The consent of the tested and punished, part 2: the Florida Death Purple, the NAEP, and the corrupt brand signals we tolerate from our government

You can find part 1 of this series at the bottom of this essay.

This quote below comes from the final paragraph of FSU Physics Professor Paul Cottle’s latest installment in our ongoing dialogue. In this case, my usage of “STEM” intended to reference branding, not content. But I didn’t make that clear; because I’m not sure I had fully articulated it for myself when I wrote it. Now I know I should have said “STEM-branded.” That’s what I meant. And that would have been more accurate.

And that context illuminates beautifully the point Paul makes below in response.

Billy, I had to chuckle at your characterization of Florida’s education system as “STEM-based”. High school physics enrollment is down 8% over the last three years – and that’s after the state was already at half the national physics enrollment rate. High school chemistry enrollments are down 9% over the last two years. If this is what victory looks like…

Here’s a link to some of his detail.

Paul’s paragraph also helped me get to the core of my critique about Florida’s political standardized test obsession.

Testing has become a tool of easy branding — and really nothing else. Test results send (often crushing) brand signals to individuals and their parents. To communities. To politicians and voters. To business recruiters, many of whom, understandably, seem to think that education systems exist to produce numbers to recruit businesses. The idea that these test results should be used constructively, to develop and nurture human potential, is barely even given lip service any more at the political/government level — as opposed to educational level.

Remember, this is the Florida state government’s — Rick Scott’s — official position on educating children:

“You’re making this too complicated. Educating children is like fixing a car. You take a car to the garage and pay them to fix it. We pay our schools $7,000 per student and expect them to be educated.”

“How do you know they’re learning anything?”

“That’s why we have standardized tests.”

If you’re clever or shameless enough in your data manipulation, you can make those brand signals say almost anything you want about the same teachers, kids, and education system. So as consumers of test-based branding, we have to understand that our children are nothing more than branding units for Florida’s politicians and powerful.

Doubt me? Let’s take a closer look.

The Death Purple gets silence.

I have probably written more about the map below and Stanford study of year-to-year test score growth than any other Floridian.

Let’s say it together, again: purple is bad.

Using year-to-year growth in test scores of all kids moving through the Florida system, researchers from Stanford concluded that not one Florida district — NOT ONE — produced an average of a year’s growth in test score performance from 2009-2015. Not one. Yes, that includes you, St. Johns, Dade, and Okaloosa. We’re arguably the worst test score growth state in America.

This is what bad state-government branding looks like. This Stanford study prompted a national magazine writer to declare, “Florida is an almost insane basket case.”

If Florida DoE was a TOP school, one would not conclude we are “moving” it (a hideous Big Education word, by the way.)

And yet, what happened?

No education reporters dove into the Death Purple study. Apparently, it wasn’t worth a look. Dearest reporters, you don’t always have to wait for a government press release. Tampa Bay Times, where is the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece declaring Florida to be America’s singular “Failure Factory?”

Your state government, your DoE, responded to this information with deafening silence. I saw one of Jeb’s Redefined cronies mumble something about how the data seemed skewed to reward some of Arne Duncan’s favorites. That might even be true. Who knows? I’ll be the first to say that I mistrust this test growth brand signal — because I mistrust all education data brand signals.

Tennessee, which is full of good, lush green, went all out to explain its supposed awesomeness to the rest of America. But Florida government, slathered in test score Death Purple for the world to see, wanted zero discussion of this — even to disprove it. I saw no official Florida analysis of the Death Purple. I didn’t even see an acknowledgement that it exists. Again, point me to the analysis if I’ve missed it.

Step back and think about that for a second. Florida cares more about test score branding than any other state. Senate Candidate Rick Scott’s position is this:

“How do you know they’re learning anything?”

“That’s why we have standardized tests.”

And yet, Stanford said his administration produced America’s worst test score growth on its own tests between 2008-2015. Not a word about it. What does Florida government’s silence about the Death Purple suggest about Florida government’s conclusions concerning its accuracy?

The NAEP gets campaign press releases

We can assess that by the bragging that followed the recent release of the NAEP test scores. 

The NAEP sells itself as a “national report card.” Its “results are based on representative samples of students at grades 4, 8, and 12 for the main assessments.” Here is Florida’s state profile. Spend some time noodling if you care to.

