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When most people think about public schools, the word they focus on is “public.” Things done in public are, by most definitions, visible by everyone. They are exposed for the world to view and judge. Think of Aunt Mable who chastised her husband, who enjoyed his happy hour a bit too much, for making a public spectacle of himself. What Uncle Marvin chose to do in response to the public opinion expressed about his slurring proclamations and zealous though slightly out of control gesticulating was up to Uncle Marvin. When it comes to the teaching materials used in our public schools, traditionally we have come to expect the same access for viewing, with the assumption that the suppliers could choose to respond to any public criticism in whatever way they wanted. In fact, the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA (20 U.S.C. § 1232h; 34 CFR Part 98 ) codifies this expectation by protecting a parent’s right to view any and all curriculum material used in the public school. This expectation is, however, being eroded by the privatization of education. Now the secrecy surrounding teaching materials and standardized tests is rising to the level of that in the Bengazi investigation.

Most people who follow education are now familiar with the cloak and dagger secrecy of the Texas school curriculum known as C-SCOPE. This on-line curriculum was not available for parental viewing. Teachers were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement when using the materials. It was eventually exposed by some whistle blowing teachers who took issue with the content of what they were required to teach with C-SCOPE. The creators of the curriculum tried to hide what they were doing by changing the on-line lessons when they were forced to allow parents and public officials to access the lessons. Fortunately some astute teachers had already taken screen shots of the lessons prior to the re-write. C-SCOPE’s liberal, globalist, pro-Islamic leaning was exposed to public scrutiny and rejected. Their attempts at secrecy only served to heighten public skepticism of on-line education in general. At a time when use of on-line technology could have been used to augment the education process and help control costs, the Texas experience may have set that option back almost a decade.

A similar aura of secrecy surrounds the up and coming Common Core aligned tests. Having them be delivered through on-line servers, so soon after the C-SCOPE debacle has not helped SBAC or PARCC.  Public skepticism was already entrenched. However, the limited access to the tests by teachers, the almost non-existent access by parents except to a very short sample test, and the requirement that students not discuss anything they see in the test has sent the red flags flying. Those who claim that such secrecy is necessary to maintain the validity of the test are flat out liars.

Consider the ACT and SAT tests. A student can go into any (remaining) book store and buy books loaded with questions from previous tests which they can use to study and prepare for the tests. Companies like Sylvan regularly use old tests to coach kids through this hurdle of adolescence. Even our own states MAP tests were reviewed by our teachers each year to collect comments for improvement on specific questions or sections. None of these efforts was ever thought to affect the test’s validity.

It is not a far stretch to assume that the test developers are trying to hide something like C-SCOPE did. We know from states like New York and New Hampshire where teachers took sample tests that there were many problems with the questions in the test. We wrote about the letter a New Hampshire Principal wrote listing all the comments he received from his 7th grade teachers who took the SBAC test. Bad questions is but one issue with standardized tests.

The other secret with such tests lies in the scoring. This is where the games are played and public policy is validated without the public knowing. If they did, most standardized tests would be gone tomorrow.

The New York Times covered what was happening in Durham New Hampshire with the state standardized test developed for No Child Left Behind. Durham is home to the University of New Hampshire. Such towns are know for their highly educated parents who tend to work at the universities, have brighter than average kids and make education a priority at home. Not surprisingly they had good schools and successful students if you looked at their college acceptance rates. They had great SAT scores. What they didn’t have was stellar standardized test scores on the state tests.

The difference came down to test questions and scoring.  The test had questions that were written in ways that made it especially difficult for their students to answer. Their schools had gone text book free yet several questions referred to text books and the way they were formatted and used. The children had no experience to draw from to answer those questions.

The test scoring was another problem.  In the writing portion, the scoring rubric preferred long answers and the school taught children to “fill the box.” It didn’t matter if a shorter answer was better written. Until they reviewed the test and discovered this preference, their students did not score as high.

Todd Farley (Making the Grades: My Misadventures in Standardized Testing) tells how much difference there was in scorers that could affect a child’s individual scores and a school’s average scores. He describes a 9th grade question that asked students to review a movie. One child chose to review the skin flick Debbie Does Dallas. An entire room full of scorers got into a debate about how to score his essay. Some thought it deserved a 3/6 recognizing the good writing but poor topic choice. Others thought it should be graded on writing alone and wanted to give it a 6/6. Still others thought it should be given 0/6 due to the topic choice. Farley said that such disagreement was the rule, not the exception.

Lest you think that a clear scoring rubric would solve the problem, Farley also noted that there are scorers who focus so intently on the rubric that even a well written answer is given a low score because it does not exactly fit the prescribed rubric.

The impression people have is that testing giants like Pearson and McGraw Hill who administer most of the tests (and will continue to do so under common core) have teams of highly qualified English and Math majors to score their tests. After all, we have colleges graduating students with these degrees and if they don’t go into teaching where else are they going to go, right? But such graduates would have to be pretty desperate to take jobs that can require them to grade thirty high school papers an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week, on a contract basis with no benefits. That is not unusual in the test scoring world. As a result, the scoring population has quite a few people who struggle with English and/or have drinking problems.

Though SBAC and PARCC are on-line and still are highly dependent on multiple choice questions, they will have more performance based questions (written answer) than most existing state tests which will require more scorers. There have been no break-throughs announced by these companies in terms of changing their current scoring practice, so we assume that there will remain a percentage of barely qualified scorers who just need the money determining how our teachers and schools are doing, without our teachers being able to see the questions or the scoring rubric upon which they are judged. Such pieces of information are reaching the realm of national secret. When we move from Public education to Privatized education run by private companies, such practices are considered the business norm. We don’t get to see behind the curtain where Farley says testing company managers routinely circumvent the checks and balances on their own system in order to make their reliability reports look good. Our rights are diminished in favor or private business rights to protect their products, their market share, their bottom line.

 

 

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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