On SBAC test results: ‘We are asking the wrong questions’

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The recent release of the latest Connecticut SBAC scores indicates that nearly half of the state’s elementary and middle school students tested last year were not at grade level in reading or math.  In this series of questions, we asked Madison School Superintendent Thomas Scarice, an outspoken critic of the SBAC test, for his reaction to the news.

CTViewpoints:  Assuming for a moment that these scores are meaningful, (not everyone thinks so) shouldn’t we be outraged and alarmed that only about half our children are making the grade?

Scarice: Perhaps the biggest problem is that we’re having the wrong conversation, from our current presidential candidates right down through education advocates, bureaucrats, etc.

I believe that chasing test scores is not only fool’s gold, but it will clearly not prepare our kids for the world they will enter when they leave our K-12 schools.  In fact, chasing test scores, especially invalid ones like the SBAC, prepares kids for a completely different era, one that vanished decades ago.  Automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data will continue to transform the job market, leaving millions without utility, unless they are prepared to take on the jobs that machines cannot perform.

This reality, and the future problems our children will face, necessitates combining rich academic content with the development of deep analytical and critical thinking, and perhaps more importantly, boundless divergent and creative thinking.  Students also need authentic experience in developing collective intelligence, learning from and working with others.

No one works alone.  Perhaps most importantly, students need to apply their learning to novel situations.  There is not one stitch of usefulness in the SBAC with regards to giving us this information — the most important information — on student performance in these essential capacities.  In fact, the part of the SBAC intended to measure application of learning was removed.  Yet the scores erroneously take center stage in assessing school quality.

There isn’t one piece of reputable research indicating that SBAC measures anything other than maybe family wealth.  In fact, CT State Department of Education literature, referred to as the SBAC “Interpretive Guide,” states that, “characterizing a student’s achievement solely in terms of falling in one of four categories is an oversimplification.”  Essentially, the “box score” of test scores that gets published every August lacks meaning and usefulness, but, most importantly, it lacks validity.

Yet, million dollar decisions are made based on those scores, and educators around the state sadly get wrapped around the “test score axle,” compelled to chase higher scores, trapped in a flawed system.

However, there is one thing that the SBAC “box scores” do provide, something that the public has an insatiable appetite for, and that is misleading rankings, sorting, charts, winners/losers, top ten lists, etc.

What we should be outraged and alarmed about is the fact that states are participating in this testing consortium, voluntarily and willingly, spending millions of dollars for meaningless tests, the results of which are purported to gauge student learning and – stunningly – misused to assess teacher competence and school quality, which this test, or any test, simply cannot do.

The misuse of test scores has stained a generation of public education by conflating our goals with our measures and distorting the teaching and learning of millions of children.

CTViewpoints: Has our state become complacent about educational progress and performance?

Scarice: I’m not so certain that our state has become complacent in a sense that we have implemented numerous education reforms since 2012.  However, I am very certain that we have implemented the wrong reforms.  I suspect this is based on the best intentions of some very good people, but also the dark influence of outside money that seeks to privatize and monetize public education through policy at the federal and state legislative levels.

These efforts have resulted in countless mandates, and blunt “one size fits all” policies.  The effect is a growing homogenization across school districts.  As a result, efforts to innovate in districts require swimming upstream, essentially fighting the currents that make very different districts all “do” the same with very different populations, challenges, and contexts.  This homogenization chokes out innovation, which is precisely what is needed in schools in this era.

It’s not so much that the state has become complacent; it’s more about inappropriate and often harmful definitions of educational progress and performance.  What constitutes acceptable progress? What is good performance?  From the state’s perspective, both of these answers are embedded in student test scores.  Those scores focus on achievement, but shed little light on actual learning.

What is needed is an unleashing of individual and collective creativity at the school level, and a focus on closing the “opportunity gap,” that is ensuring that every student has access to the richest, broadest curriculum experiences a district has to offer.

Perhaps more importantly, there is a need for a more concerted focus on developing the capacities to thrive as a contributing citizen in a polarized world, and as a member of the global marketplace.  Tests, such as the SBAC, have taken on an unnatural and incalculable role, resulting in a focus on the “wrong work”.  Rather than complacent, and however well-intended, I would say the policies of the state are myopic and misguided.

CTViewpoints: Can you identify one such “dark influence” of outside money in Connecticut?

