Sunday, October 29, 2017

PRETZEL LOGIC: NY State Senator DeFrancisco on High Stakes Testing and Charter Schools by Jake Jacobs

An impromptu parking lot interview reveals the thinking of Republican NY State Senator John DeFrancisco on a tricky issue — how can someone simultaneously question the validity of state tests and at the same time support expanding charter schools judged by the same testing?


It happened in Nyack, outside a Republican fundraiser where Roger Stone was the guest of honor. A self-proclaimed “revisionist historian”, Stone has a long history of “dirty tricks” and scandals, starting in the Nixon White House. The previous day he’d stonewalled the House Intelligence Committee, changing his story to claim he didn’t have direct contact with the hacker Guccifer 2.0.

I thought I would be covering a protest, which did happen, as a dozen or so locals loudly booed Stone across the street from the Nyack Seaport restaurant.

The venue had a valet parking entrance in the back where anyone could drive in completely undetected from the public. But there was also a public lot, watched by a security detail with earpieces in a black SUV. Then, into the public lot comes an official vehicle and out pops NY State Senator John DeFrancisco with an aide. I knew he pushed for vouchers in New York, even before Betsy DeVos made it a national issue. So I approached with my trusty iPod and asked a few questions.

As an education watcher, I was curious how top state Republicans might defend the Trump/DeVos attack on public education after so many parents around the state protested the fraudulent metrics used in pursuit of our hard earned tax dollars under both Presidents W. Bush and Obama. DeFrancisco has thus far sided with Trump, but Trump has already broken his campaign vow to “end Common Core”, with the tests due to return in 2018.

Just a few minutes before the mini-protest broke out, I asked Sen. DeFrancisco about the three burning education issues in New York - charter schools, standardized testing, and the Common Core. The audio is edited for brevity, but the conversation was fascinating.

The Senator’s response on charter schools was a significant contradiction to his response on the testing, which is used to compare charter schools versus public schools.

First, the Syracuse area Senator advocated for privatizing schools (including for-profit charter schools), as long as the “results” are as good or better than high-performing district schools around the state.

So I asked about the metrics used to measure results in New York, the Common Core test scores. His said the Common Core tests had “questions that make no sense” and had “little if any relationship, in my mind, to determining how far a child is advancing”.

He said he supported the opt-out movement “when they opted out”. Surely he must know “they” are still opting out today, about 1 in 5, as the same tests are being used, wasting millions, narrowing and slowing learning, and causing parents and students to boycott in nation-leading record numbers, every year since 2013.

I did not have too much time with the Senator so I interrupted him to ask “where do they go?” when he completely dismissed disruptive, chronically-suspended students.

That’s when he changed the subject to the NYC “rubber room” moments before the interview came to an abrupt end.

I was unable to follow up and ask why we would ever expand charter schools if the metrics used to judge them were as “abysmal” as he said. And he’s right - the formulas that produce the “results” have not been vetted by the state, or the teacher unions, or the legislature, or the Board of Regents (who predicted a 2017 review but has not yet delivered). Yet he ignores this as he greenlights more charter schools and more testing, which pleases “swamp” donors (such as ALEC, Eli Broad, the Waltons, Kochs, Mercers, and DeVoses, to name a couple) looking to privatize public schools.

Does the senator believe the tests somehow improved since the “first iteration” when opt-outs first ballooned over 20%? The underlying “Core” standards have not significantly changed. The standards actually worsened in K-2 while teachers around the state spoke out against the Commissioner’s staged “listening tours” where the standards, and particularly the aligned tests, were panned as valueless corporate pork.

Numerous academic and legal challenges to the validity of the secretive scoring regime rely on a body of evidence the state has never rebutted. In a stop-gap “optics” move, the state changed the “Common Core” name, switched vendors and removed time limits for testing in 2016. Twisting logic, they claimed this was to “ease pressure,” but it actually resulted in students testing for hours longer than prior years.

Even worse, the tests use the same “hidden” formulas, even after being ruled “arbitrary and capricious” by the NY State Supreme Court, to compare and rank students and schools.

JUNK SCIENCE 101: Bigwig politicians are often unconcerned with details like this, but in New York, after the tests are already taken, the state does two things to eliminate any scientific validity or reliability the tests might have had. First, they subjectively adjust the “cut scores” (the pass/fail thresholds) -- using completely hidden criteria.

Then, they “norm” the scores (meaning apply a curve) based on disability, poverty and language status. State law requires the formulas to be “transparent and available” yet the criteria is completely hidden from scientific reviewers, educators, and taxpayers. The million-dollar proprietary algorithms have never been seen by the those who paid for it, through years of boycotts, protests, and a multi-year statewide moratorium. To this day, they remain “redacted” -- even after losing in court. Just this month, a similar case in a federal court in Houston resulted in a ban on test-based evaluations because any “invisible” formula is “unverifiable”.

WHO’S RIGHT? The senator is right to question the determinative value of the testing, and to support over 240,000 New York parents who refuse the tests each year. But this calls into question the comparisons of charter schools against district schools. Even if the formulas weren’t hidden, how can we analyze testing outcomes when 20% of the data is missing? Or, in the incredible case of Long Island where 50% of students boycotted the tests last year, how can any “comparison” purport to be scientific or valid?

Headed into a fundraiser featuring infamous neocon operative Roger Stone (who is now a regular on Alex Jones’ InfoWars), Senator DeFrancisco, in a moment of candor, did not forget the confusion and frustration his own grandchildren went through as part of New York’s mandated testing. He just isn’t doing anything about it at his job.

REFILLING THE SWAMP: No doubt there were corporate donors there that night, funding the Republicans who control the NY Senate in a Trump-Albany love connection. They want more charter schools, for-profit “education providers,” and funding for religious schools. Roger Stone (who lives in Westchester) is Donald Trump’s not-so-secret bag man, looking to spread around the “ziti”.

The good news is that Senator DeFrancisco is half right, so thank his grandchildren for that.

It’s New York’s students who suffer most when adults put stock in faulty tests, but this is the post-Citizens United reality where money talks and pretzel logic substitutes for research-based decisions.

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