Thursday, May 28, 2015

Public Education, Poverty, and Standardized Testing

Thirteen billion dollars and 45 days per year. Those are the two numbers I want you to remember at the end of this post.

Thirteen billion dollars and 45 days per year.

But first, I would like to brag a bit about our public schools. Do you have a child or grandchild in public school? Are you a teacher, or do you have a friend or family member who teaches? Do you pay taxes?

Great! Listen up. You should enjoy this: 

Every few years, students in over 60 countries participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment, also known as the PISA. This study, which began in 2000, compares the performance of students across various nations in the fields of math, science, and reading. When the results from this study are broken into quartiles by poverty, the United States routinely scores first in every subject.

That's right, number one! That's pretty darned good, don't you think? Let's give a round of applause for our hard-working educators. They do an amazing job with the resources they are given, and they deserve a great deal of respect and admiration for their service.

Why do I say they do a great job with the resources they have?

In 2011, the Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion from the public education budget, and it did quite a number on our schools. Class sizes skyrocketed in every district, support staff was reduced, and many great programs were eliminated. Teachers found themselves paying more in insurance premium hikes than what they received from the highly publicized pay raises (even here in Plano), and larger class sizes mean significantly more homework to grade. Then there are, of course, the resources of the students.


Studies have proven that poverty accounts for a huge portion of any standardized test results. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which runs the PISA, determined that poverty explains at least 46% of the scores on their tests. Results from the SAT and ACT exams have shown a high correlation between scores and family income.

Closer to home, the STAAR test, administered yearly to Texas students, has also demonstrated the effects of poverty on education. In 2013, only "69 percent of economically disadvantaged students passed all subjects in all grades compared to the state average of 77 percent. Results in individual grades and subjects were the same: The economically disadvantaged student subgroup had a lower passing rate than the state average on every test."

Here are some sobering statistics from the Center for Public Policy Priorities
  • One in four Texas children lives in poverty. For a family of four, that's less than $24,000 per year. The high child poverty rate combined with a relatively good parental employment rate means that many hard-working parents aren't earning enough to provide adequately for their kids.
  • Texas is ranked 49th for the percentage of children with health insurance (13 percent uninsured). Kids are more likely to be uninsured when their parents are uninsured, and Texas continues to have the highest rate of uninsured adults in the nation.
  • Nearly two million Texas kids live in households where access to nutritious food is limited and uncertain, threatening children's health and ability to learn.
According to a study produced by Children's Health System of Texas and the Institute for Urban Policy Research at UTD, the population of children in Collin County (one of the more affluent counties in Texas) has grown "by 48 percent between 2000 and 2012." During the same period, the poverty rate among children in our community "more than doubled, up 111 percent."

So why does poverty affect education to such a great extent?

Starting with early childhood, poverty decreases the amount of quality time parents have with their children. The basics of this are pretty simple. Here in Texas, a minimum wage employee needs to work, on average, 93 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment. To get 93 hours a week at minimum wage means at least three jobs, and with each additional job the cost of commuting increases.

Compared to their more affluent peers, poor parents on average talk to their kids three hours less a week, which is devastating to the development of their children's language skills and socialization. That means that kids from wealthier families get about 780 more hours of experience with language than poor children by the time they reach kindergarten.

There are children who enter Texas public schools who can not spell their own name. Some have never held pencils. This disparity, if not addressed in a meaningful way in the first few years of a child's education, can have long-lasting effects on their educational attainment. Children begin to determine the differences between themselves and their peers at a very young age. Students who don't read as well as others often internalize their shame, labeling themselves as 'stupid'.

In the United States fewer than half of low income preschoolers are read to on a daily basis, compared with 61% in families above the poverty line."

Children of affluent parents tend to receive educational experience through private schools, nannies, or a stay-at-home parent. The inclusion of impoverished children in pre-k programs has been shown to greatly decrease the gap in introductory knowledge of poor and wealthy children.

As some of you might be aware, there has been an ongoing debate in the Texas Legislature over the expansion of pre-k. Governor Abbott wants to increase the number of students given access (under the assumption that they receive standardized tests).

Lt. Governor Patrick contends that it is an expansion of "godless socialism," primarily because he would rather see those funds directed toward parochial schools via an unaccountable voucher system.

Another effect of poverty is that children from low-income families are at an increased risk of being both undernourished and overweight. This is a result of poverty-induced food insecurity. Poor children are often sent to school with little more than bags of chips and candy for lunch, and teachers are prevented from saying anything. As I'm sure you would appreciate, it's relatively difficult to listen and learn when your body is screaming for sustenance, or when your brain is crashing from a sugar high.

