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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lies, damn lies and the myth of "standardized" tests

[Note from Laurie Rogers: Recently, results from the 2011 state standardized test scores were released. The impression given to the public from the state education agency (OSPI) and from media in Seattle and in Spokane was that improvements had been made. Did some of the numbers go up? Assuredly. Did that mean that real improvements in real academic knowledge had been made? It's best to remain skeptical.

Most students in Spokane are as weak in math skills this year as they were last year. Given a proper math test that assesses for basic skills, many high schoolers still test into 4th or 5th-grade math. College remedial rates are still high. Parents are still frantic, and students are still stressed out about math. What do the numbers actually mean?

Calculators were allowed on some of the tests, and not all standards were tested. There also is the matter of the cut scores. (Cut scores are the level at which a grade on the test is a passing grade.) On the math HSPE, students needed less than 60% to pass, but what does that mean? It's hard to say. Some of the questions tested students at a level of "proficiency," and some tested students at a "basic level." Students could pass at a "basic" level while failing to answer all questions that didn't test at that level. A student's grade, therefore, isn't a straight grade. No one can say what a grade means in terms of actual knowledge. What's the point of issuing grades no one can understand? The point should be to engage in accountability and transparency, and to help the children.

There is another problem, however. Guest Marda Kirkwood, from CURE (Citizens United for Responsible Education), argues that Washington's "standardized tests" aren't standardized at all.]


Lies, damn lies and the myth of “standardized” tests

By Marda Kirkwood

"The glory which is built upon a lie soon becomes a most unpleasant incumbrance [sic]. How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!" - Mark Twain in "Eruption"

So here I go, taking on the monumental task of undoing a lie that is repeated so often in the media, by elected officials (who should know better), and educrats (who, I am convinced, do know better) that it has come to be generally accepted as fact.

Here is the lie: The High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE), the Measurements of Student Progress (MSP), and their precursor, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) are “standardized” tests.

What, logically, are the characteristics that would allow us to legitimately label a test as “standardized”? It doesn’t take much thought to come up with a few guidelines.

A “standardized” test must:
  • Be completely objective. There can be no judgment involved in determining whether an answer is right or wrong.
  • Have specific time constraints. We all remember, “Time is up! Put your pencils down now.”
  • Receive the same score no matter when, how, or by whom it is scored. It should not matter if it is a Monday or a Friday, or if test scorers are having a good or a bad day.
  • Ask all students of the same grade standardized questions, every year.
  • Reliably measure what academic knowledge the student knows.
  • Serve as an accurate guideline for teachers, principals, school board members, parents, and others to evaluate the quality of curricula and instruction.
  • Be “valid and reliable”. These are terms that are roughly analogous to accuracy and precision in target shooting. Valid means they accurately measure what they are intended to measure. Reliable means they are consistently valid (produce the same score). And just because some government official or entity declares a test “valid and reliable” does not make it so.
  • Be norm-referenced. That means the scores have been compared, via a bell-curve, with the scores of other students across the nation who also took the same test. The comparison score is shown as a percentile. A student who receives a 70th percentile score performed better than 70% of the other students in the nation who took the same test.
This also gives us a pretty good idea what real standardized tests are not. Here are some characteristics of an assessment that is not a standardized test:
  • It includes essay or short answer, which have to be subjectively hand-scored and require a fallible human to use judgment to determine a score. Repeat after me, “subjective.”
  • It has lots of variation in test questions from year to year, changing types and difficulty levels.
  • Students are allowed to take however long they feel like to complete the test.
  • A committee votes on a “cut score” (i.e. what level is “passing”) after the tests have been scored.
Guess which list describes the HSPE/MSP/WASL? Yup, these assessments include all the features that characterize what standardized tests are not. These are (theoretically, anyway) standards-based assessments, very different from standardized tests. They are supposedly designed to measure the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALRs) – our state learning standards. That is debatable, but food for another topic.

