Sunday, April 29, 2012


With the exception of the recent post by a much admired Marion Brady, too much of present critique of standardized testing and VAM has exhibited a surplus of niceness or at least a dispassionate blandness.

Resistance is finally starting to build to the testing epidemic that has been imposed by the Obama Administration; with more than a little assistance from the “let’s kill public education” extremists, and a sleazy corporate oligopoly profiting by perpetuating and even falsifying standardized tests. It can't happen fast enough to keep at least a generation of American youth – those whose parents can't afford private K-12 academies that actually educate, reference Mr. Obama's children and those of our “one percent” – from being turned into rote zombies by inappropriate testing and the curricula it implicitly fosters.

Where Are We?

Not in a good place, and pushback isn't happening fast enough to potentially brake before the cliff.

Saturday's Washington Post, "The Answer Sheet," presents contrasting tones. Stanford Professor of Education Linda Darling-Hammond, an alleged champion of public education, and advisor to Mr. Obama before his election, mechanically repeated the platitudinous squibs well known for over a decade, that income and cultural differences among schools and students have more to do with performance than what are presently being institutionalized as reforms.  Apparently, neither Mr. Obama nor his subsequent attack leader, Mr. Duncan, registered the message, then, or since.

In the same "The Answer Sheet," and contrast, a parent and founder of a Philadelphia parent group, passionately addressed a proposed restructuring of Philadelphia's public schools that is right out of the  corporate playbook, and as meaninglessly hyped as one can get from the public relations flacks. Even with "resistance," the game plan is still on and being brazenly and despotically pursued to privatize America's public schools.

Churned up in a related search, Indiana University's "Center for Evaluation and Education Policy" reported the results of a comprehensive quantitative assessment of the income/culture-performance question, but either shortly before or after this century's turn, inferring that most of the variation in public schools' performances could be statistically linked to demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural attributes of their participants.  Also reported at the old stomping grounds, and also over a decade ago, a meticulous review of research on classroom teaching methods, indicating that little of the experimental results purported to be the definitive "methods" guides for public K-12 classrooms reflected fully defensible research or analytical techniques.

But NCLB, RTTT, and standardized testing have moved the goalposts and improved scoring, right?  Another tidbit reported that hasn't received much attention by its state's press, dated April 2012: "...25 percent of Indiana's students passing its Core 40 testing (Indiana's graduation test) require remedial course work entering postsecondary work."

If that isn't straight enough, continue reading.

The Duncan Disaster

At the top of the present mess is an educationally delusional, politically hardened, or just hypocritical Arne Duncan, who should be removed from the U.S. Department of Education’s head shed, forthwith, and with prejudice.  “The Answer Sheet” recently made the case for impeaching his leadership.  

Naïve Thinking?

A property of virtually all of the critique of standardized testing being floated revolves around the value judgment that it is testing various wrong things – test validity – or that the testing is unreliable.  Legitimate research of the present standardized testing suggests both cases can be made, but the roots of an entire dysfunctional movement, imposed so aggressively and with so little intelligent deliberation, go much deeper than failure or perversion of the psychometrics that allegedly underpin the tests.  One has to start with basic causes.

The first observation will certainly not be popular with many of those in public education finally awakening and registering current reality, that one intent of the testing mechanisms being hustled is to push public K-12 out of the education business. If you are one of those late bloomers, let's be clear, that is one of the goals of some fraction of the shadowy and diverse origins of present testing; the goal is privatization of K-12 in the misguided belief that “markets” will cause competition to perfect our schools.  That naïve view is the alleged wisdom of neoconservatives lacking a functioning cerebral cortex, and arguably any economic education.

What triggered this point of view?  This will also not be appreciated:  What created the present devolution of U.S. K-12 is the broad and historically extended failure of public education self-assessment, and it's teacher feedstock creator, our fumbling schools of education.  Public K-12 has had at least a half century to start understanding learning, moderating the ignorant dependence on deduced "methods” – while neural biology is supplying real answers – and reducing the liberal political correctness that infiltrated virtually every U.S. public school last century. Remedial steps, including reforming curricula, and adopting the organizational knowledge and managerial theories and practices that drive ethical private sector performance and creativity, never made it across the starting line. Those failures – translating into some visible fraction of public education school boards, administrators, and teachers being incompetent, or dogmatic, or wallowing in hubris, or unethical – are what initiated and have fueled the present disaster.  

Somewhere in the shadowy halls and crevices of public sector leadership the belief was formed that public K-12 could or would never reform itself, and that the only Federal tool out there was the test hammer of NCLB, subsequently chosen to flog public K-12 schools and teachers, perpetuating the most simplistic and punitive properties of ESEA.

