Tuesday, November 21, 2017

AltSchool -- Just Another Business

For several years, we've been following the fortunes of the Silicon Valley Wunderskool, AltSchool, created by a Google whiz master and funded by Zuckerberg and all the other tech whiz masters, this was supposed to be the Next Great Big Thing-- Personalized Learning Done Right. 


Alas, it is looking as if AltSchool is about to follow Rocketship Academies and Summit School-in-a-Box into the land of Snake Oil Education. Skoolmeister Max Ventilla has announced that he's shuttering several of the school sites and focusing on the market end of the biz, with AltSchool to be reduced to a brand name for one more school-in-software biz. This is perhaps not as sudden a decision as it might seem; in a BBC interview, Ventllla was already referring his schools as "lab schools."

One reporter I spoke to said that parents are upset at being left in the lurch. And Melia Robinson at Business Insider has found a few other parents who are not exactly beamful of high tech testimonials for the school.

Before we take a closer look into the Department of Toldyaso, the final quote from Robinson's article needs to be plastered in 100 point font across every article touting charter schools--

"We're not the constituency of the school," a parent of a former AltSchool student told Business Insider. "We were not the ones [Ventilla] had to be accountable to." 


Exactly. AltSchool, for all its benevolent trappings, is a business. And businesses make decisions for business reasons. This (as I often say) does not make them evil, but it does make them uniquely unsuited to run public education. Businesses are accountable to investors first. Not students. Not families. Investors. Every parent who enrolls their child in a charter school needs to understand that the school will only exist as long as it makes business sense to do so, will only educate their child as long as it makes business sense to do so, will only provide their child with a full range of educational services as long as it makes business sense to do so.

And parents have apparently been learning that at AltSchool for a while.

Personalized learning?

Parents told Business Insider they expected their children to be engaged in activities handpicked for them but that assignments were more or less the same for the class.

Learning with a human touch assisted by technology?

A parent told Business Insider that she figured the startup — which has poached talent from Google, Uber, Airbnb, and Zynga — would provide "cutting-edge" technology as a supplement to human instruction. Instead, she and others said, technology replaced it at the cost of learning. 

 Flexibility to meet all student needs, no matter how challenging?

A different mother, whose children no longer attend AltSchool, told Business Insider that her second-grader listened to audio books on a tablet in class, instead of being taught to read. The parent said she had taken her concerns to AltSchool several times and was repeatedly told to be patient as her daughter fell behind in reading. She was later diagnosed with a learning disability. 

Though it turns out that parents can pay extra for extra instructional help if their child needs it.

Some parents are upset that their children were used as guinea pigs or beta testers, but if they had been paying attention at all they had to know that's what they were signing up for-- a school-sized tech-based experiment performed by educational amateurs. These parents can be excused for discovering that Ventilla decided to ditch the money-losing school for the "far more profitable" software biz, but still-- it's a business making business decisions, not a school making educational decisions, and that's what you get with a charter school-- particularly one with investors. Savvy parents will have to learn to ask exactly what business their child's prospective charter operator is in.

There is one other issue that parents need to start paying attention to. In that same BBC interview from last summer, Judah asks one of the teachers about the great amount of data collected and stored by the school. Is she concerned about what might be done with that data, where it's stored, for how long? "I don't know," she says. "I just have trust." The AltSchool story, as it spins on to its business flavored next chapter, is a reminder that maybe a little less trust is called for. What will become of all the student data that AltSchool has already collected and stored, and just how much data mining will the new branded software be doing? Parents had better ask-- and remember that decisions will be made on business terms.



Schools Should Belong To Corporations

Corey DeAngelis is a scholar (I know because he says so) who has had a busy couple of years suckling off various Libertarian teats. He's a Fellow for the Cato Institute, policy adviser for the Heartland Institute, and a Distinguished Working-on-his-PhD Fellow at the University of Arkansas, all of this built on a foundation of a BBA (2012) and MA (2015) in economics from the University of Texas in San Antonio (because nobody understands education like economists). And while plugging away on that Masters, he worked first as the Risk Management Operations Coordinator and then the Fraud Coordinator for Kohl's. So yet another education experts with no education background.


