The Testing Juggernaut---It Takes Ganas, Ch 7

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Chapter 7 of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante's Secret to Inspired Learning

A test made Jaime Escalante famous. As a teacher he focused on preparing his students for a particular high-stakes exam he believed was the ticket to a better career and a better life for everyone who passed it. As chairman of the math department at Garfield High, he structured courses and assigned students throughout the school in a way that fed the most promising kids into his AP calculus program.

Tests are a familiar and necessary tool for evaluating what students know, but as the educational landscape has been transformed over the last twenty years, testing has become a contentious point of policy. The purpose of the national AP calculus exam that Escalante's fourteen students prepared for so diligently in 1982 was specific, narrow, and clearly defined. These fourteen represented a tiny, statistically insignificant sliver of the student population at Garfield.

Standardized Testing

By contrast, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (R2T) set standards for all students without regard to their interests or abilities. Today forty-two states plus Washington, D.C., use the Common Core standards developed by organizations representing state governors and commissioners of education to construct tests and measure performance. The federal government then uses the resulting test scores to judge school performance and teacher success.

Once a high-stakes testing program was launched, tens of thousands of careers and budgets suddenly depended on the outcome of a single exam. Many educators, parents, and students would agree with the college admissions officers who said of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, "What students do over four years in high school is more important than what they do on a Saturday morning."[1] Yet the push toward high-stakes testing has continued. Rather than thoroughly assessing student progress over time, these tests have become infamous for producing misapplied results, bringing stress and anxiety to educators and students alike, and encouraging a raft of tricks and deceits to improve test data.

One study after another agrees that nationwide testing has become a runaway train. Iris C. Rotberg, research professor of education policy at George Washington University writes, "Accountability has become the centerpiece of political rhetoric on education reform. The underlying assumption is straightforward: hold teachers and students accountable for students' scores on standardized tests, and academic standards will rise. Sounds good. But it doesn't work."[2] UCLA research professor Mike Rose concludes that the assumptions of NCLB "reveal a pretty simplified notion of what motivates a teacher: raise your expectations or you'll be punished – what a friend of mine calls the cave man theory of motivation."[3]

To many of Escalante's colleagues and successors, national standards testing is the poster child for educational bureaucracy run amok. In reflecting on the prospects for repeating Escalante's success today, educators have more to say about this than any other topic. Asked what one change in the educational landscape it would take to repeat Escalante's results, a veteran of more than thirty years in California public schools exclaimed, "Get rid of Common Core testing!"[4]

Dr. Mary Poplin, professor of education at Claremont Graduate University in California and an admirer of Jaime Escalante, notes that testing has its place but that it has to be correctly used and interpreted. "We will never improve the education of the poor without holding educators accountable for standardized test scores," she says. "They are simply the most reliable and cost and time efficient form of measuring academic progress." Yet while standardized tests help insure equality "for students like those Escalante cared about, they're not going to give the teacher a lot of useful information like the smaller periodic assessments of particular knowledge and skill acquisition will."[5]

National testing programs generally emphasize math and language. Because so much is at stake, teachers and schools are under immense pressure to spend all the time they can on tested subjects to the exclusion of everything else. In pursuit of the golden carrot of test results that yield money and professional approval in place of criticism and ridicule, schools are tempted to throw everything else overboard: physical education, community service, music, art, theater, history, geography, foreign languages, literature, creative writing – so much of what enriches education by appealing to children's individuality, their talents, interests, and strengths. Children who do not know the history of their country have no reference point for how to make it better. Arts and humanities can enrich a student's life experience remarkably and may be the path to a fulfilling career. Yet because the tests don't measure these disciplines, teachers increasingly downplay them or don't teach them at all.

Nashville teacher Houston Sarratt notes, "Standardized testing has severely narrowed the curriculum, to the students' tremendous detriment, especially K-8. What you've learned the entire year is assessed in two or three hours, and these scores are used to determine student growth. The kids don't really get taught literature or writing. The whole focus is choosing the right answer on a test. Students do fine on the test, but they can't write."[6]

Important Content Left Untaught

Henry Gradillas, Escalante's principal and friend, writes in his book Standing and Delivering that the district administration once pressured him to accept low test scores and high dropout rates because his pupils could not be expected to do any better. Later they applied pressure to score high in order to meet NCLB requirements. "Too often important content is left untaught because standardized tests do not include it," he observes. To hit their numbers, some states seem to be watering down their exams. "Even though scores on state tests keep rising, SAT and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are stagnant, and colleges are complaining about the academic skills of the students the high schools send them.

