Test question — can you spell ‘blackmail?’


As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

If memory serves, years ago a group of students at a California high school deliberately filled in incorrect answers on a test the state used to evaluate its schools, thereby guaranteeing that the school would sink in the rankings. They were upset because the principal failed to bow to their demand for a smoking area or some similar privilege.

Whether the principal was right or wrong is immaterial. What matters is that the state had put him in that position by creating a test whose results meant nothing to those being tested — but could lead to cash bonuses for schools doing well.

Students at other high schools apparently went to their principals and offered to do really well in return for privileges. Not sure how that turned out.

In 2006, according to California reporter John Fensterwald, students at a charter school in San Jose protested the dismissal of a couple of popular teachers by sabotaging a state test. The school’s score on the all-important Academic Progress Index dropped 203 points, from 731 to 528.

What brings that to mind is the news that New York City is going to spend at least $25 million to create tests whose scores will, they hope, allow them to judge teachers (not students).

As Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said to the New York Times, “How do you create an additional assessment that is actually going to strengthen instructional practice, rather than divert time away from instruction?”

That, he added, “is what we set out to solve.”

From my vantage point, there is so much wrong with this thinking as to be laughable — although maybe Dr. Polakow-Suransky (by all accounts a brilliant man) is being logical given that the legislature passed a law last year that requires districts to find ways to rate teachers on a scale from ‘highly effective’ to ‘ineffective.’ The legislature was doing Washington’s bidding, to help the state win the Race to the Top competition, so perhaps the madness starts in the Congress and the White House.

But madness it is, because New York City will be piling more tests on top of those already being administered. The Times reports that, if the plan is carried out, high school students could end up taking as many as eight additional tests a year, because, after all, not everyone teaches math or language arts. As spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz said in an email, “Some of the things that need to be determined are how are we going to ‘test’ students in art classes…students in Physical education… students in Spanish.”

There will be more tests for elementary and middle school students as well.

Now about the blackmail: When New York City rolls out the test exams next year in 100 or so schools, how long before some savvy students let teachers know that they know what’s going on — and are willing to try their best if the teacher will agree to (fill in your own answer here).

Reporters have to be salivating at the prospect of some really juicy stories emerging from this idiotic policy. If it weren’t so stupid, I would be really pumped too.

According to the Times article, sample tests were given in 11 schools this spring, but no one told the students what the deal was. Good luck with keeping that a secret as the tests spread to other schools.

And in fact, Dr. Polakow-Suransky urged full disclosure. “I don’t think it should be a secret that part of how teachers are evaluated is how kids’ learning goes on in their class,” he said.

Bubble Test

(Perhaps I should say ‘if the tests spread,’ because spokeswoman Ravitz says they have only put out the RFP but “haven’t made decisions.”)

Doesn’t anybody have the courage to challenge this slavish devotion to standardized testing (mostly bubble tests, by the way)? Students in New York City finished taking their ‘end of the year’ state test in mid-May, but school itself doesn’t get out until the end of June. For kids (and for the policy types in their comfortable offices), the tests are everything. Teachers, of course, have to hold their students’ interest for another six weeks or so.

Dr. Polakow-Suransky said the challenge was to create an additional assessment that will ‘strengthen instruction.’

I say he ought to examine the premise of the law and challenge it, because the goal ought to be to strengthen teaching and learning. This entire exercise strikes me as a ‘gotcha game’ whose outcome will undermine the teaching profession, increase disrespect among students for schooling, and take time away from teaching and learning. It will, however, allow students to strengthen their bargaining and blackmailing skills.

Assessments can strengthen instruction, of course. Frequent school-based tests in math, for example, can pinpoint which teachers are having difficulty getting certain concepts across; they can then learn different approaches from their more successful peers. That’s not ‘gotcha’ testing but sensible assessment with an immediate feedback loop.

I write about many of these issues in my book, The Influence of Teachers. A lot of our problems in public education stem from a dearth of respect. We don’t respect students’ intelligence; hence we focus on the lowest common denominator in skills. We don’t respect teachers, which is why we turn to standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of evaluation. I’m not sure we even respect learning itself.

Nor do we expect very much from our kids, frankly. Imagine setting the bar for reading at third grade, when most first graders are fully capable of learning to read and learning to enjoy reading?

But enough of this rant. The questions are:

How do we raise expectations?

How do we get beyond the insult of ‘the basics’?

How do we wean ourselves away from our addiction to more and more standardized testing?

The floor is open for suggestions (I’ve done the ranting).

13 thoughts on “Test question — can you spell ‘blackmail?’

