Senate Bill 95 Testimony

Sisyphus 1, by Davor, click on image for more.

The Lyres, “Don’t Give It up Now” (click to listen or download).

Thank you for this opportunity to testify on Senate Bill 95.

Due to time limitations  — both the time allotted here and the very, very short time between the release of the Bill on Friday and the scheduling of this hearing for today  — I will be confining myself to only two of the topics covered in this wide ranging measure.  Those are the dilution of the Student Achievement Guaranty in Education (SAGE) and the use of student standardized test scores  as a determinant of educator employment conditions.  I will note that I believe every section of this Bill should be thoroughly sifted and winnowed.

Before directly addressing the proposals on SAGE and the use of student standardized test scores, I’d like to say a few things about the broader trend in educational thinking and policy in Wisconsin.

Not too long ago Senator Olson chaired a Special Committee on Review of State School Aid Formula.  I sat though most of the meetings of that committee.  Although little came of it, there was a sense of optimism and ambition in the work of that committee, a sense that we can and should do better.    This spirit was captured in the title of the presentation by Professor Alan Odden “Moving From Good to Great in Wisconsin:  Funding Schools Adequately and Doubling Student Performance,” (paper of the same title here) .  It should be added that Doctor Sarah Archibald, who is anow dvising Senator Olson, was part of that work.

Almost no one is seeking greatness any more.  At best people are seeking to push the limits of “doing more with less;” at worst there is an unspoken acceptance that the children of today and tomorrow will not have the the breadth and quality of educational opportunities that their older brothers and sisters were provided.    Things like physical education for all children are now  apparently luxury we cannot afford and so you have before you a Bill which eliminates that requirement.   Maybe this one policy change isn’t the most important, but it wouldn’t be before you if academic subjects, arts education, technical education, agricultural education and in fact the entire curriculum weren’t threatened in districts around the state.   How sad that it has come to eliminating physical education requirements in order to at least partially fund other educational offering.

There are better ways.  The Special Committee Senator Olson chaired heard about some of them, others have have been put forth since then.  I happen to believe that revenue reform needs to be part of the answer, but the recent revised revenue projections provide a way halt the decline without altering the tax structure.  Joint Finance leadership has indicated they won’t consider this.  Perhaps they could be convinced otherwise, perhaps members of this committee could remind them of the responsibility of  each generation to give the next the tools to create a better future.

The proposed “flexibility” for SAGE is like the Phys Ed proposal, in that it is a step backward, only it is worse.  SAGE  is Wisconsin’s only state program targeted for children in poverty and this is crucial,  legally, educationaly and as a matter of social justice.

In the Vincent v. Voight  decision the Wisconsin Supreme Court noted that “Poverty undisputedly leads to distinct learning problems” and identified addressing these problems as part of the test of the constitutionality of a school finance system.

Odden and Archibald  — like every other proposal for reforming education finance in Wisconsin  —  followed this lead,  proposing 30%+ additional resources for free and reduced lunch students .  In a similar manner the School Finance Network  proposed a broader and genuinely more flexible poverty categorical aid to improve educational equity and outcomes.   Allowing districts to partially opt out, improves nothing.  It simply denies more children in poverty the benefits of a a successful program.

SAGE isn’t perfect, but the results have been good.   The research by the Value Added Research Center is worth reviewing to get at the details, but the results have been convincing enough that Odden and Archibald included it in their strategies for doubling achievement,  recommending that “schools be resourced for class sizes of 15 for grades K-3 and 25 for grades 4-12.”

Even scholars who are generally skeptical about the efficiency of class size reductions recognize that the effects are more pronounced for children in poverty.  One of the prime functions of our public schools is to break the cycle of inequality by providing opportunities.  We haven’t come close to doing this.  Instead of limiting access to these opportunities, as SB 95 does, we should be looking to expand access by fully funding.

Since education reform proposals originating in Florida seem to be popular with some these days, I’ll close this section  by noting that state class sizes in kindergarten through 3d grade are Constitutionally limited to 18 students (22 4th through 8th and 25 in High School).  If every young student in Florida can have the benefits of a class limited to 18, I would hope that Wisconsin could at very least not make it easier to take these benefits away from our economically disadvantaged students.

On the expanding the use of standardized tests in relation to teacher employment I’ll be brief.

First, the test that is in place is the WKCE and consensus is that the WKCE is deeply flawed as a measure of student learning, much less teacher effectiveness (something it is not designed to measure) .  It is my understanding that the earliest we will have a new assessment is 2014, which means that the earliest we would have multiple years of data to work with is 2016.  So even if you accept that these new assessments will be  appropriate tools to measure student learning and teacher effectiveness — which I do not — for at least the next 5 years SB 95 ties educator employment conditions  to WKCE results.  How can this be a good idea?

More generally, I’ll again turn to Professor Odden (I don’t believe Doctor Archibald was part of this project).  He wrote: “Merit plans in education have conceptual, strategic, technical, and political shortcomings” and advised against trying them till other options– such as knowledge and skills based systems had been exhausted.  Conceptual because of the collaborative nature of teaching and learning.  Strategic because they target the extremes instead of seeking to improve teaching across the board.  Technically because of the impossibility of designing a plan that equitably covers all teachers in all subjects in all grades in all schools….. And politically, because most educators will oppose them, creating hostility that undermines organizational unity.

I could elaborate on this list and add to it.   Almost every scholar who does not have a vested interest in standardized tests and their application is skeptical of their application to the evaluation of teachers.   This skepticism includes value added analysis.  Scholars across the spectrum,  including  the The Economic Policy Institute, The National Academies, Math for America, The Brown Center at Brookings, the Rand Corporation,  and even The American Enterprise Institute have cautioned against or rejected the use of standardized test based value added models for high stakes decision making.

Instituting a standardized test based teacher evaluations will require devoting more resources — time and money — to tests, testing and the analysis of these tests.  A recent decision in Charlotte-Mecklenburg North Carolina captures the absurd state of education policy-making.  The Charlotte Observer reports:

Next week CMS will launch trial versions of 52 new tests, including an exam for kids as young as kindergarteners who must be tested one-on-one. The tests will be used to evaluate teachers, as the budget shrinks and officials prepare to lay off faculty.

52 new tests, so they can figure out which teachers to lay off in order to do the least harm.

In closing I offer a quote from a School Superintendent in Pennsylvania, where similar “mandate relief “legislation is under consideration:

“This does not promote education, it simply promotes laying off more educators,… these so-called mandate reliefs are just more smoke and mirrors.”

Much of SB 95 is about presenting the illusion of helping schools and students and distracting from the reality that our state is abandoning our commitment to providing every student a quality education.    It is time to leave the the smoke and mirrors and get back to working for greatness.

Thomas J. Mertz

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One response to “Senate Bill 95 Testimony

  1. This morning I was reminded of the Department of Education study on the use of student test scores via Value Added Analysis: “Error Rates in Measuring Teacher and School Performance Based on Student Test Score Gains.” It finds:

    “More than 90 percent of the variation in student gain scores is due to the variation in student-level factors that are not under the control of the teacher.”

    And

    “Error rates for comparing a teacher’s performance to the average are likely to be about 25 percent with three years of data and 35 percent with one year of data.”

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