Something’s Coming (Something Good)

“Something there is that doesn’t love more bubble tests
And students bubbling and learning how to bubble
When they might be making robots or reading Frost….”
When I adapted Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” earlier this year, I was aware of the growing resentment among parents, teachers and students toward machine-scored tests and test-prep. However, I had no idea that it would–pardon the pun–bubble to the top with such energy.

That said, some of what looks like support for reduced testing may turn out to be something quite different.  What people say is not as important as what they do!

A lot has been happening.  In late August the Lee County (FL) School Board voted, 3-2, to opt out of the state’s testing program, in what one Board member called ‘an act of civil disobedience.’  For six days Lee County, the 37th largest school district in the US with 85, 000 students, was the epicenter of the ‘too much testing’ movement, but on August 27th the Board reversed itself, again by a 3-2 vote.  The School Superintendent had expressed grave concern about the possible penalties, financial and otherwise, that Florida might impose if Lee County boycotted the state tests, and that apparently was enough to push one Board member, Mary Fisher, to change her vote.

For a list of what Florida could do to penalize boycotting districts, click here.

Robert Schaeffer, the Public Education Director of the anti-testing organization FairTest, has lived in Lee County for 15 years. By email I asked Bob what had just happened there. After acknowledging that he has been collaborating with the protestors, he added{{1}}:

“As expected, given the announcement that one member had reversed her position in the face of a massive, disinformation campaign by the Superintendent, the Lee County School Board just voted 3-2 to override its previous decision. However, four of the five board members spoke out against “test misuse and overuse” as well as “the punitive use of standardized exams.”  The two Board members who opposed the original motion (allegedly due to the lack of an implementation plan) pledged to take their concerns to a meeting of the Florida School Boards Association, which is holding a statewide conference beginning tonight, and one threatened a lawsuit against unfunded state testing mandates.
“After the vote, several Board members said that there would be a public workshop next week to discuss how to move forward to reduce testing overkill, and two members pledged that they would make implementation motions at the Tuesday night, September 9 regular Board meeting.The hundreds of parents, teachers, students and taxpayers who packed the room viewed the decision as a temporary tactical setback, not a long-term defeat, for the assessment reform movement.”

The Palm Beach County Schools are reported to be flirting with a possible boycott.

If something like this can happen in Florida, an epicenter of what is called ‘test-based accountability,’ then the rest of the country ought to be paying attention.

It’s not just Florida, of course.  This spring as many as 80% of students in some New York City public schools were opted out of standardized testing by their parents.

The Superintendent of Schools in Colorado Springs, Colorado, says he wants to test randomized samples of students to gather data about school effectiveness, which would reduce the number of bubble tests that all students now have to take.

More than half of the school boards in Texas supported a resolution calling upon the State Board of Education to reduce the number and significance of bubble tests.  That was two years ago, and the Texas Legislature got the message. It passed a bill drastically reducing the number of standardized tests required for graduation, and Governor Rick Perry signed the bill into law in June 2013.

The rebellion may be spreading to New Mexico, where concern about computerized testing is growing.

In Vermont the State Board of Education has called upon the United States Congress to get its act together and do something about No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007 but remains the law of the land as long as Congress fails to act.  “The motivating force behind the statement is that there is too much testing,” State Board member William Mathis told the Rutland Herald. “Teachers are complaining about it. Parents are complaining about it. We’re just running from one test to the next. It’s tedious, and it’s not the best use of taxpayers’ money.”

But it would be a mistake to assume that every expression of concern is genuine.  In Rhode Island, where students have been protesting over-testing, State Superintendent Deborah Gist{{2}} seems to be taking a stand on the issue.  According to the Providence Journal’s Linda Borg, Gist and Katherine E. Sipala, president of the Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Association, have created what they call “The Assessment Project” to study the issue.

Their letter to local superintendents reads, in part:
“Over the past year or more, many of us have heard from some students, teachers, and parents who expressed their concerns about over-testing in our schools. We share their concerns, and we want to take action on this matter. None of us wants to test students too much, and each of us can consider ways to streamline the assessment process, to eliminate assessments that do not advance teaching and learning, and to ensure that we use assessments to help us make good decisions about instruction. If assessments do not give us information that informs instruction, we should not administer those assessments.”

To this observer, Gist and Sipala’s message is hardly newsworthy. Rather than a call to action, it’s seems to be a politically safe call for ‘more study.’

I have noticed that those who are upset about testing are being careful to avoid coming across as ‘anti-testing.’ Instead, they say that they are protesting ‘over-testing’ or ‘too much testing,’ which is a far cry from being opposed to all testing.  Language matters, and if their voices are to be heard, they have to fight the ‘anti-testing’ label that some supporters of the status quo will try to stick on them.

Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk provided this thoughtful overview recently, pointing out how No Child Left Behind still hangs over every state and school district that has not been granted a waiver by the Secretary of Education.

In late August Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in with his own call for a 1-year moratorium (which the NEA called ‘common sense’).

It’s possible that Mr. Gates and Secretary Duncan were motivated by their desire to save the Common Core National Standards, which are under increasing attack from both the right and the left. Perhaps they are now wishing they had taken the time to disentangle the Common Core and the laudable idea of higher standards from the accountability mess and its roots in ‘the business model of education’ that both support.{{3}}

As the lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote in “Something’s Coming,”
Something’s coming, something good
If I can wait
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is
But it is gonna be great{{4}}.

Will the “something” that’s coming to the world of bubble testing be good?  Is what lies ahead “gonna be great,” or will there be lots of words but little action?  Who knows?  That’s not up to reporters; that’s in the hands of parents and concerned citizens, educators and activists—and the politicians who listen to them.

By the way, you may read the rest of ‘Mending School” here.

