles on the PARCC. Fine -- look into it. But don't think the PARCC, by itself, comes close to giving you actionable information. The one or two items that asked your kids to calculate these areas probably don't give you enough data.

As a general rule: any school leader who thinks the PARCC is anything more a supplementary source of data has not been properly trained. And any state education official who continues to claim the PARCC is critical for developing good curricular practices is way overselling the test.

- I don't understand why the PARCC people haven't made the commitment to open up their exam every year and release every item on every test. I mean, that's the advantage of having a collation of states, right? If there's just one test but it's distributed across multiple states, we should be able, at a reasonable cost, to make these exams fully transparent. So why don't we?

How can anyone claim the PARCC can improve instruction if the educators who are supposed to scrutinize the results can't even see the questions? Isn't that a minimal requirement of an assessment that is supposed to provide information on individual students? That you can see the question and the answer for each kid right next to each other? Sure, it would cost more, because items could no longer be reused. But the losses would be offset by having more kids take the same test every year.

I know some of you are going to hate me for saying this, but: it makes sense to band states together to have one common assessment just so that assessment can be fully transparent. Why don't the PARCC folks agree with me?

Oh, right...

- There are many reasons people opt their kids out of standardized tests. Some are undoubtedly making a conservative political statement -- but I haven't met any of them. The parents I've spoken with generally have one of three concerns:

1) The tests are not appropriate, in their view, for their child. They will tell you their son or daughter is particularly anxious about testing, or has a disability that makes testing onerous, or any number of other reasons.

I have very little patience these days with the folks who are bad-mouthing parents who opt-out, snidely tut-tutting that these parents are "coddling" their kids. I don't know how you can possibly say you're for "choice" and then deny parents any say in addressing something that they believe is harming their children.

Of course, if you pulled back the high stakes linked to these tests, many of the fears of children and parents would likely recede. So what's more important to you folks advocating hard for the PARCC: having the data, or retaining the right to use it incorrectly and punitively?

2) Other parents -- and these are largely the parents of older students -- think the tests are little more than distractions from assessments that really matter: SATs, ACTs, APs, IBs, school finals, and so on. Their kids are burned out on tests to begin with; why should they take the Grade 11 PARCC English test when they are going to sit through a couple of administrations of the SAT?

The idea that these kids should be forced to sit through the PARCC because otherwise we won't be able to make judgements about so-called "achievement gaps" strains credulity. So you've now proved with yet another battery of tests that schools are engines of social replication -- OK, now what? You couldn't tell this before from SAT and ACT scores, and AP scores, and AP and SAT and ACT participation rates, and graduation rates, and the old Grade 10 proficiency tests, and all the Grade 3 through 8 tests the kids took before they got to high school? You needed more data to prove the system is inequitable? Really?

End-of-course high school testing was rammed through New Jersey with practically no debate whatsoever, and this state is hardly alone. Where is any evidence standardized, statewide EOC tests lead to superior outcomes? I haven't seen it. Until the reformsters come up with that evidence, it's more than reasonable for parents, feeling that their high schoolers have enough worries, to pull them out of the PARCC.

3) Most of the parents I speak with have this final concern: something is wrong with American education, it is exemplified by testing, and opting-out is an act to bring about some needed changes to our schools.

In the leafy 'burbs, the concern is that too many kids are burning out on their Race To Nowhere, and that the joy of learning is being stripped away.

In the urban centers, parents of color are seeing that decades of testing have led to more inequity in our schools, with the weak promises of "choice" replacing a meaningful commitment to equity of opportunity.

Standardized testing is the status quo, and the status quo is not acceptable anymore.

Again, I do think there is a place for standardized testing. But we've been giving these tests for years and, arguably, educational inequity is now worse. Where's the payoff? Why continue to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result?

