Testing mandates flunk cost-benefit analysis

From the Washinton Post’s Answer Sheet, By Peter Smagorinsky

According to Wikipedia, cost–benefit analysis “is a systematic process for calculating and comparing benefits and costs of a project, decision or government policy (hereafter, ‘project’). CBA has two purposes:

1.To determine if it is a sound investment/decision (justification/feasibility),

2.To provide a basis for comparing projects. It involves comparing the total expected cost of each option against the total expected benefits, to see whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and by how much.”

I believe that it would be prudent to apply this process to the current accountability movement now being administered in public education, primarily in the form of testing mandates such as No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top. Although I am not an economist — I’m an old high school English teacher now engaged in teacher education at the university level — I believe that I understand the issues at stake as well as anyone currently employed in the U.S. Department of Education.

First, let’s consider the costs. In Texas, taxpayers will pay about $93 million this year to administer standardized tests to Texas students . . . or nearly ten times the cost of just nine years earlier. The Georgia state Department of Education pays McGraw-Hill about $11 million a year to produce the CRCT, and more than $5.4 million to NCS Pearson for the EOCT; and as listed here, these are just two of the many tests administered in my home state. The annual cost of standardized testing in the United States has been estimated at somewhere between $20 billion and $50 billion.

Some defenders of standardized testing maintain that critics exaggerate the costs in order to overstate the case against the accountability movement. Upon further consideration, I must wonder exactly what is computed to determine the costs of test administration and scoring: Teacher salaries during test preparation? The cost of #2 pencils? Operating a school building on Saturdays to accommodate testing? And so on. With that caution, I’ll accept only the lowest estimate, a mere $20 billion price tag, and proceed from that assumption. Now, what are we getting for our $20 billion?

* Some of the lowest teacher morale survey responses ever recorded.

* Massive, pervasive cheating on tests by administrators, and by the teachers bullied into enforcing their pressure for high scores.

* Six-figure bonuses for school superintendents whose scores meet a minimum standard, no matter what it takes to achieve them.

* Federal penalties for schools caught cheating, denying them essential operating budgets.

* Students who see their role models on the faculty and in the administration behave in unethical ways in order to artificially raise test scores by cheating.

* Curriculum and instruction that focus on fragmented knowledge bits and avoid time-consuming, process-oriented, insight-driven teaching and learning.

* Immense profits for textbook publishers who have entered the competition for designing and administering the tests and writing the curriculum materials that are aligned with the tested content.

* An institutionalized assumption that poverty is not a factor in student achievement, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary.

Based on this cost-benefit analysis, I conclude that the accountability is making education very profitable for a limited number of publishing companies who, it turns out, have invested heavily in political connections (e.g., McGraw-Hill and the Bush family). It also is quite lucrative for school superintendents who don’t get caught cheating, although it can cost them their jobs if they do get caught. Apparently, their own cost-benefit analysis of cheating typically leads to high-risk behaviors with high-stakes consequences.

Other groups pay for the accountability, and not just through the taxes they pay to raise that $20 billion annually to support the testing apparatus. Teachers increasingly dislike their jobs and consider their work environments to be hostile and depressing. According to Richard Ingersoll, 40 percent of new teachers nationwide bolt the profession within five years because of the terrible working conditions; and a new report by the Education Trust identifies the “culture” of school—the work conditions — to be the top priority in a satisfying teaching career, particularly in high-poverty schools. The primary motive for entering a teaching career and staying in it, then, has been sacrificed to the accountability movement.

Students as well do not benefit from this approach. Rather, their education is reduced to an endless series of assessments of their ability to fill in bubble sheets, at the expense of more extended thinking such as writing or composing other sorts of texts that they find useful and meaningful.

I can only conclude that the $20 billion annually spent on testing as a means of educational accountability is a poor expenditure of our tax dollars. I would now like to propose a different means of assessment that I believe has greater validity as an educational measurement, and will produce a more satisfying teaching environment that is more likely to keep the best teachers in the profession. Unfortunately, it has the downside of failing to enrich superintendents and publishing companies, but I am willing to live with that unfortunate consequence.

But first, let’s keep that $20 billion budget available. Here’s how I would reinvest it, beginning with some suggestions for addressing the needs of children more than the needs of publishing companies and other wealthy entities cashing in on the new accountability mandates:

* Provide a good nursing staff, particularly in impoverished areas, so that kids who live in poverty can undertake their studies with a reasonable degree of health and balance. Sick, dizzy, aching, itching, wounded, and distracted children with limited access to health care or guidance in navigating the health system would benefit from the immediate care of a qualified health professional.

