Saturday, August 12, 2006

High School Exit Exam Upheld--And Chickens Come to Roost in Higher Ed

Here's the news you didn't hear: Yesterday, the California Court of Appeals upheld the requirement that every student in the Golden State must indeed pass the High School Exit Exam to earn a diploma. Lawyers for the plaintiffs, who have not challenged the test itself but rather the quality and equity of school resources, are now appealing to California's Supreme Court. (For background, see our recent coverage of Valenzuela v. O'Connell.) If students don't pass the test, the judges argued, they will be given a message that they don't have adequate skills to succeed in life.

Here's the news you did hear: Two days earlier, university professors from across the country were shocked! shocked! to hear Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and her federal commission admonish higher education to clean up its act with standardized testing. (The committee did settle on laughably euphemistic language for some recommendations at the end of its session, as reported by the NY Times, changing "should require" testing to "should measure student learning" with tests. Of course, any public school teacher knows what this really implies for colleges, who would be foolish to consider the phrase adjustment some sort of appeasement or exemption.) Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education--which includes members from private and public schools, think tanks and corporations--certainly did offer some enticements, in the form of increased money for Pell Grants to finance student attendance. Pell Grants, of course, mean more political leverage via federal money spent expressly on colleges and universities.

It's difficult to sympathize with the outcry from universities, who have themselves been largely complicit in the test mania perpetrated on "little sister" K-12--while remaining insanely out of touch with daily realities of compulsory schools and local communities. The university system has, in effect, fed the monster it now decries as counter to its educational interests.

As an ETS speaker told one group at its Orlando Pathwise Conference in June, "The old system used to be that universities told the primary and secondary schools what to do. Now the Nation's Report Card is going to tell the universities." This statement is only half of the story, however. The Nation's Report Card itself has been largely influence by corporate interests such as Achieve! and The Business Roundtable. Educational testmakers such as ETS and Reed-Elsevier have long been in bed with corporations such as Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and IBM.

Consider this passage on corporate involvement in education as posted on our own U.S. Department of Education website:

Today, more than ever before, corporate prosperity as well as our economic success as a nation depends on a highly educated workforce. The demand for highly skilled and well-educated workers in the new economy will only increase over time, making businesses major stakeholders in the educational success of our children.

To this end, the Office of Corporate Liaison works to facilitate effective communication between business leaders and program officers at the Department, to build mutual understanding of the needs of both the corporate world and local communities, and to promote business—education partnerships around the country. Businesses interested in supporting local efforts to improve education may consider aligning their current programs with one or more of the Department's priorities.

The now public-push for testing in universities, where professors have too-long enjoyed the privilege of obliviousness, shouldn't be a surprise. I'm reminded of the old parable: They came for the blind, and I did nothing because I could see. They came for the crippled, and I did nothing because I could walk. They came for the Jews, the Catholics, the evangelicals, the atheists, and I did nothing because I was none of these. When they came for me, there was no one left to stand up.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Teacher Watch--ETS Pathwise Conference, or: Who's the Potato Head?

In June, I attended Educational Testing Service's annual Pathwise Teaching & Leadership Conference. The 9th annual gathering, held just outside the main thoroughfare of Orlando's bustling DisneyWorld Resort, was designed to promote what ETS has branded its "System 5" program for educational customers: Professional Development Solutions, Instructional Solutions, Assessment Solutions, Data-Driven Decision-Making Solutions, and School Improvement Solutions. (The 5-point and 5-year plans of certain historical dictators come to mind.)

Most of the attendees came from local superintendent and professional development offices, or were active classroom teachers. The group felt somewhat divided among administrators gunning to raise test scores, researchers curious about training teachers, and educators lassoed by their districts to gather solutions for local problems. The total turnout seemed relatively small, approximately 300-400 people, which I did not mistake as a sign of ETS's waning influence. (Coincidentally, the National Education Association was holding its annual convention in a hotel nearby, and there appeared to be no overlap in crowds.)

The rhetoric in Orlando displayed an intriguing shift from the brazen "rah rah tests and moolah" speeches at the 2005 Association of Test Publishers Conference in Scottsdale Arizona, where ETS logo, products, and corporate speakers had made a formidable presence. Here in Orlando, where ETS was the only game in town, we had a kinder, gentler and much more disingenuous language offered for the teacher audience--for those people in closest proximity to actual students. "We're not picking on teachers," one presenter said. "Change is hard for everyone." This rhetorical seduction was capable, smooth and (perhaps) well-meaning, as it was usually delivered by individual researchers themselves "on the ground" and less connected to centers of ETS power. (The only trace of corporate leadership appeared on certificates for professional development credit, via John Oswald's signature in black felt-tip ink.)

One of the central ETS promotions in half-day workshops was its Keeping Learning on Track (KLT) Institute, also listed under the title What is Formative Assessment? The idea, presenters insisted, was to change what happens inside learners' heads--and that requires minute-to-minute assessment in classrooms. Don't confuse what ETS means by this and what Madeline Hunter meant by "checking for understanding", "guided" or "independent practice," or for that matter any of the other hundreds of individual instructional, social and emotional assessments teachers make in the course of any given day. KLT means asking one particular question, with a quickly assessable answer, to an entire group of students--who indicate their responses, en masse, via A B C or D choice cards or, perhaps, by flashing up a few words or symbols on their personal white boards. The results tell teachers how to proceed.

Most bizarre during this workshop was how presenters openly attacked the idea of scripted learning and curriculum maps (ETS would offer a separate "Curriculum Mapping: Aligning Learning" workshop just two days later). There was something dissonant and surreal about the presenters' attack, since ETS benchmark tests--at district, state and national levels--were acknowledged openly as the keys driving curriculum alignment and realignment in the planning process. To sell KLT, however, presenters appealed to teachers' frustration with mapping and scripts. A brilliant maneuver.

For example: One presenter described how she addressed teacher frustration balancing KLT strategies with the weekly planning demands prescribed by her district. "You all remember the Nuremberg defense?" she asked us. "Saying 'I was just following the pacing guide' is no defense if your students don't move ahead." I had to cover my mouth to keep from laughing aloud at the hideous analogy, especially by a representative of a corporation that drives curriculum mapping, but the quip drew solemn nods from the group. (I wondered how many teachers might be subjected to that comment when attendees returned to share the story with their districts.)

It was repeated at least twice in this session that it's not sufficient for students to arrive at the right answer for wrong or inaccurate reasons. (Terrific! An emphasis on thinking! says the conscientious teacher.) Nevermind that ETS and other brands of multiple choice tests--the big elephants in the classroom--rarely provide students with opportunities to earn credit for thoughtful or accurate thinking and methodology, even if they make a simple computational error at the very end. The teacher-touching emphasis on “process” in the rhetoric of KLT is frankly undermined by the reality that “product” is what our system ultimately measures and values.

A final note: It was hinted at various points during the five day conference that ETS researchers are now pushing to eliminate teacher grades in favor of written feedback or comments only. Keep in mind, however, that while it might consider “letter grades” from individual teachers irrelevant, ETS corporation has its eye fixed on the big prize: there’s no talk of eliminating the numbers, rankings, scores, and percentiles generated on a national level by its own test instruments. That sounds like Game-Over, Check-Please, and all in the name of "better learning": making one corporation the final arbiter of multiple-choice quality in the world of education-as-product.

Keep your own potato eyes wide open on this one.