Involvement without Efficacy
By: Bruce Knecht
The PISA is the standardized test that is flogged by the major media (it’s conducted every three years), purportedly to show the sorry state of American schools. The actual results depicted by the graph Julie Sellers has shared are sharply at odds with the narrative that has been an accepted part of conventional wisdom for more than two decades, i.e., that American schools are failing. Rather, schools are serving as a convenient scapegoat for an array of social ills that schools neither created nor have the power to remedy. Elite-driven education reform is a strategy for creating the appearance that something is being done about these social failings, while, in reality, it’s a case of involvement without efficacy. By this diversion, elites are able to avoid any fundamental social change that would be required to ameliorate the actual problems. At the same time, it cracks open the half-a-trillion dollar market of K-12 education.
The cartoon below clearly illustrates the current reformist mind-set. The woman in this strip is ruling out every measure that might actually make a difference. Again, involvement without efficacy.
We recently received an email from our school district about M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress) Testing dates--for those not in Michigan, this is the new "required" state test for children in grades 3-8 which replaces the MEAP.
For one of our boys, the M-STEP testing schedule was to span 6 different days and include tests on English Language and Mathematics. The thought of our son missing class time for 6 days to sit for standardized tests--the results of which couldn't possibly inform his learning or his teachers' instructional practices, due to the tests being administered in the Spring rather than in the Fall, with the results not being made available until after the close of the school year--was bad enough. But to make matters worse, this "summative" test was not intended to be a long-term solution to the state's testing policies:
“Our challenge is that this is a one-year interim assessment. I’m not sure how meaningful that will be for us because we can’t compare results,” Grandville Public Schools Superintendent Ron Caniff said about the M-STEP. “This will be a snapshot of how our students measure up to other students (nationwide), but we won’t be able to measure it in terms of how our students are learning and growing – that’s the downside.” (http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2014/11/west_michigan_school_leaders_v.html)
The bottom line was that our child was being pulled out of classes for 6 days, for tests that weren't intended to really measure student learning or growth, or to provide any meaningful feedback for his teachers, and these tests were not likely to be given again in subsequent years. The whole thing seemed like a terrible, awful, really bad idea--but the kicker was the following tag line on the district's email announcement:
"PLEASE DO NOT MAKE APPOINTMENTS FOR YOUR CHILD ON THE DATES ATTACHED. If your child misses these dates, then they will do make up testing and will be pulled from other academic classes. If your child is ill, they should stay home, of course! We understand!"
Before going on, I want to be clear: My wife and I believe that the school district that our children attend is terrific. They have wonderful teachers, a fantastic school music program, excellent academics, and a wide array of student services. The student body is diverse and motivated, and the community is fully engaged in school activities and governance. Our interactions with school personnel have always been great, and we have never regretted our decision to purchase a home in this town--a decision we made based largely on the quality of the school system.
So, the district's message didn't appear to ring true. In private conversations with teachers and administrators within the school system, I had sensed their agreement with our thinking about the explosion of standardized testing and its negative impact on teacher evaluation, school funding, and a host of other issues. These were intelligent, thoughtful, caring persons. Each of them had treated my children as their own--with sensitivity, compassion and care. I was certain that they had the children's learning as their highest priority, but felt compelled to follow the state's (misguided) directives regarding these tests.
After a great deal of thought, we decided to contact the school to tell them we were opting our son out of the M-STEP tests, and asked about the provisions for students who will not be taking these exams. After hitting "send" I was apprehensive--I knew about the pressures the folks at the school were under, and also didn't want to put my son in an awkward position with his friends and teachers at school. Both my wife and I are teachers, and have always approached our "job" as parents of school-aged children with the goal of supporting our kids' teachers fully. Making this request was not an easy decision for either of us.
Two days later we received the following response:
"I contacted the Assistant Superintendent and she told me that we would honor your request for opting (your son) out of testing with a note from you. (Your son) is already on the testing rosters, but with your note, we will remove him.
Students are being tested during their academic hours with their homeroom teachers. Per Assistant Superintendent, (your son) will be offered this time to work on any homework he has or to read a book for the time that his peers are testing. He may be given the option of going to the library...
We are required to have 95% participation for testing and any student opting out is a hit on that percentage. However, we understand your request and will honor it with a note sent to the Guidance Office."
Having read and heard about much more hostile responses from schools around the country to similar requests, we were both relieved and encouraged by our school's reply. Not only was our request for our child to opt out greeted with respect, but provisions for our son's attendance on those days when the test was scheduled were provided without argument or hassle. The approach was understanding, positive and student-centered--everything we have come to expect from our school district.
I also believe that this response is an indication of a tipping point of sorts when it comes to the issue of opting out and school testing. More and more, teachers and administrators are understanding the negative impact of these tests on students, teachers and schools, and are joining the fight with parents and other groups advocating for a reduction in the number and uses of these tests.
At the end of the day, I am left feeling optimistic and enormously encouraged by this interaction, and energized to continue the fight against the corporate reformers' obsession with data-mining and high-stakes testing. I can sense the tide turning, and more teachers and school administrators joining in the push back against these reforms. We have reached a Tipping Point, and now is the time to redouble our efforts.