"In this age of data-driven education, positive statistics are the Holy Grail," Gradillas continues. "Our top priority [at Garfield in the 1980's] was not to produce positive statistics, but rather to give our kids the best education that we could offer them. The higher test scores and lower dropout rates were fortunate by-products of improved education."[7]

Mark Peabody, whose principal Ray Mayoral worked and learned under Escalante, believes school should be "training people to enjoy life and do what they're skilled to do. School is the time and place where kids find their identities – 'This is who I am!' versus 'This is what the school told me to be.'"[8]

Lucy Romero began her career in education as an intern at Garfield during the Escalante years and today teaches biology at its School for Advanced Studies. Her experience is that national standards do not accurately measure a student's ability or a school's progress. "Classes are uneven from year to year," she says. "Some are exceptional, some are not as good. Yet there's unrelenting pressure to keep going higher. The success of the school is based on a number. Students know a lot about a little."[9]

Escalante's former colleague Angelo Villavicencio believes that standardized test results are especially misleading in poor and minority schools where expectations have always been low. Moreover, "testing has taken away the beauty of teaching math, taken away how wonderful the subject can be."[10]

Molly Slack, a seasoned middle school drama teacher on the outskirts of Houston, heartily agrees. "Standardized testing will be the downfall of this country," she declares, adding that children have different abilities and different learning styles that standardized tests don't take into account.

Teaching to the test robs teachers as well as students, Slack observes. "The testing craze takes so much time that teachers never have time to think about how to bring their personal strengths to the job."[11] Administrators focused on test results pressure teachers to abandon lessons or methods they are expert in or have a passion for in order to spend every minute on the test-based curriculum. Teachers who have collected illustrations or study aids for decades and developed innovative ways of presenting them have to leave them untouched in the storage closet.

Besides bureaucratic requirements that narrow the curriculum and misapply results, teachers chafe at government-mandated paperwork that takes time away from classroom teaching, preparation, and professional development. "Teachers are pressed for time because they do so much administrative work that doesn't add to education," Houston Sarratt says. "The big culprit is standardized testing – level assessment, intervention, and so forth. This decreases the time for creative thinking and collaboration."

Another challenge to educators is when their curriculum standards shift in order to chase after better test results. Tennessee 2015 Teacher of the Year Karen Vogelsang began her career as a banker, so she was used to "standards, benchmarks, and expectations" before she stood in front of a classroom for the first time. Part of the frustration in today's world of education, she says, is having a test that measures old standards. Her experience recalls what Mark Peabody said about new administrative regimes throwing out everything that preceded them. She says, "It takes five to seven years to get a textbook through the approval process. By then somebody wants to do something different. What are we measuring? We can't teach to the new standard until we have the resources and materials."[12]

And while Vogelsang likes the idea of a nationwide standard "because I can talk to a teacher anywhere," she believes there is misunderstanding and confusion about "the relationship between testing and Common Core. I don't think one test is an accurate measure of what a kid does." She adds that Common Core "has nothing to do with a teacher's evaluation ... Holding me accountable for how another human being's brain takes in information really is not fair."

Houston Sarratt echoes Vogelsang's and Peabody's concerns about curriculum as a moving target. "The powers that be keep changing the requirements, which means changing the curriculum and changing the test. Then by the time all the changes are in place, there's someone else in charge and they want to put their stamp on education and so come up with new requirements and testing methods. I have had to use the curriculum for one program to prepare classes to test under another one." The consequences of combining old material with a new test are reliably disappointing. One predictor of how well a school will test is how long they have used the curriculum being tested. The shorter the time, the lower the grade.

