Proficiency Based Learning, Standardized Testing, and Opting Out: What’s the link?

As an educator who has grown increasingly wary the role of standardized testing in our schools, the growing Opt-Out movement has given me a jolt of inspiration, relief, and motivation to continue pulling back the curtain to find out just what’s been going with education in our country and where we are headed.

For a few weeks, I did a deep-dive into the new Smarter Balanced tests, and discovered just how very far removed they are from the realities of our classrooms and how inextricably linked they are to corporate profit.  You can check out the culmination of this effort in an article on the Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/03/24/teacher-the-disturbing-things-ive-learned-about-our-new-common-core-tests/

Until recently, I was so busy reading, thinking, writing and talking about these new tests – while also teaching a very spirited fourth grade class by day and caring for an infant and home by night  – that the concept of “Proficiency Based Learning” barely entered my radar.  I knew that our high school and K-3 were busy reworking their report cards to align to this new idea, but truth be told, report cards of all sorts have always bugged me, and so I figured the new format would have little impact on my daily work in the classroom and wasn’t concerned.  (For a more complete understanding of my personal view on grades in the elementary level, check out this great article written by Alfie Kohn: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/)

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when my principal shared a district budget memo with us detailing various changes being made and a wish-list of new teaching positions to help alleviate over-crowding of classrooms, that I decided it was time to find out more about PBL. I desperately wish we could afford an additional fourth grade teacher next year.  I’ve got 21 kids now, and I’ve got my hands more than full!  Next year I’m slated to have 28 to start the year.  The thought makes my heart race!  So, when I learned that this was highly unlikely – and that, in fact, the city council was asking the district to make MORE cuts to the budget, I was mad.  And lately, when I get mad, I start asking questions.

My first question was why our Curriculum and Staff Development budget was going up by almost 50%, with a good chunk of that money being spent on professional development of Proficiency Based Learning.  What does research say about PBL, I wanted to know, and how do we know it is more valuable than additional teachers? I consider myself pretty aware of new research and trends in education, and yet I knew almost nothing about PBL.

As my previous post explains in detail, this is because PBL is actually a very new concept, developed intentionally through investments of the Gates Foundation and a variety of corporations in order to expand opportunities for profit.

**A side note: I do believe that there is sound reasoning and theory behind certain concepts of standards-based education, particularly if the emphasis is genuinely on effective differentiation, allowing students to demonstrate mastery of subjects and topics in ways that are meaningful for them, and ample opportunity for student choice in learning.  A great example of a school that employs this type of learning is award winning teacher Nancie Atwell’s Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine.

PBL, however, particularly as it is being implemented in our schools through organizations such as Great Schools Partnership and Reinventing Schools Coalition – both of which have received millions of dollars from corporate-sponsored non-profits – are not in the business of pushing this progressive type of educational model.  In fact, they have a much different agenda, which is tied directly to the agenda of the same corporations – Pearson, McGraw Hill, Microsoft, NewsCorp – that have invested so heavily in the new Common Core Smarter Balanced and PARCC tests.

And that’s where opting out and standardized testing comes in.

Several years ago, the very same corporations and organizations that have been pulling the strings behind the Common Core State Standards and its new tests formed an organization called “Digital Learning Now!”  http://digitallearningnow.com This organization was spearheaded by Jeb Bush, who is also founder of the Foundation for Excellence in Education – an organization closely allied with the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Here’s one reason why this alliance is concerning:  the American Legislative Exchange Council, more commonly called ALEC, is well known for its work in shaping state legislation that benefits corporate interest: http://www.npr.org/2011/07/21/138537515/how-alec-shapes-state-politics-behind-the-scenes   They have been a driving force behind efforts to privatize public education in all sorts of different ways.

So, what does “Digital Learning Now!” have to do with PBL, how do we know that it’s really about helping them make money as opposed to helping our kids, and what can Opt Outers do about it?

A few years ago, Digital Learning Now, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and ALEC worked together to create the 10 Elements of High-Quality Digital Learning.  One of the elements is called “Advancement,” and here are its metrics:

  • All students must demonstrate mastery on standards-based competencies to earn credit for a course and to advance to the succeeding course.
  • All students are provided multiple opportunities during the year to take end-of-course exams.
  • All students earn credits based on competency and are not required to complete a defined amount of instructional time to earn credit.
  • All districts and approved providers in the state accept credits from all other districts and state-approved providers.

Sound familiar?  It should!  This language mirrors that of LD 1422, Maine’s Proficiency Based Diploma Law, which is now listed as model legislation on the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s website – coded, of course, with a “D” for digital learning.

As readers of my previous posts know, LD 1422 passed by way of questionable lobbying practices by Educate Maine – a business-led organization that received almost three-quarters of a million dollars from Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which has at its routes ties to – you guessed it – ALEC.

LD 1422, it should now be no surprised, helped Maine boost its letter grade on ALEC’s annual report card on state education policy. http://www.alec.org/publications/report-card-on-american-education/  Since 2010, we’ve moved from a D+ according to their metrics (which, in addition to policies supporting digital learning, also account for school choice, charter schools, and teacher evaluation systems) to a C.

Interestingly, Massachusetts, which is the top-rated state in our country according to its scores on the NAEP test and other measures and is well-known for the academic success of its students, gets an “F” from ALEC for its digital learning policies.

So why is digital learning such a big deal for them?  If the state that ranks top in the nation for its academic is the worst performing state for digital learning policies, why would anyone want to push so hard for such policies?

Because companies like Microsoft, Apple, Amplify, Pearson, McGraw Hill, and newer start-ups like JumpRope stand to make an enormous profit off of these policies.  Do a quick search of theses companies up-and-coming Common Core-aligned, standards-based products, and you will see just how hard they have been working to have their goods coincide with the roll out of these new policies.

At this point, some of you may be asking, okay – I get that this is really meant to help these companies profit, but is there really anything wrong with digital and online learning?  Maybe we can all benefit from this.

My instincts say no, children will not benefit from such a heavy emphasis of online and digital learning.  My instincts say that children need close relationships with adults to learn best; that learning is not simply about acquiring bits of information but is also about communication with peers and actively constructing ideas through social interactions.

Certainly, there is a place for these methods of learning in our classrooms. I use laptops as a station each day in my math and literacy workshops to supplement the work we are doing in our lessons, and I value their ability to keep my students engaged for 20 or so minutes at a  time while they work on math problems or read books on RAZ kids. It is another way to institute choice in my classroom, and in limited doses, I find it useful.

Research, however, is beginning to show that this type of learning must be specific and supplemental to be most effective; not the main course, as many of these companies would prefer.  Pediatricians also agree that screen time should be limited.  And finally, when I searched for research to show how effective online learning can be for children in grades K-12, all I could find was one article commissioned by the US Department of Education in 2004 and conducted by Learning Point Associates  – a company now called American Institute for Research, which worked hand-in-hand in the development of the new Smarter Balanced and PARCC tests – who, despite their best efforts, concluded that there really isn’t any good evidence to show that this type of learning is any more beneficial to children than other methods. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED489533.pdf

So what are we to do about this?  Unfortunately it’s not nearly so easy to opt our children out of PBL than it is out of the Smarter Balanced test.

But here are some ideas to get us started: We can voice our concerns to our legislators and school districts; we can start asking more questions about what we are paying for and why; and we spread the word on social media like we’ve been doing with opt-out.

What are your ideas?

Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

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