Towards More Careful, Skeptical Testing Coverage*

Towards More Careful, Skeptical Testing Coverage*

How should reporters write about testing protests and parents opting out this year? Carefully, in a word.Contextually.  Skeptically.  With much greater balance and insight.Better than they did last year (and so far this year, too).*

What last year's coverage often lacked, however, was care and context.  Test proliferation claims thrown out by testing critics weren't verified (often it seemed as if no attempts at verification had been made).   Claims that weren't in dispute -- say the number of parents who opted out -- often weren't presented in context (ie, as a percentage of parents in the school or district). The emphasis was on confrontation and consequences that were often overblown and/or speculative -- most of which didn't actually happen and were never likely to.

Parents and teachers who support testing are rarely found and presented to readers, resulting in grossly imbalanced coverage (especially since the vast majority of parents and teachers aren't actively involved in testing advocacy).

Let's not do that again. Or at least let's stop before it becomes a habit.

Two recent stories from Chicago illustrate the challenges:

The latest story from Chicago public radio (Teachers at 2nd school boycott ISAT) illustrates the dangers of covering the testing issue.It focuses on the addition of a second school where teachers say they're going to refuse to administer the test, and on the possible consequences (for teachers and for the schools) that are unlikely to actually occur.

Sentences like this one -- "Teachers at both schools have said they feel emboldened by large percentages of parents who have opted their children out of this year’s test." -- make it unclear whether the large percentages of parents are at those two schools or in citywide (it's the former).   That sentence is followed by a claim from a test critic about the number of parents who are opting their kids out of the tests that is both unverified and presented without context.  Has the district received opt out forms from anywhere near 1,000 parents?  What percentage of parents would that be, assuming it actually took place?

Where the story does a decent job verifying claims is when it comes to those being made by the district that schools could lose federal funding if not enough kids participate in the state exam. Student or parent voices in support of testing to go along with several critical perspectives?  Zero.

Another story from Chicago, Catalyst's More teachers to boycott ISAT, as parents rally behind them, does a somewhat better job.  It admits to a certain amount of uncertainty regarding how many teachers want to refuse to administer the tests (or will actually follow through).  It notes that just 16 teachers have had their certification revoked in 25 years statewide -- none of them for refusing to administer a test.It explains that the test being protested is being phased out, and how that plays into the testing protest dynamics.  That being said, it repeats testing critics' unverified claims about parents opting out and neglects to tell readers that the organization spearhading the protest is run in part by the teachers union.

There's lots more, and of course these are just two stories cobbled together over recent days.  I know that there's nothing easier than criticizing others' work.  My own recent piece on testing protests is full of flaws. But I worry about the habits that get set early, and the misperceptions that readers may get if those habits take hold again.

Whatever happens -- a reasonable reconsideration (as I've recommended) of legacy testing programs or a worldwide testing ban -- I want the public to have a decent chance of understanding the realities.

*Cross-posted from yesterday's This Week In Education (though I really should really have posted it here first). Agree or disagree? Let me know.

Previous posts: National Audit Of Testing Proposed By SenateTests: Have They *Really* Proliferated (& Will Protests Matter)?Unsolicited Suggestions: A National Testing Audit6 Things You Need To Know About Duncan's "Suburban Moms" RemarksTesting Opt-Out Effort Falls Flat In ChicagoTest/Test Prep Time Lowest In Chicago, Highest In Cleveland.

 

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  • Alexander I think it would honestly be a struggle to find many “Parents and teachers who support testing,” at least non-diagnostic testing for younger students. Even Republican members of the Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education committee have commented about how many calls they have gotten about excessive testing of students. I heard such comments only three weeks ago myself and was surprised they came from Republicans from relatively higher income suburbs.

    High school aged testing may be different, but then we need to look at what students think. We should all recall several years ago it was high performing students at W Young High School, particularly seniors, who marched on the CPS headquarters over the TAP and CASE tests. Student protests over testing happened again in 2013 with the protests organized by Students Organizing to Save our Schools.

    My youngest daughter graduated from Payton Prep and had a perfect score of 36 on the math section of her ACT. That is no doubt while she is completing her MA in agricultural economics at the U of I Champaign and has been accepted in the doctoral program at the U of Wisconsin Madison for next year. She and many similar high performing students thought the TAP she was required to take was to use her dismissive comment “overall a test for relatively low skilled students.” That may strike some as arrogant, but in her situation and for those similarly situated students it was grounded in reality.

    On another level, using mass administered standardized achievement tests, as a screening instrument for students with learning problems testing has some validity. But for the most part the mass produced test including computerized adaptive tests like the MAP theoretically have an empirically-derived RIT scale and longitudinal data but do not provide enough information for highly targeted interventions for reading remediation. So effectively what takes place is a generic reading remediation program like Read 180 for students who are flagged on the MAP. While that is better than not trying to remediate low skilled readers at all, it is hardly a targeted intervention.

    In order to really understand what is going on with these flagged students I might refer the families to Northwestern University’s Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory or North Shore Pediatric Therapy’s Chicago Diagnostic and Testing Center for a much deeper analysis.