If you would like to own your own copy of the fully annotated, four-color, 24″ x 36″ wall poster, simply click here or send your tax-deductible contribution to Learning Matters, 127 West 26th Street, Suite 1200, NY NY 10001.

Oh, I sent the “Mending School” poster to Secretary Duncan, gratis, and I am sending one to Deborah Gist in Rhode Island.

[[1]]1. He sent virtually the same message to Diane Ravitch. [[1]]
[[2]]2. Full disclosure regarding my own relationship with Deborah Gist. She was State Superintendent when Michelle Rhee was Chancellor, and it was her office that detected the unusual patterns of ‘wrong to right’ erasures that strongly suggested cheating. Instead of taking direct action, Gist exchanged memoranda with Rhee for months, during which time Gist applied for and got the Rhode Island job. Because I believed then–and still believe–that the public ought to know Gist’s version of those machinations, I begged her to speak to me on the record. She refused. When Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst, rated state education programs, Rhode Island received the top score, which some interpreted as Rhee’s way of thanking Gist for her silence. [[2]]
[[3]]3.It’s also possible that Secretary Duncan’s friends and handlers in the White House have realized they need the votes of teachers in the midterm elections, just two months away.[[3]]
[[4]]4.As most of you no doubt know, “Something’s Coming” is a love song of joyous anticipation from “West Side Story.” More here.[[4]]

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6 thoughts on “Something’s Coming (Something Good)

  1. John

    Here is an article I wrote back in January that is especially relevant today
    The underlying issue here is that the number one priority of the NEA and other unions is to preserve the jobs of their members. Anything that challenges this structure is resisted, and they are expert at finding fault, as Ms Ravitch so avidly shows.

    Lets get away from this so typically American controversy that so delights the lawyers – of polarizing defense versus prosecution. Lets stop trying to measure teachers with regimented tests; instead lets use frequent online quizzes to check whether each student has actually grasped the concept -= and if not immediately provide remediation.

    Ms Ravitch inveighs against poor results for disadvantaged children. My own experience is that well designed computer programs are actually better at adapting to the individual capabilities of each child better than one harassed overworked teacher.

    Lets anchor the target ratio of 24 students per teacher; but instead set online classes at say 60 per class, with 24 in each face to face class; that allows 15 minutes each week for one-on-one with each teacher.

    Lets start training teachers to personally modify online programs so they are not unwilling prisoners to a fixed program. Instead of sending disruptive students to the Principal’s office, send then to a separate online cubicle, where they can still learn without causing havoc in their class.

    Lets target giving every child a tablet computer for use in school and to take home. Running only on the school network it is not a target for theft, and provides an educational alternative to mind numbing TV. That same tablet could provide video conferencing parent teacher discussion – something non-existent in the inner city; and yes pay the teacher for her time.

    One answer to the drop out rate is to pay a bonus to the mother when her child graduates. Everyone talks about the importance of family support. Lets create a carrot that shows we believe in its importance.

    Sadly Ms Ravitch is an inspired advocate of the miserable status quo, when there is so much to offer and so many young lives are at stake.

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  2. I am curious to hear what you see as a vision that schools should be striving for. It seems like getting rid of excessive standardized testing and empowering teachers brings us back to the kind of schooling that existing in the 70’s where the quality of education in schools varied dramatically, but none could be considered great. Is that the best we can hope for with the current model?

    What do you think schools should generally look like?

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  3. John: I teach GED classes in reading and writing based on the Common Core to adults. I am impressed and surprised by the challenging material and by the rigor and expectations of the program. I’m a big supporter of the tougher standards and the motives behind them even though I question the degree of difficulty for someone who may only read at a fifth or sixth grade level. Interpreting a passage from Faulkner or Melville is asking a lot for many who didn’t make it through the Philadelphia school system — and even for many who did. I applaud the Feds for upping the standards and the states for adopting them. l oppose efforts to repeal but I understand the criticism and angst this is causing. I’d like to see a solution that preserves the higher standards, perhaps with some adjustments and time to adapt.

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    • I am in agreement, John. The Common Core is suffering collateral damage from the testing obsession, it seems to me. But the federal government’s insistence that the scores be used to evaluate teachers creates a huge problem, because some of the CC’s skills–such as ‘speaking persuasively’ and ‘working cooperatively’ CANNOT be evaluated by a machine-scored test or by any test at all. Teachers are required, which means teachers must be trusted.
      But if the scores are going to be held over teachers’ heads, then those teachers will teach only the stuff that can be measured on the tests….so say goodbye to ‘speaking persuasively’ and ‘working cooperatively.’

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  4. I should have expanded in the original piece above on the idea of a moratorium. What precisely is going to occur during this period of time, whether it’s Arne’s one year or Bill Gates’s two years? Will there be a concerted effort to 1) count the number of tests, 2) add up the time spent taking and preparing for them, and 3) tabulate the real costs in dollars?
    Will some people band together to talk seriously about ways to evaluate schools, students and teachers?
    Will we have a national conversation about the purposes of schooling?
    Let’s hope…

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  5. This evening I had a conversation with a teacher who works as a reading specialist in a California school with a predominantly low income, hispanic student body. When she read the Common Core standards she was enthusiastic. But the reality she already sees as teachers try to inplement them is at least as great an emphasis on test readiness as she saw before. No matter that CA has taken a more cautious approach than, say, New York. Teachers are very clear that test scores, which will only catch a miniscule part of what the standards were meant to address, are very much the name of the game. With each protest I read about I have more hope that people will not let this next generation suffer the way public school students in many parts of the country have had their school years “downsized” in the NCLB era. But I also share your skepticism. Words from the likes of Duncan, Gates, and Gist have a way of being just that. We need to keep our eye on the prize: an engaging education that will produce adults who can participate fully in our democracy.

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