The EALRs are a moving target, able to be changed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI), without the consent of the Legislature, as Terry Bergeson did when she was SPI. We have to assume they measure the EALRs because that is what federal law requires under No Child Left Behind. But the results are meaningless when they can be so easily manipulated by the choice of questions, the choice of cut scores, and the directions to the scorers.
The list of standardized tests includes the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), the Metropolitan Achievement Test (MAT), and the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT – not the college entrance one, which is the Scholastic Aptitude Test). Even these are beginning to become WASL-ized, as some of them have started adding writing sections. Washington eliminated the use of norm-referenced, standardized tests in 2005.
During the few years when Washington used both the WASL and a standardized test, WASL scores steadily increased, while the scores on the standardized test remained flat. Are you now surprised that the use of the standardized tests was eliminated?
Another little fact for your file, in the era of recession and government cutbacks: Standardized tests are very cheap, as they can be scored by a computer in seconds. Standards-based assessments (since they must be scored by armies of humans) cost a bundle. In 2003 the ITBS cost $2.88 per student. The same year, the WASL cost $73 per student. Oh, and that $73 only includes the cost of printing and scoring the assessments. No costs are included in that figure for development, administration of the test to the students, or test security. It also doesn’t include what economists call opportunity costs. All the many hours students are forced to spend on test preparation and practice tests are lost opportunities to learn new things.
So, next time you hear someone refer to Washington’s “standardized” tests, remember what you learned here. And explain it to your neighbors. The only way to combat lies is with the truth.

Marda Kirkwood is active with Citizens United for Responsible Education, the founding chair of CURE, and an advisor to the current board. She has a degree in chemical engineering (with honors) and worked in the field for five years before retiring to be a stay-at-home mom. She homeschooled her children for eight years. This article originally was published Aug. 7, 2011, on the CURE Web site. For permissions for this article, please contact Marda at

From Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at . Please limit columns to not more than 1,000 words. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Politics driving math classes - not equity, justice ... or math

By Laurie H. Rogers

Several days ago, someone sent me an article on “teaching math for social justice.” I actually hit my desk while reading it, narrowly missing the cat. I shouldn't read things like that first thing in the morning. It raises my blood pressure and gets the next 12 hours off to a bad start.

In the article, teaching math for social justice isn’t about math or justice; it’s about pursuing a narrow political agenda in the classroom, through the children. Math is relegated to the wings, used as a vehicle through which the agenda is delivered.

The article was in a 2010 special edition of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics’ Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME). This issue is dedicated to “equity” in math instruction, “with a focus on power and identity.” After years of advocacy, I shouldn’t be surprised by what comes out of the NCTM, but this special edition still was a cold shock.

The NCTM, you’ll recall, is responsible for the current incarnation of “fuzzy” math, born in the depths of hell in the 1980s. Many NCTM presidents and officers have their name on, and fingers in, today’s “reform” math curricula (including the curricula still sucking the lifeblood out of children in Spokane). Unhappily for this author, some now are involved in federal initiatives related to the Common Core State Standards and assessment consortia.

After decades of abject failure of the fuzzy approach, you’d think the NCTM would reject anything that further detracts from learning math. Instead, this trend to teach math through “equity and social justice” is gathering steam, fostered by social activists, self-interested groups like the NCTM – and well-meaning people who don’t realize the intent. For social activists, the agenda isn’t about “equity of opportunity" or justice under the law. It’s political, sociological activism, designed to move students in a specific political direction based on a particular world view. This activism, masquerading as math, is inappropriate and unhelpful.

Many states have policies or laws prohibiting schools from using public funds, facilities or venues for political purposes. Therefore, this activism is ethically, even legally questionable. It’s also a betrayal of trust for schools and teachers to push a particular political point of view on captive, vulnerable, attentive children (paid for by unaware taxpayers). And, there are practical issues of time and resources. This activist agenda is unlikely to help children academically.

The children need academics in order to be successful in their postsecondary life. It bears repeating: Academics are the schools’ mission. Many in education disagree with that statement, but their disagreement doesn’t change its truth. The time and resources spent on any political agenda takes away from academics. Those who see the agenda as more important won’t mind, but parents would … if they knew about it.

Let’s examine that special edition of the JRME.