Some experts believe high-stakes testing does further damage by driving good teachers away from the profession. Weary and frustrated with all the extra work and pressure, the most talented and ambitious leave the classroom for more rewarding work. Professor Rotberg points out one of the unintended consequences of the national fixation on testing: "It weakens academic standards when it discourages the most qualified teachers and principals from remaining in the profession." The focus on test-based accountability "affects instructional practices, public image, salaries, school takeovers, and resource availability." It "leads to excessive demands on teachers and principals," which reduces job satisfaction, weakening the ability of the profession to attract and retain highly qualified educators. As far back as the year 2000, The New York Times reported that "a growing number of schools are rudderless, struggling to replace a graying corps of principals at a time when the pressure to raise test scores and other new demands have made an already difficult job an increasingly thankless one."[13] And that was before NCLB.

Parents don't like standardized tests either. According to a 2014 PDK/Gallup Poll, sixty percent of Americans oppose national Common Core standards and sixty-two percent of public school parents oppose them.[14] Sometimes one searing example puts a whole issue into perspective. One mother described the scene of her ten-year-old daughter who could not sleep for worrying over the fourth grade New York state English language arts exam. Tears streaming down her cheeks and onto her pillow, the girl asked, "Mom, why is one test so important?" Then, playing back what she has heard for days on end in the classroom, she answered her own question: If she doesn't get a good grade on the test she won't get into a good middle school, which means she won't get into a good high school, which means she won't get into a good college, which means she won't get a good job.[15]

Parents of minority children may have even more reason to be wary of high-stakes testing. "Four Effects of the High-Stakes Testing Movement on African American K-12 Students" published in 2012 found that "NCLB became equated with one ultimate objective: producing high test scores." This, the article concluded, has disproportionately harmed black students by initiating harsher discipline standards and other policy changes, "creating a narcissistic education system that strives to make schools 'look good,' even if students are not really learning information that will help them improve the quality of their lives." The study also found that black pupils suffer disproportionately from the elimination of music, art, and drama in the classroom.[16]

Inflating Test Results

With so much at stake, the temptation to tinker with test results is intense. Students with learning disabilities or limited English could be exempted from NCLB testing. This tendency to tinker with results led to instances of large numbers of children being labeled learning disabled even before NCLB in order to keep their scores out of the mix. A 1998 article in Policy Review noted that in a sampling of Houston schools with good test scores, ten of 22 schools in the sample tested fewer than half their students.[17]

Another tactic for inflating results is for schools to hold lower-scoring children back the year before, producing apparent test score gains but also higher dropout rates. As an assessment coordinator in Kentucky remarked, "It looks like it's to a school's advantage to get kids to drop out rather than to keep them on the rolls and have poor test scores at grade 12."[18]

A report in The New York Times makes a similar observation. "When we read that states have raised academic standards, all we know is that they have initiated a high-stakes testing program. We know nothing about whether the quality of the educational program has improved. For example, if 25% of students drop out of school because they fail the test, we have not improved our schools."[19]

Jaime Escalante made national headlines when his students were accused of sharing answers on their AP calculus exam. By retaking and passing the exam, his students vindicated themselves and put the charge of cheating to rest. But cheating scandals are endemic to standardized testing. Testing is a high-stakes game for everyone involved, not just students, but especially educators. With so much on the line, educators may be even more tempted to cheat than their students. In what is described as the biggest cheating scandal in American history, 178 employees of the Atlanta public school system, including thirty-eight principals, were accused of improperly raising test scores. Eleven teachers, testing coordinators, and administrators were convicted in 2015 of racketeering and sent to prison.

The defendants changed students' answer sheets, sometimes having "erasure parties" around one of the principals' backyard swimming pool, then falsely certifying the results. School employees who failed to go along were fired or threatened with termination. Teachers and administrators were rewarded with bonuses for the higher grades. Beverly Hall, the superintendent of Atlanta schools, was honored as the 2009 Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. (Hall died of cancer before her court case was decided.)[20] Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest and an advocate of rolling back national testing, says that cheating "is a totally predictable response to policymakers who have created a system in which teachers are expected to boost test scores sharply by any means necessary."

High-Stakes Testing

So why does the political and educational establishment keep pushing these tests if they cause such a long list of problems, and a majority does not want them? Why commit so many resources to a system teachers say hurts students and schools more than it helps? Many critics insist it is one more manifestation of the Federal government imposing its will at the local level. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core standards have been powerful instruments of top-down Congressional and state control. History tells us that once a government bureaucracy gains mastery over anything, it is hesitant to let it go. Therefore standardized testing in one form or another is likely to be a major force on the national educational scene for the indefinite future.