There’s a profound difference between what the Stanford Death Purple study purports to show and what the NAEP purports to show. It’s essentially “growth” versus “proficiency,” a conceptual difference that Betsy DeVos did not understand when asked about it at her confirmation hearing.

[Here is a pretty good discussion of this from someone other than me — specifically comparing NAEP to growth in Tennessee.]

The Death Purple, as I understand it, claims to track individual “growth” in test scores on state tests over time with essentially the same cohorts of kids. It tracked it at the district level. You can see that Polk did even more poorly than the state, although not most poorly.

By contrast, as I understand it, no one knows which kids the NAEP even tests. The results come from different random samples of different kids at the 4, 8, and sometime 12th grade level. (It’s really very confusing to me.) You can’t drill down to a district level report, from what I see.

The random group of NAEP 4th and 8th graders that Florida tested performed badly in 2015. So when a different randomly selected group performed a little better in 2017, people sold this random proficiency measure as growth.

DoE and Senate Candidate Rick Scott practically held a parade.

In truth, the 2017 NAEP shows that a random sampling of Florida kids churned out scores slightly higher than the national NAEP average of other randomly chosen NAEP-takers. That’s probably the core takeaway. And honestly, it’s what I would expect from Florida’s test-obsessed model. It is surprising that we did badly on the NAEP in 2015; and it’s shocking how badly we seem to have done in individual growth over time during the Scott administration, according to the Stanford Death Purple study.

The Death Purple truly surprised me when I saw it.

So here’s the question you have to ask yourself: what do I, as a voter/parent/taxpayer/child, believe about how Florida serves and values my kid and my money? Does our testing say we marginally better than the national average? Or does it say we the most comprehensively awful state system in America?

You can make a case for both. But they can’t both be true. And believe this: your state government will not make any effort to figure out which is truer. They’re gonna go with the brand signal they prefer.

And in that case, what the hell is any of this useless data for?

Come back to this one more time.

“How do you know they’re learning anything?”

“That’s why we have standardized tests.”

Is that a growth model? Or a proficiency model? You tell me.

STEM the receding tide of science education

As you ask yourself which result is truer — and whether either has any life value — consider one of the chief NAEP brags: this year’s NAEP Math scores, slightly higher than the national average, were an all-time high for Florida.

Now go back to that first paragraph I cited from Paul Cottle.

Billy, I had to chuckle at your characterization of Florida’s education system as “STEM-based”. High school physics enrollment is down 8% over the last three years – and that’s after the state was already at half the national physics enrollment rate. High school chemistry enrollments are down 9% over the last two years. If this is what victory looks like…

Does that sound like a state with healthy Math education? Or does that sound like a state where the model stunts growth and opportunity for individual kids? Or is it completely divorced from either test-branding model? And if one considers Math somehow separate from Physics and Chemistry, why do we stick them together within STEM? [Paul, I would love to hear your thoughts on the intra-STEM cultural/political divide between engineering and science. I think it exists. Am I right?]

Big Education policymakers don’t care about the answers to those questions.

They’re indifferent to the implications for implementation, indifferent to the on-the-ground consequences of the mental puzzles they get paid to do all day before hitting the trendy Tallahassee/D.C. wine bars.

After all, without those puzzles, how would the spoiled Ivy Leaguers who lack life experience or the moral courage to work for $45,000 per year in a public school classroom justify their existence in education? And yet, we can’t even get them to talk publicly about those puzzles in Florida. They have proven they cannot be trusted with your kids’ data — morally or intellectually.

I’m also, essentially, an Ivy Leaguer. And I enjoy those puzzles too, quite honestly. But I also recognize the limits of their value. And I know the people giving their lives to kids at $45,000 per year are vastly morally superior to me, which obligates me to them.

As Paul and I continue this dialogue, I increasingly understand that we’re both searching for something real for the fabulous and clever young people of our state. Those kids are not Rick Scott and Jeb Bush and Kelli Stargel’s political branding signals.

If you share this desperation; it’s time to act politically. This fraudulent political education model, in my opinion, can’t be saved. It can only be destroyed, politically, and rebuilt, politically, around the human development of our kids and communities.

I wrote about that here. And I’ll have more to come.

And for my next piece for Paul, I’ll talk about the misleading and conflicting brand signals that testing in all its forms sent me about my own ability in Math and its usefulness to me.

Here is part 1.

The consent of the tested and punished, part 1: Florida tells Ted Dintersmith, “Educating children is like fixing a car.”