21st Century Bubble Sheets

When it comes to technology here in the overly-large school district, our little group often hears from schools about how they don’t have enough computers.1

Enough to do what? Student projects? Using Google Drive for them to collaborate? Something to do with that creative critical thinking we’re told is important in the 21st century?

Actually in many cases the answer is none of the above.

Take the example of one high school at which we’re told demand for computers has “skyrocketed” due to their program requiring teachers to administer standardized pre- and post-tests five times during the school year. Which is in addition to the regular block of state-mandated exams that suck down computer availability for a month or more in the spring.

And they aren’t alone. In many, if not most, of our schools demand for equipment is growing fast, driven by the increasing demand for “data”, frequently involving the use of our home-grown, big-ass, standardized test-generating database.

Bottom line, schools want many more expensive, sophisticated devices that could be used for a wide variety of learning and creative purposes so they can repurpose them into dumb terminals for the delivery of digital bubble sheets.

Welcome to the 21st century.

  1. Or not enough newer models.

The Fast-Growing, Cash-Generative Business of Education

I don’t pay much attention to the day-to-day business headlines, especially since reporting in that area is just as bad or possibly worse than what passes for public affairs reporting these days.

But when Pearson, the UK-based educational publishing conglomerate that pretty much runs the Virginia DOE, is the subject, things get a little more interesting.

Evidentially, the company didn’t have a good first half of the year and plans to cut about 4000 jobs. However, it’s this statement from the CEO that really caught my eye.

Pearson is positioning itself as “a global learning services company,” Fallon said in a statement today. “This will drive a leaner, more cash-generative, faster-growing business from 2015.”

And where does all that cash being generated come from? At least half is from public schools, of course.

Pearson is the largest company in the fast-growing business of standardized testing, both writing and scoring the exams. Plus study materials to help teachers prepare kids for the tests. And textbooks “aligned” to Common Core or state standards (alignment being a euphemism for test prep).

Even worse, Pearson sees a great deal of potential in “emerging markets”, other countries to which they are exporting American-style standardized testing.

In the end, their bottom line will likely improve in the next fiscal year, even if the quality of learning provided by their customers (aka schools) doesn’t.

In Pursuit of Data

We talk a lot about data around here. A lot! How to collect it, how to analyze it, what to do with the analysis.

Of course, data in an educational setting represents children and, let’s face facts, is little more than a code word for standardized testing. The reality is we have no other mechanisms in place for gathering the numbers administrators want and need to crunch into their reports.

But why are we so hell bent on turning our students into a stream of data?

A recent post at the Answer Sheet blog didn’t really bring much new to the discussion but one paragraph does provide an answer to that question.

It is clear why Arne Duncan and like-minded reformers favor standardized tests. Along with high-stakes accountability mechanisms, such tests have given policy leaders at the state and federal levels an unprecedented ability to pry open the classroom and control instructional delivery. Equally important to them, standardized tests have yielded a cascade of data that policy elites have assembled into a picture of school quality—constructing evaluative report cards, and even tying student achievement scores to particular teachers as a means of calculating “value” added.

That desire to “control instructional delivery” and to quantify “school quality” (meaning teachers and kids, of course) quickly gets pushed down to, and very much shapes what happens in, classrooms.

Here in the overly large school district that desire for data is manifested in endless teacher meetings to create a flood of “common assessments” (don’t use that T word) and an expensive online system to provide the raw materials and delivery system. Followed, of course, by more meetings to analyze the results.

All of which sucks up many, many hours of classroom and teacher time while contributing little or no value to meaningful student learning.

But it’s all good. We got data!

No Change, Just Better Numbers

Seth Godin’s daily post begins with a couple of interesting lines.

As soon as we measure something, we seek to improve the numbers.

Which is a worthwhile endeavor, if better numbers are the point of the exercise.

Is he writing about standardized test scores? No. As is usual, Godin is presenting his thoughts about a business issue.

However, between that opening and his concluding paragraph…

The questions we ask change the thing we make. Organizations that do nothing but measure the numbers rarely create breakthroughs. Merely better numbers.

… it’s not hard to see plenty of overlap with our adoration of numbers (aka “data”) – and a corresponding lack of breakthroughs – in current education policy.

Resistance is Futile

I’ve been thinking about data a lot recently. It’s pretty much unavoidable here in the overly-large school district, where the rising tide of collecting and analyzing student data is starting to overwhelm everything else.

We start with Virginia’s standardized testing program, similar to those in other states, which replaces most learning activities in the late spring. Plus a variety of other required “assessments” for various purposes that students must take throughout the rest of the year.

However, most of the growth in student data collection comes from a combination of “professional learning communities” and our home-grown online practice testing system.