* Expand free and reduced-price meals for children from homes where fresh food is not available, and work to improve the healthiness of the food offerings under these services. Kids who haven’t eaten are very difficult to teach effectively.

* Staff school libraries with knowledgeable, helpful media specialists who can direct students to books that benefit their reading and educational development.

In general, invest in school infrastructures so that they are in good operating order, rather than falling apart at the seams.

Note that I am not calling for increased teacher salaries, although that would sure be nice. I am proceeding according to the assumption that for many teachers, good work conditions matter more than a high salary. So I am starting there, assuming that my $20 billion can only go so far.

My last suggestion concerns assessment. To be blunt: Standardized tests are a really stupid way to measure learning. Hardly anyone involved with education finds them to be valid; they are mostly believed to be worthwhile expenditures of time and money by people who have never taught. People like Arne Duncan and Bill & Melinda Gates.

I recommend instead that assessment proceed more authentically. Linda Darling-Hammond, Jacqueline Ancess, and Beverly Falk described this approach in the mid-1990s, and their ideas still resonate today — perhaps now more than ever. In their view, schools could institute such assessments as comprehensive, interdisciplinary projects through which students embody what they have learned during their studies. A boy might build a set of cabinets, for example, incorporating mathematics, physics, chemistry, kinesthetics, drawing, writing, speaking, and other knowledge and skills in order to design, build, polish, and then explain the project and what it involves. This proposal for project-based learning and assessment is taken up in some schools, such as Simon Hauger’s “Sustainability Workshop” in Philadelphia, where kids build solar charging stations, full-sized electric vehicles, and other machines to demonstrate their knowledge. Hauger, I should note, accomplishes these remarkable feats with kids from West Philly, not from The Main Line.

Now, some might wonder, how can this plan work, when it relies on such complicated projects and means of assessment? What about the elegant simplicity of a nice, firm test score? Doesn’t a quantitative test score tell more about a kid’s mathematical knowledge than his ability to measure a cabinet door so that it fits the frame? And what about the broader community? How will they know how this kid stacks up against another cabinet builder from Milwaukee? What if their cabinets both work equally well, albeit for different purposes—perhaps one to store DVDs, the other to display china? How will we know who won the Race To The Top under this approach?

Here’s where some of my $20 billion budget comes in handy. As part of a broader effort to increase internet capacity, some amount — let’s ballpark it at $2 billion annually, 10% of my budget, although I could be off by a few billion dollars — could be dedicated to expanding each school’s server space, or perhaps link each to a national database, so that each student’s work could be displayed. What would you rather be able to do: (1) learn that Freddi got a 79 on the CRT (and see if you can figure out what these scores even mean) or (2) go online and see a web demonstration of the new wardrobe that Freddi has designed, cut, sewn, and tailored along with a verbal account of the process she went through and the academic knowledge that she incorporated into the project?

So, there you have it, one person’s view of a cost-effective way to invest $20 billion in the necessity of educational assessment. It’s a bit more complicated that what we’ve presently got, just like learning and life in general. It puts money into classrooms and school infrastructures, instead of in the bank accounts of book publishers and the politicians they influence with contributions. It requires more work of the taxpayer in seeing and understanding educational outcomes, but the products are multidimensional and real, rather than paper-thin and abstract. And that new technological infrastructure could probably serve a few additional beneficial purposes for school districts beyond the immediate and designated purpose of publishing assessment results. I’m thinking here of one of my neighboring counties, where the computers available to teachers still use Windows 3.0 for their operating system.

I offer this proposal entirely for free, unlike the situation in states like Colorado where 35% of their federal education money is paid to consultants. You are free to take it or leave it. But whatever you do, you can’t say that it cost you too much.


Jeb Bush’s legacy tarnished as High-Stakes Testing Resistance Spreads Across Florida.

From Scathing Purple Musings, by Bob Sykes

The Bradenton Times has a comprehensive story this morning titled, “High-Stakes Testing Resistance Spreads Across Florida.” Highlighting Manatee county’s decision, the Times has this:

In Florida, more than a dozen countywide school committees serving three-quarters of a million students endorsed the National Resolution, according to FairTest. Early supporters included Broward County, the nation’s sixth biggest district, and Palm Beach County, the 11th largest. Then, the state association of school boards annual convention voted to endorse a state-specific version. Dozens of newspaper editorials, opinion columns, and letters to the editor have called for a reduction in testing and an overhaul of the state’s assessment system.