You would think that this could be resolved by giving the children nutritious meals at school, but the fact is that much of the lunchroom has been overtaken by the snack food industry. Children can buy ice cream sandwiches and Hot Cheetos for lunch, and the teachers are fired if they say anything about it. Significant portions of school funding are subsidized by those companies. The scarce federal funding that schools receive for needy children's lunches is most often spent on meals that no adult would ever call nutritious. Far too often, teachers will bring food from home to feed these children.

These are just a few of the more egregious effects of familial poverty on early childhood education. Once a child enters public school, the combined impact of rampant poverty can be seen in the classroom. Schools and districts which serve lower income families have far fewer resources to serve the students. State restrictions on property tax rates have made it impossible for poor districts to raise the funds necessary to keep class sizes at a level necessary to address years of educational lag.

So why is class size so important?

Some people believe that teachers are little more than glorified baby sitters, and that adding more students to a classroom would have little effect on the outcome. In 2011, the Texas Legislature passed a measure, known as Senate Bill 8, which among other things removed previous restrictions on class sizes of children in grades k-4. The original standard in Texas for those classes was 22 students per teacher. With the passing of that law, any school district suffering economic hardship could apply for a waiver and pack extra kids in elementary classes.

Almost every district in the state of Texas filed for waivers, including Allen, Frisco, McKinney, Richardson, and Plano. That's right. Even the more affluent districts were affected.

So let's assume that teachers only work 180 days per year (90 days each semester), and are in the classroom a total of 6.5 hours per day. That totals to 1,170 hours per year that the teacher spends time with their class. Let's assume that Y is the total number of hours that a teacher can possibly spend per student, and X is the number of students in a classroom. From that, we get the following formula:

Y = 1,170 hours / X

Using that formula and starting with a minimum of 22 students, we get the table at right:
As you can see, every student introduced into the classroom reduces the total possible time a teacher can spend per student by 1.3 hours. If a relatively affluent school has 25 kids in a classroom, and a poor school has 28, the wealthier kids receive 125 more hours of instruction. Remember when I mentioned that kids from wealthier families have about a 780 hour lead? Does anybody really believe that difference is somehow going to be overcome with large class sizes?

As you can imagine, this has a cumulative effect on the students' comprehension of the subject matter. Our current system, with large class sizes and a focus on standardized exams, forces our teachers to marginalize advanced and average students to accommodate those who are struggling.

This is all under the assumption that every child behaves. As a former serial miscreant, I guarantee this is not the case. Instead, the amount of time spent on disciplinary measures significantly increases with class size.


So let’s talk a little bit about
standardized tests. I have spent a long time wondering why our states have allowed standardized tests to take such a large portion of precious time and money which could be used for education. Several estimates indicate that schools spend over 45 days (up to or over 25%) of the school year on the tests and test preparation. There are two main arguments I have heard in support of such practices. First, the federal government requires states to use standardized tests in order to receive federal funding for schools, without which many schools would fail. Second, some argue that the tests accurately measure what the kids are learning so we can improve their education and assess the quality of teaching they receive.

Before I discuss the merits of the test, I’ll take a brief moment to catch you up on its history. State standardized tests were first required under President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which was passed in 2001. The law was originally created in response to blatant misuse of statistical information from the international PISA test. Do you remember how I told you our schools are #1? Well, that’s only if you break the results of the test into quartiles of poverty. If you lump all of the results together, we are 36th in Math, 28th in science, and 24th in reading. Over the last 13 years, the result of No Child Left Behind has been a massive increase in the time and money spent testing, most often negatively impacting the amount spent on actual education.

Now, the supposed benefit of the standardized tests is an accurate measure of educational achievement, which should provide us with the tools to then improve the quality of our teachers and schools. But what do the tests actually measure?

Tests are generally judged on their summative and formative qualities. Summative essentially means that the test accurately conveys how much a student learns over a specific period of time, and by extension how well the teacher has done their job. Formative means that the results of the test are then used by teachers and parents to better educate the child. A test can be summative without being formative, and vice versa, but the federally mandated standardized tests are touted as both.

Are the standardized tests summative? One underlying assumption is that the child has had one year to learn everything they should know to pass the test. The problem with that is that they haven’t had a full year of instruction. The tests are administered mid-Spring, and the amount of time spent on test-prep rather than education further detracts from the total number of days available for actual education. They are really only tested on 50-65% of the time they are actually in school. Another assumption is that the teacher is the reason for the total increase in knowledge, or lack thereof. That idea is quickly discounted when you consider the fact that children change schools, districts and states all the time. Children who come from nations that speak absolutely no English are expected to test on the same level as their peers after just a few months of teaching. Based on these facts, the standardized tests cannot be considered as an accurate summative measure.

