Trusting edu-corporations, inviting disaster

While the world helplessly watches the consequences of BP’s astonishing recklessness and skewed priorities in the Gulf, similar corporate-owned nightmares are playing out in education.
This week, Florida offered the mind-boggling announcement that its testing contractor for the high-stakes, all-important FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) is totally incompetent. NCS Pearson will be six weeks late in delivering test results, meaning that the scores will come after the end of the school year.

Bummer for the students and teachers who focused all year on test-score-related goals. As Broward Schools Superintendent Jim Notter put it: “Think of the angst our kids go through just to sit down to take the test. Now all of a sudden it’s likely that they’re going to be on summer recess before their scores come back.”

Here’s another hand-wringer, with both the state and the contractor responsible:

In order to save money, the state opted to have the writing exams graded by one judge instead of two.

The tests are graded on a 1-6 scale; a 3.5 is needed in order to pass. Graders are only allowed to assign whole numbers. With two graders, the scores would be averaged. Last year, more than a third of students statewide received half-number scores, records show.

But under the new system, with only whole-number scores, results were skewed.

“There is something critically flawed with having a proficiency level that is impossible to attain,” Carvalho said.

The whole number issue is not the only thing that’s critically wrong here. Todd Farley, the renegade test-industry-insider/author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry responded appropriately:

[N]ow decisions about student writing are being made based on the snap decision of only one newly-hired and lowly-paid temporary employee, instead of the  minimum of two that historically used to read the essays… with only one reader, there can be no statistical reliability of any kind regarding these results.  There can only be blind faith in the pure motives of a for-profit company.  Yeah, let’s allow those guys to make decisions about American students, teachers, and schools.

It’s a freak-out-worthy scenario. And remember, this is happening in Florida, the state that came within a hair’s breadth of enacting a law tying teachers’ jobs almost solely to test scores. (An eleventh-hour veto from Gov. Charlie Crist, at just the right moment for his political career, was the only thing stopping NCS Pearson from effectively wielding total control over teachers’ jobs.

The problem is not just in Florida. As Van Jones pointed out on this week’s Real Time with Bill Maher, when you see one cockroach, you know there are a thousand just barely out of sight. Today’s New York Post reports on brazen score inflation in New York State math exams. Carl Campanile and Susan Edelman report:

[S]tudents got “partial credit” for wrong answers after failing to correctly add, subtract, multiply and divide. Some got credit for no answer at all.

“They were giving credit for blatantly wrong things,” said an outraged Brooklyn teacher who was among those hired to score the fourth-grade test.

What a farce. But what’s the way out? We’re addicted to BP’s oil, and we’re addicted to high-stakes testing. In his column today, Jay Mathews sighs: “Test scores will deliver the final verdict [on the success of school reforms], as far as the public is concerned. Tests are flawed measures, but they are pretty much all we have.”

There’s accountability and assessment beyond corporate-controlled high-stakes testing. This year my school implemented “presentations of learning,” an Essential Schools-inspired performance-based assessment. Each student collected evidence of learning from throughout the year and shared it in a 45-minute presentation accompanied by a well-organized binder. It was impossible for a student to fake his way through it. Between a student’s grades, his teachers’ comments, a portfolio of work products, the presentation of learning, and—yes— some test scores, one could see a truly authentic picture of the student’s learning and growth.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Many organizations, with the National Center for Fair and Open Testing as a leader, have been developing quality authentic assessments for years. 

Tests aren’t all we have. Edu-corporations aren’t indispensable.

Let’s wake up from these corporate nightmares and make some changes.

Related categories: ,