Beating a Dead Horse?

If this seems pejorative, one only has to observe in real time some of our heartland’s allegedly "excellent" systems based on test scores. One of the more malfeasant systems observed in a decade is in this blog's backyard: Administrative bullies ranging to sociopathic; a school board that is incompetent and perhaps worse; perpetual and naive hype of "excellence" based on allegedly teaching-to-the-tests; a financial officer who has allegedly been "cooking the books" for a decade or more; poorly trained, and even ignorant teachers; obsolete materials, retro technology adoption, and flawed curricula and courses; attempted fraud in a recent levy attempt (which parenthetically failed, a first defeat in this century, suggesting that the wisdom of the crowd is still alive and well, with awareness exceeding that school board's); a decade of extolling sports and nurturing parental delusions and nonsense icons, at the expense of learning; and a decade of evading transparency and even Ohio’s open records and open door laws.  

Is this the public K-12 education it’s worth saving by going to the mat with the USDOE, an Arne Duncan, or a Bill Gates, or with our politicized state education departments and the corporate testing and charter lobbying muscle?  In sophisticated language, Darling-Hammond suggests we simply need to play nice and bring together all of the social/institutional components effecting K-12.  The answer, or a reality deficit?  The conundrum represented, draconian attack of public schools with narrow testing, local debauched public K-12, two-faced Federal leadership, and an electorate with the capacity for strategic time scales and delayed gratification of our 21 year old cat; all challenge finding solutions that can actually advance public U.S. K-12 schools and real learning.

The Infamous Accountability Challenge

Accountability is like “ahhhh, Bach;” who can be against accountability? 

But let’s put it in place where it most effects genuine learning:  Congress kicking the AESA/NCLB can down the trail; moving on to Arne Duncan and an extreme liberal and now operationally nearly despotic U.S. Department of Education; a couple of generations of scattered but embedded incompetent or arrogant/dogmatic public K-12 superintendents and principals; an equivalent swath of incompetent to worse local school boards; some fraction of the products of our schools of education who really are incapable of intellectualism and competent classroom teaching/coaching; let’s not forget the politicized and educationally questionable denizens of many state departments of education; our schools of education hiding on our campuses; the farm-team academics typically producing most K-12 texts, and the corporations aggressively lobbying every state to continue to peddle them; schools misunderstanding and rejecting proper technology adoption; and maybe lastly, let’s not ignore a wide swath of parents clueless or desultory about the full role they are supposed to play in seeing their children educated.

Accountability?  Damn right we need it, but who’s delivering?

The Testing Mysteries

Moving on, the majority critique of alleged standardized testing revolves around its relevance to real learning, then the tests’ specific validity and reliability, each having multiple parts.  All three points are relevant, but peek behind the wizards’ curtains.

Who, specifically, is writing the tests’ questions, based on what logic, with what credentials, supervised by what expertise, with oversight by which subject matter experts, with what inputs from real classrooms, using which psychometric principles, field tested when and where before being rolled-out nationally, and subject to what mechanisms for critique and resolution of test failure or performance distortion?  Who is watching the corporate creators of these multi-billion dollar businesses – the answer of course is no one supported by regulations or with the power to create confidence in what’s being delivered.  Does this scenario conjure an aroma of financial meltdown déjà vu?

Have you ever heard of the JCSEE?  The acronym stands for the "Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation," representing the major national associations that have anything to do with K-12, spanning 18 associations from the American Association of School Administrators to the National School Boards Association.  Since 1988, the JCSEE has for K-12 schools published, and updated every five years:  Personnel Evaluation Standards; Program Evaluation Standards; Student Evaluation Standards; and accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI, that every technical professional will recognize), making those standards “American National Standards.”

Give or take a little Kentucky windage, the current standardized tests being bought with billions of tax dollars, to allegedly metrically gauge manufactured recall and goad teachers, violate virtually every caveat of these standards.  To add insult to injury, the testing, to the extent it is transparent, appears to violate most of the caveats articulated for test design specified by the psychometric literature.  In any discussion of that testing to date, we have yet to hear which theory of measurement, if any, has been used to create the test items:  Item Response Theory, Item Characteristic Curve Theory, Latent Trait Theory, Rasch Model, 2PL Model, 3PL Model, or the Birnbaum Model; all of the above; none of the above?  Listening. 