He also hangs out with the fine folks at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE, not to be confused with the Jeb Bush FEE), where he writes pieces with catchy titles like "Legalizing Discrimination Would Improve the Education System" and "Governments Shouldn't Even Certify Schools, Much Less Run Them." So we should not be surprised to find his name attached to an article arguing that schools should belong to businesses.

"Government Is Not The Solution to Educational Inequality"  shows off DeAngelis's ability for gross overstatement (it's like he thinks he's a blogger or something) with statements like "it is almost impossible for one to imagine an aspect of society with greater inequities than those existing in the U.S. education system." He might want to look at justice or housing or economics. But no-- DeAngelis has a particular destination in mind, and he will not be distracted on the journey.

He's going to lead with the idea that schools, linked to zip codes, are racially and socioeconomically segregated. A useful question to consider here might be to ask how those zip codes end up segregated in the first place-- after all, if we made them that way, maybe we could unsegregate them. But that's not where we're going. But we're not taking that exit from this highway. Instead, he wants to forge straight ahead to peer effects-- in other words, poor minority kids do poorly because they have to go to school with a bunch of poor minority kids. 

Linking funding to real estate means that schools in poor areas are poorly funded. Is DeAngelis going to talk about how to change funding in order to solve that problem? No, he's not going there, either. 

Teachers? Well...

Teacher quality varies from one individual to the next. And teachers are paid based on years of experience rather than actual levels of quality. The result? Since the best teachers are not rewarded with pay, they are rewarded with an easier job. The highest quality teachers move to the schools with advantaged students that are relatively easy to educate. 

That's a bit of a mischaracterization. However, even if we accept it, a solution immediately presents itself-- make the jobs at the high needs schools more appealing or "easier." (And really, that word selection is a cheap shot, as if teachers are motivated by laziness rather than a desire to work in an environment in which they can better achieve the goals they set for themselves as professionals). But that's not on this journey. 

Instead, DeAngelis sets up a pair of straw men-- pay high-quality teachers more to move to high needs schools, or give teachers bonuses for raising test scores. Neither solution is the same as making the job at a high needs school more appealing, and as DeAngelis already knows, neither solution is actually a solution. As he correctly notes, we don't have a reliable measure of teacher quality (as he does not note, it would be impossible to divorce such a measure from the context in which the teacher teaches, which creates problems for a move-teachers-around plan). And tests are not strong predictors of future success, anyway. 

Part of what DeAngelis says as we breeze past these exits is kind of astonishing:

Rewarding teachers based on test scores could actually harm students that need character development. Disadvantaged children coming from single-parent families, or households that do not have the time to focus on behavioral development, would be harmed the most by such policies. 


In other words, those poor minority kids need help with the character deficiencies they have on account of their terrible poor minority background. Those Peoples' Children need a special kind of education over and above what wealthy white kids need, because rich white kids never suffer from character deficiencies because of a lousy family life. 

But DeAnglis has only begin the revolution, because we have been sailing down this highway to Oligarchy Town.

The best way to solve the educational inequality issue is to remove pieces of the education system from the democratic process. Over and over again, democracy has proven to work wonders for politically powerful groups, but not for minorities with less social capital.

Yes, once again, a reformster has decided that democracy is a bug, not a feature, and that we'd be better off without the damn thing.  Because nothing builds social capital like having no formal voice in the process? But DeAngelis wants you to know he's in good company here:

As Milton Friedman and other education scholars – including myself – have pointed out, while governments may have an incentive to fund schools, it does not necessarily follow that governments should operate them.

Yes, this scholar imagines  a world of universal private school choice, and claims that it "would benefit the last advantaged children more than anyone," which is our sign that we have actually driven all the way down the highway to Baloneyville. You already know the full drill of his claims-- driven by unleashed demand, entrepreneurs would open up super-duper schools, and competitive pressures would drive down costs and drive up quality, and also erase the black-white achievement gap.

