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Philosophical Meanderings

The Curve

Party Animals by Szymon Pifzcyk

Party Animals by Szymon Pifzcyk

1

Back in the day, the cops used to monitor us from their server that intercepted our texts from the cell phone towers built around our schools, so we’d buy burners with cash, write lists of numbers (always eventually eaten later by a kid named Sally, short for Salamanca), send a single text to all of the numbers about the “real” location of the next party (purely disinformation), set up a wireless spot there ahead of party time, leave a one of our real phones hidden somewhere nearby with its camera focused on a crappy inkjet print of kids partying (lit by one of those garden solar lamp peg things stolen from our neighbors and moms), and wire a servo wrapped in conductive thread to an open-source board smuggled in by my dad’s barber. Every time the board “heard” a certain hashtag (“#aw3s0m3p4rt4yd00d”) from a certain account (“@o_0Phil0_o”), it would twitch the servo, so the phone would take a picture and upload it to @o_0Phil0_o’s account, summoning the cops to find a phone some kid reported stolen a few minutes before the ping. Damn @o_0Phil0_o; always stealing our phones. Pulling pranks. Who could he be?

Meanwhile, we’d all walk and meet in some basement or some parent’s workshop, the location of which we passed along face to face, and spend all night destroying the burners and watching the same movies again and again on an old dumb TV/VHS/DVD combo. I’m sure they were exactly the movies you watched when you were our age. You could probably run a semantic analysis on both of us talking to our friends to figure out which ones.

Eventually, burners became pretty scarce in our town, and we had to take out a lot of cash at once to pay for gas to go somewhere else and buy the phones. It all got too rickety. Eventually, we stopped messing with the cops. We still watched the same movies over and over again. No one could ever take our video cassette tapes or digital video discs from us.

That was how we rolled. So while you have me here, I figure I might as well confess to being one of many @o_0Phil0_os, as well.

2

I don’t know quite why I was given the job. I made it pretty clear, for years, that I found the system to be pretty obtrusive and that, given the chance, I was pretty sure I could provide a better return on investment if left on my own, to teach and assess in my own way. For instance, I thought if we petitioned for a free speech zone in the guidance office, kids would learn more about free speech and petitioning than if we played Petition Quest and its remedial sequel, Talkin’ LIberty, in advance of our quarterly benchmark tests. At the very least, I thought kids would feel confident enough to keep the biometric trigger from skipping to the next question upon reading the pupil spasm and dermal flush associated with the adrenal flicker of sudden, internalized feelings of failure and humiliation. I thought kids who petitioned or debated something could use their comfort with civic habits of mind to buy themselves some time on the test to figure out what the question was asking even if they didn’t achieve the optimal flash memory successes promised by the school’s common curriculum service provider. Calm. Cool. Collected. Meme me, right?

Nevertheless, with whatever room I could find, I suggested games we could play with our monthly “innovation time.” Two teams. Half of you surveill the other. The other half escape. Three teams. The other half figure out the systems both sides are using and defeat them both. Four teams. The last half reunite the class. I called it The World Surveillance Game. Afterwards, we’d talk about what worked and what didn’t work for each team and try to come up with some general rules for living without knowing what other people were doing about what we were doing.

Good times.

I’m kind of surprised we got away with it for so long. Maybe nobody cared. We did okay on the tests. Middle of the road. Helped position that magic curve that let our assessment service provider know which questions to keep (the ones that matched our expectation of student performance) and which to throw away (the ones too many honors kids got wrong and too many low kids got right). Maybe the principal and her compliance officer had other fish to fry and never listened to the audio logs of the classroom. I mean, god, can you imagine listening to an endless stream of optimal instructive delivery in your off hours? For your job? Sometimes I would just rather be listened to than have to listen to all that.

So – no one cared. Or no one would care or pay attention or whatever. So we poked gentle fun at how things are while we learned about how we should talk about how things are in polite classrooms.

And then it was done. Done. Over. Gone. I got promoted. Maybe to get me out of the classroom. Maybe to put someone middle of the road in charge. Maybe to make me feel bad about my tiny betrayals of the system.

For whatever reason, last year, I became the onsite assessment service provider liaison, commonly known as, wait for it, the test coordinator.

