Monday, March 9, 2015

Evidence? We don't need no stinking evidence!

(A Facebook friend equates opposition to testing with opposition to Obama's Affordable Care Act. This is my response with input from Brendan Heidenreich)
"Evidence-based decisions" is an odd phrase for a liberal-leaning person to use. It means you willingly accept the instrument used to produce this evidence, for one thing.  Then you choose to accept that evidence, and call it a measure of "achievement." 

It's not legitimate to cite the narrow evidence provided by testing and ignore all the rest, like the daily testimony of thousands of kids kids who tweet the words, "I hate school", and other measures of disengagement and lack of learning in the current system. There are countless examples of young people with interests that are ignored by standardized teaching.

And we might choose to look at the evidence of real accomplishments produced by students in schools where learning is self-directed, such as NorthStar Teens, Open Road, and Sudbury Valley Schools.

You can choose to accept test results as evidence that the children of families living in stressful circumstances are less able to learn. You can believe that the correspondence between poor communities and low test scores means that we have to "teach harder."

Do we need tests to tell us that 75% of the students in RSU 3 are living in some degree of poverty?

I already knew that RSU 3 was poor. I already knew that the students in more middle-class, stable families provided nicer numbers than those living in the instability of poverty. I choose to believe children from such families are equally able to grow intelligence. The problem is poverty, but we as a society have decided to blame the poor for being poor, and teachers for being "unable" to teach them.

What tests bring to the problem seems objective, and our response, being "evidence-based" is to engage in the kind of teaching practices that are geared toward getting a better result. This is called "teaching to the test." It's the only logical, only human way to respond to the evidence.

So for ten years, we have been riding this carousel, and gosh darnit, poor people are still poor and their kids still do badly on tests. And those who support tests will look at this rant and say, "See, liberals don't want to do anything about poor kids!" (see Michelle Rhee

Is testing the only way to find out that kids are poor? And is the only possible response to poverty to be the more forceful pushing of dry, fragmented and tasteless learning tasks, in our panic to show that we're "doing something about poor kids?"

Poverty is by no means the beginning and the end of the problem of testing, but it's one big matzoh ball hanging in the air.

My own administration constantly claims that they most emphatically DO NOT teach to the test. But they do. It's their job. The first question parents still ask when moving to a new area, "what are the test scores of the district?" 

For years during NCLB schools ran scared of the sanctions that would be imposed if they didn't make the annual yearly progress required to be 100% proficient by 2014.

So Maine got a waiver, like other states who were blackmailed into adopting the Common Core, attaching teacher evaluations to test scores (hard cheese if you teach in a poor area) and pass charter school and school choice legislation. Now there are no longer those punishments dangling before us, but we're in the habit of doing what we're told, so we keep teaching to the test. The Governor's Grades, while suspended this year, gave a predictable assessment of how districts are doing, and the Maine DOE still steps in and gives us a whole lot more forms to fill out if we do badly on the test (basically they mandate what "priority schools" must do to get those scores up).

Yes, of course we teach to the test. Just look at the confused faces that look back at me when I say that education needs to be driven by student interests and strengths. WHAT??? What if kids aren't "interested" in learning to read? What if I have to wait on a cashier line and some teenager can't count my right change???? The world is going to hell in a handcart, and you're blowing on the flames!

Of course we teach to the test. We push kids through curriculum aligned to standards and enforced by testing. It's a factory model and what's amazing to me is how long it's been going on, when our only response is to put the hammer down harder on more and more and more learning tasks and churn out more and more disconnected learners.

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