I have one question. Well, I have lots of questions, but I'll only ask one.

In what economic sector has this ever worked?

Did the economic pressures of serving many poor folks (including those who depend upon the government vouchers we call welfare) lead to an explosion of unparalleled quality in retailers like Wal-Mart? Or Kohls? What economic sector has been driven to provide top quality products for every single person in the country? What business has ever put meeting the needs of every single potential customer ahead of their own financial interests?

For businesses to own and operate schools while those schools are funded by the government-- that provides an obvious advantage to the businesses. But businesses are not philanthropies, and they serve their own interests-- not the interests of every single family in their community. This does not make them evil, but it makes them poor candidates for operating the public school system. Businesses sort-- it's fundamental to their nature. They sort human beings into "customers who are worth the business's time" and "customers who aren't." They deliver not what customers deserve, but what customers can afford (in fact,business folks have a hard time distinguishing between the two). To suggest that a business will say, "Well, helping these particular students get up from behind will be costly and challenging and probably lose us money, but we'll do it because we're just that committed to closing the achievement gap" is just-- well, come on. Even a fresh-faced twenty-something scholar with a couple of business degrees knows better than that. 

DeAngelis has sailed past all the better solutions-- invest in schools, invest in faculty, improve conditions, embrace democracy-- to somehow arrive at the conclusion that we should erase democracy, privatize public schools, and change the fundamental mission of public education in this country.He's going to have to propose a better vehicle for his journey than the one he offered here.



Monday, November 20, 2017

Singular Objectives

In the classroom, objectives are important. I remember my own painful experience as a student teacher (replicated by several of my own student teachers), imagining that we would simply read a book and the magical educationny things would just sort of happen, somehow. I had to learn to answer the question "Why are we studying thing?" I had to know what I wanted students to get out of the unit, and once I understood that, then teaching and instructional strategies and assessments all just kind of fell into place.


So do not imagine for a moment that I don't see the value of objectives. No teacher can function well in a classroom if she can't answer the question, "What is the point of any of this?"

But the modern reform era has given us objectives that hamper teaching rather than enhance it.

The standards movement has given us objectives that are strikingly narrow and literal, as well as completely blind to the content of the material that we teach.

ELA objectives (standards) are strictly skills based, so we approach a work like Hamlet focused strictly on items like this:

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.

Nowhere in the standards will you find any reference to grappling with the major topics and themes of Hamlet, like mortality and coming to grips with death and the search for meaning in existence. Nope. Find some words and figure out what they mean.

And the Big Standardized Tests double down on this objective myopia. There will be no questions about the content of Hamlet-- not even simple recall of plot and character, let alone the kind of deeply considered ideas that could only be examined in lengthy writing produced over a thoughtful period of time. No, the BST will say, "Remember how you figured out what some strange words meant in that one thing you read? Here are some strange words-- do that figure-them-out trick again."

In fact, many of us have been ordered to put up posters in our room reminding our students about their singular objectives. And many of us are now required to do the same with each and every lesson-- to focus our students on the one-and-only objective of the day's teaching. "This is our goal, our only goal, and our all-consuming goal."

This is education as a ride on a train, with only one destination, one purpose, one target. This is standardization at its very worst. This is a prospector who sets up his equipment to drill for oil on his property and declares himself a failure because all he found was silver, gold, and diamonds.

This is bad teaching. This is the kindergarten teacher who flunks Pat for coloring outside the lines. This is the English teacher who teaches that there is one-- and only one-- correct interpretation for every work of literature. In fact, this is not just bad teaching, but bad living-- the people who think there is only one correct way to be in the world, only one True system of belief, only one correct way to react to a given situation. This is rigid fundamentalism at its worst.