"It's astounding to me that administrators and legislators don't see the severe defect in the system," says teacher Houston Sarratt. "These testing programs are around because districts have invested so much and they don't want to admit failure ... They're being wooed by publishers and test writers who are making bazillions of dollars on standardized testing."

It isn't quite a bazillion, but high-stakes testing now feeds a $2.5 billion per year industry that has grown 57 percent in the past three years. From companies who design and administer tests to test preparation services (sometimes they're one and the same), from thousand-dollar-a-day consultants to the teacher who gets free gifts for trying an online product, the testing juggernaut nurtures a long list of companies and educators whose financial and professional success depend on the industry continuing to expand.

The biggest player in the field is Pearson, "the Godzilla of education," a London-based media conglomerate with an estimated 60 percent of the U.S. testing market including teacher qualification, curriculum, tests, and test grading. Writing in Fortune magazine, Jennifer Reingold reports that "today standardized testing seems to many to have become the goal of education ... rather than a means of implementing it. Add in the increasing use of technology to teach students, government cutbacks, and the private-sector-funded reform movement, and companies have more clout than ever when it comes to what and how kids are taught."[21]

Pearson CEO John Fallon does not see his company as trying to take control of education. Rather they portray themselves as working to help students succeed, and legislators and educators always have the final word. "It's inevitable in a field as important as education that feelings are strong," he says. "We are here to serve parents, governments, teachers, and most importantly, students."

The famous AP calculus exam at Garfield High in 1982 under Jaime Escalante was an optional test that fourteen students, out of an enrollment of more than two thousand at the time, chose to take because they had diligently learned calculus and wanted to demonstrate their proficiency at it. Moreover, the test results were applied to a very specific purpose: judging a handful of dedicated math pupils on their fitness for college study of the subject. Students with other skills and interests didn't have to take the test and were not expected to. The success or failure of fourteen teenagers on a Saturday morning didn't pass judgment on the principal of Garfield or the Los Angeles superintendent of schools; it didn't affect their professional standing or their paycheck.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Education, sees the difference between testing then and now. "Until about 2002, there was always an understanding that tests are prone to error, that they only measure a narrow slice, and that they should only be one piece of information among others. We've lost that perspective in policy."[22]

Teacher Mark Peabody agrees that big-picture testing is counter-productive. "NCLB could generate a test and a result, but it couldn't tell you how to inspire a student." He adds, "We have to ram the same set of facts down every kid's throat and if we do that we're successful. High stakes testing gets them to do what they're told rather than what they're interested in. Students need to know the classroom is a mistake-free zone where they can ask questions and try things and explore. School should be a matter of training people to enjoy life and do what they're skilled to do: this has nothing to do with testing but everything to do with success."

Even the basic notion that a question can have only one right answer is a "bizarre relic" of the past according to Bard College President Leon Botstein. Knowing "how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a 'right' answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) ... No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician – and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member – pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity."[23]

In his 2015 study published in The American Scholar, Mike Rose, a research professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, concluded that across the country, from a one-room schoolhouse in Montana to an urban classroom in Chicago, teachers shared "a deep concern about the potential effect of the federal government on the classrooms they had worked so hard to create." Teachers knew their children's specific challenges and abilities, something about their home environments, and knew how to reach them in ways they understood based on the culture they lived in. Yet they were forced into lockstep that defined learning "as a rise in a standardized test score ... with the curriculum tightly linked to the test." Despite its "bureaucratic neatness," the process fails. "A teacher can prep students for a standardized test, get a bump in scores, and yet not be providing a very good education."

Rose imagines what would have happened if education reform "had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students ... Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade's vast machinery of high-stakes testing – from test development to the logistics of testing at each school site – if all that money had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development ... But because tests are easy to use and have an aura of objectivity, they are likely to remain central in the reform agenda."[24]

The same arguments surface time and again: It is impossible to reduce the academic performance of a school or a child to a single number; one test score doesn't accurately assess a student's knowledge or ability to learn; the same tests and standards can't be usefully applied to every school; student test scores are not a fair measure of teacher skill or curriculum quality. High-stakes testing as practiced today generates untold stress for students, parents, and educators and costs $2.5 billion a year. It withers support for history, geography, art, music, drama, and everything else not tested; it narrows and distorts students' grasp of math and English by forcing teachers to emphasize only the aspects students will be tested on.