    At the level of utility some level of testing can serve a purpose, for assessing the effectiveness of instruction three years or more of individual teacher testing results might give us some valid information. But CPS is unwilling to wait three years to gather and refine individual teacher data, it wants something quick to plug into its evaluation process. Using multiple years of testing data to understand the effectiveness of a school can again have validity if the benchmarks used are based on comparable students in similar socio-economic and community situations. But to do that is to publicly admit that all children can’t learn at the same pace and have equal results based on their socio-economic and community situations. CPS is not willing to that, nor does the NCLB or race to the top legislation accept that brutal reality. So K-12 testing takes place within the framework of what I call the great myth – that free public education in America is the equalizer for children being raised in deep poverty.

    Rod Estvan

  • In reply to Rodestvan:

    Interesting Rod. It sounds like the kids who need it most, need much deeper testing, but not necessarily more. It also seems to me that the parents who are publicly objecting to the testing are probably the parents of children who hardly benefit from testing since they are doing just fine in school. Those parents should probably be asking CPS to increase testing for the kids who really need it (generally from parents who don't know much about these things). That would make for provocative headlines, I can imagine it - "North-side parents want less testing for their kids but more testing for low income students".

  • In reply to CPS Parent:

    Do note that the school that opted out Saucedo is low income. The most vocal northside parents out there hardly had much opting out at their own school. Perhaps the parents on the playground who know the press seeking rag wagon crew know the truth. Ignoring these borderline insane parents is best.

    2 your question Alexander about the press, they clearly did not look too closely at the paltry number of opt out in relation to the whole. Minimal numbers. Laughable too is 25 parents sign a letter to ISBE and it makes the news? What's up with that?

  • In reply to Rodestvan:

    Rod Estvan, there are plenty of parents who support accountability of the school which they entrust their child's education. Today, that accountability measure centers on the results of standardized tests. Right or wrong, that is the measure parents have. So be careful throwing out blanket statements that are missing the real point on testing. You are talking about the symptom instead of the underlying disease. It is all about accountability. CPS trying to put accountability measures in place and the CTU resisting any accountability.

  • i think it's not that hard -- or as least it's not been my experience. they're not emailing or tweeting at reporters, or walking up to them at testing press events, but they're all over the place.

    in my experience they want the schools and teachers kept honest, and don't report trauma from their children on testing days (which are often short and include rewards like movies or pizza).

    there's public opinion data on testing and it's not so one sided as some test protest stories make it seem. in any case, my point is that journos have at least to try and find such folks, or let us know that they've tried. just reporting one side of the story isn't very helpful, IMHO

  • You've got a blog, and apparently access to many parents who support testing. You should be able to cobble together a post supporting that notion in just a few days.

    I say your claim of the commonality of pro-test parents who distrust their teachers is bogus. So-called silent majorities have had plenty of time to speak up. They haven't. Parents who support the current regime of standardized testing are a tiny minority. There is no evidence that the current focus on standardized testing is popular with parents. Prove me wrong.

  • In reply to district299reader:

    Who would be a "pro-test parent"? The majority are parents who are give management the benefit of the doubt when running schools.

    I've noticed how the parents on the CPS Obsessed blog are in a alternate universe compared to the comments here and at Catalyst. I expect many of these parents are somewhat concerned about excess testing, but they don't view it as a high priority issue.

    I'm of a somewhat similiar attitude. I want empirically run schools, with standardized tests as part of the management. But I don't want student time and school money spent on tests of little value. I also don't want teachers' careers impacted by low information test results.

    It seems that this year is a transitional time in a new evaluation systems. That there should be some excesses in both tests and complaints is perhaps to be expected.

    My only firm opinion at this point is that those applying terms like "inhumane" and "child abuse" to testing should probably consider cutting back on their coffee consumption.

  • Alexander, how exactly does testing help children learn, particularly using the ISAT in a year when it doesn't count? Seems to me using time for instruction would more easily lead to learning than spending that same time testing. I'm not opposed to tests or accountability, but I am opposed to having too many of them during a school year (therefore less time for children to learn) or any testing that is gratuitous, like the ISATs this year. What parent would be pro-(ISAT)test this year? And why?

  • Alexander,

    So testing is cool because of instruction the kids get pizza and movies? You accuse real journalists of not fact checking and then state a bunch of unverifiable generalizations as facts. By the way, if that comment about students being given pizza isn't just a result of you being in Brooklyn and out of touch with CPS, you should probably report that school to CPS. That pizza is against the new healthy eating policy.

  • In reply to district299reader:

    whenever you bring up brooklyn, basically you're telling me i've won. it means you don't have anything else to say.

    my point is pretty simple, really -- that we don't seem to be getting much of the broad reality of kids' and parents' experiences with / views on testing, making it seem like the protest side of things is much more widespread than the facts would seem to indicate.

  • Get on with it then, Alex. Let's hear from your legions of pro-test parents in Chicago. Blog about it.

    Maybe parents who are into testing is more of a Brooklyn thing.*

    *By the way, your "Brooklyn/win" notion is DUMB and a weak cover. What it should tell you is that people are frustrated that you have such a prominent platform on education in Chicago, despite the fact that you have very little connection to it. The fact that you aren't interacting with real Chicagoans outside of cyberspace contributes heavily to your bizarre perspectives.