  1. Thanks, John, for exposing the NYC madness, for madness it is indeed. Sadly, NYC is not alone. Charlotte-Mecklenberg, NC, spent $1.9 million to make a few dozen tests. The Mass Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is considering a proposal from the Ed Department to require every teacher in every grade and subject to be ‘assessed’ with two ‘assessments’ each year – one being the state test (MCAS) when it is relevant. This will require every district to concoct a vast array of new ‘assessments’ that are ‘comparable’ across the district. This could be a portfolio, or some tasks or projects, which might at least resemble what teaching and learning could and should be. But more likely, especially in our larger cities, we’ll see a lot of money wasted on making or buying new tests. Kindergarteners, anyone? A bubble test for music, art, phys ed (not that bubble tests would be justified in any subjects)? (For more on MA and the use of student test scores to judge teachers and principals, see FairTest pieces at http://fairtest.org/k-12/teachers.)

    Meanwhile, MA like NY and NC and perhaps every state, is seeing massive layoffs and huge cutbacks in all sorts of valuable services. There is nothing more than ideology to support the claim that an intensive test focus will actually improve schools. For example, the rate of improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (itself just another test) slowed significantly for almost all ages and groups in both math and reading after NCLB took effect. (See http://fairtest.org/detailed-fairtest-study-naep-results-shows-nclb-ha.)


  2. “A lot of our problems in public education stem from a dearth of respect. We don’t respect students’ intelligence; hence we focus on the lowest common denominator in skills. We don’t respect teachers, which is why we turn to standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of evaluation. I’m not sure we even respect learning itself.”

    I could NOT agree with you more! We don’t respect students’ intelligence, and we don’t respect learning. But I would take it one step further – we don’t TRUST that students want to learn.

    Trust in the child and his or her innate desire to learn is key to Montessori education. We have to talk about trust with the parents ALL THE TIME because they are so used to the standardized test mentality. And standardized tests don’t tell you much about a whole child.

    Children in our classrooms learn so much about process. They learn how to conduct experiments, how to do research and write papers, and they beginning learning these processes in first grade. They are given the tools to learn HOW to learn so they can answer big intellectual questions like “How was the earth created?” or “How does a volcano work?”

    We see their desire to learn everyday, and we don’t have to force them to work. They willingly do it. They WANT to do it. So we have high expectations for them. We believe in them and their abilities. We trust that they want to learn.

    I was a therapist in the public schools. Sadly, many of those children did not want to work as they viewed learning as drudgery. This happens when we focus on testing, teaching to that test and not giving children any choices.

    I just wish that conventional education would look more closely at Montessori. These learning environments should be available to all children. Not just ones in private schools. (Though, there are a few AMI accredited public Montessori schools in a few states like Wisconsin!)


    • Laura, I could not agree with you more. I am an early childhood teacher, and have studied Maria Montessori and her methods extensively and incorporate a lot of them into my family childcare “classroom.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — “Montessori is the best kept secret in the US.” It’s a “secret” that should be told!

      I am glad that I grew up in an era before standardized testing was as prevalent as it is now. We had SOME testing, but nothing like students today face. I also was lucky enough to have some really top-notch teachers who went “above and beyond,” and allowed us to, as you put it, “learn how to learn.”


  3. I read the article @ takingnote.learning matters and I am again amazed at the weight people want to put on test scores as evidence that learning has occurred. Learning and Testing are 2 different things. One Can measure what has been learned through tests, however, there are other factors involved in test-taking that can skew test results and one element is the desire and motivation of students to TAKE the test. I have proxy test-taking in Detroit and I know from first-hand experience that a number of the students do not take the test, the fill in the bubbles with a pattern and then they are done with it. What is taught and learned in a classroom cannot always be translated into an assessment and test results. Testing and Learning are two different things. If you want test results to improve, then you should consider teaching testing-taking skills. What I have learned, I may not be able to translate into an assessment, especially if I have test anxiety, I get confused about what and how I am to select an answer….many factors can contribute to poor test results outside of “the teacher is ineffective”. Assessing teacher effectiveness is a valuable tool for determining if a teacher’s performance is on target. Developing a quality form of assessment would be useful and productive for the union to have evidence that a teacher is not performing the job. Requiring universities to set standards on the type of students they accept as teacher candidates would also help improve the quality of teachers. There are many creative means of developing data to help make changes in assessing quality education outside of “blaming” teachers.


  4. I can’t help but think that the current mania for still more standardized testing of students reflects a lack of visionary leadership and a passing of the buck.

    Shouldn’t teachers be evaluated by their supervisors? If there are to be proficiency tests, shouldn’t it be the teachers who are tested to insure that their knowledge of the content they are teaching meets some reasonable standard?

