Ceilings and Ceiling Tiles: A Call for Civil DisobediencePosted: February 1, 2015
Last month I wrote Pop the Bubbles: Thoughts on Standardized Testing. In that article, I talked about the Opt Out movement, I criticized the January 8, 2015 Brookings Institute paper entitled The Case for Annual Testing, and I described the testing situation at one Ohio high school.
After I wrote the article, I learned from teachers and administrators that the testing burden on students and schools nationwide is worse than I described. The burden is so bad, in fact, that for the first time in my life, I am asking parents to consider a form of civil disobedience.
In particular, I am calling on parents of high-ability children who attend non-poverty school districts to consider keeping their children home on standardized testing days. In this article, I give reasons for my request.
Worse Than I Described
One elementary school administrator wrote to me, “We will be administering 21 different tests, some spread out 2-3 days, from February through May. Nothing about this is right for students, and I wonder what it will take for this to stop.”
A former elementary school teacher told me that part of the reason she left teaching last year was because even tiny first graders were subjected to 11 tests each year, including one screening test at the beginning of the year, one test at the end of the year, eight tests to determine achievement levels twice each quarter, and one standardized reading test “to determine if the children will be gifted in fourth grade.” All those tests were in addition to the usual classroom-based formative and summative assessments. And all eleven tests had to be given regardless of whether children in that high-poverty area arrived at school on testing day with breakfast in their tummies.
On January 26, 2015, a superintendent in Illinois sent a truth-telling “warning” letter to her community. The letter, picked up by the Washington Post, explains that the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test:
- takes 13-14 hours to administer to students in grades 3-8;
- requires students to manage multiple screens, prompts, and tools;
- requires each student to be tested over a two-week time period;
- necessitates full use of the schools’ computer labs for six weeks and consequently makes those labs unavailable for teaching and learning purposes during those six weeks;
- has been the primary focus of the tech staff, the administrative team, and building principals since late fall.
Two teachers, one in Ohio and one in Illinois, alerted me that their high school students’ PARCC test experience will include a half day of “testing the test”–meaning that every student in the state who will take the PARCC test must first take a pretend PARCC test in order to help PARCC officials and school officials make sure that the real PARCC test will proceed as planned without computer glitches.
Imagine that . . . a half day of school time wasted on a fake test. What happens if the fake PARCC test administration is plagued with problems? Will PARCC require another test of the test, thus eating up another half day of school time? My questions are not just theoretical. From the PARCC’s own sadly cheerful website here: “We have been answering your test administration questions all week in the live field test updates on our news page. Thank you all for your feedback! We couldn’t test the test without your hard work.”
If you would have told me ten years ago that a multi-state testing organization funded by the federal government would be helping states conduct a “test of a test” involving millions of school children, I would have said you were nuts.
Although 26 states joined the federally-funded PARCC in 2010, today only 10 or 11 states remain in the partnership, and only 8 of those are using both the elementary and high school versions of the PARCC test, according to a November 9, 2014 Chicago Sun Times article. Mississippi’s well-publicized exit happened just two weeks ago–apparently not enough time for PARCC to remove Mississippi’s name from the list of PARCC states.
Educators and their unions are rising up against standardized testing. According to an October 29, 2014, Fair Test report:
- The National Education Association (NEA) launched a national campaign against “toxic testing.”
- The American Federation of Teachers and the NEA are leading the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) which involves dozens of national, state and local organizations uniting across a range of issues, including testing.
- The Oklahoma Education Association allied with parent groups to soften grade 3 test-based promotion and helped defeat the pro-testing state education secretary.
- Oregon and Massachusetts NEA affiliates called for three-year moratoria on all testing consequences to allow time to overhaul state assessment systems.
- The Massachusetts Teachers Association is holding testing forums with teachers across the state.
- The Oregon Education Association is designing, with state officials, a possible new assessment system.
- The Chicago Teachers Union helped organize boycotts and opt outs.