Are the standardized tests formative? As I said earlier, for a test to be considered formative, it must be able to be used by teachers and parents to better educate the student. For that to happen, they must be able to view the test after it has been taken so they can determine what areas of curriculum require further attention. As of now, the standardized tests are kept secret, even after they have been given, so it is impossible for anyone to know exactly what the child missed. I have heard from numerous teachers that this creates a real problem during the period before retesting, because they must then cram an entire year’s worth of information into a few weeks. They cannot individualize instruction to accommodate varying levels of educational attainment. For these reasons, the current standardized tests cannot be considered formative.

Since school funding is tied to student performance on the standardized tests, poor districts have seen larger cuts to their budgets, making it far more difficult to address the wealth-education gap mentioned earlier. It’s a bit of a downward spiral. The increasing levels of income inequality across our nation have effectively depleted the available revenue for local schools.

In laymen terms: Our teachers are not to blame for the overall state of our public education system. It’s the poverty.

So let’s go back and talk about the first argument people have for the standardized tests. We will lose federal funding if we don’t have a standardized exam. That’s a fact, Jack, but let me tell you the rest of the story.

Texas public schools are primarily funded by three sources, federal income taxes, state sales taxes and local property taxes. It usually breaks down to approximately 45% state, 45% local and 10% federal.

According to reports from the Texas Education Agency for the 2012-2013 school year, the total of all funding for all school districts in the state was $49.6 billion. Now, for that might sound like a gargantuan number to some, but it’s actually a little less than $10k per student (for reference, you should know that our nation spends about $20k per inmate).

Of that $49.6 billion, $20.4 billion came from the state, $6 billion came from the federal government, and over $23 billion came from local funding. Let’s say that the average school spends 45 days each year on the test and test preparation. If we assume that the majority of school functions are done during the 160-day school year, we can calculate that Texas spends around $13.9 BILLION PER YEAR on standardized testing. That is around 28% of our overall budget, and I didn’t even include retesting!

That’s quite a lot of money for a test that doesn’t help students or teachers, don’t you think?

Now for the really fun part.

Remember how much funding I said we received from the federal government in 2012? The actual number was $6,087,745,024.00. The entire amount that was given to us, including all funds specifically not used for standardized testing, didn’t even cover how much we spent on the tests.

That means that Texans could get rid of the test entirely, reclaim 45+ days every year for actual education, and still come out over $7 billion ahead. That money could easily be used to decrease class sizes across our state.

So what’s more fiscally responsible? Spending $13.9 billion per year on a useless test which just proves that poverty sucks, or reclaiming 45 days for real education, saving $7 billion per year and actually letting teachers do the job they have been begging to do for years?

Now before anyone here tries to argue with me, let’s look at the latest PISA scores and evaluate the effect of standardized testing on public education. The fact is that, with all of the money and time spent on standardized testing, our nation’s ranking has actually gone down! As one of my favorite public education advocates, Diane Ravitch, said,

“If they mean anything at all, the PISA scores show the failure of the past dozen years of public policy in the United States. The billions invested in testing, test prep, and accountability have not raised test scores or our nation’s relative standing on the league tables. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores.”

We often here talk about teaching to the test. We hear stories of children throwing up on themselves or passing out from test anxiety. We claim to want to make education better, but the tools we are using are actually killing our schools and creating a lost generation of people capable only of filling in bubbles.

Children are not widgets.

We can’t standardize the way we teach them or the way we assess their growth. We have to start trusting that teachers, the people who spend the most direct educational time with the kids and have specialized degrees to do so, will do their jobs professionally if we treat them like professionals. We need to spend money to lower class sizes, ensure that all children have access to the necessary materials and that all teachers have the support they need to do what they do best.


So what can we do? Well, first and foremost, get and stay informed. We can’t possibly expect to deal with something when the vast majority of Texans are unaware that problems exist. Here is a list of sources for you:
Second, if you have children in public schools, opt them out of the STAAR test. It is perfectly legal under the Texas Education Code, and it prevents your kid from going through the stress of testing. It also helps put pressure on the TEA and the legislature to openly admit the faults of the test, much like they did this year when Governor Abbott signed Senate Bill 149 into law, which allows students to graduate after failing up to two of the STAAR exams. This law, by the way, expires when the legislature reconvenes in 2017.

Third, join our local charities as they address poverty right here in our community. It’s a great way to make a positive impact on our area, and if you’re wearing one of these shirts, or maybe a campaign-specific one, people will start to identify Democrats with tangible benefits. We can’t just expect people to listen to what we have to say. We have to show them what we believe. I believe that this will help us build the base in a meaningful way, which we can then translate into wins at the ballot box.

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