Should we have objectives? Absolutely. Should we be open to the possibilities of many objectives? Should we be open to the possibility of opportunities arising in the classroom? Also absolutely. We certainly shouldn't suggest to our students that there is only one goal and then tell them what it is in such a way as to suggest that all other possible discoveries should be ignored. We should never throw away diamonds because we were searching only for oil.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

NPE: Charter Effects Are Alarming

We can talk all day about the intentions of charter operators, about the possible ramifications of various charter policy decisions. Heck, on occasion I can talk about the conditions under which I would welcome charter schools (because I don't automatically default to the position that they're a Bad Thing).

There is a pattern in the ed reform movement. Reformsters hold up a bright shiny polished reform idea, people hop up to say, "Wow, that looks great! Let's have some of that!" And then something else entirely is delivered. So when we talk about any reform policy, we need to talk about what is actually happening on the ground. And what is happening on the ground is fairly alarming.

The Network for Public Education has now done that for charter schools. Full disclosures-- first, I'm a member of NPE and second, NPE is not predisposed to be kind to charter schools. Nevertheless, I recommend you read their new report Charters and Consequences and judge for yourself. NPE has taken a look at what is actually happening in the charter world, and it's not good.

The report is a collection of eleven separate pieces of investigation, created over the span of a year.  These are not policy arguments or debates about how public ed should be handled. These are heavily researched, fully sourced accounts of what is actually happening in America. You may disagree with NPE's position, but this is not a position paper. It's a fact-based picture of what is actually going on.

The first four pieces  deal with California, where there are more charter schools and charter school students than in any other state. The very first piece sets the stage for California charter shenanigans:

You can find a charter in a mall, near a Burger King, where students as young as 12 meet their “teacher on demand.” Or, you can make a cyber visit to the “blended learning” Epic Charter School, whose students are required to meet a teacher (at a convenient, to be determined location) only once every 20 days. There is an added bonus upon joining Epic—students receive $1500 for a personal “learning fund,” along with a laptop computer. The enrollment site even advertised that students could boost that fund by referring others to the charter chain. 

A superintendent can expand his tiny rural district of 300 students to 4000 by running "independent study" charters in storefronts in cities miles away, netting millions in revenue for his district, while draining the sometimes unsuspecting host district of students and funds. If he is clever, he might arrange a “bounty” for each one opened, while having a side business selling services to the charters. Charters can even provide lucrative investment opportunities for tennis stars and their friends. And then there is the opportunity "to cash in" on international students at a jaw dropping $31,300 per student.

The report is thick with such details. And why is California such a charter playground? Because there is plenty of big money that has come there to play, with the California Charter School Association pouring $2.3 million into just one school board election. Those pockets are deep.

The report also looks at independent learning centers, the kind of storefront charters that operate independent of any specific classroom setting. many of these turn out to be linked pieces of a chain of resource centers, and their track record is abysmal, with far fewer than half the students actually graduating.

The report threads its way through an example of how for-profits can hide behind a web of non-profits, essentially laundering money before turning it into a nice pile of cash to benefit owners of the operation.

And the report talks to some of the folks in California who have tried to fight back against charter fraud and abuse, from whole school boards to individuals like Mike Matsuda. None of them are arguing to eliminate charters entirely, but all would like to see charters operate fairly and within the rules. And that concludes the four-part trip through California.

In, "Charter High Schools and the Best of High Schools List," NPE looks at some of the high-ranking charters and how they get there. For instance, the BASIS charter in Phoenix earns a super-high "challenge" ranking by combining a high attrition rate with giving the AP test to many underclasspersons.

In "Charter Chains: Risk, High Costs and Consequences" the report looks at the growing dominance of charter chains and the risks that come from putting so many schools under the control of state-spanning corporations. There's a risk for fraud and abuse, as well as directing a ton of money to the top in groups like KIPP, which boasts $6 million in administrative costs. And of course there's the Gulen chain, allegedly a fundraising arm of an out-of-power Turkish government in exile.

