Sunday, April 12, 2015

No TEST Left Behind – Why the Senate ESEA Reauthorization is Unacceptable

by Steven Singer, member of the BAT Leadership Team



One, two, three…

How about four? Maybe more.

There’s never enough testing for you and me!

And that’s exactly the problem with the Senate reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

The Senate draft of the law (currently called No Child Left Behind) doesn’t do a single thing to limit or reduce standardized testing.

It keeps annual testing in place, untouched.

The legislation needs reauhorized every five years. After epochs of political stalling, the House and Senate are both hammering out versions of the law.

If this Senate version were enacted, public school students across the country would still be subjected to standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

And legislators have the gall to call this the “Every Child Achieves Act of 2015.”

Ha! They should call it what it really is – No TEST Left Behind.

Now is the perfect moment to rein in our nationwide addiction to fill-in-the-bubble multiple choice tests.

There is a national consensus that these sorts of assessments do more damage than good. Legislators should listen.

The Senate even asked concerned parents, teachers and people of conscience to write in with suggestions to improve the law. But instead of actually doing the most important thing on everyone’s list – the one thing that almost everyone who isn’t profiting off of the testing industry wants – they chickened out.


Education historian Diane Ravich has an interesting theory. In a comment on her blog, she says, “I have spoken to people directly involved in the negotiations who told me that President Obama made known that he would veto any bill that does not include annual testing.”

It wouldn’t be the first time the President’s threatened to veto this legislation. Just a few months ago he promised to return the House’s version of the ESEA if it left open the Title I piggy bank to privatizers.
That much-publicized threat was a sane response to an insane suggestion by partisans. But veto the ESEA if it didn’t have enough testing? That would be highly controversial.

Can I prove he said it? No, but Ravich is a reputable source. After all, she was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush. She served under Lamar Alexander – then Secretary of Education and now one of the U.S. Senators chairing this reauthorization project. She’s in a unique position to know.

Moreover, this alleged threat is right in line with comments made by Obama’s own Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

“I believe parents, teachers, and students have both the right and the need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college-and career-readiness.” Duncan said in a January speech.

“That means all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned with their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3-8, and once in high school.”

Duncan’s assertion – clearly supported by President Obama – is that annual testing is necessary to show if kids are learning. Without it, we wouldn’t know if schools were teaching them.

This is absurd.

The ONLY way to tell if a child can read is a standardized test? The ONLY way to tell if a child can add and subtract is if they can choose between A, B, C or D?

Such an assertion is not only a slap in the face of every classroom teacher who grades their students on actual work done in the classroom, it’s also an insult to the intelligence of the American people.

Students do a variety of assignments throughout the year to demonstrate their learning – book reports, essays, group projects, reading aloud, homework, power point presentations – heck – even just walking up to the blackboard and solving a problem with a piece of old fashioned white chalk!

All of these things show nothing!? They provide no significant data with which to determine if a child is learning!?

I guess teachers just wander around all year saying “I’ll find out if my students learned anything when they take their state assessments. In the meantime I’ll just throw darts at the wall to determine the grades to put on their report cards.”

Moreover, where is the proof that standardized tests are such good indicators? Which peer-reviewed studies have ever proven that the results of these tests are – in fact – valid?

The answer: there are no such studies. In fact, there is a mountain of evidence that proves just the opposite. Standardized test scores are highly correlated with a child’s parental income. Rich kids generally score highly and poor kids score lower.

That’s what these tests measure – not academic achievement.

And it should be no surprise considering how they’re scored. Go on Craig’sList and find yourself an advertisement seeking test scorers. You need have no experience or degree in education. What counts as a passing score changes from year-to-year based on the whim of the scorers.

The whole system is set up to fail as many kids as possible in order to justify the need for more test prep materials which are often provided by the same giant corporations that make the tests in the first place.

And THIS is what Obama is demanding we keep in our public schools or else he’ll veto the legislation?

I say, “Fine! Veto it!”

Obama is already the testing president. He hides behind his lap dog, Duncan, but it is and always has been his policy to double down on George W. Bush’s bad educational ideas.

So I say we force him to own up. Make him admit it to the world, shout it to the heavens – I am President Barrack Obama, and I will do anything for standardized testing!

Then for once critics could actually blame him for something he really did.

Annual testing!? Thanks, Obama!

The President and Duncan claim to hear these testing criticisms, but they’re talking out of both sides of their mouths.

Duncan says he’ll ask Congress to include language in the ESEA to call on states to set limits on how much time can be spent on testing.

They demand we keep it, but let’s spend less time doing it!?

So we’ll still take all those math and reading tests, but maybe there will be less questions? We’ll force schools to spend less time on test prep by timing them and punishing those who don’t comply?

Which brings me to the best thing about the Senate version of the ESEA. It puts a stop to this kind of federal meddling. No more top down we-know-better-than-you federal mandates.

Annual testing is still in there, but the act leaves it up to states how to use the scores. No more Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The act forbids the federal government from dictating to states and districts how to help improve schools where kids are struggling.

Moreover, it no longer requires states to create new teacher evaluation systems, though it allows them to do so if they wish. And the fed cannot mandate or incentivize states to adopt particular standards such as Common Core. States are required to have standards but are free to determine their content.
These – at least – are positive revisions. They demonstrate why some education advocates are expressing cautious optimism about this Senate version of the ESEA.

But it’s just not enough. Sorry.

I could be political and say “It’s a good first step,” but that’s all it would be. A first step on a long and treacherous journey. Don’t start patting yourself on the back just yet. There’s a long way to go.
There’s no mystery what needs to be done to improve public education – fund it.

Stop wasting tax dollars trying to determine where the problem is. That’s obvious! It would be like a fire department spending all it’s money on a high tech machine to scan the city in infrared to determine where the maximum heat sources are and thus where they should dispatch the fire truck. But all they have to do is take the call and follow the smoke, screams and flames!

The high poverty schools are the ones that are struggling the most. More than half of our public school students live below the poverty line. They need help!

And stop offering funding with strings attached! We’ll let you buy books for your students if you use these fancy new standards that have never been tried or proven to work.

It’s time for action.

We must be bold. No more chasing after scraps. We must demand Congress get this right – regardless of presidential threats.

And please no grade span testing!

Even organizations like Fair Test – who rightly criticize the Senate ESEA for similar reasons outlined here – don’t go far enough in their demands of Congress.

Instead of asking for an end to standardized testing, they request a reduction. Not tests yearly in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but once in elementary, middle and high school.

Yes, it’s better than annual testing, but have some courage.

There is no need for our children to take even one standardized test. That should be our demand.

Zero standardized tests. Not six, not three, not one. ZERO.

We might not get it, but we’ll get a whole lot more than if we start from a compromise position.

The time is now. Write your Congresspeople. Write the President. Tell them in no uncertain terms – NO MORE STANDARDIZED TESTING!


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