3

I confess, also, to not really knowing that that job entailed before I was ordered to do it. As a kid, I just imagined that each teacher out out a certain number of quizzappers and that everything was automated from the server side to our individual devices. I didn’t realize that we were all entered into the assessment service provider’s system as groups administered by each school and that teachers had to sign affidavits preventing them from discussing the tests or even analyzing the test items together or with a class. I figured that out when I became a teacher. Now, of course, we have daily affidavits to safeguard the curricular materials we use, as well as the assessments (and, really everything that goes on in our classrooms), and we have to meet requirements for low-level top secret clearance each year when we click-through our online license hearings.

Since becoming the test coordinator, I learned even more. The assessment service provider actually suggests to us our testing groups for optimal performance distribution at the beginning of the year to aid with scheduling classes and assigning teachers and students to one another. There are ways to appeal those groupings, but, essentially, the test coordinator, principal, and compliance officer must all be in agreement about any change and they must sign affidavits attesting to their belief that any altered grouping will lead to improved test performance. If test performance in an altered group doesn’t exceed the original suggested group’s projected performance, than the test coordinator, principal, and compliance officer all waive merit pay from any other classes that exceed projected performance and must agree to abide by the suggested groupings for the next five years or immediately give up their licenses and accept reassignment to a non-instructional and non-administrative job in the division for five years with no possibility of reinstatement in a position responsible in any way (in the assessment service provider’s assessment) for test performance. Suggesting any changes during that probationary period pretty much results in immediate dismissal and permanent termination of licensure.

You can’t really run a school and test successfully any more without fidelity.

I agreed to all this. I thought it would be great to work with the principal and compliance officer to see where we could help everybody find a little more room for fun and games like I had. I took, as I called it, the grand compromise. But I badly miscalculated the relationship between the coordinator and administration.

We never met to discuss groupings. In fact, we never met. I was told, by duly surveilled and, thus, certified email, to schedule the school’s classes and testing according to the assessment service provider’s suggestions, and I did so, because I only had the summer to get everything in order before the year began. I also had to – and I guess I can say this now – attend daily virtual trainings on optimal classroom arrangement for instruction and assessment, on changes to testing procedures, and on changes to each curriculum and test licensed to our school. I sent routine weeknotes to the principal who included them in weekly reports to the compliance officer. I got an office in the back of the office and mostly stuck to myself and to the work. The job was daunting and disappointing, but also seemingly essential. How can a school operate without stuff to teach and stuff to test?

My favorite part of the job was going out to tour the classrooms, but even that was a bittersweet experience. I got to see kids again and, for the first few years, I got to see the kids I taught move through the school.

But I was not well-liked. On my tours I had to document classroom set-ups and record snippets of instruction and then send those documents and a virtual affidavit off through an encrypted account to the testing compliance office in the state department of education outside the “chain of command” between my building-level principal, my division-level compliance officer, and me. The state had analysts who could, either randomly or in response to a student or parent report, check my documentation against audio and video surveillance from the classroom. If a teacher was seen to be routinely out of compliance with either a suggested classroom set-up or scripted instruction, and if I saw the same in one of my tours, that teacher could be immediately replaced by the state. If my account of the classroom environment differed from the state’s, I had two more opportunities to document the teacher’s noncompliance. If I could not document the noncompliance and that classroom exceeded expectations, I waived any merit pay I would have received from successful testing in that classroom. If I could not document the noncompliance and that classroom met or fell below expectations, then I would be required to make daily tours of that particular classroom in addition to my regular duties until my documentation and the state’s observations matched each other for thirty days of class or until testing, whichever came first.

I could not tell the teachers the purpose of what I was doing, but they knew. Everyone knew a teacher – or the story of a teacher – who had been terminated because of a test coordinator. Everyone had read the clause in the contract requiring them to comply with everything suggested by the assessment service provider and its delegates in the school.

I felt very alone. Isolated. Hated. Endured. I felt alienated. I couldn’t talk or otherwise be part of the audio record of any visit I made. I couldn’t gesture this way or that. I had to be out in two minutes with every item on my observation checklist complete. It wasn’t like any of us had many friends before – the strictures on what we could talk about at school made it difficult to acknowledge our common experiences – but I certainly had none then.

Apart from being able to see the kids – to know that they existed and were the reason for all of this – it pretty much sucked.

4

I don’t know when I got the idea or why I decided to do it, but I remember being angry and afraid and alone and just done with everything.