In fact, we don’t know how these tests are being conceived, or who is by indirection calling out what has become sadly de rigueur by state for all subject matter to be tested, hence learned?  If this is a “black box,” who is defining learning in U.S. K-12 schools, with what logic, with what purpose, with what demonstrated expertise, and by what authority?  Is the game to support our uncontrolled text/test oligopoly of barely visible corporate profit machines, manipulating both what they with uncertified portfolio declare to be knowledge, then enforcing that omniscience by also writing its tests?

If so, fools are determining the contents of U.S. K-12 education.

A small part of the above puzzle was addressed in an April 27 post to The Washington Post’s “The Answer Sheet,” “Pearson and how 2012 standardized tests were designed.”  It is only a partial answer, but on its face already a basis for challenging the entire standardized testing strategy underpinning alleged but seriously flawed reform.

Where the Radical Left Joins the Radical Right, Centrism Isn't the Product, and Everyone Loses

The next issue is the product of literally years of puzzling:  Specifically, why is the Obama Administration in bed with the most zealous enemies of public education?  Who are the players behind closed doors who have executed what tactics, paid what amounts, and used what intimidation or extortion to blend Obama oil and extreme right wing swamp water.

If the argument is this testing and VAM are the only tools available to Federal enforcement under the Constitution, there is at least some logic in the tactics; simultaneously, failure to recognize or callous disregard of present tactics’ unintended consequences is egregious intellectually and ethically.  But the extended question is whether the actions being pushed by Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan actually represent an extreme liberal delusion that was never subjected to proper vetting?  How is what is being inflicted on U.S. public education by this Administration any less destructive than how public K-12 brought down its own house, or the educational Darwinism advocated by the worst of political and educational retrograde thinking on the right?

Lastly, by failing to challenge the National Governors Association, and short-circuit CCSSI perversion of knowledge standards to ramp up ignorant state testing and curriculum options, the Administration has set up virtually all K-12 to be nickel-and-dimed into strategic mediocrity and reversion to a past century.  The stupidity of state actions is already being unfolded, for example, just launching in state bully-driven and retrogressing K-12 in Indiana and Ohio, even while nationally protests are building to cease the testing blitz.

A Small, Still Material Unintended Consequence, and a Huge One

There are multiple negatives strewn across the U.S. by the present manipulation and dissembling being called reform, most already called out by our best students of K-12 history and prospect.  Today's "The Answer Sheet" notes another unintended consequence:  Discouraging students from challenging themselves and choosing higher level courses when they may have fewer normal grade implications, if the course test results are factored into rating their teachers.

The huge one, however,  that has not received attention is the consequence of the diversion of attention, intellect, and energy to firefights on testing, versus addressing an educational tsunami:  Playing political or utopian games with last century’s bases for learning, while those very conceptual bases are undergoing massive transformation.

Churning just beneath the surface of applicability is a mushrooming universe of technologies and expanded knowledge bought with the R&D investments of the last half-century. What the philosopher terms knowledge, and pragmatically new understanding are changing core beliefs of how everything works, universe to elementary particles through individual human and social behavior, and aggregating and doubling at a rate exceeding Moore's law*.  We are already at the boundary – primarily effecting secondary education, but inching toward the baccalaureate level – where what we've assumed for over a half-century can be trimmed or surveyed and introduced in 7-12 or 9-12, simply won't fit anymore.  Indeed, unless there is a sea change in the re-education of K-12 teachers, or rethinking the seat-time model, or rethinking even the entire basis of pre-postsecondary education, the whole alleged learning package becomes retro smoke and mirrors.

You either craft a new theory of what K-12 and especially 9-12 should be, or the subject matter obsolescence of what issues in future U.S. classrooms or any of its external complements, and as presently tested, is not just useless but destructive of this society’s economic growth and sustainability. Present “reform” of U.S. public K-12 is stomping on educational ants and unfairly many teachers, while Mr. Obama pontificates, and while rogue elephants trash the public classroom, real learning, and the American educational future, pun intended.

*Footnote:  In the 26 April 2012 issue of the world science journal, Nature, neuroscience author, science journal publisher, and professor Michael Shermer, as part of a book review noted:

"It has been estimated that, from the beginning of civilization -- 5,000 years ago or more -- until 2003, humanity created a total five exabytes (billion gigabytes) of information.  From 2003 to 2010, we created this amount every two days.  By 2013 we will be doing so every ten minutes, exceeding within hours all the information contained in all books ever written."  He concludes:  "...the mountain of facts is now so vast that we cannot hope to learn, let alone remember, them."

Thus, it just makes sense to repeat last century's production model of education; memorize facts, with disconnected fragments of knowledge, and flog with standardized tests, that engender no questions nor creativity?  Add that future manufacturing may more nearly resemble 3-D printing.  America's thrust for its future?  Well, not so much.

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