Monday, October 20, 2008

Test Score Mania

Once again in August, newspapers around the state and the country decried, "Our Failing Public Schools." This obsession with test scores has been drilled into our perception of schooling in America since A Nation at Risk in 1983. The pervasiveness and extent of this test score psychosis was evident in the last 2008 Presidential Debate between Senators McCain and Obama. Bob Schieffer asked the following question:

"The U. S. spends more per capita that any other country on education. Yet, by every international measurement, in math and science competence, from kindergarten through the 12th grade, we trail most of the countries on the world. The implications of this are clearly obvious. Some even say it poses a threat to our national security. Do feel that way and what do you intend to do about it?"

Outrageous! Print journalists, national media, Schieffer, Obama and McCain should all be challenged vociferously for blindly accepting the basic premise of the question, "by every international measurement-we trail most of the countries of the world." Have we all abandoned our ability to think critically, to be skeptical of such broad assertions that are based solely on test scores? Have we forgotten Mark Twain's common sense about numbers, "Figures don't lie, but liars figure?"

Why are these dire pronouncements about America's test score results accepted to blindly, with no scrutiny, no questions asked, no challenges issued? This is not only true for the media and the general public, it is also true of educators. For decades, educators and their professional organizations have simple cowered and acquiesced to the onslaught of negative rhetoric about our failing schools. Is it just that bad news is more titillating than good news and always carries the day? Or is it that the implied precision of the test score data reported and the complexity of statistical analysis so intimidates us the we're afraid to question?

What kinds of questions and challenges am I referring to?

We need to ask about "by every international measurement" to make sure we are not comparing apples and oranges! Are we certain that these international tests are exactly the same in every country? Are they given in exactly the same way in every country? Are they given to the same exact group of students in every country? Are they scored in the same way in every country?

For example, are these tests different or modified in any way from one country to another? Do we know if students in one country are allowed more time on the test than in other countries, or if they are allowed to use calculators in one country and not another? Are the 4th grade or 8th grade tests given to comparable groups of students in every country or do some countries test older student or separated, "tracked" students? Are rich and poor students included comparably in all countries? Are public and private schools included comparably in all countries? Are the tests scored exactly the same in all countries or do some score by hand and others by computer? Who reports out the scores from each country? Are the scores reported out exactly the same way in each country or do some report the average score of all 13 year olds and while others report the average score of the just the 13 year olds that took the test?

At the very minimum, the same kinds of questions need to be asked about comparative test score date and the test score mania that has resulted from NCLB (No Child Left Behind). I have written and blogged before about my concerns with NCLB before, so I won't cover the same ground here. But there are several questions that need to be asked about NCLB in addition to those already raised about international test score comparisons.

Do we really want the very worth of a child to be summed up in a single score on a single test given on a single day? That's how it feels to that child who is told year after year that he/she failed the test again. Do we really believe that when a single sub-group of students fails a single test section on a single day that the entire school should be reported as failing to make AYP (adequate yearly progress)? Ask football players how fair it would be to compare players from different schools that get to design their own goal posts - and then move them from game to game? That's NCLB!

Have we forgotten the myriad of studies that demonstrate the correlation between SES (socio-economic status) and student achievement? One thing this obsession with testing has clearly identified is an achievement gap between rich and poor. It's no surprise that the achievement gap correlates directly with the income gap between rich and poor in our society?

Do we really believe that public schools should be held accountable - even punished - for an achievement gap they did not create and they cannot close?

Earlier I quoted Mark Twain's "figures don't lie, but liars can figure" adage. Yes, I was suggesting that NCLB and the incessant, accountability pounding our public schools have taken for decades originated from a less than forthright motivation. Here it is!

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Susan Nueman, one of the architects of NCLB,
admitted that some in the Bush Administration wanted to use NCLB to destroy the public educations system and replace it with a privatized system. According to Neuman, others in the Bush Education Department saw NCLB as a "Trojan Horse" for the choice agenda. "There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization," she said. How about comparing what the market forces, privitized and unregulated, have done to our financial system and economy lately? Do we really want our children's education vulnerable to these kinds of excesses?

With hidden agendas like this underlying the political rhetoric of such significant and high-stakes educational policies, shouldn't we be skeptical of the integrity of the data reported out in support of these policies? Couldn't even apparently precise test score data be manipulated for political purposes?

Newman now says she regrets the Administration's use of humiliation and shame as a lever for school reform. "Vilifying teachers and saying we are going to shame them was not the right approach." Neuman recently signed the Economic Policy Institute document entitled, A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, which states that much of the achievement gap between rich and poor, "is rooted in what occurs outside of formal schooling." (Time Magazine, June 8, 2008).

I believe all children can learn! I do not believe that all children can be made, taught, or shamed into getting the same numbers of answers correct on a single test on a single day!

That's the NCLB mandate. Do we really want this concentration on reading and math, to the growing exclusion of science, social studies, the arts, phy ed, and extra-curricular programs? NCLB and this kind of test score mania destroys the morale of kids and teachers, the joy of learning itself. These hidden agendas - unchallenged - will also destroy the public schools, which are the bedrock of our democracy!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Who is Lilly Ledbetter?

After the Wednesday, October 15, last presidential debate between Senators Obama and McCain, one might ask - who is this Lilly Ledbetter anyway? Senator Obama referred to her in the debate discussion about the criteria for presidential nomination of judges to the U. S. Supreme Court.

I first blogged about Lilly Ledbetter on June 13, 2007.

Lilly Ledbetter began work at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in 1979. She retired in November 1998, after earning thousands of dollars less than male colleagues who were doing similar supervisory work. She did not know about the pay difference at the time or when it began. She had no way to learn about it because Goodyear kept salary information confidential.

When Ledbetter finally became aware of the pay discrimination, she filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC and in November 1998, she filed sit in Federal District Court. The jury found in her favor and awarded back pay and damages. Goodyear appealed and the Eleventh District Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision because she had not filed suit within the 180-day timeline in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Ledbetter requested a writ of certiorari and the Supreme Court agreed to hear her case. In May 2007, The Court ruled 5 to 4 against her in Ledbetter v.Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. The five justices in the majority were Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Scalia, and Kennedy - all Republican appointees to the Court. Justice Alito delivered the court opinion, saying that Ledbetter should have sued when the pay decisions were made instead of waiting beyond the 180-day statutory limit.

Justice Ginsburg's dissent from the Court's opinion was joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer and argued against the 180-day limit being applied to pay discrimination. Justice Ginsburg argued that pay discrimination often occurs in small increments over large periods of time and the pay information of fellow workers is typically confidential and unavailable for comparison.

Any wonder why the issue of appointments to the Supreme Court is so critical in this election?

Soon after the Court's decision, the U. S. House of Representatives passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. However, a similar bill in the U. S. Senate, sponsored by Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy and Republican Senator Olympia Snow, is opposed by the Bush Administration and has been effectively blocked by the Republicans in the Senate. They have enough votes to deny backers of the bill the 60 votes needed to bring it to the floor for a vote.

Senator Obama supports the bill; Senators McCain and Coleman are counted among the blockers!