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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 02/ 2/2011

The Bartleby Project

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author. His latest book is What’s Worth Learning? from Information Age Publishing.

By Marion Brady
“Juggernaut.”

Picture a huge, ancient chariot being pulled through narrow city streets, carrying a crude idol of a god. So massive is the chariot, citizens are crushed under its wooden wheels.

The current education-change experiment, begun in the 1980s at the urging of corporate America, is a juggernaut. The god it carries is The Standardized Test.

On board the chariot, surrounding the god and enthusiastically waving the standards and accountability banner, are the president of the United States; the secretary of education; nearly all the governors of the 50 states; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the Business Roundtable; the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations; hedge fund managers; publishers of test and test prep materials; a few big-city mayors; and celebrities such as Michelle Rhee, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeb Bush.

The chariot riders , true believers, take it for granted that learning isn’t a natural act, that it happens only under threat, and that high-stakes, standardized tests provide that necessary threat. Their money, name recognition, political power, public relations skills, and easy access to the mainstream media, are used to steadily increase the number of worshipers of the Standardized Test God.

But the chariot has stalled, so questions must be asked.

And of those questions, the most important one for America is this: Can standardized tests measure “higher order” thinking skills—measure not merely memory of something read or heard, but measure student ability to infer, categorize, hypothesize, generalize, synthesize, value, create, and so on?

In short, can machine-scored test questions attach useful, meaningful numbers or letter grades indicating the quality of the complex thought processes upon which our survival and success depend?

Most educators say “No.”

But federal education policymakers say “Yes,” and have handed near-absolute power to the Standardized Test God. It’s fair, then, to ask them to explain and defend their action to educators whose agreement and cooperation they need if the chariot is to move on.

Establishing a reasonable schedule for a public exchange of views on the issue is appropriate and necessary. Here’s how that can be made to happen:

For four days, between July 28 —31, anti-standardized test educators from across America will meet in Washington, D.C. to stage a protest.

At least two weeks before they arrive, the U.S. Department of Education should post ten illustrative or model questions on its website, two each for five different “higher order” thought processes of their choosing. The ten questions, when answered, will produce numbers that compare a particular test-taker’s performance with that of all others answering the question dealing with that particular thinking skill.

On the website, following each question, provision should be made for dialogue—for a conversation between experienced educators and policymakers in Washington.

To set wise policy, out of that dialog must come a clear answer. Can machine-scored standardized tests measure human thought processes precisely enough to allow standardized tests to shape America’s future ? Yes, or no?

The ten model questions posted by the USDOE should meet two criteria.

First, they must be 100 % machine scoreable and reliable. This is essential, for sooner or later, taxpayers will want to know why they’re paying billions of dollars to corporations to score single examples of school work (work taxpayers will rarely or never see), when those same taxpayers have already paid teachers to score a far richer and more visible stream of work?

Second, each USDOE sample questions must yield a useful, meaningful score. It must say, for example, that in a practical, real-world situation—a situation familiar to the test taker—the test-taker-taker’s inference, hypothesis, generalization, value judgment or other complex thought process deserves an “8” rather than a “7,” a “9,” or some other score.

At a meeting I attended on Aug. 2, 2008, in Titusville, Florida, prior to his election, President Obama recognized me, asked about my more than five decades of teaching experience, and accepted my question about his future administration’s openness to the input of experienced educators on matters of education policy.

To his credit, he didn’t promise me that such would be the case; his answer came later when, to the great disappointment of many educators, he chose the cliché-prone Arne Duncan to head the Department of Education.

After the election, in a much smaller meeting with Secretary Duncan near Orlando, Florida, my raised hand went unacknowledged, but the secretary said that, although present standardized tests were flawed and in need of major improvement, there would be more of them.

Any trace of logic in that policy escapes me. Why are billions of dollars being spent to buy and administer tests the Secretary admits are flawed? What purpose is served by numbers and rankings that yield no reliable, useful information?

I agree with the late, highly respected paleontologist, biologist and historian Stephen Jay Gould who near the end of his book, "The Mismeasure of Man," summed up what everyone who’s given more than a moment’s thought to the matter knows: “Human uniqueness lies in the flexibility of what our brains can do. What is intelligence, if not the ability to face problems in an unprogrammed manner?”

The situation calls for action. Now. Students, strongly supported by their teachers, parents, grandparents, and all others who care about the future of education and America, should join The Bartleby Project initiated in 2008 by John Taylor Gatto.

Serious students, strongly supported by their teachers, parents, grandparents, and all others who care about the human condition, should join the Bartleby Project initiated in 2008 by John Taylor Gatto.

In an afterward to his book, "Weapons of Mass Instruction," Gatto invites readers to join him in what he calls “an open conspiracy” to destroy the standardized testing industry.

If destroying the standardized testing industry sounds like an extreme action, you don’t understand the problem.

Gatto’s argument can be accessed at: http://www.newsociety.com/titleimages/TI004012_OI001098_23.pdf

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 2, 2011; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Marion Brady, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  education reform, president obama, school reform, standardized test industry, standardized tests, test industry, the bartleby project  
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Comments

Real national standardized tests have been available for years and have indicated large numbers of students that can not read by the 4th grade. For the urban poverty schools the failure rate is over 50 percent.

The idea of an emphasis on standardized testing appears ludicrous with failure rates in reading in the 4th grade being over 50 percent.

For years national standardized tests have indicated the problem of large number of students that can not read in the urban poverty schools. Time to start dealing with the problem. None of the proponents of standardized testing would be foolish enough to state that more standardized tests prior to the 4th grade would have allowed the large number of student that failed to be instead competent readers.