This past year in Connecticut, a House Bill, HB 5551, which was voted down, would have had the resulting affect of removing the decision-making authority of local school boards and transferring that authority for an undesignated amount of time to the Commissioner of Education for the bottom 5 percent of schools based on the state school performance index.

This would happen without approval of the locally elected board of education and would put untold power in the hands of un-elected bureaucrats. You would have to look long and hard, anywhere in the nation, to find a complete state takeover of a school system that ended well.

Perhaps I’m being a cynic, but I believe that this type of erosion of local control creates the conditions for privatization. In other states with similar state takeover laws, privately run charter schools have filled that void. Fortunately, the bill failed.

Similarly, a couple of years ago an effort to take over the Bridgeport Public School system, an effort which was ruled illegal by the Connecticut Supreme Court, was funded, in part, by outside contributions from billionaires, such as former NY Mayor, Michael Bloomberg who contributed $20,000 to the takeover cause.

This is an example of where the influence of outside money is most evident in Connecticut at this point in time. In these matters we mostly see lobbying and campaign contributions at the state and local levels, such as the ones which sought to pass HB 5551 and the takeover of the Bridgeport Public School system.

Some of these same groups that lobby and contribute to campaigns have also openly advocated for “money follows the child” school funding legislation, which is a direct frontal attack on the funding of public education. Even further, most recently the CT Mirror reported on two national and regional charter school groups that created political action committees in Connecticut in an attempt to influence upwards of 10 Democratic primaries for seats in the General Assembly. These instances pose the threat of creating a blind spot for the democratic process or incorporating the views of constituents.

On a more concrete level, millions of dollars are transferred from federal, state and local education budgets to not only fund high stakes standardized tests (which account for only about 1 percent of all education funding, but also for all of the preparation materials for students, training for teachers, and the wasted countless work hours for faculty either preparing for, or responding to high stakes testing.

From a national perspective, the influence of “big philanthropy” is most evident at the federal level. Recently, Megan E. Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor of public policy at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, wrote an interesting book (Policy Patrons) that exposes the vast power and influence of four major foundations in education-reform policy in recent years, namely, The Gates Foundation, The Broad Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and The Kellogg Foundation.

As a result, unparalleled influence of federal education policy by these foundations marked the past 8 or so years as evidenced by some of the signature Gates Foundation initiatives. Many of the practitioners at the local level are unaware of these maneuvers and schemes, particularly how they trickle down to the local level. The long term threat is a creeping influence of segments of government, i.e. public school policy, by an elite of group of technical experts through “big philanthropy”.

CTViewpoints: Compared to other countries, are we preparing our students for success in the global community?

Scarice: International test scores do not forecast future economic prosperity.  They never have.  This is due to the fact that these tests simply do not measure the qualities that give America its competitive advantage.  As a whole, over the past four decades, our country has not performed well on international assessments.  Yet, during that same time period we remained an economic power.  Once again, fool’s gold.

The real question is, in preparation for success in the global community, are we providing each and every student, from all backgrounds and communities, equal opportunities to develop the capacities that will enable them to flourish, giving them decisive life advantages by doing the academic work that matters most — using academic content to develop analytical/evaluative thinking, to be able to accurately frame a non-standard problem and develop innovative solutions, to communicate with a unique voice to an authentic audience, to be self-directed and reflective.

These capacities, and others, will enable students to make a meaningful contribution to an ever-changing, complex, and fragile world.  These qualities, among others, are part of what define America’s economic advantage.

The SBAC gives false assertions with claims of a student’s readiness for college and career.  There is simply no evidence that this test can make such claims.

(Other nations send their education officials to the U.S. to understand how we enable our students to become problem identifiers and solvers, how we teach perseverance and collaboration, and how students learn about entrepreneurship.)

CTViewpoints: SAT scores, meanwhile, show that one third of the state’s high school juniors are not reading and writing well enough to begin taking college courses or start a career. An even larger percentage of minority and low-income students are behind. What does this portend for the prosperity and health of our state and nation? Has it always been this way or have we slipped in our standing as a competitive society?

Scarice: Once again, a myth built around a test.

There is limited evidence to indicate that scores on the SAT are related to college and career readiness.  Former Dean of Admissions for Bates College, William Hiss, led a study a few years back and demonstrated that the SAT is poorly suited to make such claims. In fact, his findings determined that high school GPA is most predictive in projecting future college performance, not the SAT.