I started asking for more access to our schools surveillance records. I already had access to everything we collected on the students. Health records. Discipline reports. Parent communication logs. Academic records. School-based intercepts of texts and other communications. Nothing from @o_0Phil0_o. No #4wes0m3p4rt4yd00d.

I asked under the auspices of school improvement. Each year, my principal expected me to submit a school improvement goal for testing. I usually suggested that we would make a modest improvement in test performance each year based on the projections provided by our assessment service provider. I figured that they knew what they were talking about when it came to predicting our test results ahead of time.

To help us meet that common and annually documented goal, I asked for permission to intercept communications outside school that originated with our kids or their parents or our teachers and included as key words all the words included in all the communications we intercepted at school. If we knew what kid and parents talked about outside school based on what kids talked about inside school. I argued, we could find out student interests and connect them to curriculum during innovation time. If we knew what kids and parents and teachers felt concerned about regarding school or testing, we could confirm valid fears for them and underscore the importance of complying with assessment service provider suggestions and we could tailor school communications about testing to debunk false information and help our students and their parents comply with those innocuous requests they questioned for no good reason.

This is the kind of reasoning and language I learned to use to entertain myself in my data-walled exile from the people in my building.

The system granted me access.

Of course, there’s nothing I could tell you that you don’t already have the capacity to know.

5

Getting access to read everybody’s intercepts turned out to be easy. I wasn’t even asking for money. Somebody somewhere apparently thought that I had a right to know, so it made it easy for me to think I did, too. I learned all sorts of stuff about all sorts of people. Sometimes I had to tear myself away to do my job, as if, towards the end, I thought there was any distinction between snooping and being the test coordinator.

I became more and more interested in what I could make happen. I could read nearly anything, but could I write any little bit of my world? Could I really impact anything, except for getting teachers fired? Could I make things change for whatever it was I thought would be better? Who did what with all this information? Could it be changed? Overwritten? Falsified or bent? If I could find them or get access to them, could I edit my observation reports?

As it turns out, I could not. There was nothing at the state level to which I could gain access as an author or auditor. The state department did not share the information it collected from us; it told us what to do when based on the information we gave it.

Running into a dead end at the state level, I started over asking for access at the school level. Our office assistants had permission, for example, to create and edit student records for the newly enrolled. After the office assistants created each entry using a kid’s identifier, the entry drew in information about the student from state servers, updating things like test scores and parents’ address changes automatically. If we wanted to update an address or the name of a kid’s guardians from school, we could submit an overwrite request to the state which would then verify or falsify our information and update the student record.

I asked for permission to help out with creating student entries just in case we got busy enrolling kids while scheduling or testing. I got it, but never really used it. It’s not like I could have invented whole kids out of nothing – I had no idea how to perpetrate that level of fraud. I had no desire to. I just wanted to mess around with things, amuse myself – maybe make jokes that no one would ever read, bury them in personnel files and discipline reports.

I felt powerless. It was good to know I could do some stuff.

6

A few weeks before testing, I knew what I wanted to do. It occurred to me that I could completely change the makeup of our class groupings the following year without ever needing to ask for permission to do so. I could completely change the way we track and sort kids with relatively little effort and even less human contact.

Without impacting our overall pass rate too badly, I decided to flip-flop some demographic information on the tests. I had an idea of what the changes might do, but kind of ignored the consequences. I mean, why sweat the small stuff. I was careful not to make successful teachers into failure or visa versa.

Somehow, we’ve preserved the right for kids to self-identify demographically on the tests we give. Kids can raise their hands during the instructions we give before a test and report any wrong information listed on their login screen. For example, if the login screen lists a kid’s ethnicity as caucasian, but she believes herself to be of another ethnicity, she can raise her hand and report the error. Her teacher then files a report through the testing app requesting the change and affirming that the request came from the student. That request comes to me (as another testing artifact or courtesy) before I affirm it and release it to the state. The state never sees the teacher’s report, only mine.

Between days one and two of testing, I filed a hundred reports and – at least in the all-seeing eyes of the state – changed a hundred kids’ ethnicities just. Like. That.

7

What happened next was startling to me. To me, this felt like a weak prank. A shell trick. A game with numbers. But people got very upset. What would happen to all the kids who suddenly failed – the kids who had, year after year, passed every test? Would they get into the schools they wanted to attend next year? What had happened to the teachers? Did the teachers spend too much time helping the kids who had failed in the past? Did those kids really deserve all that attention? Had they been helped? Had someone cheated or otherwise tipped the scales?

