ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit 2011, Washington,DC  (Photo by  DOE PHOTO/Ken Shipp)
ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit 2011, Washington,DC (Photo by DOE PHOTO/Ken Shipp)

The conviction of the Senate that they HAD to pass SB1177 Every Child Achieves Act has been hard to understand. Grassroot groups like Eagle Forum and the American Principles Project have been lobbying them to remove the federally mandated testing, the sections that give the USDoED final approval of state education plans and the expanded collection of individual student data. Out of one side of his mouth, Senate HELP Committee Chairman Senator Alexander has agreed. “I trust the state much more than Washington,” he said. “The path to real accountability is not through Washington, D.C., it’s through the states.” But from the other side of his mouth come statements like this.

“These important measures of student achievement [assessments] need to be reported publicly so parents can know how their child is performing. It is important the results be disaggregated so we know if any particular group of students is being ignored or left behind. It can also help teachers support students who are struggling to meet State standards.”

Each one is its own contradiction and a contradiction to his earlier statement about who should control the process. If it is only parents who need to know how their child is doing, then there is no need to publicly report results, and certainly no need to send those individual student results to DC. For the people in DC to believe that they can tell from a set of semi aggregated scores on a test of reading ability whether some subgroup is being systematically “left behind” is an absurdity and again says that they don’t trust the state to look at those numbers and figure out what is going on.  The last statement is the most ludicrous of all. No teacher believes that standardized tests offer them unique insight  or support for the educational needs of any particular child. That statement is just a sprinkle Alexander threw in on top of his sundae of pablum to make him sound like he cares about teachers and little children.

In order to make sense of why the Senate and the House have been so in favor of the the ECAA (Senate) and Student Success Act (House) which promise local control in some sections and completely strip it out in others, you merely have to look at the statement of the US Chamber of Commerce covered in TheHill.com

In looking at the federal money allocated to education the USCOC said, “no taxpayer wants to see this investment wasted.  When federal dollars are being spent, it’s entirely appropriate to demand results for the investment.”

Its one thing to say we don’t want to see money spent on roads producing crappy roads because it was not spent well. That refers to macadam. But the results they are “demanding” from this money are specifically higher test scores which little children are expected to deliver. The COC also supported NCLB which believed that it was appropriate to demand that every single child perform at grade level.  Sometimes, gentlemen, when a business repeatedly does not meet its sales goal, the business must re-evaluate whether the goal was reasonable rather than risk more disappointing shareholder reports. In the case of NCLB the goal was not reasonable. It seems, however, that business is unwilling to really evaluate whether a similar goal in ECAA and SSA is appropriate.

“…it remains in the national interest for progress to be measured for all students. The results should be released, and parents and taxpayers should be told the truth about our education system,” says John Engler of the Business Roundtable to The Hill. If only that were true.

Imbedded in that statement is the assertion that schools have been hiding their performance, and that the performance is bad. But the reality is that parents have been given test scores since I was in school. District, and in some cases individual school, scores have been available for decades. No one has been hiding these. Nor are they as bad as the USCOC claims. The USCOC is basing their argument on a paper put out by the OECD which claims that higher scores on the PISA test means higher GDP, hence higher test scores are in the national interest.

What is most unfathomable is that the leaders in international business at the USCOC and the Business Roundtable (co-author of the Hill piece) do not recognize a marketing campaign when they see one.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a part of the UN. They produce the PISA test. They want everyone to use their PISA test so they market the heck out of it. They tap into the competitive nature of industry leaders by creating  country rankings for reading, math and science. They engage people like Hanushek and Woessmann to produce reports like The Knowledge Capital of Nations to convince businesses that there is a direct tie in between scores on their test and economic growth which goes through the minds of people at COC and BRT and comes out the other side as “We need better test scores so we can make more money.”  This is utter idiocy.

Yong Zhao has put together a five part series on how test scores and groups like OECD are actually harming our future by making these false causal links and claims of accuracy in their sponsored tests. Numerous analyses of the PISA claims have shown them to have no validity or reliability in predicting national economic output. (If you really like statistics and things like the Rasch Model, you will like Part 3 in his series.)  A Times Education Supplement, written by William Stewart, cited numerous publications and conversations he had with scholars in Denmark, Northern Ireland, and the U.K., as well as with OECD, which pointed out “major technical flaws with PISA’s composition of the tests, administering of the tests, and use of statistical techniques to generate country rankings.”

Researchers Kreiner and Christensen studied the PISA claims in depth and found that the statistical model (Rasch) used by PISA is not robust enough to account for the various factors affecting scores in the subsets. As a result, rankings of countries can vary a great deal over different subsets. Zhao points out that Denmark, for example, can rank anywhere between 5th and 36th out of 56 countries. Kreiner and Christensen concluded, “That means that [PISA] comparisons between countries are meaningless.”

