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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015

A Hack Education Project

Standardized Testing

This is the second in my series The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015

Standardized testing has a long history in the United States. But it’s become closely associated with – inseparable from, dare I say – school reform and accountability measures in recent decades, thanks in no small part to President George W. Bush’s signature piece of education legislation, No Child Left Behind.

As I noted in the previous post in this series, “The Politics of Education Technology,” Congress has made a concerted effort this year to try to update NCLB, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The House of Representatives passed the revision, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, this week, and the Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill next week. Students will still have to take standardized tests every year from third grade thru eighth, but the federal government will no longer use the results for accountability measures – that’ll be up to the states.

Standardized testing has a long history that connects it to education technology. Both have roots in the early twentieth century alongside educational psychology – multiple choice tests, testing machines, and later, teaching machines. And to this day, standardized testing remains big business for ed-tech, increasingly so as testing moves online).

Recommended reading on the history and (perhaps) the future of testing: Anya Kamenetz’s 2015 book The Test.

The Common Core State Standards

One of the (many) major conflicts in US education policy revolves around the role the federal government can play. “Education is primarily a State and local responsibility in the United States,” the Department of Education says on its website. “It is States and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation.”

And it’s from this division – federal versus state control – that much of the controversy over the Common Core State Standards emerges. Republican presidential candidates, for example, often repeat their contention that the Common Core is “federal overreach.” (Those who don’t blame the feds for the CCSS often blame the Gates Foundation.)

Even though the Common Core State Standards were released 5 years ago (and I’ve included the CCSS as a “Top Ed-Tech Trend” for the last two), there seems to still be a great deal of confusion about what the Common Core State Standards actually are. So bookmark this from Vox: “The Common Core Explained.”

Because no, despite protests in Tennessee this fall, the Common Core does not require teaching Islam. It does not require teaching students how to use condoms. Repeat after me: the Common Core is not a curriculum. The Common Core is not a curriculum. The Common Core is not a curriculum.

Funnily enough, according to Vox (again), “The more people say they know about the Common Core, the less they actually do.” Perhaps that’s because so many people get their information about the Common Core from social media, which continued throughout the year to provide us with viral stories and images about math assignments and the like. “You’re wrong about Common Core math,” James Goodman recently wrote in Salon. “It makes more sense than you think.”

Forty-six states initially adopted the Common Core, but since then several have backed out of the standards themselves or have backed out of one of the two testing consortia, PARCC and SBAC. It’s been hard to keep track of this (much like it’s hard to keep track of which states have received waivers from the Obama Administration for NCLB. Because LOL, “standards.”) But here are some of the updates this year as states have taken legislative and sometimes legal steps to address the Common Core:

In January, Mississippi said it was withdrawing from PARCC. The Mississippi House of Representatives passed a bill that would “ban use of a Common Core-related test, end high school exit exams in biology and U.S. history and push the state Board of Education to adopt standardized tests published by the ACT organization.”

Also in January, Chicago Public Schools announced it would only give 10% of students the new PARCC exam, going against the state of Illinois’ decree that all students take the test. The Department of Education responded by threatening to withhold some $1.2 billion in funding for Illinois and Chicago.

In February, a legislative committee in Arizona moved forward with an effort to dump the Common Core (and its associated tests) in that state. In March, The New York Times noted that “Arizona Governor Seeks Review of Common Core Education Standards.”

In March, a bill in New Hampshire said it would require students to learn cursive and their multiplication tables – cursive is not part of the Common Core and if kids don’t learn cursive, Western Civilization will fall. Or something.

In June, the Missouri legislature “directed the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to sever ties with the test developer, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which provided 17 other states with exams aligned with the Common Core. The provision is part of an appropriations bill that Gov. Jay Nixon signed into law. It eliminates $4.2 million the education department needed to pay Smarter Balanced for next year’s tests.”

Also in June, Arkansas said it planned to drop the PARCC test and use the ACT instead. (This is a trend, I tell you, a trend. More on it below.) The vote to do so and and to use ACT Aspire tests instead occurred in July.

In October, in one of the few announcements of this sort, the Department of Defense Education Activity, which operates schools for children from military families, said it was joining PARCC.

