Who’s Really Failing Students?

Jeff Bryant

“Failure is not an option,” has been a popular slogan in public education for years. Although, flight engineers and astronauts in the Apollo 13 program originally coined the phrase as a motivator for competing against the Russians in the space race, some well-meaning advocates in the education reform community adopted it for their cause.

Then the No Child Left Behind law – with its mandate for 100 percent proficiency by 2014 – literally made “failure” something that would eventually fade from existence. Really!

Now that’s all about to change, and failure – or at least what passes as the current definition of it – is not only back on the table as an option; it is now a desired state – a designation seen as revealing great truths about public education in the United States.

New standardized tests hitting most of the nation this school year have been engineered to increase failure rates, and policy leaders tell us that children and parents deserve this.

The expected sharp downturn in scores will no doubt further tarnish the brand of public schools, siphon yet more precious public dollars into private operators pledging to hold schools “more accountable,” and add fuel to the already raging fires of a growing anti-testing movement. But what too few are asking is who really is the failure here.

Get Ready For Success By Failure

The great big failure comeback is courtesy of new standardized tests being rolled out across the country that are guaranteed – on purpose – to prove more American students are academic failures.

As a recent article on the news website Vox warned, “test scores are going to go down next year” due to the introduction of new assessments aligned to new academic standards called the Common Core.

As reporter Libby Nelson explained, “The test results on Common Core exams, at least at first, are likely to make students’ reading and math abilities look worse than they did on older state tests. The standards are more demanding than what many states had in place previously, and the tests are more difficult. New York and Kentucky – the only two states that have fully switched over to Common Core tests – have already learned that lesson. Proficiency rates dropped by about half in both states, from around two-thirds of students to about one-third.”

What can make exams “more difficult” of course aren’t just the questions posed and how they are posed but where you draw the line for what constitutes a passing grade. For at least 17 states, a federally funded group called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium recently plotted the failure demarcation, known as a “cut score,” at a line that will likely ensure “more than half of students will fall short of the marks that connote grade-level skills,” according to an article in Education Week.

Another brand of these tests, developed by another federally funded consortium called PARCC, are being used in at least 12 other states. PARCC won’t set cut scores until next summer, but field tests of that exam have caused education officials in a number of locales to request delays in implementation due to the difficulty of the tests and problems with implementing them.

Nevertheless, the first wave of the new PARCC tests rolled out to over 30,000 students this month in six states, with millions more students scheduled to take the tests later this school year in a dozen states and the District of Columbia.

More failure is a good thing, we’re being told by United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who has claimed that passing grades of yore were tantamount to “lying to children and parents, telling them they’re ready when they’re not.

Echoing these sentiments, Valentina Korkes recently wrote at Education Post, a blogsite operated by Duncan’s former communications director, “For many years, even decades, we have been giving parents and students faulty information – by producing inflated achievement levels that, unfortunately, do not portray an accurate picture of learning.”

How “decades” of grade inflation have forever damaged the country is hardly ever made clear by testing advocates. (Indeed, is that what led to the downturn in American manufacturing, flattened household incomes for 30 years, years of costly conflict in the Middle East, and the Great Recession?)

Nevertheless, testing zealots assure us these score drops are the only clear-eyed path forward.

Going Nowhere

But the path forward being touted by test advocates may be more like a winding trail to continued disappointment.

Public school advocate and senior attorney at the Education Law Center Wendy Lecker recently explained the course our leaders have chosen. “Despite paying lip service to the perils of over-testing, our leaders have imposed educational policies ensuring that standardized tests dominate schooling. Though standardized tests are invalid to measure teacher performance, the Obama administration insists that students’ standardized test scores be part of teacher evaluation systems. Both under [No Child Left Behind] and the NCLB waivers, schools are rated by standardized test scores. Often, a high school diploma depends at least in part on these tests. When so much rides on a standardized test scores, tests will drive what is taught and learned.”

Many adults who have bothered to scrutinize the exams have been baffled by test items and have questioned the age-appropriateness of the exams.

Education experts and parents have found that cut scores have been set at unrealistic levels.

Teachers are alarmed at how much instructional time will be lost to the tests and how extensive and required test prep is distorting classroom teaching.