In the editorial The sociopolitical turn in mathematics education, Rochelle GutiĆ©rrez says that, over a decade, math education researchers incorporated sociocultural concepts into their work. But now, those with “a long history of addressing anti-racism and social justice issues in mathematics have moved beyond this sociocultural view to espouse sociopolitical concepts and theories, highlighting identity and power at play.”

GutiĆ©rrez warns against “focusing on discourse to the point where mathematics disappears,” but she fails to acknowledge the alarming fact that it’s already largely happened.

The abstract for Margaret Walshaw’s Post-structuralism and ethical practical action: Issues of identity and power says her article explains “how mathematical identifications are tied to the social organization of power. An analysis of 2 everyday instances is provided to capture the oppressive conditions in which ordinary people involved in mathematics are engaged.”

(I’m feeling a bit “oppressed” myself, actually. All of the power to fix the math program in Spokane rests with people who refuse to do it.)

In Learning to teach mathematics for social justice: Negotiating social justice and mathematical goals, the article that caused me to startle the cat, Tonya Gau Bartell says math classes should examine concepts such as prisons vs. education, and institutionalized racism. Students could “use mathematics to expose an injustice, that minimum wage is not a living wage, and would brainstorm possible actions they could take to affect (sic) change.”

(It’s a blending of sociology, activism and math … minus the math.)

The article that does ring true is David W. Stinson’s Negotiating the “‘White Male Math Myth”: African American male students and success in school mathematics. Weighed down by a nearly unintelligible abstract, it nevertheless reaches the heart of the issue. Teachers should find ways to use students’ frame of reference to drive the lessons. It’s how you reach a student. Reaching a student is how you teach the student, and teaching all students what they need to know is how you achieve equity of opportunity, and justice for all. But who believes that?

Activists prefer to frame math lessons around their politics, values and world view. In doing so, they interfere with the very process that helps students succeed. They also place squat, fat barriers between children and their unknowing parents. Already, mathematics has been politicized, socialized and stupefied into near drivel. We don’t have a generation ready to take over the reins of the country. It’s much, much worse out there than you think.

When the agenda is the priority, student outcomes become less important. Public dissent is seen as irrelevant, and it falls on deaf ears. Look at the mission statement and goals for Spokane Public Schools. College readiness isn’t mentioned. It’s all about “aligning,” “developing” and “empowering.” We aren’t talking about the same things. “The children are failing.” Irrelevant. “They need substantial remedial math in college.” Irrelevant. “They have almost no math skills to speak of.” Irrelevant. “Listen to me! I have something to tell you.” Irrelevant. Administrators and board directors actually have told me I have nothing to tell them about what my child needs.

What is relevant to them? They claim without proof that students are gaining “deeper conceptual understanding” in math through “real-world application.” For one thing, their “real world” is largely foreign to the children. For another, you can’t have “deeper conceptual understanding” without academic knowledge. But that, too, is seen as irrelevant. They don’t view math as a useful skill, a field unto itself that requires focus and a logical, linear progression of concepts. To them, math is a prop, grabbed on the fly to frame and illustrate their sociological concerns.

They refuse to give students the academic skills they need to be successful, productive citizens and not stricken with poverty. Who is oppressing whom? Yeah, yeah, I know. Irrelevant.

Google the term “educators for social justice” and see how equity, social justice, anti-oppression, environmentalism, anti-American "imperialism," the disdain and devaluing of military service, pro-“immigrant reform” (i.e. amnesty), selective law obeying, moral relativism and anti-capitalism are increasingly embraced as core education themes and embedded throughout the nation’s K-12 curriculum. Young students must ponder weighty social issues while not being taught enough usable math. Grammar has been replaced with self-absorbed and generally useless exploration. Many history and social studies classes focus on social change and transformation, rather than on names of state capitols or the “rich white men” who signed the U.S. Constitution.

Notice the research focus in the profiles of master’s and doctoral students in the math education program at the University of Washington. “Progressive pedagogy”; how “identity, status, and equity play into success in mathematics”; “equity issues, professional learning communities, and literacy instruction in mathematics classrooms”; “a complex-instruction mathematics classroom through relational pedagogy”; and “examining the Eurocentric nature of mainstream mathematics—its segregated image, content, and pedagogy.” Where is the mathematics?

On the Web site for Teachers 4 Social Justice, the mission is to “provide opportunities for self-transformation, leadership, and community building to educators in order to affect (sic) meaningful change in the classroom, school, community and society.”

Whose definition of “meaningful change” holds sway? (And does no one know the difference between “affect” and “effect”?)

The group Rethinking Schools asks, “How do we bring the fight to protect and transform public schools into our classrooms? How do we connect our classrooms to the struggles in the streets?” An article on the site is titled Teaching budget cuts to third graders. Assisted by editor Bill Bigelow, the group published Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers – a collection of articles showing “how to weave social-justice principles throughout the math curriculum, and how to integrate social-justice math into other curricular areas as well.”

Bigelow also wrote the article Patriotism Makes Kids Stupid for Pledging Allegiance: The Politics of Patriotism in America’s Schools. This 2007 book showcases “educators who refuse to toe the new ‘patriotic’ line.” (Also included is commentary from Bill Ayers, former member of the radical Weather Underground who reportedly told the The New York Times in 2001, “I don't regret setting bombs...I feel we didn't do enough.”)

Rethinking Schools is sponsoring the Oct. 1st 4th Annual Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice in Seattle. Please read the conference agenda. In its Equity Library, Spokane carries five books edited by Bill Bigelow.

Meanwhile, the Teaching for Change Web site says it “provides teachers and parents with the tools to transform schools into centers of justice where students learn to read, write and change the world.” Teaching for Change is affiliated with the Zinn Education Project, in which activist Howard Zinn encouraged students to write about “unsung heroes,” including Elaine Brown, a former leader of the Black Panthers; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a longtime communist; and Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of murder (and is currently incarcerated).

Zinn provided materials that focus on the “oppressed,” without offering much in counterbalance. He offered a list of like-minded organizations, such as the New York Collective of Radical Educators, which tells teachers to advocate for full amnesty for those who are in the country illegally, and to “proactively” help students avoid military service.

This is just a snippet of the politics flooding K-12 education at the expense of academics. Spokane says “social justice is at the heart of our instructional core.” The Bronx has a school devoted to social justice, as do Brooklyn and Chicago. There are others; more are coming. Project-based learning, reform math and constructivism typically drive the social-activist agenda.

This agenda is not about the children. Few in leadership seem focused on academics or inclined to speak up. Parents get little help or truth from media, districts, principals, school boards, governors, legislators, policy-makers, education service districts, publishers, state or federal education agencies, teachers unions, or many “grass-roots” groups that are well-connected, well-funded supporters of the agenda. Frightened for their job, most teachers also remain silent.

On Aug. 27, in the face of ridiculously high college remedial rates, low levels of skills in math and grammar, and persistent community dissent, former Spokane superintendent Gary Livingston claimed without statistical data or support that local schools are just fine. He said what’s really needed is less criticism and more community involvement … (i.e., more of our money).

But, nationwide, $670 billion from all sources was spent for just one year of K-12 education. Despite their persistent complaints of ongoing budget “cuts,” poor things, it will again be more this year. How much was spent on academics? How much on the agenda?

We don’t have to accept it. Students need schools to focus on content knowledge and skills. Any school that refuses to do that, in the name of equity and social justice, is engaging in neither. Many in leadership supplement the program for their own children, or they remove their own children from public schools. (Not that they’ll tell you.) My family left public education this year because of the political agenda. It disrespects our values and presents incorrect, biased and narrow views of history and society. We left because academics aren’t respected. Children struggle with reform math, whereupon they’re blamed and called “the low group.” We left because the district leadership obstinately refuses to tell the truth, change direction, or be accountable for their failure. We left because their allegiance is not to the people; it’s to themselves, to each other, and to the agenda.

If you want academics in schools rather than politics, you’ll have to find a way to make it happen. They show little sign of caring about what parents want and children need.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (September 2011). "Politics driving math classes - not equity, justice ... or math." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Sept. 5, 2011, on the Core Knowledge blog at

This article also was published Sept. 5, 2011, on the Education Views Web site at

This article also was published Sept. 6, 2011, on the Education News Web site at