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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

High school math teacher exposes the high-stakes testing myth


By Bob Dean


The belief that high-stakes testing will bring any improvement to our public schools is built on an ounce of wishful thinking, a pound of good intentions and a ton of ignorance.

Consider the recent history of high-stakes testing in the State of Washington. We spent more than a decade and a billion dollars on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) only to find that the test was deeply flawed. The WASL didn’t align with college or career readiness, and it basically tried to measure student achievement of standards that were so poorly written they were impossible to measure by any kind of assessment.

Despite these major flaws, legislators, the public, business leaders and most of the media ignorantly assumed that something meaningful was happening by requiring students to pass this bogus exam. Unfortunately, the only meaningful thing that was happening was teachers throughout our state were forced to try and teach to this test despite the fact that it didn’t align to anything that was important for students to know. The WASL was a test built around standards that de-emphasized student content knowledge and supposedly would teach students to think more deeply and become expert problem solvers. In the end, the main problem that many students now have to solve is how to go through life being mathematically illiterate.

Teachers were forced to follow this WASL nonsense even though it was against their better judgment. Even worse, despite the misgivings and resistance by many, it is the teachers who were left holding the bag when students didn’t perform well on the WASL exam. Despite the money spent by the state on this test, no more than 50% of the students ever passed the math portion, and the scores went down each year during the last few years the exam was given.

What unmasked the deep flaws of the WASL? The first year that the new End of Course (EOC) assessment was given, the state saw a 50% jump in the student scores across the state. This jump couldn’t be attributed to any improvement in what was happening in classrooms; it simply came because the EOC exams aligned more closely to what was actually being taught and the test was based on new standards which were clearer and far better defined than the old WASL standards.

So again, the legislature, the public, business leaders and most of the media hailed the passing of the EOC’s as a standard that would drive improvement in our schools and would finally hold teachers accountable to do a job they surely were not doing. Can we consider that passing the math EOC ensures that students are learning something meaningful and will be prepared to enter college or the work world? Only if you are ignorant of what is on the exams. Unfortunately that ignorance would describe the legislature, most of the public, and those in the business world and media who by “blind faith” continue to exalt these exams as the “savior” of our educational system.

The facts are that the EOC 1 doesn’t align to college readiness, and it contains numerous irrelevant topics like “box and whisker plots” and “recursive arithmetic sequences” which have no place in Algebra 1 -- while it leaves out numerous traditional topics like “simple rational expressions” and “quadratic equations” that are necessary for moving on in Algebra. The EOC 2 is even worse because the nonsensical narrow standards it measures are in a portion of Geometry that was created by unintended legislative consequences, not by any thoughtful analysis of what students should know after two years of mathematics. Despite these flaws, the passing of these exams is being used as the measure of a quality education system…….Not!

But no worries, government has come to the rescue again. The governor and the legislature decided without one shred of empirical evidence that we should discard our newly written state math standards (rated as some of the best in the nation and which cost $100 million to develop and implement) and adopt the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), along with the much hailed national assessments that would follow. Again, they made this decision based on “blind faith” because neither the standards nor the assessments were even written when this decision was made. But don’t worry; the new assessments that Washington students will take starting next year are being created under the direction of some of the same important people who gave us the WASL.

It is ironic that all of these exams are purported to increase the depth of student thinking and problem solving even while they have been implemented, designed and sold to the public with some of the shallowest logic that is possible to imagine. It is this same shallow logic that believes that holding teachers accountable based on the student scores of these flawed examinations will have any positive impact on student learning.

It’s not that I am against accountability or having to meet a standard. It’s just that, thus far, I have not seen any evidence that the current education leadership is capable of designing an assessment system that will bring any improvement to our schools. Instead of sound education principles, these tests are being used to push agendas from both the left and the right. The truth is that as long as we try to force every kid through a one-size-fits-all system, we will never see improvement. No other country in the world is running an education system on the pretense that all students are the same, and as long as we pursue that folly, we will continue to waste precious resources and fall farther behind our competitors.


Bob Dean is a high-school math teacher in Vancouver, WA. He has served as math department chairman of Evergreen High School, as a State Board of Education Math Advisory Panel Member, as a member of the OSPI Standards Revision Team, and as a member of the Where's the Math Executive Committee. This article was previously published on Bob Dean's blog.
Comment from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at wlroge@comcast.net . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. 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.


6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The old saying "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" stands tall as Laurie points out that political objectives are superseding the interests of children's education.

If this is so evident in subject matter as straightforward as math, what is in store for the social sciences and history curricula?

Anonymous said...

"The belief that high-stakes testing will bring any improvement to our public schools is built on an ounce of wishful thinking, a pound of good intentions and a ton of ignorance."
This statement is far too kind to the powers that be. The "pound of good intentions" should definitely be deleted from the sentence, immediately.

Bruce Price said...

Readers who get this far would probably enjoy "Parents Against Everyday Math," a page on Facebook.

Ordinary citizens rebelling against the idiocy, that's what we need a lot more of.

Sinhue Noriega said...

Failing scores
The education system is a business.  It cares nothing about your child.  Back when NCLB was around, and everyone was complaining, the system made no efforts to slow the collapse of education.  It was meant to happen.  Now that Common Core has taken its place scores are fated to fall even further.  The truth is Common Core is not meant to better education.  It simply is the government taking over state's rights on education.  It is a government power grab meant to place a state constitutional right in the hands of the federal government. 
I also wrote the book exposing the entire collapse of NCLB and Birth of Common Core. IF you want to see it go to my website at http://www.repealthecommoncore.comto get the whole story.
Sinhue Noriega teacher and author of “If It’s Broken Don’t Fix it” A Candid Look at Our Complacent Education System. Find out what they don’t want you to know. The truth about the Common Core, and the education system, from the inside by a teacher.

Sinhue Noriega said...

Failing scores
The education system is a business.  It cares nothing about your child.  Back when NCLB was around, and everyone was complaining, the system made no efforts to slow the collapse of education.  It was meant to happen.  Now that Common Core has taken its place scores are fated to fall even further.  The truth is Common Core is not meant to better education.  It simply is the government taking over state's rights on education.  It is a government power grab meant to place a state constitutional right in the hands of the federal government. 
I also wrote the book exposing the entire collapse of NCLB and Birth of Common Core. IF you want to see it go to my website at http://www.repealthecommoncore.comto get the whole story.
Sinhue Noriega teacher and author of “If It’s Broken Don’t Fix it” A Candid Look at Our Complacent Education System. Find out what they don’t want you to know. The truth about the Common Core, and the education system, from the inside by a teacher.

Richard P Phelps said...

"The truth is that as long as we try to force every kid through a one-size-fits-all system, we will never see improvement. No other country in the world is running an education system on the pretense that all students are the same, and as long as we pursue that folly, we will continue to waste precious resources and fall farther behind our competitors."



Well said, Bob. It's sad that folk in Washington State have developed such a jaundiced view of testing. Even sadder, the equivalent of the WASL is spreading over the whole country in the form of the SBAC tests, headed by your own state testing director, Gene Wilhoit (sp?), and Linda Darling-Hammond. The jaundice will now spread nationwide.



When aligned and validated honestly, tests on average are not only objective monitors of progress but also strongly related to achievement gains, i.e., they promote learning.
When aligned and validated dishonestly, tests can, indeed, do more harm than good.

Richard P. Phelps