So the USCOC’s insistence that we test kids are based on a marketing tool, oops I mean report, that uses the meaningless claims of PISA that higher scores will mean greater economic growth, to insist that American kids take our unvalidated tests and produce higher scores so America will do better economically. It is absolutely mind boggling that these gentlemen are leaders in business.

They go on to make the usual claims that money is the answer to the problems in education. Their focus seems to be the lowest performing students, “[Both] bills do not do enough to direct funding to schools and students—and groups of students, including minorities and disabled children—that have not met state academic goals.” Again they reference the Hanushek report whose conclusions are not valid for G20 countries, only those countries rising out of third world status, to get the House and Senate to target money to low performing students. Title I has been doing that for decades COC. Do we have any proof that sending in more money has raised their test scores? 

The COC seems to buy into the idea of a magic bullet, some program or plan that can undo generations of poverty and apathy, that can be launched into a school district to turn around not only how well those students do on standardized tests, but also how good they will be as future employees. One need only look at China, which I know the folks at COC do regularly, to understand what a fairytale this belief is.

China has perfected the system to do well on standardized tests. Zhao explains,

“Every class, every teacher, every school is about preparing for the exams. In most schools, the last year of high school is reserved exclusively for test preparation. No new content is taught. All students do, the entire year, is take practice tests and learn test-taking skills. Good schools often help the students exhaust all possible ways specific content might show up in an exam.”

China is successful in their goal. They get the return on the investment they wanted, higher test scores,  but their economy has not flourished as PISA claimed. Zhao describes the disconnect:

“First, national standards and national curriculum—enforced by high stakes testing—can at best teach students what is prescribed by the curriculum and expected by the standards. This system fails to expose students to content and skills in other areas. As a result, students talented in other areas never have the opportunity to discover those talents. Students with broader interests are discouraged, not rewarded. The system results in a population with similar skills in a narrow spectrum of talents. But especially in today’s society, innovation and creativity are needed in many areas, some as yet undiscovered. Innovation and creativity come from cross-fertilization across different disciplines. A narrow educational experience hardly provides children opportunities to examine an issue from multiple disciplines.”

Washington’s focus on the tests, the claim that we parents need them, deserve them, must have our students submit to them, is the wrong goal and the wrong return. Washington is listening to the money men who don’t understand education, and seem to have a tenuous grasp of statistics and marketing as well.

The Chamber uses a decontextualized concept to justify the push for testing and reporting to Washington. They say, “we are simply asking for a law that makes it clear that the billions of dollars the feds send to states measure student academic progress and ensure that additional aid and supports are provided to students and groups of students who need help the most.” 

Those aggregated billions of federal dollars represent only millions of dollars in each state and a  minor portion of  total dollars spent on education. It is demands like these, coming from groups that have the ability to throw major dollars at campaigns, that cause people like  Sen. Alexander to speak with a forked tongue about the ECAA. In order to prove that they have been good investors of the federal dollars, states will have to orient their entire education system towards producing the returns that the federal government wants (higher test scores) rather than what is economically feasible with the finite pool of education money and what is appropriate developmentally for each individual child. And why is it important that the states turn their faces and control over to Washington? Because the US chamber has far more control in DC than they do in each of the states so they want the control to be based in DC too.

The US Chamber Foundation, which provides the best look at what is driving the US Chamber’s efforts on ECAA,  makes this audacious claim,

“…if we can provide all students with these basic skills by 2030, the average gross domestic product (GDP) would be 3.5% higher. Ironically, this is what the U.S. spends on primary and secondary schools annually. So, if we can achieve this goal, the economic benefit would be enough to pay for K-12 schooling for every child in the U.S.” 

 Again, this figure comes from the Hanushek report and does not hold true for G20 countries. Christopher Tienken’s report “Rankings of International Achievement Test Performance and Economic Strength: Correlation or Conjecture?” said, “Research has not shown a linear relationship between the general level of education attainment and a nation’s gross domestic product (Krueger & Lindall, 2001; Lewis, 1964)… In fact countries with already high levels of education attainment see no effect on GDP when the population’s education level increases. The relationship between education and a country’s future economic growth is stronger in nations with lower-performing economies (Krueger 1999).”

Even if we assumed that the USCF statement were true for America, that money goes to private businesses, not the government. If the Chamber really believes so strongly that; there is a magic bullet that is somehow being hidden from or denied to public education that will fix it; that the right amount of funding can root it out and apply it; that test scores will prove to us that the magic bullet is working; and mostly that their advisers are right and ours are wrong, will they commit to turning over that 3.5% increase in GDP 100% to the funding of k-12 education? Will they put their money where their mouth is?

For now they seem content to use their money to influence Washington to leverage a lot more money get what they think they want. Their donations to campaigns, even to individual education programs, pale in comparison to the money handed out by Washington for education, which in turn is a pittance of the total money we spend on education. Their little bit of money is forcing all of us to use all our education dollars to achieve their desired return. Sadly, their strategy is working.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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