For the past three years at our annual Leadership Conference (the August kickoff for school administrators and others), the superintendent has decreed that everyone will participate in PLCs. Which would be a good thing if they were actually focused on learning and were communities of learners that had developed organically.

In most cases, they are neither.

Teachers discussing their required PLCs normally refer to them as “meetings” (assigning all the high regard most of us have for such events) rather than communities. The primary purpose of these meetings in most schools is creating “common assessments” for student to take and then, once the assessments are administered, sifting through the data as a group to make meaning out of it.

Increasingly that data is coming from our assessment reporting tool, which essentially is a big database that makes it easy to spit out multiple combinations of SOL-type* questions for kids to respond to. Twice a year the database also provides required “division-wide assessments” in many subjects for students in most grades.

The tests data just keep coming.

Of course, all this demand for data comes at a price. Collecting it subtracts from limited instructional time. Building the tests and analyzing the results syphons from limited teacher planning time.

And then there’s the question of whether any of these tests are valid assessments of student learning. Or whether the knowledge being tested is what students need in the first place.  Obsessing over data diverts attention from any real discussion of the changes that need to be made in our educational structure.

But none of that is important. The data is all that matters.

* SOL = standards of learning, the nickname for Virginia’s standardized testing program.

Time to Test

How much time do students spend on testing in school?

It’s a good question and one Chicago high school teacher has something of an answer: “In my school, in just three weeks’ time, I have calculated that we spent 738 minutes (12 hours and 18 minutes) on preparing for and administering standardized tests.”

I don’t know that anyone has done a similar calculation here in the overly-large school district, but I’m betting the numbers aren’t much different, and could be much worse for elementary kids.

And this teacher’s observation that “allegedly “optional” tests and interventions become—culturally, if not officially— mandatory” is certainly true in many, if not most of our schools. Administrators have come to believe that a testing opportunity is a terrible thing to waste.

Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog writes occasionally about a growing revolt against high stakes testings (including in today’s entry). If so, it hasn’t surfaced here, or evidentially in Chicago.

Addicted to Numbers

Alfie Kohn is one of the smartest observers of American education and someone whose voice needs to be heard more in the ongoing reform discussion. He recently posted an essay about how the increasing drive to collect data on kids is both “uninformative and misleading”.

The whole post is worth a few minutes to read (and pass along to your favorite school administrator and politician) but this observation is one that stands out for me.

You’ve heard it said that tests and other measures are, like technology, merely neutral tools, and all that matters is what we do with the information? Baloney. The measure affects that which is measured. Indeed, the fact that we chose to measure in the first place carries causal weight. His speechwriters had President George W. Bush proclaim, “Measurement is the cornerstone of learning.” What they should have written was, “Measurement is the cornerstone of the kind of learning that lends itself to being measured.” [emphasis mine]

Although the administration here in our overly-large school district talks a good game about “21st century skills”, “innovation”, “creativity”, and all the rest of the high minded phrases, the emphasis at the school level continues to be on testing and collecting more and more data to be analyzed.

And all those assessments, “formative”, practice, and otherwise, can’t help but shape – and narrow – instruction in most classrooms.

Meaningless Change

Late last week, swamped by our big storms and the only slightly less windy vortex swirling around the Supreme Court, came the story that Virginia had received a waver from the adequate yearly progress (AYP) provisions of NCLB.

Our lovely parting gift for not winning Race to the Top.

Anyway, the waver means our schools “will no longer face sanctions if they fail to ensure that all students are proficient in math and reading by 2014″.

As much as I would like to cheer that news, the details don’t offer much to be optimistic about.

Instead of AYP, we will now have “annual measurable objectives”, of course calculated using the same lowest common denominator standardized tests. Plus, beginning next year, our districts must “base at least 40 percent of teachers’ and principals’ evaluations on students’ academic performance” (aka those same tests).

And, as an added bonus, schools will still get an annual report card, which will now come with a “new generation of educational jargon”, the better to confuse parents and students alike.

In the Post article, our superintendent is quoted as saying “No Child Left Behind had become less and less meaningful, because the standards were unrealistic.”

Nothing’s changed. Virginia simply traded one set of unrealistic, meaningless provisions for another.

Final Exams: What I Learned This Year

The school year comes to a close this week here in our overly-large school district and, like the kids taking their final exams1, it’s time to reflect on the past ten months and figure out if I’ve learned anything over that time.

Since I don’t like multiple choice tests, this will be an essay.

One thing that’s been very clear in working with our schools this year is that they just love their data. Data, data, and more data.

