California is failing the test

March 18, 2014

California is giving a phony field test to public school students. David Russitano, a member of United Educators of San Francisco, tells you what you can do about it.

CALIFORNIA HAS a surprise for everyone with its latest assessment. This year, the state is planning on testing millions of students--and throwing away the data.

No teachers will see how their students did, no students will receive a score, no district will see any data, and no family will have a chance see the results. What's more, students will be tested on a curriculum that has yet to be offered in schools.

Those who care about education admit they are confused by this latest move by testing advocates. Usually, the argument goes, we have to assess how well the teachers are doing, and that can only be measured by standardized testing. Accountability, they say, is needed--so they print the scores in the newspaper and identify the bottom 5 percent of schools for public shaming.

So what happened? Did they give up on accountability and evaluation? Of course not; the reason for giving this new assessment, called "Smarter Balanced," is merely to see which test questions should be used next year on the tests that count. In other words, they want to "test the test."

Fourth graders work on a math test
Fourth graders work on a math test (Judy Baxter)

All third through eighth graders and 11th graders in California are required by Assembly Bill 484 to take the "Smarter Balanced" field assessment. Why California couldn't "test the test" on a smaller number of students is a mystery. Normally, a field test wouldn't require so many students, take so much time nor use so many valuable resources. It could easily be done with a few thousand students, instead of the millions who will be told to take a phony test.

State officials even admit that the reason they won't give out results is because the "Smarter Balanced" test won't provide a reliable outcome. A section of the "Frequently Asked Questions" page of the California Department of Education website states:

A field test is not designed to be a valid and reliable measure of student achievement; rather, it is designed to help the test developers evaluate whether the tests, individual items, and the technology platform work as intended before the first operational administration.

If it isn't a "valid and reliable test," then why should so many students be subjected to it? And why should neither students, nor parents, nor teachers have any say in who is tested and what happens to the results?

This decision doesn't make sense to most educators, because it was made without our input. Effectively, AB 484 was a compromise between the federal government, which requires testing, and the state of California, which knows we aren't ready.

The test of the test is probably the best thing they could come up with to keep the logic of testing going. If they had just given us a break, it would have given strength to a new movement of test resisters.

Educators, students and parents should take time to reflect on how we got to a point where standardized testing corporations can, through the state of California, use children as guinea pigs. And then we need to figure out what we can do about it. At this point, they're willing to test for testing's sake.

How did education come to this weird and prescribed contradiction? The specific circumstances that we are now experiencing in California can be traced back to Obama's "Race to the Top" policy and the way the new Common Core standards were imposed--although the attack on public education goes back further than that, of course.

The Race to the Core

The Obama administration successfully pushed Common Core standards one state at a time.

During the economic crisis, they held out money (a little over $4 billion) and made states and cities compete for that funding. Ironically, this program was called "Race to the Top." It cost a fraction of the federal education budget and did not fill the all of the gaps caused by state cuts. Nevertheless, states bent over backward to try and get the money.

As a result, more than 45 states and the District of Columbia have now accepted the Common Core standards. This "Race to the Top" also involved a wave of school closures, agreeing to link test scores to teacher evaluations, a significant increase in charter school openings, and professional educators being replaced by bean counters. It turns out that if you wave a little money for education at a majority of states and say jump, they ask how high.

California competed in this race and implemented "reforms," including the adoption of the Common Core. As a state, we didn't get money, although some districts and schools did. We are left now to face the transition to Common Core. The entire Race to the Top program succeeded where No Child Left Behind failed in implementing massive school restructuring of standards and "accountability."

In California, the adoption and implementation of Common Core have been separated by years. Curriculums and practices have not been aligned to the new standards. They are set to go into full effect next year.

I can report that most schools and districts are still organized around the old standards. I teach eighth grade algebra, and next year, that class won't exist because the new standards add more depth, in addition to moving other concepts to high school. I have changed some practices in preparation for the core, but those above me still expect me to teach a full algebra class this year.

So in addition to this test not counting toward anything, the students haven't been taught under the Common Core regime. This will cause chaos at the micro-level when students are asked to do things they have never been taught to do. The data will not even be useful for the testing company's purposes, because the answers students give will be based on this year's teaching, which has not been to the Common Core.

The validity of the field test must be called into further question because we have not changed our practice yet. We can't expect students to do something that they haven't yet been taught to do, and to do so is only inviting discouragement or rebellion, as any good educator knows.

Tech Is the Answer...Not

Besides the academic skills necessary to take the new assessment, California is also throwing out the old paper-and-pencil bubble Scantron mess. The new assessment requires that students spend up to four hours on computers.

This ignores the fact that, in the last six years, since the start of the economic crisis, making sure schools had up-to-date technology was a secondary or even tertiary concern. It was simply more important to have people to actually teach classes. This has left most schools scrambling for the technology necessary for administering the tests.

The testing company says that at minimum, it will take one computer for every 10 students to take the test, which is easy to find at most schools, despite the deficit. But it will come with hard choices over how to use precious resources.

At my school, this means that the library, where the computer lab is, will be shut down for a month. The librarian will instead go from class to class in an effort to offer some sort of continuity. Obviously, having the library off limits will make the real work of education difficult because students won't have access to the books or technology that educators rely upon.

These are the types of complications and choices schools will have to make--and my example is of a school of only 500, where two-thirds of the students are being tested.

Those unlucky enough not to have technology may have a horrible new savior on the way. Unconfirmed rumors suggest that a bus with computers on it will visit schools without the necessary technology. If that's true, this testing bus puts a new spin on the whole question. It will be a symbol of everything wrong with the testing regime imposed on schools.

We need classrooms equipped with technology to develop learners prepared for the 21st century world. This goal cannot be accomplished with the scramble for technology that is happening now. It's clear to me that the demands of the test have outweighed a serious approach to developing technology for our students.

Testing Deform

There's a nationwide attack on public education that started before "No Child Left Behind." The reason is easy to see--our public education system represents big dollar signs to companies and capitalists that want to make profits.

They want obedient workers who will take a test with nothing in it for them, instead of educated citizens who can participate in democracy. Their movement is funded privately through foundations and is backed up by both Democrats and Republicans.

Testing is a means to an end for these deformers. They want to use it to bust the unions and destroy what's left of a public education system that is under siege. It has gotten to the point that testing is completely disconnected from learning and has taken on its own importance as a means of control. It's the inevitable outcome of an undemocratic school reform movement that seeks privatization. How else can we explain a test with no results completely disconnected from what is going on in classrooms?

Get Into Action

It doesn't have to be this way. Our students are not guinea pigs. The revolt against testing is growing. Many who care about quality public education are taking a stand. Teachers and students in Seattle at Garfield High School waged a successful boycott campaign against the MAP test last year. Some Chicago teachers and students are boycotting the ISAT test this year.

We need a nationwide movement of those involved in education that stands up to the deform agenda. You can start right now.

If you're an educator, talk to you colleagues (and the union if you have one) and propose a public boycott. If you are a parent and are reading this, you should opt your student out of the test and get active.

If you're a student, you should boycott the test and organize for the education you want to see in your school. We can all start small, and eventually we can produce an avalanche of resistance against those who are ruining education.

Finally, it is not enough to articulate how bad the test is to stop it. We need to present a vision of education that proposes an alternative to the regime of testing we face. That kind of vision can only be built from the bottom up, and we need your voice.

Further Reading

From the archives