    My own experience — and that of my children — persuades me that the best teachers are those who inspire students, challenge them to push the boundaries of what they think they can achieve, and instill in them a passion for learning.

    If more of their time is devoted to “teaching the test” so that some artificial metric can take the place of honest teacher evaluation, when does the real learning take place?


    • I agree the best teachers know how to take tea gables moments and relate them back to the standards that are to be taught. You have to capitalize on those moments of inspiration, and student interests which mist teachers are scared to do anymore.
      Troy F
      Kansas City, Mo


  5. I saw the student blackmail issue are one concern—along with teacher cheating and a race to low standards—immediately upon the passage of NCLB. Why did other journalists go with the flow and support the idea when the assumptions were so flawed?

    The question of respect for the individual abilities of all children—including those not amenable to standardized tests—remains. Ms. Shaw is on the mark with her suggestion that serious attention be given to Montessori education (although there are associations other than AMI that are worthy of attention.)

    Crossing Montessori affiliations is the belief that the teacher’s job is to find and nourish the abilities children are born with. It is not to pour in the facts of math. Although Montessori students tend to do well on standardized tests and other public school measurements, there is a basic tension with school district administrators, whose success is measured by test scores.

    If as often happens in school districts, teachers are allowed to call a program “Montessori” but are required to hit every curricular standard by a given date, there is a basic “disrespect” for what children bring. And according to a lot of education thinkers, it prepares children for 20th century jobs. I



      It is a love of learning, a respect for the ideas of others and the possibilities of grounded thinking that will prepared our most fortunate children for the rest of their lives.


  6. John,
    Oh please, just a small rant? Please?

    Thanks. The fact the Shael Polakow-Suransky is alleged to be brilliant doesn’t preclude his acting foolishly, especially when he’s engaged in his official capacity. The history, not just of education but of government in general, is littered with the wreckage caused by brilliant people who are just doing their jobs and not questioning the simple-minded and clearly misguided assumptions that drive the policies they implement. Phil Harris, Joan Harris and I address some of these misguided assumptions in our book, The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). Lest you think I’m flacking for our book, let me say that readers of these commentaries probably know the myths we address. It’s aimed more at the less well-informed.

    But I take keyboard in hand mostly to say that for those truly interested in trying to make tests serve the ends of learning and teaching, the best place to begin is with W. James Popham, whose endorsement of “instructionally sensitive” tests is perhaps best explained in his book, Transformative Assessment (ASCD 2008). The goals of Jim’s assessments are so different from those commonly espoused by the USDOE and its mini-clones in most state capitals that you might wonder if you’ve fallen through a looking glass — or perhaps climbed out for the first time.
    Bruce Smith


  7. I applaud these contributions, but I also am a fan of lists: specifically, what do we want our children (and in my case anyway, grandchildren) to be able to do, to be? What can and should schools do to make it happen?
    We need a coherent system in at least one of our 50 states. Maybe it cannot be a big one like NY or Texas, but surely Delaware has a shot.
    The two union leaders are on record as being willing to craft a model ‘professional union contract’ as a starting point from that perspective.
    There are some strong Ed School Deans (think ASU) who are willing to raise standards, et cetera.
    We need some strong leaders (administrators, politicians) who will speak up for multiple measures of achievement, and I am not sure where they are hiding.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Arne Duncan were to talk about how a basketball team is evaluated? Sure, wins and losses count, but individual players are not evaluated solely on points scored (Duncan was a strong rebounder, as I recall). Assists, steals, defensive rebounds, offensive rebounds all are counted and count. Teamwork may be hard to measure objectively, but we know it when we see it. Same is true for leadership. Don’t schools and teachers deserve the same ‘statistical’ treatment?


  8. Students are already using standardized tests as a way to protest, blackmail is entirely possible. In 2005, my son used the Michigan state test (MEAP) to protest his Spanish teacher’s bathroom policy that stated if a student needed to use the bathroom at any time during her 72 minute class, the student received an “unexcused tardy”. He chose to draw an extended middle finger in the space provided for the Science graph. He also bubbled in “ABBA” and “AC~DC”. In my blog post “Teens With an Ax to Grind”, I address this issue–he is not alone.

    The really unfortunate thing is that the Science teacher would be the one who could potentially be considered ineffective. I completely fail to understand why anyone would think it’s a good idea to evaluate a teacher on something so easily sabotaged by kids.


  9. @londonkaleb an individual’s the idiot, btw consumers londonkaleb has a new channel also known as ashenclone! he lies about the unheard of items that he feedback


  10. hi there i’m pierre-henry and I’m the director of a recent montessori elementary school based in paris. Is it possible to have the link to buy of The Influence of Teachers ? I click on it but nothing happens 😦 thanks


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