"Draining the Coffers: The Fiscal Impact of Charters on Public Schools" looks at how charters suck the financial blood from public schools, and what better place to look than my own Pennsylvania, where cyber-charters in particular are driving schools into financial trouble. But across the state, we see public schools that are forced to slash and gut programs, even close schools, to survive the charter drain. I'll note as always that this doesn't have to be the case-- if legislators had the guts to tell the truth and not pretend that you can run three schools for the same cost as running one. But as long as that lie is the premise of charter policy, education will be a zero sum game in which every charter student represents damage to the public system.

In "Public Funding with Private School Advantages," the report looks at how charters often try to have it both ways-- public when they want access to public tax dollars, but private when it comes to following laws governing education. BASIS again provides an example of a charter that isn't really open to everyone (eg- each family must makes a $1500 donation).

"Ignoring the Community Voice" looks at how Philadelphia lost community voice in management of its schools. It's a pattern repeated across the country-- you can have a charter school if you are willing to give up any voice in how your child's school operates.

"Are Charters Public Schools?" Do they reflect the demographic make-up of their neighborhood? Are they committed to serving all students? Are they responsible to community voices? Here's some data to answer the question (spoiler alert-- no).

Finally, the report asks "Have NAACP concerns been addressed?" In other words, are charters still functioning as engines of segregation? Are they transparent and accountable? Are they damaging the rest of the community in which they exist? Are they still disproportionately punishing and pushing out some students?

The report package ends with a statement from NPE about charter schools, with a call for a specific list of legislative policies and reforms favored by the group. Bottom line: until charters follow the public school rules, they're still private schools that take public funds.

The report is under fifty pages and quite readable. Nothing I do here can really capture the sheer weight of detail and examples provided. it will make a great resource for when one of those charter questions comes up yet again, and it's a good primer for people wondering what the fuss is about. It's a worthwhile read.



ICYMI: Last Quiet Weekend Edition (11/19)

Some important reads this week. As always, I encourage you to share and tweet and email anything you read that you think deserves a wider audience, because you, dear reader, are how those pieces get a wider audience.


Florida Teacher Shortage

Many, many folks have read the piece I wrote in response to this Sun-Sentinel article about the teacher shortage [sic] in Florida, but I encourage you to go read the original reporting, which is really top notch.

After a Political Rout in Massachusetts, New York Astro-Turf Group Mulling Strategy

When a bunch of millionaires poured money into launching new charter rules in Massachusetts, tey had no idea they'd get spanked this badly. What now? A look at one of the big dark money groups driving the charter school movement.

The Every Student Succeeds Act's Hollow Educational Ambition

Rick Hess (AEI) is a reformster, but he's not afraid to point out when ed reform makes some stupid moves. Here's his take on how NCLB dropped the ball, and ESSA is dropping the same ball again.

Closing the Gap for Native American Youth

A new study, the first ever done, looks at what can be done to close the gap for native American children. This will take you to the study; if that seems daunting, I will try to get to it at some point.

How Ed Reform Ate the Democratic Party

Jennifer Berkshire looks at the sad history of how the Democratic Party decided to stop being the party of public education and instead transformed itself into GOP-lite.

How Stranger Things Shows Support for Public Schools

One small feature of the hit Netflix series is how it places the local school in the middle of the community.

Schooling Is Never Neutral

The JLV with a brief but important reminder

The DC School Reform Fiasco: A Complete History

John Merrow and Mary Levy have created a comprehensive look at the DC "reform" shenanigans of She Who Will Not Be Named and others.  An important counterpoint to all the folks who keep insisting that DC is an example of school reform working.

But It Was The Very Best Butter

Almost forgot this one-- a quick explanation of how a good test can still be a bad test





Saturday, November 18, 2017

DeVos: Vouchers Don't Have To Serve Everyone

You may recall the case of Endrew F. vs. Douglas County School District, in which the parents of an autistic child and the Douglas County schools of Colorado got into an argument about "de minimis" aka "how little education can a district get away with providing." Did Endrew's IEP require the district to pay for his tuition to a swanky school that provided fancy stuff like "education"? Somehow this made it all the way to the Supremes, who unanimously ruled sort of down the middle-- school district compliance with IDEA has to be more than a half-baked half effort, but education experts get to be the experts on education, not Mom and Dad.