By the way the failure rate for reading of 8th grade students is almost as high as the failure rate for 4th grade students in the urban poverty public schools. Time to recognize that if a student can not read by the 4th grade, the probability is high that child will never learn how to read.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 2, 2011 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Real national standardized tests have been available for years and have indicated large numbers of students that can not read by the 4th grade. For the urban poverty schools the failure rate is over 50 percent.

The idea of an emphasis on standardized testing appears ludicrous with failure rates in reading in the 4th grade being over 50 percent.

For years national standardized tests have indicated the problem of large number of students that can not read in the urban poverty schools. Time to start dealing with the problem. None of the proponents of standardized testing would be foolish enough to state that more standardized tests prior to the 4th grade would have allowed the large number of student that failed to be instead competent readers.

By the way the failure rate for reading of 8th grade students is almost as high as the failure rate for 4th grade students in the urban poverty public schools. Time to recognize that if a student can not read by the 4th grade, the probability is high that child will never learn how to read.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 2, 2011 12:32 PM | Report abuse

The best way to 'destroy' and industry is to offer a better product. I have never, EVER had a standardized test tell me something about my students I didn't know already. I can tell you what students will do on a standardized test before they take it. While I like to think I am the norm, there seems to be too much anecdotal evidence that suggests far too many math teachers who give grades based on little learning, especially in urban schools. Again, if what we do is superior truly to the standardized testing industry we must convince & enlist our customers, parents and students, to our side. It seems the battle we're having in education is happening around, above, and WITHOUT the voice of our customers. If it weren't for taxpayer dollars education would have died a long time ago from ignoring the demands of its customers as it seems to do today.

Posted by: pdexiii | February 2, 2011 12:38 PM | Report abuse

"I have never, EVER had a standardized test tell me something about my students I didn't know already. I can tell you what students will do on a standardized test before they take it."

What a ridiculous thing to say. My aging father doesn't need an visual acuity test to know that he can't see as well as he used to. The test is not for his knowledge, but for researchers, eye doctors, the DMV, etc. Same with you. The standardized test doesn't exist to tell you something, but it still has uses that you -- as well as an astounding number of teachers -- fail to see.

It would be nice to set up a controlled study to see how a math program like Everyday Math stacks up against alternatives. But that's not likely to ever happen because you can't set up a controlled study without some sort of standardized measurement. That's one of potentially many studies that could be performed.

Likewise, how are institutions such as MIT supposed choose from among all the applicants it faces? Grades?

Posted by: physicsteacher | February 2, 2011 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Guess what may be next? The assessment of parents! A Florida lawmaker came up with the idea of grading parents on their involvement in their children's education.

My guess is that most parents who have the capability (read: financial security, and savviness about optimum child development and how to nurture that) to care about their children's education, are already involved.

The question is, how can it be asked, let alone be demanded(!), of parents who are under the severe stress of living in poverty, who perhaps are dealing with domestic violence, and substance addiction?

And, being an involved parent (such as I have always been) is no guarantee that the child will be successful in school.

My school district let my highly gifted daughter fail by not making adaptations for her different needs, not even under the IEP she was on due to depression!

So, with all my active involvement what would my grade have been? An A for involvement, or an F because my daughter had no other choice than to ultimately drop out and graduate by alternative means?

Let's all put a stop to the insanity of grading and help stretch students' minds and talents instead. Opt your children out of testing, or follow the tips laid out in the Bartleby project.

Also, unite behind teachers and parents for the sake of your, our, all children's future and join the "Save Our Schools - National March and Days of Action July 28-31, 2011" movement (http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org/)

Also check out this group:
Facebook | Uniting 4 Kids (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=111772538876554&v=info)

And heed this advice: "Activism doesn't give up, activism doesn't fall silent. Activism doesn't rely on the opiate of hope" ~ John Pilger


Posted by: gpadvocate | February 2, 2011 6:43 PM | Report abuse

"Can standardized tests measure “higher order” thinking skills—"

It's common to hear countless "educators" crow about how broad and deep and creative their teaching is, and how narrow and uncreative standardized test -- even hypothetical ones yet to be created -- are. If this is remotely true, then kids should be acing the ST and there should be no hoopla concerning ST at all. The reality is that all this teaching of "higher order thinking" teaches kids neither higher order thinking skills nor any facts.

ALL of my students have experienced YEARS of "higher order thinking skills" taught to them. They've played make-up-your-own-hypothesis and design-your-own-experiment weekly, for years. Yet when they come to me they don't know which side of the ruler is the centimeter side and they have no idea how many meters there are in a kilometer. This is after they've been told that there are 1,000 grams in a kilogram. So much for the higher order thinking skills or the knowledge of "mere" facts.

Standardized tests function as a sanity check. The point shouldn't be to punish individual teachers, or even schools, but the constructivist BS that fuels the schools behind the scenes.

Posted by: physicsteacher | February 2, 2011 8:51 PM | Report abuse

My parents talked a lot about hard times during the Great Depression, but nobody suggested that the children couldn't or didn't learn in school because they were poor. They DID learn!

The education establishment claimed schools needed to be reformed because test scores were poor, then when the tests were worse after reform, they claim testing is bad.

We need to remove social promotion. Children who have their reading instruction started later catch up by age 11. Concentrate on children listening to lots of language in preschool and the early grades, teaching reading before age 7 or 8 only to those who are ready and eager and the rest will follow. Children of a range of ages in a grade is not a problem.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/6937462/Reading-at-five-fails-to-boost-skills.html

Similarly, use math curricula that have been proven in countries ranking highest on the TIMMS.

http://www.nychold.org/report-wbwh-040619.pdf

We know what to do!

Posted by: Ruth1940 | February 6, 2011 11:06 PM | Report abuse

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