By the end of the year, even Massachusetts – ah, the state at the pinnacle of standardized testing achievement – said it would develop its own Common Core assessments, dropping its plans to use PARCC’s.

Although the Common Core’s been around a while, 2015 marked the year that states implemented the tests associated with the standards. And results of the tests aside (more on that below), many struggled with that very implementation. That’s not a surprise, as a COSN survey found early in the year, “We’re Not Ready for Online Tests.”

There were worries about how the move to online testing might affect scores. There were worries that there weren’t enough computers for test-taking. There were worries about kids’ abilities to type. There were worries about Internet connectivity, particularly in poor and rural schools. And many of the worries were real. The problems weren’t just with district infrastructure; there were problems with vendors’ websites. There were technical problems in Minnesota, Florida, Colorado, New Jersey, Nevada, North Dakota, Montana, and elsewhere. While some blamed the vendors and some blamed IT (and some just told the press it was a “technical blunder”), several states blamedhackers)” for their problems – the new “the dog ate my homework” excuse. The Common Core tests in one New Jersey school district were postponed as its entire computer network was held hostage by ransomware in exchange for 500 Bitcoins, approximately $124,000.

The Agony of Taking a Standardized Test on a Computer” by 11th grader Rebecca Castillo.

Of course, technical issues just add to students’ stress levels: “When Testing Technology Fails, Students Fear They Will Too.” And the technical problems were so bad in some states, that they also prompted concerns about the validity of the scores and about states’ ability to meet the federally mandated levels of test participation (exacerbated too by the “Opt Out” movement. More on that below). Several states accused their testing vendors of breach of contract, and several switched vendors (again, more on that below).

And so… the results? Well, we were warned last year that test scores would go down, thanks to the new (and for many states, higher) standards and tougher assessments. And scores did fall in New York, for example (and of course The New York Times was on it) and at California charter schools. The scores nationwide also showed that achievement gaps between white, Black, and Latino students persist.

How do you obscure how bad the results are? Delete historical test data, I guess.

According to the Associated Press at least, “As Common Core results trickle in, initial goals unfulfilled.” And if nothing else, despite one of the initial promises of the Common Core – that it would end the inconsistency from state-to-state in educational standards – “Test Scores Under Common Core Show That ‘Proficient’ Varies by State.”

Here’s Education Week’s round-up of states’ results.

Blame whomever you want on the falling scores. (These sorts of things are always used to confirm people’s pre-existing beliefs about education.) Me, I’m blaming Zayn Malik and his announcement in May that he was leaving One Direction – I mean, who does such a devastating thing right in the middle of testing season?!

Even as the CCSS and its tests continue to be tweaked – shorter, fewer, more customizable (LOL, less standardized?), severed from accountability measures, and perhaps even increasingly opted out of – it appears that the education system remains committed to standardized testing).

The Business of Textbooks and Testing

And so testing remains big business, as it, along with the Common Core, has helped drive sales in hardware (calculators!), software, curriculum, and related services. That is, standardized testing drives the current boom in ed-tech.

“How compatible are Common Core and technology?” The Hechinger Report asked in March. Spoiler alert: very compatible.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the standardized testing craze, of course, is education behemoth Pearson. Although the company did become a little less big this year after losing its huge contract with Texas: for the first time in 30 years, the Texas Education Agency awarded its $280 million standardized testing contract to a company other than Pearson. (ETS won the bid to provide the STAAR tests for the next four years. Pearson will still get $60 million to develop a portion of the state’s assessments.)

I’ll have more details about “The Business of Ed-Tech” in an upcoming post, but let’s just go ahead about put this out here: “Everybody hates Pearson.” Fortune wrote that headline in January – one of my favorites of the year. Comedian John Oliver also took on Pearson in his news show Last Week Tonight.

Needless to say, Pearson was not amused.