An increasing amount of the precious little time available outside of actual teaching seems to be taken up with organizing and analyzing data on the kids. And to facilitate all that organizing and analyzing, our schools have adopted (or in a few cases, have been forced to adopt) the concept of “professional learning communities” (PLC)2.

It sounds nice, but I really wonder what’s happening in those structures. When talking to teachers and others in the schools, more often than not they refer to those gatherings as “meetings”, as in “I have a PLC meeting this afternoon”, often applying all the distain that many of us outside the classroom reserve for that term.

Much of the focus of their meeting seems to be not on learning (professional or otherwise), or collaborating, or on forming communities, but on building “common assessments”, a phrase that boils down to everyone teaching a particular grade level or course giving the same tests to their kids at the same time.

The better to gather more data with – a vicious and never-ending circle.

When you toss in bracelets that are supposed to measure student engagement and a growing collection of other “assessment tools” that keep arriving in vendor spam, the obsession over data continues to grow.

So, at what point does the data become more important than the source of that data, which of course, are kids? Or when will more time and effort be devoted to the data?

I suspect the farther you take the numbers from the classroom, the more likely it’s already happened. Just look at our national education policy.

End of section 1. Wait for the proctor to instruct you to continue.

1 Which they discover quickly during their school experience are never the “final” exams. :-)

2 Many schools have altered the name to CLT (collaborative learning teams), or just CT, or some other variation on the same theme.

Racking Up The Big Numbers

This morning I tweeted in frustration about the numbers of online state standardized tests we give here in the overly-large school district.

Screen Shot 2012 05 30 at 1 30 08 PM

That comes from the daily report the testing managers in IT sent us today (and every school day this time of year), along with the fact that we had completed more than 220,000 online tests so far in this testing season.

The really depressing part of those statistics is that we have “only” 180,000 students in K12 and some of them don’t take the SOLs*. Or still take paper and pencil versions of the tests.

Now just imagine all the practice and non-SOL multiple choice tests taken during the rest of the school year.


* SOL = Standards of Learning, Virginia’s infamously named state-wide standardized tests.

There Must Be a Better Way

Here in the US it’s testing season, following weeks, often months of test prep in most schools. Diane Ravitch wants to know Are Test Scores the Point? and her answer gets it exactly right.

So, I am left with the view that we need a far better way to describe successful schools. Test scores alone are not the way. They may define a school where students spend every day engaged in test prep. They may describe a school producing complaint student-robots.

When we rely on standardized tests as the only, or even the most important, tool for assessing student learning, schools become test prep academies so administrators can avoid the dreaded “failure” label.


Testing School

A brief conversation during a planning meeting at one of the three new schools our district will open next fall. Several people bemoaning that the design didn’t include more spaces to allow for testing of large groups of students.

Ok, nothing significant to all that. Still, the thought of building schools to accommodate standardized testing is a little depressing.

But I guess it’s the next logical step now that we’ve completely wrapped the curriculum for most students around the concept of all testing, all the time. Or “gathering data” in the current vernacular.

Breaking the Testing Addiction

It’s testing season here in the overly-large school district as both the tech (the state says we have to give all tests online) and the kids are being prepped for their high stakes exercises in minimal learning. For the next six weeks or so, don’t expect to find much instruction happening in most of our classrooms. It’s all about passing the SOLs.*

However, lately I’ve been stumbling across a string of articles talking about a “testing backlash”, both by school districts and individual parents, about states being granted waivers from the stifling perfection demands of NCLB, and how we’re moving into a “post testing” period of American education.

It would be nice if all of that was actually happening, but I wonder if schools, districts, administrators and many teachers are going to be able to give up the testing culture they’ve become so accustomed to over the past decade or more. Is the allure of data – concrete, easily collected, quantifiable numbers – too much to abandon?

Let’s face it, in many ways following the test prep script is much easier than pacing instruction based on the kids who arrive in your class each day. Test scores go into nice neat tables and averages of them fit better into newspaper headlines and two-minute news stories than other, more accurate forms of assessment.

Part of my doubt also stems from the amount of time, money, and focus our district has poured into a “curriculum assessment resource tool”, essentially a big database of questions forming a year-round standardized test prep system. With this in place, most of our schools have been taking away many additional days of instructional time during the rest of the year for collecting more of that data.

So, I come back to the question of whether, if NCLB disappeared tomorrow and teachers were allowed more flexibility in their assessment, schools could break the addiction of the testing culture. I’m sure the best teachers would have no problem, and probably already find ways around the testing drills mandated by many principals.

Just some rambling, speculative questions, maybe ones that are too pessimistic.

*Virginia’s standardized tests are called the Standards of Learning tests. No, the irony of the acronym is not lost on any of us.

Update: One more parent opting their child out of standardized testing.