Some state officials have expressed doubts that setting thresholds on students’ academic performance levels has any validity at all. Is there really a sharp line to distinguish when a third-grade child is proficient at reading and when he is not? At extreme ends of the scale, that may be clear. But isn’t the exact differential really a judgment call?

A populist backlash against standardized testing continues to scale up with every passing month.

A recent account of the opposition to standardized testing at Alternet found strong “opt out” movements in Colorado, Oklahoma, Florida, and Maryland. Writers at Education Week found school districts in New Jersey making sharp cutbacks to their numbers of assessments.

A recent article in The Atlantic quoted a director of one of the organizations responsible for the new testing regime, the Council of Chief State School Officers, who realizes the potential for disaster. “Students who were being told that they were on track are now going to be told, ‘You’re not quite there,’ … Well, who decided this was the right thing for kids? Who decided that these test scores were actually what kids need?”

Who indeed?

Who Benefits?

Certainly anyone who has an income connected to testing isn’t whining.

According to recent calculations from the Education Division of the

Software & Information Industry Association, the testing and assessment industry grew by 57 percent in the past three years.

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “As states race to implement the Common Core academic standards, companies are fighting for a slice of the accompanying testing market, expected to be worth billions of dollars in coming years.”

This is understandable when you take into account that new standardized exams in the state of Colorado alone will require $78 million a year plus teacher time. In Maryland, the price tag is projected to be at least 100 million to implement the new tests in the first year alone.

Most of the windfall is “flowing to some of the education industry’s most familiar and entrenched players,” according to a report from Education Week noted, the “big vendors” that have benefited from imposed education regulation in the past.

It’s important to note that all this money being directed to big testing companies comes at a time when most school districts have not yet rebounded financially from the sharp budget cuts caused by the Great Recession.

Nevertheless, test advocates maintain the tests are necessary not only to soothe the troubled minds of econometric bureaucrats but also for civil rights reasons.

Writing at Altenet, New York City-based teacher and public education advocate Brian Jones pointed out that standardized testing is often framed as a “solution” for long-standing institutional racism in public schools.

Drawing from his experience as an African American teacher in an inner city system, Jones maintained that this framing takes “audacity.” He suggested, instead, whether the billions being spent on testing would be better spent to “create for all children the kind of cozy, relaxed, child-centered teaching and learning conditions that wealthy kids already enjoy.”

Another African American inner city schoolteacher from the other side of the country argued even more forcefully against the supposed civil rights benefits of standardized testing.

On the Edushyster blogsite operated by Jennifer Berkshire, Seattle’s Jesse Hagopian explained in an interview with Berkshire, ” The first major test resisters were Black intellectuals.” Citing Horace Mann Bond and W.E.B. Dubois, Hagpian explained that Black civil rights advocates knew “from the very beginning that these tests were designed to show Black failure, and they’re still showing that. The fact that there’s been such a stability of test scores – that rich white students score the best – shows that these are a tool for ranking and sorting. And increasingly these tests are being used to shut down schools in poor neighborhoods and which serve predominantly students of color.”

Writing at The Huffington Post education professor and co-director of the National Education Policy Center Kevin Welner recently wrote, “Reforms like test-based accountability give us the feeling of doing something – of demanding excellence – without providing the capacity to achieve our goals. Continuing down that path will continue to leave us disappointed.

Some Hopeful Signs

Fortunately there are signs that some education policy leaders may be getting the message.

In New Jersey, at least one school district “has decided to drop midterm and final exams.”

In Colorado, the state board has “issued a letter calling for cutting state standardized testing to federal minimum requirements and for other changes in the assessment system.”

In Washington state, school chief Randy Dornno declared his intention “to stop requiring students to pass high-stakes exams before they can graduate from high school, a proposal that would reverse years of standardized testing policy in the state.”

And on Capitol Hill, a new bill has been introduced by House Democrat Suzanne Bonamici, OR, that would give states grants for rethinking their assessment systems.”

As Welner noted in his above-cited post, the increasingly strong voices to curtail test-based accountability will likely not prevail until there is a more prominent consensus behind an alternative. But as that alternative takes time to form, let’s be sure that when intentional failure is imposed on public schools, we turn any judgment of failure back around to the real sources of failure: testing advocates who refuse to see the harms they continue to inflict on our schools.

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