Formal testing also ignores that some of a teacher's most valuable lessons can never be assessed with questions on a page. Though Jaime Escalante's AP students excelled in their subject, they insisted then and later that what Jaime really taught them was the value of hard work, tenacity, setting goals, and establishing priorities. Few of them went on to careers requiring calculus. For every one of the group who later joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, many others went into law, business, government service, academia, and other fields.

Garfield graduates who studied under Escalante were accepted at America's most prestigious universities including Harvard, Yale, and MIT. At times, Jaime had former students in all three places at once. Success on a test was part of their resumès, but only a part. More important was a characteristic no exam could measure: a passion to succeed. These kids fought against long odds to go to college at all, much less to the Ivy League. They were poor; they were minorities whose parents had not gone to college – in some cases not even to high school; some were burdened by family responsibilities and limited English. But they had ganas, the desire to learn that their single-minded teacher drilled into them day after day along with the principles of calculus. He convinced them that they were not quitters, they were winners. They would do whatever it took to reach the goals they had set for themselves.

A thirty-year study of Harvard alumni defined success in life in terms of "income, community involvement, and professional satisfaction." The study found that two of the most reliable indicators of success were a low SAT score and a blue-collar background. Initiative and desire were more valuable in the long run than grades or family income. In keeping with that perspective, Harvard does not require a high school diploma. As Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions for Harvard, puts it, "We know that's the best investment we can make: a kid who's hungry."[25]

A kid with ganas. An outcome that Common Core has yet to measure.


1. College admissions officers' remarks on the SAT by William C. Hiss and Valerie W. Franks quoted in 'Ivy League's meritocracy lie…" by Lani Guinier at
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2. Iris C. Rotberg quotations in this chapter from "A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy" by Iris C. Rotberg, Phi Delta Kappan, v82 n2, October 2001
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3. Mike Rose quotation from "How school reform has failed the test" by Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post, January 28, 2015
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4. Quotation to get rid of Common Core testing is from an author interview with a teacher who did not want to be identified in connection with this observation
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5. Mary Poplin quotation from author interview (3/16/15)
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6. Houston Sarratt quotations in this chapter from author interview (1/8/15)
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7. Henry Gradillas quotation from Standing and Delivering: What the Movie Didn't Tell by Henry Gradillas and Jerry Jesness, Lanham (Md.): Rowman & Littlefield, 2010
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8. Mark Peabody quotations in this chapter from author interview (2/19/15)
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9. Lucy Romero quotation from author interview (11/10/14)
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10. Angelo Villavicencio quotation from author interview (11/11/14)
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11. Molly Slack quotation from author interview (10/28/14)
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12. Karen Vogelsang quotation from author interview (1/14/15)
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13. New York Times quotation from "Nation's Schools Struggling to Find Enough Principals" by Jacques Steinberg, The New York Times, September 3, 2000
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14. PDK/Gallup Poll published in The Phi Delta Kappan vol96 n1 September 2014
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15. Story of ten-year-old daughter from "Everybody Hates Pearson" by Jennifer Reingold, Fortune v171 n2 May 1, 2015
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16. "Four Effects of the High-Stakes Test Movement on African American K-12 Students" by Gail L. Thompson and Tawannah G. Allen, Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2012
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17. Policy Review quotation from "No Excuses" by Tyce Palmaffy, Policy Review January/February 1998
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18. Kentucky assessment coordinator quotation from Rothberg (op. cit)
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19. New York Times quotation about raising academic standards from Steinberg (op.cit.)
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20. Atlanta cheating scandal information from "Atlanta Educators Convicted in School Cheating Scandal" By Alan Blinder, The New York Times, April 1, 2015; and "How and why convicted Atlanta teachers cheated on standardized tests" by Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, April 1, 2015
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21. Information about Pearson from Reingold (op. cit.)
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22. Linda Darling-Hammond quotation from Reingold (ibid.)
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23. Leon Botstein quotation from Guinier (op.cit.)
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24. Mike Rose quotations from "School Reform Fails the Test" by Mike Rose, The American Scholar, Winter 2015
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25. Harvard study and quotation by director of admissions from Guinier (op.cit.)
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