Members of the Manatee School District feel an unjustified overemphasis is placed on high stakes testing. They voted to adopt the resolution at Monday night’s meeting.

“We are in favor of accountability – not against it,” Chairman Harry Kinnan said at Monday’s meeting. “Accountability is a fact of life. We are advocating change to the current demands of the legislation because we have seen no evidence that the legislative pipeline will bring relief to this issue.”

My emphasis on Chairman Kinnan’s statement illustrates how far apart the realities are. In Tallahassee legislators have been affecting education policy in Jeb Bush’s echo chamber where voices like Kinnan’s aren’t heard. Nor are they wanted.

The wave of resolutions against high-stakes testing is an emerging threat to Bush’s legacy as a transformative figure in education. He’s can’t demonize teacher unions or trot out favorable data this time as a legitimate counter. The resolutions are driven by real grassroot efforts that unlike faux charter school movements like Parent Revolution, aren’t funded by corporate and hedge fund dollars. Real opposition to his test-based regime is coming from parents – or consumers if you like – for whom Bush purports to be championing “choice.”


Diane Ravitch: who is winning the fight for education reform?

From the Diane Ravitch blog,

Back when I was on the right side of the political fence, I was on the editorial board at Education Next. It is supported by the Hoover Institution and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, both conservative think tanks with which I was affiliated. The journal, which is based at Harvard and edited mainly by Paul Peterson, was created to counter what was seen as the liberal bias of the mainstream education media.

Education Next is a well-edited journal (I used to write a monthly book review there), but it does have a strong bias in favor of charter schools, vouchers, and testing. It is the journal of the corporate reform movement.

The current issue of Education Next has a fascinating article about the “reformers’ fight club.” I have been writing and speaking about the interconnections among these organizations (and there are many more), and it is good to see confirmation of what I have been saying.

For some reason, these incredibly rich and powerful organizations like to portray themselves as underdogs in contrast to the teachers’ unions.

So, get this picture: On one side are the 3.2 million teachers who belong to the NEA and the AFT. On the other side are the Gates Foundation ($60 billion), the Broad Foundation (billions), the Walton Foundation (billions, and spent $159 million this past year alone on education grants), the Dell Foundation, big corporations, Democrats for Education Reform (Wall Street hedge fund managers who can pump millions into political campaigns at will), and 50CAN (more hedge fund managers). And there are supposedly “liberal” advocacy groups like Education Trust and Ed Sector.

Gosh, that is surely an unequal lineup. No wonder the “fight club” feels like underdogs. Those teachers’ unions are just so doggone powerful and rich. Why, they have the big foundations and Wall Street trembling. Who knew that teachers had so much power?


Florida is open for business, Pearson Spends hundreds of thousands on lobbying efforts

Click below to watch video. -cpg

9 Investigates: Impact of lobbying contracts on children’s…

Despite late scores and questions about grading practices, the state pays International Pearson Incorporated hundreds of millions of dollars to administer the FCAT.

Now, investigative reporter George Spencer discovered Pearson has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to legislators.

In her summertime routine, fifth-grader Erin Newman has now gotten over her FCAT writing score, which as for many Florida students, was lower than she expected.

But in Tallahassee, WFTV learned that the private company behind the test deals in numbers that are very high.

Despite scoring problems and student failures, the state is paying Pearson $249 million for five years of tests and grading. WFTV also found that Pearson spend hundreds of thousands to influence those same leaders.

“Public education is open for business. Whoever the best bidder is, you can come in and administer our test for us,” said parent Rebecca Newman. “It’s ridiculous!”

WFTV studied public records and discovered that since 2007, two years before getting its current contract, the International Pearson Incorporated has spent at least $580,000, and possibly as much as $800,000 on lobbyists in Florida’s capital.

But Pearson’s quarterly spending often put it in the highest tier of lobbyist spending by firms in any sector.

Lobbyists are paid to advocate their clients’ interests in the halls of power, meeting face-to-face with lawmakers. They’re known to be persistent, sometimes returning time and again to make their case.

Pearson’s money went to Uhlfelder and Associates.

According to the group’s website, it was named “one of the top lobbying firms in Florida by Influence magazine.”

The group claims to have “extraordinary knowledge of the people, the policies and the processes of Florida government to “get the results our clients demand.”

“Should the state cut its ties with this company?” Spencer asked.

“I absolutely think that we should cut out ties,” said Representative Geraldine Thompson.

