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Jason Stanford: Cashing in on pre-K testing

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Jason Stanford
February 17, 2014

Sandy Kress, the controversial testing lobbyist, is leading a new raid on school taxes. This month he registered to lobby for Amplify, the company that wants to replace textbooks with tablet computers, positioning him to grab some of the hundreds of millions of dollars that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is offering to create pre-K tests. Despite a nationwide backlash against high-stakes testing, your tax dollars are now going to developing standardized tests for 4-year-olds, and Kress is ready to cash in.

Kress was the architect of No Child Left Behind who then lobbied for Pearson Education while simultaneously serving on several state advisory boards. Kress became so unpopular amid an anti-testing rebellion in Texas that the Legislature made it illegal for him or any other testing lobbyist to make campaign contributions. Even registered sex offenders can give politicians money in Texas.

But now the Obama administration is pushing a new and (pardon the pun) untested theory that we can use student scores to measure teacher effectiveness. To compete for Race to the Top funds, states have to figure out how to use standardized test scores to measure the effectiveness of teachers, something education historian Diane Ravitch has called “junk science.”

There are basic problems with using student scores to judge teachers. The tests don’t measure classroom learning, and school funding is unequal. Stress caused by high-stakes testing impairs thinking. Using test scores to judge teachers encourages teaching to the test. But for Duncan, the real problem was that there is no way to determine the effectiveness of a kindergarten teacher if that’s the first year students take standardized tests.

That’s why the second round of Race to the Top encouraged states to develop programs for early-childhood education to compete for shares of the $500 million pot. Education researchers agree that pre-K is a good investment with real returns in the classroom, but one of Duncan’s criteria for the funding is not what they had in mind: “Develop and administer kindergarten-readiness tests.”

Enter Amplify, the $540 million education arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Because Common Core has standardized the federal curriculum across 45 states, companies can now foist one-size-fits-all products on taxpayers without worrying about each state’s standards. And as Apple’s $30 million contract to put iPads into Los Angeles schools shows, there’s a lot of money in selling the hardware, too.

But if Kress can help Amplify update his snake oil to the next generation, then Murdoch can cash in on the $1.7 billion a year that states spend on standardized testing every year. That’s why Amplify offers early childhood assessment software called C-PALLS for kids who still use safety scissors.

“The earlier, the better,” reads the website. “Better prepare children for kindergarten and beyond by combining C-PALLS pre-K assessments with grouping, reporting and targeted activities that help monitor ongoing social, emotional, early literacy, science and math development.”

We could have teachers do that, but Wall Street hasn’t figured out how to make money from teachers yet.

In his last State of the Union address, President Obama called on “Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old.” This is an unimpeachably good idea. We wouldn’t leave any child behind if poorer children didn’t start school behind their wealthier peers. Universal pre-K would do more to create equal opportunity in America than every single standardized test ever mandated by Kress’ No Child Left Behind law.

But the idea falls apart when politicians and businessmen don’t trust educators to educate our children and insist upon standardized tests to hold schools accountable. Using tablet computers to measure a 4-year-old’s social and emotional development-and then applying those scientifically untested results to a teacher’s job security is an invitation to corrupt the entire public school experience.

Making a 4-year-old take a high-stakes test at an age when it’s hard to make them take a nap sounds like heaping child abuse on top of a failed educational theory. But at least we can all rest assured that Kress has figured out a way to get his cut of the early-education bonanza. It’s time we saw schools as places to create opportunities for children, not profiteers.

Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at stanford@oppresearch.com and on Twitter @JasStanford. Stanford’s columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.



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