In a welcome move, PA House Education Chairs (Rep Stan Saylor and Rep James Roebuck) held a hearing yesterday to collect input from educators, administrators and school board members before looking at proposed legislation to curtail the numerous problems and onerous burden on students, professional staffs and district budgets.
The testimony was well received. About the only item not enumerated was the true cost of the high stakes tests as PDE placed the cost at roughly $30 Million. That figure is only the cost to the Commonwealth, while the cost to school districts to comply with the mandates is much higher. Centennial School District spends $675,000/year while School District of Philadelphia puts the cost at $65,000,000. As 2014 came to a close, Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution 17-0 requesting SDoP to “Opt Out” of high stakes tests.
Rep Bernie O’Neill (a former Special Education teacher from Centennial SD) was the first to target a major flaw by asking why a special needs student who never took Algebra should be required to pass the Algebra Keystone Exam as a prerequisite for Graduation from high school.
State Board of Education Chair, Larry Wittig, insisted students will not put any effort into the tests if they do not remain mandatory. Rep Mike Carroll countered on a personal level by expressing the belief his daughter would still do her best just to please her parents. (Thank you, Rep Carroll. That is what my children did before there were Keystone Exams.)
Of course, most relevant to me was the testimony representing school districts. Dr Jack Silva, Assistant Superintendent of Bethlehem Area SD opened that panel by recounting the impracticality of the tests, overload on the district, distraction from teaching and identified ways where the tests don’t measure up to the student’s goals. Owen J Roberts School Director, Bill LaCoff carried that theme forward by identifying (hour by hour) the time devoted to testing in his district, ultimately illustrating how the test(s) to advance from 8th grade outweighed the duration of the test to become a lawyer. Ultimately, Stephen Kunkel (Palisades School Director), placed it all in a metaphor suggesting we devote too much time and money to culling out the bad apples when we should be investing in growing better apples. (click on names to read full testimony)
I also submitted testimony (below) as I did in Philadelphia (see “Testimony” tab). Bottom line, especially when we are sitting with no budget in sight and a funding formula in limbo (because there is no money to prime the pump), here is an area where we could save $500 Million annually by spending it where our system of Public Education needs it most.
Written Testimony of Mark B Miller submitted to House Education Committee, July 29, 2015
Chairman Saylor, Chairman Roebuck and the other Esteemed Members and Staff of the House Education Committee, thank you for the invitation to submit testimony on this important topic. While I have listed my credentials as background for my standing to speak to the subject of assessment, I want to be clear that I am speaking individually, as a member of Centennial School District Board of School Directors, Director of the Network for Public Education and Co-Chair of Keystone State Education Coalition.
Historically, Network for Public Education initiated a call for Congressional Hearings on High Stakes Standardized Tests upon the close of NPE’s 2014 Annual Conference in Austin TX, where my KeySEC colleague, Lawrence A Feinberg and I were part of the panel “Testing to the Limit”. Fast forwarding to the present, those hearings were held during the intervening time and two weeks ago, the US Senate took a major step forward in leaving behind “No Child Left Behind” by a vote of 81-17.
I commend Chairs Saylor and Roebuck for being proactive in calling for information at this time, as the significant consequence of the Federal Government adopting a posture of “laissez faire”, assessment of student achievement will fall back to the state. I have no doubt the Gates, Walton, Koch and Devos disciples will not give up on their efforts to influence states to pick up their ball, leaving this Commonwealth with the potential to play a pivotal role as a leader in shaping what other states may follow in establishing reasonable assessment criteria.
Accordingly, I will share what NPE has observed at the national level and relate how it does or may apply to Pennsylvania. Starting with No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, which mandated standardized testing of every student in grades three through eight, many states rolled out testing in additional grades. This emphasis on testing increased under policies of the Obama administration, such as Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers, which tie test scores to teacher and principal evaluation, school “turnarounds” and closures. This created an environment where the danger grew to the extent tests now seem to have become the purpose of education, rather than a measure of education.
Testing is NOT teaching.
The tests were initiated to measure whether schools were delivering an education of high quality to every child. It makes sense to determine whether all students are achieving at a minimum level of proficiency in English and math, and standardized tests can help discern whether they are.
A natural concern is that high-stakes testing in public schools has led to multiple unintended consequences that warrant federal scrutiny, including the following questions, among others. As this committee moves forward, I am providing a series of questions to consider when crafting legislation for the nearly two million students in the Commonwealth.
Do the tests promote skills our children and our economy need? The most popular form of tests today are multiple-choice because they are easy and cheap to grade. But many educators and parents worry that teaching children how to take these tests doesn’t teach them how to think. The new standardized exams from the multi-state testing consortia do not appear to be significantly better, and will likely be scored by computers, which cannot gauge higher order thinking.. The challenges of the future and our nation’s economic success require the ability to solve and identify new problems, think creatively, and work collaboratively with others.