For children who struggle in school, taking nearly a dozen overly challenging standardized tests per year might cause emotional stress. For children who do well in school, being forced to sit in a classroom long after successfully finishing a standardized test might cause emotional stress. For all children, taking that many standardized tests in a school year—more than one a month—gobbles up lots of learning time.
I’ll never forget what one child in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District’s self-contained program for highly gifted children said on the day before taking the old Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test in 2000. I’ll call her Testla, just for fun.
At the time, Texas required all children to remain in the testing room during the entirety of each TAAS testing session. Texas didn’t care if Testla and her friends in the highly gifted program finished their standardized tests in 1/4 to 1/3 the normal time, as they usually did. The state wanted all children, regardless of their test-taking speed, to sit quietly until the end of each testing period, without any books for reading, or paper for writing, or markers for drawing. The highly gifted children dreaded the fact that they would have nothing to do but sit and stare, sometimes for up to ninety minutes at a time.
Testla’s comment to the school’s well-loved band teacher, who enjoyed a classroom room large enough to accommodate all 65 students in his popular band program: “Mr. X, I want to take the TAAS test in your room because you have more ceiling tiles to count.”
Speaking of ceilings, how often do you think Testla and the millions of other children in gifted programs around the country hit the ceilings of the standardized tests administered to them? Answer: Far too often. When a child hits or approaches the ceiling of a standardized test, the test results are suspect. How can we know the true abilities of a child when the ceiling effect limits our knowledge of those abilities?
Why do we force children who hit standardized test ceilings year after year to continue to take the tests? To answer that question, let me tell you a true story about schools fighting over the standardized test scores of high-scoring children.
Fighting Over High Test Scores
The test scores of high-scoring children are valuable to schools. So valuable, in fact, that many years ago the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School district struck a deal with its elementary schools. The district wanted to make the self-contained highly gifted program located in just one of the district’s elementary schools palatable to administrators in all the other elementary schools. For that reason, the district decided that the highly gifted students’ standardized test scores would count as coming from their neighborhood schools rather than from the school that those children actually attended.
If standardized test scores were about individual children rather than about politics, and if differences between individual children were honored rather than treated as fodder for adult competition, such a strange deal would never have existed. The agreement boosted the aggregate scores of neighborhood schools not because those schools contributed anything to the education of the highly gifted children–those children attended school elsewhere. The agreement boosted the aggregate scores of the neighborhood schools simply because the highly gifted children’s pillows, beds, and blankets were located in those neighborhoods.
A Call for Civil Disobedience
If you have high-ability children attending school in a non-poverty school district, please consider keeping your children home from school on standardized testing days. Pretty please. For the benefit of all children. In order to help end the testing insanity that currently plagues our schools.
I invite parents of other children to consider opting out, too, but I specifically invite high-ability children in non-poverty schools because I feel that those children have the least to lose by opting out. Let me explain.
By “high-ability children,” I mean those children who would have done well on their standardized tests even before they walked into school at the beginning of the school year. Why force them to spend hours of their childhoods proving what teachers already know about those children’s abilities? Why let high-ability children be fodder for competition between schools and school districts? Why give high-ability children nothing to do, sometimes for more than an hour at a time, except to sit quietly and count ceiling tiles?
By “non-poverty school districts,” I mean those school districts without large percentages of children living in poverty. Because there is a chance, however small, that some states will enforce monetary penalties against schools that are unable test large numbers of their students, I do not want schools in poverty areas to risk losing some of their sorely needed government funding.
By “please consider,” I mean please assess the risks and benefits of opting out in your state, and then make whatever decision is best for your children, for your school district, and for all the other children in your state. Some states allow opting out. Some states do not allow opting out.
Does Your State Allow Opting Out?
On November 9, 2014, the Chicago Sun Times reported, “California, Wisconsin and Nebraska are among states with a specific opt-out statute. New York and others don’t, but thousands of New York schoolchildren refused to take their annual state test last year with no repercussions, said Robert Schaeffer, the group’s public education director.” Another state, North Dakota, is is currently considering an opt out bill.