- If the purpose of these tests is to point out that educational inequity needs to be addressed, why are we using them for so many other purposes? As the National Research Council says:
Often a single assessment is used for multiple purposes; in general, however, the more purposes a single assessment aims to serve, the more each purpose will be compromised. For instance, many state tests are used for both individual and program assessment purposes. This is not necessarily a problem, as long as assessment designers and users recognize the compromises and trade-offs such use entails. [emphasis mine]
In other words: it's fine to use these tests as supplemental sources of data. But the notion that they can simultaneously serve multiple purposes and serve them well is just not reasonable. If the point of PARCC is system accountability -- a worthy objective, in my view -- then let's use it for that, and not pretend it's adequate by itself for student assessment and curricular evaluation. At best, it yields some data that might or might not be useful -- that's it.

Speaking of which...

- Anyone who tells you that teachers and their unions object to PARCC because they object to accountability is being foolish and, worse, insulting. I, for one, am fed up with no-nothings who never spent a day in front of a class implying that I don't care about improving my practice simply because I'm pointing out the limitations of these tests are far greater than their promoters care to admit.

I also mightily resent the implication that I am some sort of patsy who's allowed my union to blind me to the awesomeness of standardized testing. As I said before: the purpose of these tests is system accountability. But if we're going to use them for things like student assessment or teacher evaluation or school-level interventions, the very least we should do is acknowledge that they are not up to the task of providing data that compels particular actions.

No teacher worth his or her salt is against being evaluated properly. But the use of these tests, tied to noisy VAMs and SGPs that compel actions based on arbitrary cut scores, is completely without merit. Argue if you want, but don't accuse me of shirking my responsibilities for simply pointing out what groups like the American Statistical Association have already said.

Further, we teachers have seen the corrupting influence testing has had on our schools. I know some reformy folks, including state education leaders, want to silence teacher voices over this (more on this story later). But the fact is that many educators are genuinely concerned about the pernicious effects of over-testing. Dismissing their concerns by impugning their motives is as nasty and lazy as it gets.

That's all for now about testing; let's talk about vouchers next.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The PARCC Silly Season

Miss me?

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...

Don't they?

- 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?

Nothing predicts a test score as well as relative student economic status measures -- nothing. No one serious debates this anymore.

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.

Don't you?

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.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

You Know What Doesn't Help Chicago's Students? Tut-Tutting At the CTU

It looks like Peter Cunningham has decided to take the $12 million in initial grants he got from America's reformiest billionaires and use it to fight back against what everyone who's anyone knows is the greatest threat to American education:

Teachers unions! (shudder)

Education Post, the golden, honeycombed beehive from which Cunningham dispatches his reformy swarm, is buzzing with righteous indignation at the Chicago Teachers Union for daring engage in a one-day strike whose purpose was to call attention to, among many injustices, the massive underfunding suffered by the city's schools.

Reading the Education Post pieces on the strike (the things I do for you people...), a common theme emerges: yes, we know the Chicago schools and students are suffering, but gee willikers, this strike is just the wrong way to solve the problem!

Andrew Broy"Whatever one may think of this action, one thing is certainly clear: This “strike” does nothing to solve the real problems faced by a district staggering under the weight of fiscal pressures and a seemingly interminable state budget standoff. At a time when all interested parties should be united in fixing a student funding formula that penalizes low-wealth school districts, the CTU prefers to wage war against city leadership in a display of faux progressivism."

Frissia Sanchez"I actually agree with the union that our state and city have massively underfunded education and it’s time to right that wrong. But I am very disappointed in CTU leadership and how they are handling teachers who oppose the so-called Day of Action."

Maureen Kelleher: "Even though I’m a charter school parent, I find myself agreeing with a lot of what the CTU has to say about the problems with education funding and how to solve them. They’re right that Illinois needs a progressive income tax to raise the revenue needed for essential public services, including schools. They’re right that toxic debt swaps enrich bankers and deprive our children of educational resources. They’re right that Chicago needs tax increment financing (TIF) reform. But a one-day strike is more likely to annoy CTU’s most precious allies—parents—than to pressure targets like the mayor and the governor into changing their policies."

