Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why testing can be bad for kids... and tax payers

Millions paid for recycling tests

By Conny Jensen On March 14, 2011 · Leave a Comment
“While most of my colleagues opted not to dine on goat that evening, they nonetheless reveled in wine or cocktails and big, delicious steaks. It was a great night to work in standardized testing.”
I had the goat.
That’s what I remember about my travels to Detroit last year, when working as a test developer for an educational publishing company. I made two separate trips to Motown to get teacher approval on the K-12 assessments my company “developed” for them.
While I have only vague recollections of the work those teachers and I did, I do have a very clear memory of dinner one night. It was at Roast. The night my colleagues and I visited, the daily special was goat, the whole animal skewered on a spit and roasting over an open flame. I happily gorged myself on a plateful of meat hacked off the roasting carcass, crispy skin included, and it was delectable.
While most of my colleagues opted not to dine on goat that evening, they nonetheless reveled in wine or cocktails and big, delicious steaks. It was a great night to work in standardized testing. While my colleagues and I enjoyed other nice meals in Motown, most of our time was less festive.
Our reception at the Detroit Public Schools’ administration building wasn’t very warm, both because the heat wasn’t turned on and because the Detroit teachers recruited to OK our assessments seemed cynical about our presence. There were nearly 20 of us standardized testers on site that day (test developers, senior test developers, supervisors, project managers, customer service reps), and one teacher wasn’t very impressed that there were nearly twice as many of us than them.
“Who are all you people anyways?” she snarled. “And what do you think you are doing here?”
Her implication, of course, was that those of us who had jetted to Detroit from Chicago and New York (and Minneapolis and Missouri and New Mexico) had no idea what went on in the Detroit Public Schools and, frankly, that we had little to offer. When some of the teachers told us about the conditions they experienced each day (a lack of textbooks in classrooms but a surfeit of students, metal detectors at front doors, cars stolen right out of school parking lots), it was hard to argue the point.
“I asked myself that question at the time, and I ask it especially now, when I’m amazed to read about the “draconian” measures being taken by DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb. Bobb is attempting to solve DPS’ $327-million budget shortfall by closing nearly half of Detroit’s schools, increasing class sizes in the remaining ones to as high as 60. It seems an insane idea to me, especially since I feel responsible for a big chunk of that deficit.
The company I worked for is owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which just completed a 15-month contract with DPS worth nearly $40 million, or more than 12% of DPS’ entire budget shortfall, for HMH’s “managed instruction” in reading and math. While I don’t know exactly what $40 million of “managed instruction” looks like, I know some of those millions were used to pay for the tests I helped slap together (mostly recycling passages and questions that had been used many times before) and to sponsor my travels to Detroit.
It all just gives me pause. I’m still hard-pressed to see the benefits of sending those millions to Boston to line the gilded coffers of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Wouldn’t the city of Detroit have been better served by spending that money to keep its schools open or to hire teachers, coaches, staff or security? Isn’t all of that a better way to give the city’s kids a chance to succeed than paying tens of millions for the “expertise” of a bunch of people who will have no more than cursory interactions with the city of Detroit?
Wouldn’t that money have been better spent on something other than buying me dinner? Notwithstanding that tasty goat at Roast, today the thought of my days in Detroit leaves nothing but a bad taste in my mouth.
Todd Farley is the author of  ”Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry.“”

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