computer testLast week, the Southeast Missourian published a DESE press release extolling the marvels of the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia (SBAC) tests being piloted in selected districts across the state this month.  As a press release it was understandably one sided, so we asked MCACC members to provide a different point of view. Dr. Mary Byrne provided this response which was too long for SEM to print, so we are printing it here.

Response to DESE Announcement of SBAC Field Tests

In Ruth Campbell’s April 18 article (Area pupils take Common Core field tests), Sarah Potter, Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education communications coordinator, describes the Smarter Balanced Tests as part of the Missouri Assessment Program and promotes the actions of DESE hiring American Institutes for Research and CTB/McGraw-Hill as if the “experts” in the department act in an unquestionable manner, and Missourians should presume the Smarter Balanced tests administered this spring to approximately 23,000 students statewide will elevate the level of education in Missouri through state of the art technology. Of course, . . . because everything DESE does is “for the children.” Predictably, in chorus, all of the school administrators and curriculum specialists interviewed (whose district evaluations will be conducted by DESE) reported their district’s readiness to tackle the technology issues that accompany the logistical transition from paper and pencil tests to online tests for grades 3 through 8, and celebrated the advantages of quick turn-around time on test results.

Unfortunately, for SEM readers, Campbell’s reiteration of the “official position” of government workers (after all, that is what school personnel have become) lacks the balance of reporting parents and public school tax payers deserve to make informed decisions about what is happening in their schools. The article fails to mention several questionable practices by the department that should give pause (literally) regarding the legitimacy of the whole plan.

The question about the legitimacy of DESE’s actions and the complicity of the school districts in implementing DESE’s assessment plan begins in attempting to reconcile DESE’s actions with language in the Missouri Outstanding Education Act. In particular, MoRs160.518. 1. states,

. . . the state board of education shall develop a statewide assessment system that provides maximum flexibility for local school districts to determine the degree to which students in the public schools of the state are proficient in the knowledge, skills, and competencies adopted by such board pursuant to subsection 1 of section 160.514.

The language appears to limit the role of the state board by stating the statewide assessment system must be flexible, so as to protect control of local school board to determine a students’ mastery of the standards adopted by the state board. The conundrum is, can an online test created by a test corporation for a consortium of states administered online meet the specifications of the law?

There are other questions.

For example, Commissioner Nicastro signed a memorandum of agreement with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium on April 14, 2010 to make Missouri a governing member of the SBAC consortium with no test items to review, no technical adequacy data (validity and reliability), and no cost analysis. That is, she had no idea of the quality of the test – it hadn’t been written. Further, the legislature still does not have a cost analysis of the entire assessment plan. To date, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium has been fully funded by stimulus dollars (that’s right, money borrowed from China); however, as of September of this year, the governing states must approve a financial plan that will “ensure the Consortium is efficient, effective, and sustainable. The plan will include as revenue at a minimum, State contributions . . ..” In January, a school district in New Hampshire released a response to the early administration of the SBAC – the test Missouri students are taking now. The teachers of Nashua Middle School said, “. . . the Smarter Balance Test is inappropriate for our students . . . the results from this test will not measure the academic achievement of our students; but will be a test of computer skills and students’ abilities to endure through a cumbersome task.” Has Commissioner Nicastro committed Missouri to pouring money into a bottomless pit for tests of poor quality and planned to hand the bill to the legislature after the stimulus funds dry up? What happens if, as states exit the consortium, the remaining governing states cannot commit the millions of dollars needed to continue the consortium?

Validity and reliability data are required for test reviewers and purchasers to determine whether the product under consideration tests what it says it tests (validity), and does it consistently (reliability). What is concerning is, the SBAC is promoted as a “new generation of test.” What readers need to know is that before their hard earned dollars are committed to the purchase of a multi-million dollars assessment plan, the tests purchased and administered to Missouri students are worth the money and will actually help improve learning. We did not get any such assurances before we were told we had to totally abandon what we were doing for the “great experiment.”

Oh, yes! This whole common core state standards and aligned assessments is a great experiment, despite, president of the State Board of Education, Peter Herschend’s, denial before the senate education committee in early April. Insiders closer to the private development of the standards over many years have out rightly said as much. Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; Michael Cohen, President of Achieve Inc,; and, Bill Gates, founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have all admitted, they won’t really know how all this education reform called the Common Core State Standards Initiative effects student learning for “probably a decade.” Thanks for that, gentlemen. Are you the role models of leadership, requiring that you do unto yourself what you do to others? I didn’t think so.

One point is an event, two points makes a line, and three establishes a pattern . . .

The Washington insiders aren’t the only ones making common core up as they go along. Our Missouri statute 160. 526.2 requires that, “

Within six months prior to implementation of the statewide assessment system, the commissioner of education shall inform the president pro tempore of the senate and the speaker of the house about the procedures to implement the assessment system, including a report related to the reliability and validity of the assessment instruments, and the general assembly may, within the next sixty legislative days, veto such implementation by concurrent resolution adopted by majority vote of both the senate and the house of representatives.

Could it be the Commissioner avoided this strategy to protect the public because validity and reliability data weren’t available before the consortium wanted students used as participants in the research of their test without having to get parent approval (that would have been the ethical way to go about test administration of this sort – inform participants of the purpose of the test, possible risks, what happens to the data, offer opportunity to opt out), or, did she think it would be just fine with all the parents of Missouri if she commandeered the Missouri’s MAP test time, replacing it with the SBAC tests without parents and the legislators knowing about it — banking on the hope that parents in “selected” districts wouldn’t miss the state test scores of their child’s learning this year. After all, they didn’t receive scores last year when the logistics of administering the SBAC online were piloted. Why not push the envelope?

In May of 2013, HB 0002, the budget passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Nixon provided in Section 2.050 a sum of $10,000,000 “For the purpose of receiving and expending grants, donations, contracts . . . which may become available between sessions of the General Assembly . . . and further provided that no funds shall be used to implement the Common Core Standards”. Yet, an October 8, press release from DESE announced that it contracted with CTB/McGraw Hill for “. . . all required assessments in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. The scope of the work addresses item development, test administration, scoring, security and reporting.” Given that Missouri’s English language arts and mathematics standards are the common core standards adopted in 2010, DESE acted in violation of the legislature’s directive, without consequence.

And about the technology readiness . . . it’s comforting to know the school districts in southeast Missouri have had few logistical problems with the online tests, but, what are the effects of online testing on students? The National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, & Student Testing (2013) cautioned,

“. . . while technology-based assessment offers many new opportunities, care will need to be taken that the technology manipulation required by the assessment does not unintentionally add construct-irrelevant barriers for some students, particularly those with less access and less facility with technology.”

Hence, the New Hampshire experience. Furthermore, no one has breathed a word about the vulnerability student data have to hacking, or to the unscrupulous practices of some corporations to market their data. ACT, Inc, for example, was sued in October of 2013 for selling the data of students who were required to complete their test as a college entrance requirement. Google has admitted in court documents is searches student e-mails using its education apps. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act has been modified by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to allow unprecedented access to student data. Why would school administrators who care about children and their future celebrate the advantages of timely test results and ignore the risks of identity theft to which these tests expose their students?

DESE’s actions are hardly unquestionable, and the compliance of school district administrators who do not insist on answers before they expose their students to unethical practices of testing and risk taking is inexcusable. Which leads us to ask more questions.

Would an astute business investor invest capital in a venture without answers to questions of quality, effectiveness, cost, and risk?

Should Missourians expect less from their state employees investing tax dollars in activities they say is for the good of their children’s future?

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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