Elsewhere in testing contracts: Ohio went with AIR as its test vendor. Indiana dumped CTB-McGraw Hill for Pearson. Pearson lost a testing contract in California and whined that it was totally unfair. New York state also dumped Pearson, a $44 million contract. Pearson had to shave $1 million off its contract with the state of Minnesota because of glitches in the online testing system. Nevada announced it would cut ties with Measured Progress, its standardized testing vendor, after it had troubles with online testing this spring, choosing Data Recognition Corporation instead.

McGraw-Hill Education decided to get out of of the testing business (almost) altogether, selling most of it to the aforementioned Data Recognition Corporation. “DRC will acquire ‘key assets’ of McGraw-Hill Education’s CTB assessment business, the organizations said. Those assets include McGraw-Hill’s existing state testing contracts, as well as a lineup of other assessment products, including TerraNova, LAS Links, and the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC, a high school equivalency exam,” Education Week reported.

Ed-tech companies that offer test prep and tutoring continue to receive sizable amounts of investment from venture capitalists (even though Khan Academy has promised to “disrupt” the test prep industry by offering its services for free. More on its partnership with the College Board below.)

So just how aligned is all this stuff to the Common Core? Spoiler alert: not very. And yup, textbooks – Common Core aligned or not – remain a (high-priced) disaster. Thanks, Texas!

But hey, as Marketplace contended, “you get what you pay for.” And as the Brookings Institution’s Matt Chingos argued, what we pay for testing is really not that much.

How the sausage is made: Pearson explains how tests are created. And The Plain Dealer explains how tests are graded: “ a very focused assembly line operation: Scoring 55 to 80 answers an hour is no problem for most.” Gasp! Graders are not teachers! (“A tradeoff,” perhaps. Or, the alternative: teachers do grade their students’ exams and lo, scores are higher.)

The “Opt Out” Movement

As I noted in my post on “The Politics of Education Technology,” President Obama announced in October that it was time for students to stop taking “unnecessary tests,” proposing that testing will be limited to just 2% of classroom time. Opponents of standardized testing were not assuaged.

But opponents were able to make plenty of news this year as the “opt out” movement spread. Students in Illinois and New Mexico walked out in protest of the new Common Core exams in March, for example. And in April, Education Week reported that nearly 15% of New Jersey eleventh graders had opted out of standardized tests this year. That same month, KING5 news in Seattle reported that 95% of students at the city’s Garfield High School had opted out of the Common Core assessments. In May, the movement had made it into the The New York Times: in New York State, “at least 165,000 children, or one of every six eligible students, sat out at least one of the two standardized tests this year, more than double and possibly triple the number who did so in 2014.” “Testing Revolt In Washington State Brings Feds Into Uncharted Waters” as more than 42,000 11th graders in the state did not take their mandated standardized tests this year, NPR reported in July.

(What do you do when you “opt out”? For some students, you just “sit and stare.”)

What galvanized standardized testingis opt-out movement?” While some pointed the finger at teachers’ unions and some blamed parents, the “Opt Out” movement had support from politicians too, often tapping into more general displeasure with the Common Core. In January, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of the PARCC exam. “Opt out” legislation was passed in Oregon and Maine as well.

“The Rebellion against Standardized Tests is Exploding,” The Nation claimed. “Sorry, I’m Not Taking This Test,” said Mother Jones. “Standardized Tests Suck. But the Fix Is More Data, Not Less,” said Wired in typical Wired fashion.

All of this, as I noted above, raised questions about the validity of test scores and “hampered the analysis” of the results.

And if the results of the tests are murky so too were the results of many polls this year that tried to ascertain whether or not everyone really hates tests or only some people hate tests (where “some people” is code for middle-class white folks). Drawing on an NBC News State of Parenting Poll (sponsored by Pearson), the Hechinger Report asked “Does the anti-Common Core movement have a race problem?According to a poll by USC and Los Angeles Times, “Majority of California’s Latino voters highly value school testing.” “Only 23% of Latinos said students were tested too much, compared with 44% of white voters.” “Why big civil rights groups think standardized testing is good for kids,” Vox reported. Also via Vox: “Parents think standardized tests are useless. Teachers agree.” Drawing on the results of a different poll, the NEA argued that “Americans Want Less Standardized Testing and More School Funding.” Making the results fit your politics, as one does…


“The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” – Campbell’s Law

As the pressures from standardized testing increase, it’s hardly a surprise that cheating does as well. Of course, cheating pre-dates ed-tech, but ed-tech continues to get a fair share of the blame for facilitating it. OMG! Yik Yak! Smart watches! Social media! So truly, three cheers for those who still opt for the low-tech cheat: hiring someone to take the test for you or hell, just sharing the ol’ cheat sheet.