What is the purpose of these tests? Assessments should be used as diagnostic tools, to help teachers figure out where students are in their learning. But in most states, teachers are forbidden to see the actual test questions or provide feedback to students. Teachers do not see how their students answered specific test items and learn nothing about how their students are doing, other than a single score, which may arrive long after the student has left their classrooms. Thus, the tests have no diagnostic value for teachers or students, who do not have the opportunity to review and learn the material they got wrong.
How good are the tests? Problems with the actual content of tests have been extensively documented. There are numerous instances of flawed questions and design, including no right answer, more than one right answer, wording that is unclear or misleading, reading passages or problems that are developmentally inappropriate or contain product placements, test questions on material never taught, and items that border on bizarre, such as a famous example that asked students to read a passage about a race between a pineapple and a hare. Tests are not scientific instruments like barometers; they are commercial products that are subject to multiple errors.
Are tests being given to children who are too young? In many states, high-stakes standardized tests are required for even the youngest school children. In Chicago, for instance, Kindergarten students face four standardized tests two or three times a year and can spend up to a third of their time taking tests. Children of this age typically do not know how to read or even hold a pencil or use a keyboard. Subjecting 5-year-olds to a timed test is not only hopeless from a practical standpoint, but subject children to undue stress.
Are tests harmful to students with disabilities? Over the past few years, there have been numerous instances in which children with significant health situations, even undergoing life-saving procedures, were pressured to complete required tests – even from their hospital beds. Children with severe brain disorders have been compelled to take a state test. Recently in Florida, an eleven-your-old boy who was dying in hospice was expected to take a test. Such behavior defies common sense and common decency.
Are tests culturally biased? Every standardized test in the world is an accurate reflection of socioeconomic advantage and disadvantage. Thus, students from racial and ethnic-minorities, students with disabilities, and students of lower socioeconomic status tend to have lower scores than their more advantaged peers. Further, test results are often used as rationales for closing schools that serve low-income communities of color.
How has the frequency and quantity of testing increased? Testing is taking significant time away from instructional learning time. In Chicago, elementary school students take the REACH, the TRC, the MAP, the EXPLORE, the ISAT, and DIBELS every year. In North Carolina, third-grade students are tested in reading 36 times throughout the year – in addition to other standardized tests. Middle schools students in Pennsylvania may take over 20 standardized tests in a single school year. High school students in Florida can have their instruction disrupted 65 times out of 180 school days by testing. In New York, the time taken by state exams has increased by 128%. When so much time is devoted to testing instead of teaching, students have less time to learn. (Again, testing is NOT teaching.)
What do the tests actually measure? Where tests are used to evaluate teachers instead of their students, the likelihood is for these tests to reflect rote learning rather than knowledge base or critical thinking. A negative result of Common Core and Teach for America type concepts has been to squeeze out many foundations provided in the past simply because they could not be adequately measured. No test can replace a fully trained, skilled and experienced teacher in a classroom when it comes to evaluating an individual student and mapping a plan for that student’s education.
Does testing harm teaching? Now that test scores are linked to principal and teacher evaluations in many states, teachers engage in more test prep because they are pressured and afraid, not because they think the assessments are educationally sound. Principals are nervous about their school’s scores. Many educators have admitted they are fearful of taking students on field trips, engaging them in independent projects, or spending time on untested subjects like science or history, art or music because it might take time away from test prep. As a result, the curriculum has narrowed and students have lost their opportunity for a well-rounded education.
How much money does it cost? It is difficult to calculate the entire costs of standardized testing – including the many classroom hours spent on test prep. But it is well known that nearly every state is spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to develop more high-stakes tests for students, and requiring local districts to spend hundreds of millions more to get their students ready to take them. In addition to the cost of the tests and the interim tests, there are added costs of new curriculum, textbooks, hardware, software, and bandwidth that new tests require. There are also opportunity costs when money allocated for testing supersedes other education expenditures, such as libraries, art and music programs, social workers and guidance counselors, and extra-curricular activities.
Are there conflicts of interest in testing policies? In many states, a company that has a multi-million dollar contract to create tests for the state is also the same company that profits from producing curriculum and test prep materials. In some states, a single testing company has been able to win a contract worth many millions of dollars by lobbying and engaging in backdoor influencing of public officials. In other states, school districts buy textbooks from the same company that makes the tests so their students have an advantage on the tests. I would be remiss at this point if I did not interject where we might be in the budget process if we could take the money paid to Data Recognition Corp since the Rendell Administration were applied to closing our budget gap.
Was it legal for the U.S. Department of Education to fund two testing consortia for the Common Core State Standards? According to federal law and regulations, the U.S. Department of education is not allowed to supervise, direct, or control curriculum or instruction. Yet the funding of testing consortia directly intervenes in the curriculum or instruction of almost every public school in the nation, as the tests will determine what is taught and how it is taught. Pennsylvania should learn from this lesson at the national level.
