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How ‘field testing’ turns kids into guinea pigs — without parental permission

Testing companies like to “test” future questions for standardized tests on kids, sometimes as part of a regular standardized exam and sometimes as a stand-alone field test. Here’s a post making the case that this practice essentially turns kids in guinea pigs for corporations. It was written by Jessie B. Ramey, a visiting scholar in women’s studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and first appeared on her Yinzercation blog. This speaks to what is going on in Pennsylvania, but this is a common practice in states across the country.

By Jessie B. Ramey

Warning! The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is using our children as guinea pigs – without telling parents. If this doesn’t make your whiskers twitch, I don’t know what will.

All public school students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade are supposed to be taking the “ELA: PSSA Writing Field Test” during the test window, Feb. 3-14 (meaning some Pennsylvania school districts may have already given it). Pittsburgh Public Schools will be giving the test this week, though most teachers just learned about it a few days ago. This stand-alone field test is separate from the regular PSSA and Keystone state testing program, and allows a private corporation to try out material on kids without informing parents or getting their permission. This raises at least seven big questions:

1. Do field tests help students?

It is hard to see how field tests benefit students. They certainly have nothing to do with helping current students learn. In fact, our kids and their teachers won’t even see the results of this test. The PDE explains:

“Information obtained from the 2014 ELA: Writing Field Test will be used to select items for future ELA assessments. Participating students will be ‘testing the items’ for future assessment consideration. No data will be returned to your school or district.”

So teachers are expected to give a test they did not design, on material they did not teach, to students who will not learn anything from the experience. Those teachers, students, and their parents will never see the results.

Some argue that field tests might benefit future students by allowing test companies to design “better” tests. Others argue that field tests might benefit current students by allowing teachers to preview the kinds of questions asked on the PSSA (since they are not permitted to view the actual PSSA). But these arguments don’t make sense when you consider that the PSSAs themselves do not support student learning: teachers and students don’t even get the results back until the following school year. [See our satirical “How to Read the PSSA Report”] Instead of giving timely feedback to students, PSSAs are used – inappropriately – to evaluate teachers and entire schools. Should teachers be using a glimpse of a field test, to teach to the next test?

2. How do corporations benefit?

While students may not benefit from field tests, private corporations sure do. Parents in the grassroots group, Change the Stakes, explain, “Our children are essentially being used as free labor so that test companies can decide which of their experimental test questions are actually suitable to put on actual tests. Typically, parents are not notified when their children are having classroom time taken away for field tests that benefit for-profit test developers.”

In a recent alert, Change the Stakes elaborated, “Children are being used and classroom time given to a private vendor so it can make marketable tests. … Children are being treated as unknowing subjects in a testing laboratory – a form of exploitation. This must cease. Reputable studies spell out their aims, invite participation, and pay their subjects.”  Legitimate education researchers get informed consent and go through rigorous human subjects review. Our children are not lab rats.

Yet these tests are being done at our expense, with public, taxpayer dollars, so that a private corporation can turn around and sell their test product back to us at a profit. Who is benefiting in Pennsylvania? Is it the Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corporation? They secured a five-year contract with PDE costing us hundreds of millions to develop the Keystone exams, in addition to the deal they already had administering the PSSAs.

3. Do field tests harm students?

By imposing these optional field tests on our schools, the PDE is – yet again – reducing actual learning time. Our children are already experiencing an explosion in the number of high-stakes-tests given during the year (my 7th grader is taking 21 high-stakes, standardized tests this year). Why are we voluntarily adding more to the list, further cutting into precious classroom time?

The addition of yet another PSSA-style test contributes to the stress felt by many of our children. Remember what that brave Pittsburgh teacher told us about the poorly designed GRADE test that she is forced to give to her students multiple times during the year? (If you haven’t already, please read our piece “Testing Madness,” which went viral when this blog published it.) Tests like these are particularly pernicious for struggling students, undermining their learning and confidence, and causing literal harm to their education.

In addition, Change the Stakes points out:

Children are not motivated to do well on extra tests and ‘trial’ items, so the tests yield misleading data. It is a lose-lose proposition: [companies] get unreliable data which lead [them] to build poor exams.