And, of course, the big boss himself: "The union’s website talks about the governor, the mayor and “the 1 percent,” “threats” to cut pensions, more funding for public education, higher wages for private sector workers, support services in schools and communities, higher taxes, smaller classes, a promise of no budget cuts, restrictions on charter schools and an elected school board. It’s unclear how the walkout makes any of these outcomes more likely."

Got that? Everyone admits CTU is making a valid point -- the only problem is that they're doing something about it!

Jersey Jazzman (artist's conception)

To be fair, Education Post is only saying what so many other teachers union bashers in the press have said: they admit that there is a serious underfunding problem for the Chicago Public Schools while simultaneously wagging their fingers at CTU for daring to do something to draw attention to the situation. Here, for example, is the Chicago Tribune editorial board,* admitting CPS is in a fiscal tailspin but still chiding the union for going on strike: 
This bond deal expands and extends the debt load of a school district that's already hopelessly overextended. Or rather, the debt load of Chicago taxpayers who are on the hook for all this principal and interest: CPS expects to pay $538 million in debt service this year on the total of $6.2 billion it owed before this bond sale. This school year, that debt service will divert about $1,370 for every student to the district's lenders. 
This crisis won't be solved by a teachers strike. It won't be solved by declarations of "war" between labor and management. It won't be solved by counting on windfalls from taxes that don't currently exist.
Yeah, and it won't be solved by union-bashing editorials either, will it?

The Trib, of course, lives in a fantasy world where teachers don't need to eat or feed their own kids, so all of CPS's fiscal problems can be solved by educators giving back more and more while Illinois' wealthy enjoy extraordinarily regressive state and local tax rates.

What is undeniable -- so much so that even the Education Post crew knows it -- is that Chicago has suffered from a systemic, chronic underfunding of its schools. Charter school proliferation hasn't helped, but even putting that aside, Chicago's schools, more than any other large city in the nation except Philadelphia, are the victims of inadequate resources

Everyone who is willing to look honestly at this knows it's true -- so here are my questions for Cunningham and the swarm:

1) At least twice, Eva Moskowitz, the queen bee of New York's charter sector, has closed her schools and sent her students up to Albany to rally for, among other things, funding for her charter network. Where, may I ask, was your indignation then? It seems to me you actually encouraged pulling those kids out of school to protest on behalf of their school leaders' agenda. Why weren't charter parents supposed to be "annoyed" at their kids missing school if CPS parents were allegedly "annoyed" by CTU's action?

2) What have you people done to get Chicago's public schools the additional money most of you admit they need?

I won't claim to have read everything Education Post has written about Chicago's schools. But when I see posts that lament the costs of teacher pensions (even while admitting CPS teachers are not at all in the wrong) or chide Governor Rauner and the CTU equally without even mentioning the possibility of a tax hike on the wealthy, I have to wonder what the agenda is here.

The only other thing I could find at the site that comes close to suggesting schools need more funding comes from a guest post by Nick Albares from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. I've referred to the report Albares cites many times myself, but even his post doesn't dare suggest an obvious fix: raise taxes on the wealthy and use the funds to invest more in schools.

If Peter Cunningham's crew has pushed repeatedly and strongly for increasing revenue via taxation on the upper-class so that schools can get more funds, I missed it. Swarm (I know you're reading), please correct me if I'm wrong. Until then...

It is more than a little grating to see an outlet funded by the super-rich tut-tutting at Chicago's middle class teachers for daring to take a one-day action to point out the chronic underfunding of Chicago's schools -- especially when their own calls to increase funding for CPS are so weak.

Look, Peter, I know the big boys who are financing your shop don't like it when us plebes point out they are taking almost all of the economic gains of the last couple of decades for themselves. I also know you have an ideological predilection for beating up on unions. I'm not so naive as to think I or anyone else can ever change that...

But maybe it's time to start getting your priorities straight. Who really needs a shaming here: CPS's teachers and the union that represents them, or the people who have all the money but won't give it up for our schools?

Don't listen to him! Keep blaming the teachers unions!

* I always thought the Star-Ledger's editorial board was the worst in America when it comes to education.  But after having scanned the Trib for a bit, I have to admit I was wrong. My sympathies, Chicago.