"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Children, Parents, and Teachers Pushed to the Bottom in "Race to the Top"

From Tennessee to New York: Welcome Back to School--You Fail!
Jim Horn

When Tennessee children left school in early June, the majority of them were proficient in reading and math.  When they return to school later this month, most of that majority of children will not be proficient or even close to it.  From Saturday's The Commercial Appeal:

Friday, the State Board of Education passed new "cut" scores for the state tests, retooled last year to match more rigorous curriculum and standards the state began adopting in 2007.

Based on the new scores, more than 52 percent of third-graders flunked math in the just-finished school year.

And the news gets worse with each grade. In grade six, for instance, nearly 70 percent flunked math; in grade eight, 75 percent failed.

Reading in most grades was slightly better, with the failure rate at 52 percent for fifth-graders and moving up to 57 percent for eighth-graders.

"I think that everyone in the room fully realized that tough work lies ahead and that there would ultimately be real consequences for students, our districts and our state," said Memphian Teresa Sloyan, a member of the State Board of Education.

"For the first time we will know where our children are in terms of their academic preparedness."

In the test taken in the spring of 2009, 91 percent of Tennessee students scored advanced or proficient. . . .

So the new mass failure, thank goodness, doesn’t have anything to do with all the video games or hours of TV watching that filled students’ time this summer.  For the majority of children to become failures overnight, it took coordination from a set of policy recommendations by Achieve, Inc. (the education arm of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce’s Business Roundtable), a lame duck governor, Phil Bredesen, who sits as Co-Chair of Achieve, Inc., and a Tennessee State Board of Education willing to toe the line of the corporate education reformers who now run the U. S. Department of Education, which paid out $500 million to Tennessee last spring in the Race to the Top.  In short, it is time for Tennessee school children, parents, and teachers to suffer the consequences of Tennessee’s acceptance of the RTTT money and corporate governance of schools.

This most recent “standard setting process,” then, that culminated July 30 with the establishment of new cut scores, or passing scores, for TCAP will, no doubt, cause much confusion and not a small amount of anxiety and heartbreak for children and their parents.  The confusion and misinformation can already be seen in one of the first editorials on the subject in The Commercial Appeal:

Huge drops in scores are predicted as the questions get harder in an effort to match tests administered to students in the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP].

The truth of the matter is that there are no tougher or harder questions responsible for the testing sledgehammer that has just come down.  The failure fever that will set in over the next few weeks as parents learn of the new “standard setting” by the State comes, in fact, from moving back the goalposts after the ball has been kicked.  (The same thing happened Friday, by the way, in New York).  The students who would have split the uprights under the TCAP rules last Spring when they took the test will now see their effort fall way short of the goalposts, which have suddenly been moved as a result of the new cut scores just established while the ball was still in the air.

According to the State Board of Education’s “independent” expert hired to oversee the “standard setting” process, Dr. Wayne Camara, who, by the way, sits on the Board of Directors for the Association of Test Publishers, the new cut scores were greatly influenced by consideration of external data from NAEP and ACT, even though panelists were instructed NOT to use NAEP or ACT as evidence in establishing cut scores for the TCAP.  NAEP and ACT were to inform but not influence.  It is as if a judge were to allow a load of evidence he knew to be prejudicial ahead of time, while telling the jury to disregard it in arriving at a verdict.

Now if Goldilocks would have found Tennessee’s former TCAP surely too soft prior to the most recent “standard setting” by the State, there is no doubt that she would find the new NAEP-influenced TCAP much too hard.  For the cut scores for NAEP, which have shaped by the Tennessee jury’s verdict despite the complicit judge’s instruction to the contrary, have been failing the Goldilocks test on the hard side for a long, long time, as leading academics and psychometricians found in 1991, when they were hired by the governing board of NAEP (NAGB) to make recommendations about NAEP’s own “standard setting” process. From a 2008 article in The School Administrator by Gerald Bracey:

The governing board hired a team of three well-known evaluators and psychometricians to evaluate the process — Daniel Stufflebeam of Western Michigan University, Richard Jaeger of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Michael Scriven of NOVA Southeastern University. The team delivered its final report on Aug. 23, 1991. This process does not work, the team averred, saying: "[T]he technical difficulties are extremely serious … these standards and the results obtained from them should under no circumstances be used as a baseline or benchmark … the procedures used in the exercise should under no circumstances be used as a model."

NAGB, led by Chester E. Finn Jr., summarily fired the team, or at least tried to. Because the researchers already had delivered the final report, the contract required payment.