4. Are parents being denied their rights?

By law, parents have a right to review assessments given to their children: Section 4.4 of Chapter 4 of the State Board of Education regulations guarantees “The right of the parent or guardian to review the State assessments in the school entity, at least 2 weeks prior to their administration.” The administrator’s manual for the ELA Writing Field Test itself specifies that, “Parental reviews of the assessment materials should be done on an individual basis by individual request and must be completed prior to the beginning of the assessment window.” However, parents are denied their right to do exactly this when PDE and school districts neglect to inform them that field tests will be given.

In this case, PDE has apparently set the assessment window for Feb. 3-14th. But most Pittsburgh teachers did not even learn about the field test until late last week. And no announcement was ever made to parents in the district. The field test does not even appear on the Pittsburgh Public School assessment calendar – which is available by request, but not on the PPS website, adding another hurdle for parents wishing to exercise their rights. [See our scanned version here.]

What’s more, Section 4.4 of the Board of Ed regulations also guarantees parents, “The right to have their children excluded from research studies or surveys conducted by entities other than a school entity unless prior written consent has been obtained.” While PDE may argue that field tests are being conducted by a state-contracted “school entity,” parents – and all Pennsylvania taxpayers – might want to question that definition when a private corporation plans to use our children’s data, without compensation, to develop a product it will then sell back to us.

5. How much do they cost?

In 2011, Pennsylvania signed a five-year contract – reported variously as worth $176 million or $201.1 million – with Data Recognition Corporation (DRC). The DRC agreed “to develop the model curriculum, classroom diagnostic tools to measure student progress and 10 end-of-the-year Keystone tests.” This deal was in addition to the “lucrative contract” DRC already had “with the state to administer the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments tests (more commonly known as PSSA exams).” How much money are these field tests costing Pennsylvania taxpayers at the very same time our students have lost everything from their teachers to tutoring?

6. What is the relationship between field tests and high-stakes-testing?

Field tests appear to be an integral part of the larger system of high-stakes testing that is damaging our schools. Over the past decade, testing has exploded under federal No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies. Yet abundant evidence demonstrates that all this testing is not working, and the high-stakes attached to so many tests have actually had perverse consequences, harming the very students they were intended to help. In a nutshell:

  • High-stakes-tests do not accurately reflect what our students know, or how well our teachers teach.
  • These tests are not objective, reliable, or good measures of student achievement. [For a summary of data, see, “What’s wrong with standardized tests.”]
  • Students are learning how to take high-stakes tests, but not actual content: when they are tested on the same material in a different format, they cannot demonstrate any real subject mastery. [Daniel Koretz, Measuring up: What educational testing really tells us (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).]
  • High-stakes tests cause harmful stress for children by putting pressure on them to not only demonstrate their knowledge but to represent the effectiveness of their teachers and their schools. [For more examples, see here and here.
  • High-stakes tests limit the curriculum, by narrowing the focus to reading and math.
  • The proliferation of high-stakes testing has dramatically reduced actual learning time as students spend more time in testing and on test-prep.
  • The majority of high-stakes tests are written by and benefit the bottom line of a handful of large international corporations.

7. What can we do?

Are school districts required by law to give field tests? Can superintendents, school boards, or individual principals refuse to impose field-testing on students? Certainly parents in other states have started standing up for their children on this issue. For instance, 18 months ago, sparked by dozens of ridiculous questions on a field test designed by Pearson, including one about a talking pineapple, thousands of New York City parents staged a boycott. Last spring, parents in Upper Nyack, NY, pulled over 70% of the fifth-grade students out of scheduled field tests.  And just two weeks ago, students in Providence, Rhode Island swarmed the state capitol dressed as lab rats to protest the experimental use of high-stakes-tests there. [Check out these great photos.}

What can Pennsylvania parents do? Will school districts deny parents their right to review this assessment and opt their children out of it, if they choose? Our children are not guinea pigs and this ever-growing maze of tests is causing real harm.