December 24, 2023

Thomas Ultican: Panic! Pandemic Learning Loss!

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Thomas Ultican always does his homework, and he smells something suspicious in the corporate dismay over test scores. Reposted with permission. 

Wal-Mart family’s propaganda rag, The 74, says those not hysterical over learning loss wear rose-colored glasses and damaged students are doomed, losing billions in future earnings, if nothing is done now. Their major recommendations are frequent testing, high-dose tutoring and tough grading. Unsurprisingly these lead to more corporate profits.

A gathering at the Aspen Institute asserted the dire situation.  Jens Ludwig,  University of Chicago economics professor, said, “We do not have our hair on fire the way it needs to be.” The other members of this panel were Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute, T. Nakia Towns of Accelerate and Melissa Kearney of the Aspen Institute.

There was a strong smell of corporate education bias in the air. The Aspen Institute was the creation of corporate leaders and largely funded by foundations, such as, Carnegie Corporation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and Ford Foundation. American Enterprise Institute is a center right research group that grew out of the American Enterprise Association which formed in 1938 to fight Roosevelt’s New Deal. Accelerate’s CEO is Michelle Rhee’s former husband, Kevin Huffman, also a founding partner at The City Fund. Listed funders of Accelerate are Gates Foundation, Arnold Ventures, Walton Family Foundation, Overdeck Family Foundation and Ken C. Griffin.

Testing Declines were Universal

The 74 claims:

“Parents expressed little concern about lasting damage from the pandemic and typically thought their children were doing well in school — a view that researchers say is belied by dismal state and national test scores.”

“The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed historic declines in math and flat performance in reading.” (Emphasis added.)

Plotted by NAEP from 2022 Testing Data

The 2022 8-point drop in mathematics scores was unusually large. In the spring of 2020, schools throughout America shut down and most of them did not reopen in class until fall 2021. If there were not a drop in testing scores, the NAEP assessment would have been meaningless.

The 74 further notes that a recent release of international scores shows U.S. students dropped 13 points in math between 2018 and 2022. Their linked article noted that many other countries had worse drops.

Because America does not filter students from the academic system before high school, the tested population does not score as well internationally. However, since 2010, in the yearly International Math Olympiad, the USA team has come in first four times and never finished lower than fourth … out of over 100 entrants.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) created and administers the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The table shown is from the 2022 math exam given to 15-year olds and score changes since the last administration in 2018. As normal, the US scored in the lower half of OECD countries but did improve one step from 2018.

Advocating More Standardized Testing

Fordham Institute has documented a growing discrepancy  between grade point averages and standardized test scoresTNTP produced a report showing an increase in B grades since the pandemic. The basic argument of corporate reformers is that parents should not trust public school grades and more standardized testing is required.

Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and California Office of Reform Education (CORE) sound like official governmental organizations but they are not. Billionaires created these institutions for the express purpose of undermining and controlling public schools. In 2019, PACE was determined to sell California on growth models to evaluate schools. University of Southern California (USC) Professor of Education Policy, Morgan Polikoff, produced a policy brief for PACE stating:

“Based on the existing literature and an examination of California’s own goals for the Dashboard and the continuous improvement system, the state should adopt a student-level growth model as soon as possible. Forty-eight states have already done so; there is no reason for California to hang back with Kansas while other states use growth data to improve their schools.”

Polikoff seems to be a sincere academic but growth models do not do well when scrutinized.  Jesse Rothstein, professor of public policy and economics at University of California, Berkeley, ran a verification test and found, “these models indicate large ‘effects’ of 5th grade teachers on 4th grade test score gains.” A verification test run at the University of California Davis, showed that teachers affect student height…??? “Using a common measure of effect size in standard deviation units, we find a 1σ increase in ‘value-added’ on the height of New York City 4th graders is about 0.22σ, or 0.65 inches.”

An article by Linda Hammond Darling notes the instability of VAM result: “A study examining data from five school districts found, for example, that of teachers who scored in the bottom 20% of rankings in one year, only 20% to 30% had similar ratings the next year, while 25% to 45% of these teachers moved to the top part of the distribution, scoring well above average.”

Standardized testing and growth models are as likely to be misleading as illuminating. On the other side of the coin, high school grades are more predictive of college success than standardized testing. Public school grades, though fraught with issues, are much more reflective of student progress and potential.

Dan Goldhaber, director of the CALDER Center at the American Institutes for Research, and Polikoff are among the “experts,” urging educators to make test score data a much larger focus of conversations with parents. Polikoff sees separation between parents and the nation’s education scholars as part of a larger anti-testing movement that started brewing long before the pandemic. The pandemic pause on state assessments and accountability sparked a renewed push to limit the number of tests and try different models.

“There’s just very close to zero constituencies advocating for tests or that they matter,” Polikoff said. Republicans “want only unfettered choice” while the left is not defending the usefulness of tests “to ensure educational quality or equity.” He says the backlash against testing has come “at the worst possible time given the damage that’s actually been done.”

Polikoff and his USC team recently published a report, based on interviews with 42 parents over the past two+ years:

“One of the clearest findings from our interviews is that caretakers, when making judgments about students’ performance, overwhelmingly rely less on standardized test scores than they do grades, other school-reported measures of student progress, and their own observations of their children’s work and work ethic.” (Page 15)

“A final insight our data provides into the parent-expert disconnect is that caretakers often, and very explicitly, noted that children are resilient.” (Page 20)

Observation and Conclusion

Noel Wilson’s famous 1997 peer-reviewed article, Educational Standards and the Problem of Error fundamentally states the error involved in educational testing is so great that validity is compromised. In other words, standardized tests are not refined enough to make more than great generalizations. They are bunk for measuring learning or teaching.

Clearly people like Professors Polikoff and Goldhaber believe in these tools. It is likely they embrace testing because they are good at math and strongly desire tools that provide clear, unbiased conclusions. Unfortunately, they have grabbed onto an illusion.

Parents are correct when they say “children are resilient.” What students and schools need now is to be left alone to do their job. The COVID pandemic was traumatic for us all and it may take two or even three years for student recovery. They will, unless we continue mindlessly over-testing and forcing some sort of academic acceleration.

Profiteers see this as a business opportunity. Protect the children and let kids be kids.

They will be fine!

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