How else, in our schools, could this be possible?

People could only ask these questions because parents and students didn’t have access to other kids’ scores. They didn’t realize that nothing had changed but the state’s demographic labels for ethnic subgroups. It was like some parents in some groups whose kids had failed imagined that other kids in that same group must have, too, which must have meant that something went wrong – that any given failing test score wasn’t the fault of any given kid (of theirs) – which, of course, it wasn’t, but not in the sense that they meant. I think.

It was confusing. I’m not really sure I understand the logic of it or what I did. I just wanted to see if it would work.

The school got back all sorts of conflicting information. The kids we expected to pass passed the test, and the kids we expected to fail failed it. All of our assessment service provider’s predictions turned out right. But our demographic information was off; sub-groups that never met their annual measurable objectives suddenly did, and several groups that normally made those objectives did not. We poured over the demographic data as a staff; there was, as usual, more of it than of any other kind of data returned to us by the state; for example, we knew all about each kid, but we knew next to nothing about any test item. This is what we test coordinators call test security.

We were at a loss. The total n for the school and each sub-group worked out right, but something remained amiss. Eventually, our compliance office spotted it: the demographic codes for several students did not match her perceptions of them. She called a meeting between the principal, herself, and me (our first in several years of working together) to share her concerns. However, when we checked the students’ files, their ethnicities had already been updated by the tests, and there was no versioning record for us to see at the school-level. It took a few minutes of silent consternation and frantic typing for the compliance officer to find the records of my requests. She asked me to produce the teachers’ reports of students’ ethnicity requests.

I could not, so she detained me, and that brought me to you. I don’t know what will happen next, but as the tests change from year to year, I’m sure you’ll be able to restrike the balance.

I am afraid of what might happen next, but I am glad you were able to listen.

8

I, the undersigned, hereby attest to what I have said and accept reassignment by the state to Griffin Hill High School.

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About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “The Curve

  1. Great story-line!

    Will there be further installments? I’m envisioning the protagonist and other @o_0Phil0_os the protagonist eventually contacted being labeled “Enemies of the (corporate) State, and then being “tracked” in a manner a bit different from how the students are tracked.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | June 12, 2013, 5:15 pm
    • I thinkmost of my fiction is world-building around banal acceptance of a comfort-society for the privileged who neither know they’re privileged nor know that they’re not so privileged after all. I like the ida of other o_0Phil0_os a lot – thanks, Brent!

      Best,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | June 13, 2013, 7:09 am
  2. Sooo…. how much of this is rooted in truth and how much is pure fiction? I hate that I even need to ask that question. Where does student data currently reside? How is privacy protected? How are kids assigned to classrooms? My daughter is entering kindergarten this year and had her “assessment” this morning. I’m told that this, along with demographic information, is how they decide which students to group together for the year. They said she scored in the top 90th percentile across the board. I asked how that factors into what class she’ll be in, and I don’t think anyone in the building really knows the answer.

    Posted by Niki | June 12, 2013, 7:04 pm
    • Hi, Niki –

      I think the infratructure for this has existed for a while now. Most administrators I know still create schedules with a human touch, often using note cards with kids’ names to balance out class sizes and preserve community and diversity. That being said, most tracked reading and math groups in elementary school and tracked classes in middle and high school are put together from scores of some sort – who needs which intervention program? Who would do best with this teacher? Some test scores or other academic/learning factors trigger placements in certain kinds of classes or the prescribed use of certain interventions, curriucla, and assessments.

      Not all the questions that get asked regarding scheduling are based on the tests, but many are, as are curriculum and instruction in most formal learning spaces (i.e. schools). I haven’t seen groups and tracks started in earnest until grade 3 or so, when Virginia state testing kicks in, but I know that in the larger schools in which I worked in the past, kids would travel with the same cohort of students all day despite having 4 blocked classes or, earlier, 7 or 8 shorter classes a day. Kindergarten is probably a best guess, most diverse mix proposition until schools know more about the kids who don’t come to school with some kind of extra educational or health information.

      Thank you for reading and sharing your questions –
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | June 13, 2013, 7:18 am
  3. wow, reminds me of the movie Brasil, such a crazy bureaucracy that treats children like widgets

    Posted by Roose | June 18, 2013, 9:04 pm

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