According to Hiss, “The human mind is simply so complex and so multifaceted and fluid, that trying to find a single measurement tool that will be reliable across the enormous populations of American students is simply a trip up a blind alley.”  And I would add that is the case with all high stakes standardized tests, including the SBAC, much to the chagrin of those who crave oversimplification.

CTViewpoints: Assuming our students are not getting enough of it as the test suggests, what kind of education and training should our schools be providing to make our children competitive in a global economy and changing world? What skills must we develop in them that we are not developing in them enough now? How do we teach them to be innovative and able to adapt to a changing world? How do we create a system that encourages educational innovation and flexibility?

Scarice: We don’t know what tomorrow’s jobs will be, but we do know that they will require critical thinking, creative thinking, non-standard, complex problem solving (and problem identifying, too), collaboration, communication, perseverance and a range of other dispositions that schools acknowledge as important but rarely address directly.   There is a significant disconnection between what we say we value, what we actually assess, and what we actually do in classrooms.

What do we know?  We do know that automation, artificial intelligence, and big data will continue to disrupt the global marketplace, displacing workers and jobs at a faster and faster pace.  Might Uber become the dominant employment model in the future?  Might the droid become the preferred surgeon?  Might robots outnumber humans in jobs that involve frequent, high volume tasks?  Perhaps.

But, if one of our goals is to prepare students for this type of future employment, we must fasten our focus on the jobs that machines cannot perform.  One area where machines will always fall short of human performance is in any job that requires tackling novel situations.  Therefore, we must use academic content to develop specific classroom tasks across math, science, language arts, etc. that require students to apply their learning to a novel, even perhaps real world, situation.

This type of teaching and assessing will give us more valuable information than any test, such as the SBAC.  Furthermore, if education policy were loosened to celebrate and encourage such innovations, educators across the state might collectively crowdsource the “right work.”

A system that encourages innovation is one that is focused on the continuous improvement of methods on a moment-by-moment basis.  The current system of testing uses an autopsy of last year’s performance with no regard for methods, that is, how a level of performance was attained.  It is exclusively outcome-based, namely test scores.  Yet, education is a mission-based endeavor; it cannot be defined solely by outcome measures (i.e. test scores).

It is a process that achieves its broad, ultimate purpose over time, not in discrete metrics (i.e. test scores), or in predetermined time frames (i.e. annual testing).  However, because education is a massive public investment, educators are challenged to “prove” it is working.  This challenge is similar to “proving” a non-profit is successful.

In mission-based organizations, there is simply no singular bottom line to answer that question, and a focus on a bogus and fallacious bottom line will distort the mission.  I believe quality is best achieved by balanced accountability across inputs and outputs, but more importantly by focusing on quality at every level of inputs into the system, rather than annual inspection, or even worse, management by narrow objectives.

CTViewpoints: Does our educational system have a concept of what it is training our children for? To what extent, if at all, is our system trying to anticipate future challenges and give students the tools to meet them? There is lots of interest in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Is that the right focus?

Scarice: See above.

Right now, whether we are aware or not, we are largely training our students to take tests.  And, we’re failing at that – SAT scores have remained largely static, U.S. performance on the international PISA exams has declined, and over the past decade or so, the achievement gap has actually widened as tests have become more dominant.

The focus on test preparation inevitably leads to part-to-whole teaching: feeding students bits of information that are likely to be on tests and hoping that the students are able to piece the parts together into wholes that make sense to them. However, most people learn much more efficiently whole-to-part: seeing and understanding wholes, and then making sense of their parts.  This is how all of the STEM components are best learned, but, largely not how they are taught.

CTViewpoints: If excessive testing is bleeding off our education system’s ability to prepare our children for a rewarding future and prosperous society, what better ways are there to evaluate student, teacher and district performance? Why is our system so interested in testing?

Scarice: Used in conjunction with numerous measures, tests are of great value to educators.  The distortion and misuse of tests has grown like a cancer in education for nearly two decades.

There is a difference between data, which is largely numerical, and evidence, which is something else, and is much more complex to capture and understand.  Tests produce data.  However, understanding what constitutes evidence of student learning, teacher performance, and school quality is much more complex.

Evidence, rather than oversimplified data, is broader and represents a body of available information.  Evidence is not amenable to cross-district comparisons.  Consequently, since evidence does not satisfy the public’s insatiable appetite for rankings, sorting, charts, winners/losers, top ten lists, etc., it is not highly valued.  However, evidence, not oversimplified data, is the key to improvement.

What do you think?

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