The whole business now has a sequel, starring Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Remember that time DeVos was being interviewed for her job and she didn't really seem to understand what IDEA actually was? Specifically, didn't seem clear on whether schools receiving federal funds would be required to follow the federal IDEA law?

Oh-- and remember that time when she called Historically Black Colleges and Universities "pioneers of school choice"? Which was kind of like calling the underground railroad pioneers of Uber?

Well, both of those moments had a sequel this week as reported by Ann Schimke for Chalkbeat. There are two take-aways here. One is not so big, and one kind of is.

First, the F family was none too happy about being used as props for one more DeVos love letter to school choice.

“Every family should have that ability to choose the learning environment that’s right for their child,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to sue their way to the Supreme Court to get it.”

Remember that DeVos quote. The Fs, Joe and Jennifer, were not pleased.

“To hold us out there as a poster child on how a private school is working for our child and how this is how school choice is supposed to work, really bugs me,” Joe said.

“It was a little disappointing,” Jennifer said. “She picked the parts that she liked and used them for what she wanted.”

 Now to the bigger takeaway. Turns out that the Fs had actually met DeVos, privately, at her request.

They were flattered by her interest, but felt she didn’t understand why private school vouchers would never work for them — or many other families who have children with disabilities.

Specifically, how a small voucher amount does not get you into a pricey specialized private school like the one Endrew attends. But according to the Fs, they raised an even larger issue, and DeVos gave them a straight, if not welcome, answer.

Do students with disabilities lose their rights to a fair and appropriate education — a guarantee under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — if they use vouchers to attend private schools?

Yes, DeVos said.

“She answered point blank,” Joe said.

So in the DeVosian voucher world, choice schools do get to pick and choose which students they will serve-- or not serve. The USED would not require recipients of federal dollars (which given a Education Savings Account approach to vouchers would be cleansed  of their federal taint) to obey federal law.

The huge irony here? DeVos doesn't think parents should have to sue somebody to have their child's needs met, but in a voucher world, parents like the Fs would not be able to sue anybody. School choice would mean that the school could choose to show Endrew the door. School choice would mean that parents would have to give up their rights in return for their voucher. It's a reminder that school choice and the privatization of education is largely about stripping citizens of the right to a free and appropriate public education. Voucher and choice systems aren't just a different delivery system-- they represent a fundamental change in our educational mission as a country. And that's a lot less than de minimis.


PA: Graduation Test In Trouble (Again)

Pennsylvania's education bureaucrats had high hopes for the Keystone exams.

Back in 2010, the idea was that there would be at least ten of them-- one for each major course-- and students would take them at the end of the year as a final qualifying test for course credit (and therefor graduation). Donna Cooper (now of Public Citizens for Children and Youth) was part of the Rendell administration pushing for the tests, and like all good reformsters of the era, all she wanted was perfect standardization so that every student in every state was learning exactly the same thing.  "It would seem to me that a parent in Norristown and a parent in Johnstown, their kids should know the same things to graduate.” 

And like good reformy bureaucrats, neither the Rendell administration that cooked this up, nor the Corbett administration that cemented it into law, envisioned the state providing any resources at all to help students over this new hurdle. The Keystone exam system was the biggest unfunded mandate the state had ever seen.

The fiddling began immediately. Maybe the Keystones would count for a third of the full year grade. And somehow we'd have to roll the tests out over several years, only they turned out to be hard to just whip up quickly. And they were expensive, too.

Soon enough, the state decided that math, biology and English literature (aka "reading") would be the Keystone exams offered. And students and schools would get a couple of years to get up to speed before the test became a graduation requirement for the Class of 2017. 

But there was a problem. It quickly became clear that if the Keystones were required for graduation, a whole bunch of students weren't going to graduate. In more than 100 districts (and charters) well over half the students would not get a diploma.