Our state constitution guarantees every student a fully funded, free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Every child is entitled to a full curriculum in a school with adequate resources. We should be deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future.
In conclusion, the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests is in fact harmful to students. I urge you to consider the foregoing as this committee looks to assess Pennsylvania’s policy on Standardized testing of students.
Appendix I – Standardized Testing and the Achievement Gap… Dozens of scholarly articles exist on the internet and in print that traverse beyond measurement to suggest High Stakes Testing may even contribute to the achievement gap by leading to increased dropout rates, reduced graduation rates and feeding the “school to prison pipeline”. A report by the Rand Corporation from earlier this month explores the economic losses attributable to the Achievement Gap in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is worthwhile reading.
RAND CORPORATION JULY 13, 2015 REPORT (reprinted with permission)
This study documents the magnitude of the gaps in student performance for public school students in Pennsylvania and estimates the economic consequences of those education performance gaps. Although Pennsylvania is one of the top-scoring states on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) on average, the achievement gaps between students classified by race-ethnicity, economic status, and parent education are among the largest in the country. For eighth-grade reading and math, the share of white students in Pennsylvania achieving proficiency or above exceeds the share for African-American and Latino students by as much as 24 to 38 percentage points, depending on the assessment and subject. There are equally large differences in student achievement based on family economic status and parent education, as well as sizeable gaps in performance across school districts. If race-ethnic or socioeconomic achievement gaps were eliminated, average achievement scores for Pennsylvania would match Massachusetts’ result (the top-scoring state on the NAEP) and likely place the state among the top-scoring countries internationally. The study applies several methods to value the cost of existing gaps in terms of current economic performance and to value the benefits that would accrue in the future from closing current gaps. Notably, race-ethnic academic achievement gaps amount to an estimated annual cost of $1 billion to $3 billion in lost earnings, which equates to 6 to 15 percent of the earnings for African-American and Latino workers. If student performance gaps based on race-ethnicity or family economic status were closed for future cohorts, each annual cohort in Pennsylvania would gain $3 billion to $5 billion in present-value lifetime compensation and nonmarket benefits. These social gains from closing race-ethnic gaps equate to approximately $83,000 to $125,000 in present-value dollars per African-American and Latino student.
Size of Academic Performance Gaps in Pennsylvania
- There are sharp race-ethnic differences in Pennsylvania student achievement in eighth-grade reading and math: The share of white students achieving proficiency or above exceeds the share for African-American and Latino students by as much as 24 to 38 percentage points.
- There are equally large differences in student achievement based on family economic status, with gaps in the proficiency rate of 20 to 26 percentage points between students classified as economically disadvantaged (about 40 percent of eighth graders statewide) and those that are not (the remaining 60 percent).
- The gaps in the high school graduation rate among Pennsylvania students are sizeable as well, reaching 17 to 19 percentage points by race-ethnicity and 14 percentage points by family economic status.
- There are also large differences in student achievement based on parent education and wide gaps in performance across school districts.
- Although Pennsylvania is one of the top-scoring states on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) on average, the achievement gaps between students classified by race-ethnicity, economic status, and parent education are among the largest in the country.
- If race-ethnic or socioeconomic achievement gaps were eliminated, average achievement scores for Pennsylvania would match Massachusetts’ result (the top-scoring state on the NAEP) and likely place the state among the top scoring-countries internationally.
Economic Impact of Academic Performance Gaps in Pennsylvania
- When subgroups of students do not achieve their full potential in terms of cognitive skills or educational attainment, there is a loss in the aggregate skill or human capital of the workforce and a corresponding shortfall in gross domestic product (GDP). Economic models based on endogenous growth theory posit that skill upgrading will boost GDP growth, with gains that compound over time.
- For the current workforce, race-ethnic academic achievement gaps amount to an estimated annual cost of $1 billion to $3 billion in lost earnings, which equates to 6 to 15 percent of the earnings for African-American and Latino workers.
- If race-ethnic academic achievement gaps had been closed in 2003, the base year, Pennsylvania GDP would have been higher one year later by $1 billion to $2 billion, or 0.2 to 0.4 percent of actual GDP in that year. Ten years after the base year, with the compounded effect on GDP growth, GDP would have been higher in 2013 by $12 billion to $27 billion, or 2 to 4 percent of the value of economic output in that year.
- If student performance gaps based on race-ethnicity or family economic status were closed for future cohorts, each annual cohort in Pennsylvania would gain $3 billion to $5 billion in present-value lifetime compensation and nonmarket benefits. These social gains from closing race-ethnic gaps equate to approximately $83,000 to $125,000 in present-value dollars per African-American and Latino student.