The inappropriate use of these levels continues today. The achievement levels have been rejected by the Government Accountability Office, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education, the Center for Research in Evaluation, Student Standards and Testing and the Brookings Institution, as well as by individual psychometricians.

I have repeatedly observed that the NAEP results do not mesh with those from international comparisons. In the 1995 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, assessment, American 4th graders finished third among 26 participating nations in science, but the NAEP science results from the same year stated that only 31 percent of them were proficient or better.

If anyone from Pearson, Inc. or Achieve, Inc., the two outfits now running education in Tennessee, had bothered to ask either the scientific or academic community about using NAEP as inspiration“NOT” for TCAP’s new cut scores, they would have been told to steer clear.  Did I mention that Dr. Camara notes in his report that there were no representatives from higher education and no college faculty included as part of Tennessee’s recent “standard setting” process?  Seems that could have been important input to add to Achieve’s panel, since one primary purpose for the new cut scores is purportedly to better prepare Tennessee student for college.   But I digress.

Achieve, Inc. and Pearson, Inc. didn’t even have to ask a scientist or a professor. NAEP, in fact, includes its own warning sign to users at its website:

The National Assessment Governing Board, as directed by the NAEP legislation, has been developing achievement levels for NAEP since 1990. A broadly representative panel of teachers, education specialists, and members of the general public help define and review achievement levels. As provided by law, the achievement levels are to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted and used with caution.

If you click on the link just above, “used on a trial basis,” you will get the text described here by Bracey (2005):

Even the NAEP reports themselves contain a disclaimer quoting from the NAS study: "NAEP's current achievement level setting procedures remain fundamentally flawed. The judgment tasks are difficult and confusing; raters' judgments of different item types are internally inconsistent; appropriate validity evidence for the cut scores is lacking; and the process has produced unreasonable results."

Fundamentally flawed? Judgments inconsistent? Validity evidence lacking?

Can you imagine the howls of outrage that would greet ETS or CTB/McGraw-Hill [or Pearson, who now has the Tennessee contract] if they dared bring to market an instrument with such basic failures? So why are we still using the achievement levels? The official story from the U. S. Department of Education is that "a proven alternative to the current process has not yet been identified." That was written in 1998. One would think that a Department as obsessed with applying "scientifically based research" as the current one would have screamed in horror at the flawed achievement levels and rushed to fix them.

The truth is, though, neither the Department nor anyone else is trying to develop a "proven alternative." Indeed, many observers believe that the NAEP achievement levels, created by the National Assessment Governing Board under its then-president Chester Finn, were deliberately set too high in order to sustain the sense of crisis created by 1983's "A Nation At Risk." There is no rush to develop new achievement level setting procedures because much political hay can be made by alleging that American students are performing poorly.

Conspiracy theory, you say.  Bah humbug, etc. Not quite. Again, from Bracey (2008), who cites a study done by Gary Phillips that examined how well top-testing students from other countries would do if they had to sit for the NAEP:

Phillips, now at the American Institutes for Research, had asked: “If students in other nations sat for NAEP assessments in reading, mathematics and science, how many of them would be proficient?”

Because we have scores for American students on NAEP and TIMSS and scores for students in other countries on TIMSS, it is possible to estimate the performance of other nations if their students took NAEP assessments.

How many of the 45 countries in TIMSS have a majority of their students proficient in reading? Zero, said Phillips. Sweden, the highest scoring nation, would show about one-third of its students proficient while the United States had 31 percent. In science, only two nations would have a majority of their students labeled proficient or better while six countries would cross that threshold in mathematics.

So why, then, did the U. S. Department of Education and the Gates-Broad acolytes who run it find such comfort in Tennessee’s plan to drastically increase its numbers of failing schools? So much so that they would cough up $500 million in RTTT funds?

Well, think about it.  Whose interests are served in expanding failure on a grand scale?  Could it be the charter school CEOs of the CMOs and the EMOs will have years more of school turnaround opportunities?  Will lower scores benefit the corporate enemies of the teaching profession like Gates and Broad and the Business Roundtable, especially since job security and pay in Tennessee, thanks to the RTTT deal, are now to be determined significantly by test scores?  Will standardized testing remain the reason we have schools for another generation of children who, meanwhile, become less capable of thinking as a result? Will the general public remain distracted by the continuing "failure" of schools while the oligarchy continues to ship our jobs and wealth abroad? As Bracey notes at the end of a 2007 op-ed at WaPo, “A Test Everyone Will Fail,”

If the fear-mongers can scare you sufficiently (how many times have you heard the phrase "failing schools" in the past five years?), you might permit them to do to your public schools things you would otherwise never allow.

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