Nobody in Harrisburg wanted to attach his name to that, so Keystones-as-grad-requirements were pushed back to 2019, and to insure that the results looked better by then, the state government did-- well, they did nothing. Hopes and dreams, thoughts and prayers, maybe. But still no resources to help in those afflicted districts. And sure enough-- as 2019 approaches (those students are taking the tests this year in many districts) things still look bad.

So buried within Harrisburg's most recent attempt to enact a budget, there's another postponement for the Keystones.   

Fans of local control are pleased-- let local districts set their own graduation requirements. But members of the Cult of Testing and Standardization are unhappy. Like Cooper, they argue that the previous Big Standardized Test, the PSSA, proved that local standards were inadequate.

“58,000 students were graduated and given diplomas who could not pass the state’s 11th grade PSSA,” said Cooper.  “That’s a real indication of the failure of local control to understand the market signals of what is needed for a kid to succeed in today’s economy.”


Cooper and others like her might have a point-- if there were a speck of evidence that the PSSA was a valid measure of what is needed for a kid to succeed in today's economy, or college, or anything. There was no such evidence for the PSSA, nor is there any such evidence for the Keystone. And the PSSA, which is still given in lower grades, is a norm-referenced test with cut scores reset every year -- so somebody has to fail. 

The Keystone exams are theoretically standards-referenced, which should mean that everyone can pass. But it should also mean that we can get test results literally five minutes after the student finishes the test, but we're still waiting months. Why is that? Maybe because of something called scaling, which seems like a fancy way to explain different weights for different questions on different forms of the test. Or maybe it has to do with rangefinding, which seems an awful lot like norm-referencing-- collect answers and see what their distribution looks like. 

Trying to uncover the problems of the Keystone exams can be a daunting task. The technical reports from every year are available (here's 2015), with hundreds of pages each, including illuminating passages like this one 

Reading these technical reports might suggest to a layperson, even a highly educated one, that testocrats have disappeared so far up their own butts that they are now viewing the world through the tiny little lenses of their own belly buttons.

But the answer to the Keystone problem may be much simpler than psychometric gobbledeegook or legislative refusal to fund what they demand. 

It could be that the Keystones are just bad tests.

Mind you, I'm not supposed to know that. The PA DOE Code of Ethics says that I should never set eyes on the test itself, and if I accidentally see anything, I should make myself forget it. We are supposed to remain ignorant of the test except in the most general terms, and the students have to swear not to talk about them either. We are all not only supposed to hit the target, but we're supposed to do it blindfolded. That way the test manufacturers won't have to spend money rebuilding the test every year the integrity of the test will be maintained.

But, scofflaw that I am, I look anyway. And I'm telling you that if someone offered me the test to use for free in my class so that I could have more time with my children and less time test writing, I would turn it down. It's junk. Questions with no objectively supportable single correct answer. Questions that are simple vocabulary tests. Questions that require the students to use psychic powers on the authors of the passages. These tests do not measure anything except the students' ability to navigate a bunch of trick questions and guess what the test manufacturers are thinking. 

You know who else knows that? My students. Like most districts, we have made the tests mandatory for graduation because we want the students to try because our school rating depends largely on those test results. But the students know that they'll do a performance task (the Binder of Doom) if they fail, and many of them are not only tired of taking stupid tests year after year, but they have long since concluded that they might as well roll dice, because success or failure feel pretty much random to them. 

Pennsylvania is having the same damn argument as much of the rest of the education world, with accountability mavens arguing that we must test to have accountability, but skipping over the entire question of whether the test being used is actually measuring anything worth measuring. It's like listening to someone insist, "We have to know whether or not you have cancer, so you must wave your hand over this horny toad under a full moon." It's the same old reformy disconnect-- establishing that something is a real problem is not the same as establishing that you are proposing a real solution (and for those of us who don't agree that local control and variation is a real problem, you are even further off base).

Without a decent, fair, valid test, and without resources to back up this unfunded  mandate, and without a reason for students to care, the Keystones will always be a disaster. We can only hope that the state legislature stops kicking this can down the road and finally just throws it in the dumpster of history, where it belongs.