But on a serious note: the trial for the educators involved in the Atlanta public school district’s massive cheating scandal wrapped up this year. Former Atlanta public schools superintendent Beverly Hall passed away in March while the trial was still ongoing. In April, eleven Atlanta educators were convicted of racketeering for their role in the cheating scandal. They initially faced twenty years in prison. (Other educators charged with similar crimes elsewhere have been charged with fraud and forgery, and their sentences have been nowhere near as long as those faced in this particular case.) The Atlanta educators were led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, to remain in jail until their sentencing. At that time, two accepted negotiated sentences. Eight were sentenced to prison time, up to seven years. Their terms were later reduced from seven to three years.

This New Yorker article from last year paints the best picture, I think, about the pressures – political, administrative, and so on – in the district. Via The Atlantic: “What Really Happened to Atlanta’s Students When Their Teachers Cheated.”

From July: “The principal of a popular elementary school in Harlem acknowledged that she forged answers on students’ state English exams in April because the students had not finished the tests, according to a memorandum released Monday by the New York City Education Department. On April 17, the same day that someone made a complaint about the cheating, the principal, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, of Teachers College Community School, jumped in front of a subway train. She died on April 25.”

Other Tests

While the federally-mandated standardized tests seems to get the lion’s share of attention and ire, there are lots and lots and lots and lots of other standardized tests out there – many, arguably, are quite redundant. A brief rundown of news from the other big tests this year:

ACT: While the SAT was long the popular college admissions exam, the ACT has become much more widely accepted. (Both the SAT and ACT are being used in some states as replacement for Common Core tests.) ACT expanded its computer-based testing this year, and like many testing vendors, it experienced a number of glitches. ACT also announced in June that it was phasing out Compass, “a popular but controversial college placement test that colleges use to determine whether students need to take remedial courses.”

“ACT scores in 2015 were flat,” Inside Higher Ed noted in August, “with a continuation of recent patterns of significant gaps in the average scores by race and ethnicity.” But ACT’s business continues to grow.

And bless their hearts, ACT made the case for multiple choice tests – they “can and do efficiently assess students’ higher-order thinking skills and reflect their real-world problem solving skills.” Keepin’ the dream alive.

SAT: There’s a new SAT, a Common Core-aligned SAT. Whee. (The head of the College Board, which administers the SAT is David Coleman, often described as the “architect” of the Common Core. So, in my best Church Lady voice, that’s convenient.)

The Bell Curve’s author tried to convince folks that the SAT doesn’t measure affluence. Yeah, right dude. Mmhmmm. Fighting the idea that that is precisely what the SAT has measured, a free SAT test prep website from Khan Academy (built in partnership with the College Board) went live this summer. There have been lots of predictions that this will “disrupt” the test prep industry and “level the playing field.” We shall see, right? Yeah, right…

Related: According to an investigation by ProPublica, “Asians Are Nearly Twice as Likely to Get a Higher Price from Princeton Review” for test prep services.

Meanwhile: “China’s Hot New Luxury Product: the SAT.”

The SAT suffered a number of security breaches this year, in one instance with the questions posted online a week in advance of the exam. It also had a printing error on the June 6 test, prompting the College Board to throw out that section and to waive the fee for those who wanted to retake it.

Panic at the disco: “SAT scores at lowest level in 10 years, fueling worries about high schools,” WaPo’s Nick Anderson wrote this fall, trying to fuel the panic, to which Vox’s Libby Nelson calmly responded with “The real reason SAT scores are falling.” “Is the College Board trolling high schools?” historian Sherman Dorn asked. And honestly, maybe this whole standardized testing thing is a giant troll…

Despite all the hullabaloo, more universities across the country have opted to drop their requirements for the SAT (or ACT) for admissions. Among them: VCU, Cornell College, Rivier University, UMass Lowell, George Washington University, The College of Idaho, and Salem State University. Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai will, however, be required to take the SAT if she applies to Stanford.