Thompson, a longtime educator, was already troubled by Pearson’s late grading debacle in 2010, an avalanche of writing test failures this year and concerns about test questions with more than one right answer.

WFTV learned that other education firms also use lobbyists.

Uhlfelder said he was chosen as lobbyist for his educational expertise and that his lobbying work had no impact on Pearson’s FCAT contract. Pearson said its reputation for educational excellence allows them to use lobbyists only to inform and advise elected officials.

Who has come out against the FCAT so far? Hint Duval County is not on the list

Since The National Association of Secondary School Principals today endorsed the National Resolution Opposing Over Reliance on Standardized Tests, I thought you might like to know who in Florida has as well.

In Florida We’re up to 18 counties, the FL PTA (330K members) and the Florida School Board Association which passed its own version.

The Duval County School Board remains silent.

Martha Barrett and Connie Hall skip candidate forum

What do these two have in common? One has been on the board for ten years and is seeking four more, one was hand picked as Betty Burney’s replacement, which means in short they both represent the establishment that has been so harmful to local education.

Friends we don’t need more of the same. We need new ideas and a new direction.

Duval County needs to bring back magnet school transportation.

Think back friends. The district pled poverty firing people and cutting programs like magnet school transportation while sitting on over a hundred million dollars. Well now that it turns out they have the money it is time to bring some of the programs back like magnet school transportation or at the very least for the district’s middle school students.

I met the parent of an eleven year old last night and she told me about the trials and tribulations she has had getting her son to school, she then pause and told me about families that had it worse. Do we really want kids that young getting up hours early hanging out in bad neighborhoods waiting for their schools to begin?

Instead of creating more administrative positions, which seems to have been the main thing the board did with the “found” money, it is time the district reinvested in making sure our children are taken care of.

More on this to come.

The Times Union’s school board candidate questionnaire

Along with my answers, the blog posts expand on them. -cpg


A. What is your major accomplishment in public life?

I have been writing about education issues for years in the county. I have played a role in getting the word out about the problems in our schools and I along with my teacher colleagues have come up with solutions that the school board is now starting to put in place.

B. Have you ever been sued, arrested or filed for bankruptcy?

I have never been sued or filed for bankruptcy but I have been arrested. I detail it in my blog.



C. What endorsements have you received?

Duval Teachers United

1. What will you do to see that the next superintendent builds a strong management team with people fully capable of taking over as the next superintendent?

In our district who you know rather than ability has often determined promotions. We need to develop a set of criteria, which includes reviews from subordinates that establishes a better way to determine promotions. We desperately need a house cleaning.

2. Are you committed to finding funds to support transportation for magnet students?

Yes and here is one place that I think we should start.


3. Do you support the FCAT? If not, what would you replace it with?

I do not support the FCAT, I recently urged the SB to join the anti-high stakes testing movement.


4. Is it ever appropriate for a board member to get involved in daily operations of the schools? If so, when?

No, but school board members need to be in the schools constantly, not looking for gotcha moments, but to see what policies are and are not working.

5. Should all board members be involved in intervene schools?

Yes, we are only as strong as our weakest schools.

6. What can the board do to gain more respect for the school system in the larger community, especially the business sector?

We have to do things the right way, rigorous classes, disciplined schools and to treat teachers as collaborators and colleagues rather than easily replaceable cogs. Furthermore we need to ramp up our career academies, teaching more trades, skills and arts in our schools, that prepare more kids to be productive citizens even if they are not going to go to college.

7. What can be done to rally support of alumni to struggling schools whose student body has changed? Forrest High School comes to mind.

Instead of getting alumni who have abandoned their schools maybe we should seek to rally the communities that the schools are in?

8. What¹s the single most important job of a superintendent?

To empower and support the districts teachers.

9. Is the school district too large to effectively manage with 170 schools and over 8,000 employees? Describe how a CEO copes with such a large organization.

It is not to large but it has been plagued by poor management. Fix the management issues and we will see better results.

10. How can the school district and city government work better together?

Communication, I also have an idea for a shadow board made up of community members and govt. officials that separate from the school board would tackle the same issues that the board does and come up with solutions. Then we would compare what they came up with, with what the board does. If there are serious divides we should figure out why.

School Board Candidate Forum tonight at Northstar Substation

This month, the Jacksonville Young Democrats will be hosting a candidate forum for our upcoming School Board race. As this race is non-partisan, it is more important than ever that we have an opportunity to listen to what the candidates have to say, and ask the important questions.

Come on out and hear what they have to say!

Northstar Substation, 119 E Bay Street, Jacksonville, Florida 32202