Thursday, February 26, 2015

Edu-reformers & PARCC-Rangers Get Equity Wrong

Common Core & PARCC testing have been promoted and sold to legislators as the panacea to cure all that ills public education, from equity and achievement gaps to America's students "trailing the world." And this is a problem. The primary issue is the belief that new standards and new tests can both lift our highest achievers and close a gap with our struggling learners. That naive, pie-in-the-sky thinking represents a deep naivete and a real laziness about the demands of educating a child. Basically, these critics want "a test" to singularly identify the struggles of students so they can quickly identify weak teachers and get rid of them in order to turn bad schools into good schools. And, even more simplistically, they want "a test" to sort "good/bad" schools. And, that's myopic at best.

I've run across this narrow-mindedness too much lately in the writings of people like Greg Harris of an organization called Students First. Harris claims he's "opting his child in to PARCC" because kids need the type of thinking it will measure. It's an artful bit of optimism, and "begging the question," as he simply declares, with no data or evidence, that PARCC is a quality test which will provide data to improve outcomes. Another PARCC-Ranger who offers un-supported praise of the quality and importance of testing as a barometer for educational outcomes is Lynnell Mickelsen, who took to her blog to dis "white suburban moms," of which she seems very clearly to be one. She's particularly upset over the opt out movement.  I don't know what kind of success "reformists" like Harris and Mickelsen have had in closing achievement gaps, or really even teaching struggling populations, because I've seen no evidence of either. But apparently they've read something about the ability of new, out-of-context, standardized tests to solve equity issues and close gaps. I'm waiting anxiously for the pilot test info that supports their claims. Or not.

On the other hand, we have a powerful and insightful alternative view from suburban mom and education advocate Ilana Spiegel who exposes the problems of test-based education reform by warning that we are "Operating at the Margins of Learning."

If we are truly concerned with providing equitable opportunities through improved schooling, we must acknowledge the challenges of these communities. Only then can we fully know how test-based accountability has not substantially improved schooling, and, in fact, denies enriched and equitable opportunities for children. With test-based reform, the question has become "are we doing testing right" rather than "does testing produce equitable outcomes for students?" When we talk about trimming one test or adding another, we only operate at the margins of learning. In fact, since 1997 when Colorado first administered CSAP, and since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, we have seen little if any gains on internationally benchmarked assessments such as National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The NEPC concludes that test-based accountability does not increase equitable opportunities through improved schooling. In fact, since the advent of "test and punish" accountability, resources in less privileged communities are focused on tests and increasing test scores, rather than increasing opportunities through smaller class sizes, quality school-year and summer programing, and enriched class offerings. Current policies use test scores as a gate-keeper to challenging secondary course work and a punishment for eight-year-olds who may struggle with reading. This approach ignores the opportunity gaps created by outside school forces. No one would argue that measuring outcomes alone enriches opportunities. When standardized tests are put on a pedestal as a magic bullet that gets students to "try harder," teachers to "teach smarter," and administrators to manage more effectively, we lose sight of many children's missed opportunities to learn.

Spiegel, despite the pejorative ignorance of people like Mickelsen, is one of those white suburban moms who is advocating for all populations, from her kids to those who look nothing like her. And her analysis is one of the most insightful pieces on the issues of testing and equity that I have seen. It's far beyond the rants of people like Harris and Mickelsen who may have good intentions, but are truly naive about the actual workings of schools. Unlike them, Spiegel has research on her side in the studies of the NEPC.

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