  • In reply to district299reader:

    If you're a parent, you have strange priorities. The CTU fights for the shortest school day possible, and the shortest school year possible. These people "care so much" that they want to minimize instructional time at every opportunity. And your upset about six hours of a state test?

    Look at the CTU contract. Look at CTU negotiations. Too much testing may be an real issue, but it is certainly a secondary problem.

  • In reply to Donn:

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-09-13/news/ct-met-timeinschool-20110913_1_cps-school-day-districts

    What you have not addressed nor has CPS is the fact that even with the shorter day there were schools in CPS who were successful and the data shows it. Instead of holding children in school for an extra hour of non-instructional time why didn't anyone do research and find out how some schools were managing to educate children and educate them well?

  • In reply to district299reader:

    "......why didn't anyone do research and find out how some schools were managing to educate children and educate them well?"

    Great idea! First we'll need some test data...........

  • In reply to Donn:

    There is plenty of test data…..

  • http://www.chicagonow.com/chicago-public-fools/2014/03/opt-outrageous/

    Love the part regarding children with disabilities and the ISAT disruption to their services. Programs for children with disabilities are
    often closed down so that the sped teacher can sub for absent teachers. CPS does not have enough subs nor does it have enough sped teachers yet has not addressed this situation.

  • If you're talking about airline safety, you don't talk about the millions of incident-free passenger-miles year-in year-out. You talk about the 3 passengers who got minor injuries when the plane went off the runway last week. And you start talking about it a lot more when this year's figures for this kind of incident are higher than last year's.

    If this year's ISAT opt-outs are significantly higher than in previous years, it seems to me that's how it should be reported (not by percentage of students taking the test). And if these opt-outs are explained by teachers and parents organizing and mobilizing, then how can the media dismiss it as not newsworthy?

  • In reply to LTwain:

    good idea -- i'm fine with reporting the increase over previous years -- that seems reasonable and part of the whole idea of putting things in context.

    i'd want a verified number, however, not unverified figures provided by test protesters, or at least an attempt to get confirmation of the numbers being provided.

  • I'm a parent. I'm a CPS employee. I want my kids to test. You don't hear from the pro parents because the dissenters are a minority. I'm not sharing my name because I have no
    time for foolishness. Of course students should take tests. They take tests all the time. I went to school over 30 years ago. I took Iowa Basic Skills every year through 8th grade. What we have here is a small minority jumping on a bandwagon. CPS schools have atrocious scores. Where I'm from, the lowest performing schools are high performing here. So, do I want evidence that my child is learning? Absolutely. If I am unhappy with the progress, will I be at the school, rallying parents? Absolutely. But, what I will not be doing is standing on
    a public podium, takiby interviews when I could be at home working with my child.

  • In reply to district299reader:

    Wait... will you be rallying pro-test parents or at home doing test prep with your child?

    Wherever you are "from" the lowest schools DO NOT match our highest performing schools. You're telling me your lowest performing schools are like Northside, Keller, Ogden, Jones, Lane, WY, Oriole Park, Payton etc.? I call BS on that.

  • In reply to district299reader:

    A child in CPS probably now takes more tests in a single year than you took in kindergarten through 12th grade.

    All those tests cost millions of taxpayer dollars.

    My child opted out because she'd rather be learning.

    The ISATs are being phased out, in large part because CPS themselves recognized it was not very useful.

    ISAT are always given in March with the results (maybe) coming back to you in October, rendering them pretty useless to guide instruction or interventions.

    In my 10 years as a parent under NCLB and now RTTT, I have seen curriculum become duller, more rote and uninspired in large part because schools feel forced to teach to these tests. I've also seen parents all over the city become more and more disenfranchised by a top down system whose policies too often stray from good pedagogy.

  • In reply to jillw:

    ISAT will be replaced by PARC and a big picture assessment is needed for districts across the state and the nation and the world. MAPS is and should be used to guide instruction along with whatever tools individual teacers use to assess students. Testing is not the root of all evil as you are implying. It is necessary. It needs to be smarter testing. PARC and MAPS will work well. What needs to happen is district administrators, principals and teachers need to embrace the common core standards and get back to focusing on teaching a more comprehensive curriculum. With these changes schools and students will be much better off than they are today.

  • In reply to district299reader:

    You can glean that I was saying the ISAT was bad.

    I do not think all assessment is bad.

    We've yet to see PARC in action, so jury's out on yet another test.

    Assessment should be authentic, timely, inform instruction and interventions, and not come at the expense of high quality experiences for children to learn and develop social emotionally.

    Ah, I'm feeling a Heisenberg Uncertainty principle moment coming on.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you Alexander. This lack of objectivity is driving me insane. James Bowman in the American Spectator made the same observation about 12 Years a Slave. Why is slavery always portrayed negatively? You never hear and feel good slavery stories. Have you thought about writing for them? I think you'd be a great fit.

    http://spectator.org/articles/56909/propaganda-not-‘reality-or-‘truth

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