AP: Like the SAT, the AP is one of the College Board’s products.

There’s been a boiling controversy in the last year or so about the contents of the AP US History course (and subsequent test). In February, an Oklahoma legislative committee voted to ban the teaching of AP US History in the state, arguing that the curriculum was un-patriotic. The Jefferson County School Board, where students protested last year after it said it was going to review the AP US History curriculum to make sure it sufficiently promoted patriotism, said in February it that planned no such review. (For what it’s worth, those very board members were ousted in the mid-term elections this fall.) Caving to pressure from conservatives, the College Board said it would revise its AP US History curriculum in order to include more about the founding fathers, less about dead Native Americans, and to make Ronald Reagan and Manifest Destiny sound less horrible. As Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson suggested, after taking the previous new version of the AP, “I think most people, when they finish that course, they’d be ready to sign up for ISIS.”

I’ll look at the whole “learn-to-code” push in an upcoming post, but I will note here: “Nationally, 37,327 students took the AP CS A exam in 2014,” Mark Guzdial observed. “This was a big increase (26.29%) from the 29,555 students who took it in 2013.” “Barbara Ericson's 2015 AP CS demographics analysis: Still No African-Americans Taking the AP CS Exam in 9 States.” And Code.org teamed up with the College Board: because everyone needs to learn to code and then hand over money to the College Board for an AP test on the subject. Boom.

(Whispers: more students take the physics AP than the CS AP. Way more.) “10 most (and least) popular Advanced Placement (AP) subjects.”

Is Advanced Placement’s Value in the Class or the Test?” Education Week’s Sarah Sparks looked at one study that suggests it’s the latter. So that’s good news for the MOOC-as-test-prep service launched by Davidson College, I guess.

GED: Like many other standardized tests, the GED has become Common Core-aligned. Like many other standardized tests, the GED is administered by Pearson. The recent changes to the GED continue to not be particularly beneficial for those who need the certification. The number of people getting their GED since recent changes to the test continues to decline. Nine times fewer people in Mississippi, for example, have passed the test.

This fall, The Pacific Standard reviewed the new GED: “Making the Case for a Good-Enough Diploma. Common Core and big business have combined to make the lot of the upwardly mobile high school dropout even more dire.” (“Could Your Pass the New GED Test?”)

Meanwhile, in what might be important trend to watch, more companies might once again decide to help fund their employees’ education: “Walmart, fast-food chains offer employees free GED program.”

NAEP: The “nation’s report card” is always an excuse to panic. Panic! Panic! Panic! Wring your hands! Speculate in order to confirm what you already believe about education and ed-reform! And/or read USC prof Morgan Polikoff for some sanity.

Starting in 2017, students who take the NAEP are supposed to be asked questions about their level of grit and their mindset. But now, “responding to budget constraints and priorities for the NAEP program,” the National Assessment Governing Board has decided “to postpone the administration of grade 12 in four subjects and the next long-term trend exams by four years.” It’s almost as though we don’t need NAEP scores, since we know how everyone will react, no matter the scores.

Exit Exams: In January, Arizona became the first state in the US to enact a law requiring high school students to pass the US citizenship test on civics before graduating. In October, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that abolished the state’s high school exit exam and in turn awarded diplomas to thousands who’d failed the exam as far back as 2004 but had completed all their high school classes.

Instead of Standardized Tests?

OK, so this testing thing is big business. It’s political intrigue. It’s part of a long history of education research and psychometrics and ed-tech product development.

So what could schools do instead of standardized tests? Anya Kamenetz offers a whole list of things, surveys for starters.

Or: after we replace teachers with robots, we could just go on and replace students with robots too. After all, this year “an artificial intelligence software program capable of seeing and reading has for the first time answered geometry questions from the SAT at the level of an average 11th grader.” Think of how well we'll do on NAEP and PISA and the like if we just let the robots do the test-taking!

This article first appeared on Hack Education on December 5, 2015