Ana L. Rosado-Feger, a professor at the Ohio University, recently played devil’s advocate: “My interpretation of [the January 13, 2015 newsletter of the Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrator (OASES)] is that in Ohio with the exception of third graders (TGRG), ESL students, and whatever the new requirement is for high school graduation (OGT for 10th grade and above, a series of end-of-year tests for 9th graders and below), there is NO consequence to the CHILD if the parents opt out of state-mandated standardized testing. There are, however, consequences to the TEACHER, the SCHOOL and the DISTRICT.”
Then Rosado-Feger asks: “Why do we pretend testing is about “STUDENT” achievement?” Excellent question.
But back to opting out…I agree with Rosado-Feger’s interpretation of the OAESA newsletter’s list of penalties in Ohio. I add, however, that Ohio parents should be aware of the possibility that their children’s schools might impose penalties for unexcused absences on testing days.
For state-by-state information about possible consequences of opting out, and for many resources relating to opting out, see the Opt Out of Standardized Tests Wikispace.
A Closing Offer
By now, I suspect that any school district superintendents who have read this far are unhappy with me for squeezing them tighter between a rock and a hard place. But listen up. I’m going to make you an offer.
This energetic retired lady, with her a Ph.D. in political science focusing on education policy, and experience teaching in schools in Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Connecticut, China, and England, and her experience working professionally on grant-funded projects doing focus groups, surveys, interviews, data crunching, and report writing, is offering her services, free of charge, to one or more lucky school districts. For you, I will:
- construct an easy survey for your staff members to complete,
- count up all the hours your teachers, administrators, and students spend on standardized testing,
- do the “how much that time costs” math for you, and
- write up a snazzy report for you to edit to your mind’s delight and then take to senators, representatives, state legislators, and news media outlets.
Call me if you’re brave enough to speak up, with data, in public.
Acknowledgements and Credits
Four of the comics are courtesy of Catharine Vetter Alvarez (Cathy A.) and the Comic-O-Matic website of Nina Paley and Margo Burns. I greatly appreciate Catharine for her willingness to create those four Comic-O-Matic cartoons especially for this blog post, and for encouraging me to create the two other comics by myself.
Many thanks to the educators who allowed me to use their quotes in the article above or below in the Additional Feedback from Educators section.
I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions. Please click on the graphic below (created by Pamela Ryan–thanks!) to see to the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies Blog Hop participants. I appreciate Hoagies’ willingness to let us bloggers express our individual opinions in these blog hops. The opinions in this blog article are mine; please don’t blame them on anyone else.
Additional Feedback from Educators
(I’ll update this section with additional comments from teacher friends of mine as I receive them this week.)
From Alaska: “We opted out of PARCC for a customized test written by a company in Kansas, to our Alaskanized Common Core standards! Yes, because Kansas is so like Alaska….not!! 8 weeks out from testing and we can’t even get the fractions to show correctly on the test…only multiple choice this year, typed essays next year, and adaptive the third year, so no usable data in the near future….oh yes, and we’re moving to partial merit pay next year! Ay yah!!”
From Maine: “Our state is using the other one — Smarter Balanced. It’s still going to take about 8 hours per kid. Tell me why it takes longer to test a 4th grader than someone applying to medical school or law school???!!!””
From Illinois: “To say I’m frustrated doesn’t even begin to touch it! After finally looking at a calendar and plugging in all of the missed classes for ACT test, PARCC tests, late starts, Teacher Institute Days, holidays, and spring break, I have discovered that I only have 2 full weeks to teach students in February, 1 full week in March, and 0 full weeks in April (if you count the Algebra II students who will be pulled from my speech class on 4/20 for Math tests). Does anyone else see a problem with this? I literally cried today because I don’t know how to teach my students what they need to know with this kind of schedule.”