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Charter Schools

Lily Eskelsen-Garcia Wrongly Attacks Federal Policy

In a series of guest posts last week on Rick Hess’ Education Week blog, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia attacked standardized testing and standards-based accountability with “ exaggeration and misinformation.” Look, we can disagree on policy points, but over-the-top and misleading rhetoric (“No Child Left Untested,” “Testing Industrial Complex,” “high test scores are the purpose of education”) should not go unchecked—especially when it comes from the leader of the nation’s largest teachers union. We’ve red-penned just a few examples below. On Monday, she started by applying a revisionist history to No Child Left Behind (NCLB):
We’ve suffered under the factory model of school reform for the past dozen years under No Child Left Untested. The pillars are simple enough.
  • Privatize (vouchers, franchise charters); Just a reminder, these “franchised” charters are public schools.
  • De-professionalize (fast-track teacher prep, short-term, disposable labor designed to churn in and out with paychecks low and no pension to worry about); Churn? Since when is a 4-year retention rate of over 82% called “disposable”?
  • Standardize (scripted texts, homogenized lessons, pacing guides to require each teacher to be on the same page on the same day); Nothing in NCLB requires these. In fact, it’s the opposite problem: 50 different goal posts, thousands of different curricula expectations and minimal consistency in quality of lesson plans.
  • and above all else: Hit your number. Motivate staff, students, and systems with carrots and sticks, with the goal wrapped around a quota of kids hitting a cut score.
Standardized tests are the measure of basic progress.
Standardized tests decide if a child is succeeding. Standardized tests decide if a teacher is effective. Standardized tests decide if a school should be closed down. False. Test scores are rarely the sole factor for any of these decisions, and when they are, it is a result of a local decision. It is a classic industrial model.
On Tuesday, she followed up with an attack on standardized testing:
I always find it ironic if not a little silly when someone (especially someone who's never taught actual children) suggests that the answer to every question regarding improving American education is to offer prizes or punishments based on standardized test scores. Maybe she’s referring to the recent move to reward progress based on multiple measures and offer support when schools or teachers falter on accountability systems—sometimes these interventions tend to put the kids before the adults. The rationale behind such misguided "motivators" is often a panicked "Our kids aren't prepared for their global competition!" Put aside for a moment the fact that this statement may or may not be true; the premise is that (1) prizes and punishments will produce higher test scores, (2) higher test scores will prepare U.S. students to compete globally, and (3) high test scores are the purpose of education. Honestly, has any administrator, superintendent or educator ever said this? Test scores are just one indicator students are on the right track.
On Wednesday, she stopped short of fully endorsing opt-out, instead continuing her call for an end to annual standardized testing:
On the federal level and in many states, there are inappropriate tests required of children with special needs, disabilities, and language issues. Really? Most of these statewide tests are designed with these special populations in mind and are tested, researched and evaluated to be appropriate (which cannot be said for most local tests). There are perfectly appropriate tests that are used for absolutely inappropriate measures, like judging whether a school can be determined to have made "adequate yearly progress." Progress toward what is usually left unsaid, but it is, by law, adequate yearly progress toward having 100% of the students in the school hit an arbitrary cut score that someone in some level of bureaucratic authority determined is "proficient" in reading and in math. Cut scores are designed and set based on recommendation by educator, psychometricians, and are based on evidence. If one student misses that cut score by one point on either test in any grade level, the school has officially failed, which is, of course, absurd. Aside from the fact that over 40 states have waivers from this requirement of NCLB and Congress was scheduled to reauthorize the law over five years ago, the USDOE has outlined “safe harbor” provisions to address this. The pressure placed on students can be enormous.… In Oklahoma, without any help from the federal government, the state legislature and governor doubled down on the testing obsession to declare that no third grader could go to fourth grade if he or she missed the mandated cut score on the reading test by even one point. They took the professional judgment away from third grade teachers who knew the names of their students and whether they could read or were prepared to succeed in fourth grade. Um, did you read the Oklahoma legislation? This claim is demonstrably false. (See below.)
Let’s take a moment on that last point. It’s unclear if Eskelsen-Garcia is misinformed or is intentionally misconstruing facts with her tear-jerking illustration of out-of-control punitive testing. Fortunately, Oklahoma’s State Department of Education has the applicable laws and rules for the 2014-15 school year posted on its website, and it turns out the state’s third-grade teachers can keep their professional judgment intact. Student promotion can actually be determined by a number of factors, including the use of a student portfolio or a “good-cause” exemption. On Thursday, she wrapped up her series by shining a light on a Montana Title I school that isn’t “driven by standardized testing.” Except that they do take standardized tests. And their scores are good.
Ok, before you ask, the test scores of these children are actually pretty good. But not because the district is obsessed with test and punish regimens, and not because the teachers are forced to use scripted commercial programs. When you focus on the whole child, all kinds of indicators go up! These amazing professionals know that you don't sacrifice the child to hit the cut score. Wait a minute, does that mean we can have yearly statewide exams without destroying school culture? Doesn’t this go against everything you’ve said about standardized testing for the 3 previous days?
An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include “Cage-Busting Leadership,” “Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age,” “The Same Thing Over and Over,” “Education Unbound,” “Common Sense School Reform,” “Revolution at the Margins,” and “Spinning Wheels.” He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog,

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