Diane Ravitch v. Merryl Tisch on MSNBC

Diane Ravitch – former US Assistant Secretary of Education and current Research Professor of Education at New York University – recently went head-to-head with Merryl Tisch – Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents – about testing, or rather the “Testing Revolt” surrounding the opt-out movement, specifically, on MSNBC’s  “All In” host Chris Hayes. Click here to view the best version of the live broadcase I could find (via YouTube). Here are some of the highlights:

Chris Hayes compares opting out of high-stakes tests to opting out of immunizations, after which Diane responds that making such a comparison is completely inappropriate because “one has a scientific basis [and] the other has none.”

Merryl claims that the tests are diagnostic tools that are used to inform instruction and curriculum development, to which Diane responds about the inordinate numbers of hours students spend testing and how whatever formative value might come from such tests is grossly delayed whereas teachers do not receive results until well after their students have left their classrooms, which greatly limits formative potential.

Merryl has no response to that, that Chris aptly points out, but she defers rather to a peripheral argument that the public who spends $54 billion on education throughout the state has a right to what she did not term tests’ summative (i.e., opposite of formative) functionality.

Diane responds after a bit of redirection and explains how we test more than any other industrialized nation in the world, including the top 10 performing nations as per international exams. Interesting here, albeit not stated explicitly, is that we have been testing in this manner for over 30 years yet we still cannot break the top 10. Isn’t that an indicator in an of itself as our number one educational reform model  — increasing standards and attaching new and improved tests to measure and hold teachers and students to meeting those standards, over and over and over again — isn’t working?

Merryl ends by (falsely) explaining to parents they are inappropriately opting out because they have been trapped in a dispute caused by Governor Cuomo linking tests to teacher evaluation to which teachers unions are opposed. Diane was not given a chance to respond.

New Mexico UnEnchanted

After a great meeting with students, parents, teachers, school board members, state leaders, and the like in New Mexico, I thought I’d follow up with some reflections from a state turned unenchanted with its state’s attempts at education reform (as based on high-stakes testing and using value-added models [VAMs] to hold teachers accountable for students’ test performance). I thought I would also follow up with a public statement of thanks to my hosts from New Mexico State University’s Borderlands Writing Project as well as a thanks to all of those with whom I met. To watch the video of my keynote presentation click here, here, and here (i.e., Parts 1, 2, and 3, respectively).

As mentioned in my last post, New Mexico is now certainly one state to watch — not only because of the students who are opting out of taking the new “and improved” common core tests across the state, but also because of the many others who are activating in protest, and also in protection of teachers as well as students whose learning opportunities have been hijacked by high-stakes testing across the state. This is all occurring thanks to the “leadership” of Hanna Skandera — former Florida Deputy Commissioner of Education under former Governor Jeb Bush and head of the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Unlike states I have researched in the past, this is one state I can honestly say has gone high-stakes silly. State leadership is currently administering common core tests on computers, with computer issues now causing students to test even more days than expected given computer quirks. At the same time the state is requiring students to take end-of-course (EoCs) exams in almost all subject areas, including physical education, music, art, social studies, government, and the like (e.g., x 10). At the same time many teachers are giving final exams as these are the exams teachers value and “trust” the most because they give teachers the best and most useful feedback in terms of what teachers taught and how students did given what they taught. And all of this including test preparation is to take, in some cases, three months of time. No joke, and no wonder so many involved have literally had it.

In addition, unlike states I have researched in the past, this is also a state that requires teachers to sign a contractual document that they are not, at the same time or ever, to “diminish the significance or importance of the tests” (see, for example, slide 7 here). Yes – this means that teachers are not to speak negatively about the tests or say anything negatively about these tests in their classrooms or in public; if they do they could be found in violation of their contracts, that they themselves signed or had to sign to get or hold their teaching position. They say something disparaging and somebody with authority finds out? They could be fired.

Last Friday night at my main presentation, in fact, a few teachers actually came up to me whispering their impressions in my ear in fear of being “found out.” If that’s not an indicator of something gone awry in one state I don’t know what is. Rumor also has it that Hanna Skandera has requested the names and license numbers of any teachers who have helped or encouraged students to protest the state’s “new” PARCC test(s). As per one teacher, “this is a quelling of free speech and professional communication.”

In terms of the state’s value-added model (VAM) it is very difficult to find out information about the actual model being used to hold teachers accountable across the state. I met one teacher who teaches an extreme set of students, and who by others’ accounts is one of the best teachers in her district, but she was labeled “highly ineffective;” hence, without evidence I’d beg to argue the VAM in use in this state is probably not much different than others. Otherwise, I cannot comment further given all that is not publicly available (or easily found) about the model — which is problematic in and of itself given this information should be made public and transparent, as should the information about how the model is actually functioning.

What I did find very interesting, however, was an article about a set of “five Los Alamos physicists, statisticians and math experts” who responded to some of New Mexico’s VAM critics who charged “it would take a rocket scientist to figure out the complex formula” being used to measure teacher’s value-added. The article highlights how Los Alamos Scientists — Los Alamos, New Mexico is known for its proportion of intellectual scientists who reside in the area — could not after one year of trying figure out the model, figure it out either. These scientists did find that the state’s VAM (1) is not a “true measure of a school’s worth;” (2) “varies” at levels unexpected of a model that should otherwise yield consistent results; (3) seems to be “biased” by class size, household income, and focused programming that occurs outside of teachers’ effects; (4) is so complicated that it could not serve as a “good communication tool;” and (5) would not likely “pass peer review in the scientific community.”

Finally, as for the opt-out movement, which was also a source of discussion throughout my visit given primarily New Mexico students’ activism in this regard, a related post was recently featured on Gene Glass’s “Education in Two Worlds” readers might also find of interest. His words should also add fodder to those students and parents, teachers, and school board members in support in New Mexico, to keep it going. See Dr. Glass’s full post below.

Can the “Opt Out” Movement Succeed?
There’s a movement growing across the nation. It’s called “Opt Out,” and it means, refusal to subject oneself or one’s children to the rampant standardized testing that has gripped public schools. The tentacles of the accountability testing movement have reached into every quarter of America’s public schools. And the audience for this information is composed of politicians attempting to bust unions, taxpayers hoping to replace high-salary teachers with low-salary teachers, and Realtors dodging red-lining laws while steering clients to the “best schools.” Those urging parents and students to refuse to be tested cite the illegitimacy of these motives and the increasing amount of time for learning that is being given over to assessing learning. At present, the Opt Out movement is small — a few thousand students in Colorado, several hundred in New Mexico, and smatterings of ad hoc parent groups in the East. Some might view these small numbers as no threat to the accountability assessment industry. But the threat is more serious than it appears. Politicians and others want to rank schools and school districts according to their test score averages. Or they want to compare teachers according to their test score gains (Value Added Measurement) and pressure the low scorers or worse. It only takes a modest amount of Opting Out to thwart these uses of the test data. If 10% of the parents at the school say “No” to the standardized test, how do the statisticians adjust or correct for those missing data? Which 10% opted out? The highest scorers? The lowest? A scattering of high and low scorers? And would any statistical sleight of hand to correct for “missing data” stand up in court against a teacher who was fired or a school that was taken over by the state for a “turn around”? I don’t think so.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder