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  • Sarah Smith Warren

Reframing Education through Capacity, Passion, Presence and Relevance

Dr. Dan Conn is an associate professor at Minot State University, he is the department chair of the Teacher Education and Kinesiology program and Master of Education program director. Born and raised in Colorado, Dan has spent his personal and professional career in education. Dan taught a variety of subjects and grade levels in a rural K-12 school for ten years and is currently in his 7th year at Minot.

I had the gift of crossing paths with Dan in 2019 while we were both in the Change Network fellowship program. Change Network is a group of individuals from across North Dakota and South Dakota who are advocates to community and positive change in North Dakota. Dan’s project was dedicated to creating community gardens and education based on the gardening traditions of the Mandan Hidatsa, Arikara Nation and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

Although it didn’t happen much, every time Dan would raise his hand to speak, ask a question or share a comment, I found myself on the edge of my seat. Dan’s open, honest and humble communication styel and ability to see a situation in a completely different way, was refreshing and also perplexing. I’m a little embarrassed to say I often had to google some of his comments so I could better understand his question or perspective. In his gentle, nonjudgmental way, he created room, a safe space for conversation, contradiction and learning. Obviously, he was a teacher and a damn good one. I couldn’t help but wish I could sit in on a few of his courses. To me, Dan was another example of a brave human living soul first.

I like to follow Dan and other members of our Change Network co-hort to see all the beautiful and difficult ways they continue to show up for their community. Dan continues to show up for his community in many ways but especially through education, researching and advocating a new framework to measure student success. Thank you Dr. Dan Conn for being a guest on The Soul Place and sharing your important work.

Reframing Education through Capacity, Passion, Presence and Relevance

From student, to teacher, to parent, to incoming Chair of the Department of Teacher Education and Kinesiology at Minot State University, my life has mostly revolved around teaching and learning. My teaching career started fall 2004 in Fleming, Colorado, where I initially taught K-12 Physical Education and 7-8 Social Studies. In my spare time, I went to grad school and served as an assistant coach in football, wrestling, and baseball—all while raising a young family. My wife—Linda—and I have two children: Virginia (now 19) and Miles (almost 17). Fleming is a small, farming town, and Fleming School includes around 200 students K-12.

During these early years of my career, standardized assessments dominated many of our priorities and much of our attention. The No Child Left Behind Act (2001) required that states develop standardized assessments and to have all students “proficient” on those assessments by 2014. This bipartisan legislation also required that states identify “failing schools”, and if standardized test scores didn’t go up, they would eventually be closed and privatized into charter schools. As you can imagine, we all felt pressure to focus our intentions on teaching to the test, even in PE. In fact, I moved from my original position into the one and only 5th grade classroom because the administration felt I could raise test scores. After one year of mixed results, I went to teach 6-12 Social Studies and eventually serve as Director of our Response to Intervention Program. As we were taught, our Response to Intervention Team made data driven decisions—relying heavily on standardized test scores—and if students were considered at risk of “falling behind”, I would go and take them out of classes—like Physical Education, Music, and Art—for reading and math intervention. While I hated to pull students out of those important classes, I truly believed at the time that I was doing the right thing. When I left Fleming, our students were performing well on standardized tests and the school district even received distinction awards through our state accreditation process. I certainly do not deserve all the credit, but I like to think, at least at the time, I played a big role in our progress.

Despite my good intentions, the aforementioned thoughts and actions were heavily flawed. I began realizing this when I went to study “the Worst School in New Mexico” for an assignment in my doctoral program at the University of Northern Colorado. Instead of finding a school in need of a Response to Intervention Program, I found a school being colonized. This K-8 school is located just off the Navajo Reservation in the canyons of Northern New Mexico. Because the school did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress requirements—which includes 95% participation in state administered assessments, 95% of students meet or exceed minimum performance target in reading and math, and 95% of students meet or exceed minimum targets on attendance. The school had a variety of interventions imposed on them, and I saw first-hand how the interventions were actually making matters worse. Within the two years I studied the school, they changed principals, and reduced the staff size by about 40%, and tethered essentially all educational decisions to the anchor of raising reading and math test scores at the expense of other subjects and learning opportunities—including Navajo language class. The school was also burned to the ground, and one of the research participants from my first trip was violently killed. With such a heaving focus on reading and math, the school’s standardized test scores did go up, but that did not matter because they still received a failing grade from the state. The faculty and the students regularly expressed feeling subjugated, demoralized and as if standardization was functioning like a modern form of colonization.

My experiences in New Mexico engendered a journey that caused me to become a harsh critic of standardized testing. Last year, my friends—Drs. Michelle Tenam-Zemach and Paul Parkison—co-authored a book with me, Unraveling the Assessment Industrial Complex Understanding How Testing Perpetuates Inequity and Injustice in America.

In the book we detail the history of standardized assessments, including how the early creators grounded their ideas in eugenics. Building on Darwins’s theory of natural selection, the term “eugenics” refers to a belief that some genetic traits— such as lighter skin pigmentation and other characteristics associated with “Whiteness”—are superior to other traits and, thus, society will be improved by promoting desirable traits and extinguishing traits considered undesirable. The eugenics movement started in the United Kingdom during the late 19th century and quickly spread in popularity across Europe and North America. Eventually, the “science” supporting the eugenics movement led to policies from Adolf Hitler, Ernst Rüdin, and other 20th century Nazis to essentially rid society of a wide range of people, including Jews, Gypsies, the LBGTQ+ community, and people with disabilities. While eugenics did not lead wide-spread Naziism in the U.S., the American eugenics movement produced a variety of policies and inventions, including standardized intelligence tests, to promote the success and procreation of certain traits over others.

Though eugenics lost its popular appeal in the U.S. during World War II, products from the movement, including the IQ Test and SAT Exam, have remained mainstream with bipartisan support. In fact, whether it’s beating the Soviets, building a great society, or competing in a global economy, standardized assessments have functioned as a form of quality assurance that future generations can contribute to national goals. Consequently, standardized assessments have also led to big money for a handful of corporations that produce the tests. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the average American public-school students took over 100 standardized tests over the course of their K-12 career. Pearson, the largest education company in the world, once bragged that they, “delivered more than 37 million tests, and during our peak testing period we successfully delivered tests to 5.8 million learners in a single week”, and this accounted for 35% of the $1.2 billion market share. In addition to the test makers, test-prep companies, educational consultants, pharmaceutical companies, and venture philanthropists have also profited heavily from mandated standardized testing. We refer to them as “Edreformers”. Much like the “military industrial complex” that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address, the “assessment industrial complex” (AIC) is mutually beneficial between politicians and Edreformers. While standardized testing has led to huge profits for some, it has exploited and hurt the very students it is supposed to help. For example, through a meta-analysis of 100 years’ worth of standardized testing data, Drs. Gearoge Madausand and Marguerite Clarke concluded that standardized assessments have an adverse effect on racial minorities. More recently Drs. Matthew Knoester and Wayne Au found that not only does high-stakes testing fail to decrease educational inequalities, but, instead, it has led to the re-segregation of schools by race throughout the nation. As Dr. Daniel Koretz, expert on educational assessment and testing policy, puts it, standardized testing is only “pretending to help”. We take it one step further and argue that standardized assessments reinforce social and economic hierarchies which ultimately perpetuate inequalities.

As we wrote these arguments in our book, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted standardized assessments. In spring 2020, the federal government suspended the requirement that states administer standardized assessments. In addition, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and a long list of other African Americans caused from police brutality sparked mass protests and demonstrations—both peaceful and violent—toward dealing with systemic racial inequalities. Civil rights groups that once supported standardized assessments— such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—issued statements condemning the racist origins of standardized tests. Between the pandemic and renewed attention toward systemic inequalities, over 700 higher learning institutions no longer require the SAT and ACT for admission in the United States. The American Bar Association is even dropping the LSAT requirement. As we conclude in the book, the AIC is unraveling before us.

Nonetheless, standardized assessments will not simply go away. Already, the federal government is back to requiring annual standardized assessment for states to receive federal funding for public schools. Throughout the pandemic, I worked with a variety of teachers and schools, and they very much still tither their goals and understanding of what counts for learning to standardized testing. It’s hard to blame them. During these unprecedented times, standardized testing may seem like a good way to account for how students are doing and if there is “learning loss”. Moreover, even though we are critical of the AIC, we recognize that we still need valid and reliable ways to assess student learning and evaluate schools. Rather than just abolish testing, we argue that we need to reframe how we think about education. As we were writing the book, Michelle and I began collaborating with Dr. Nathan Anderson on an evaluation model based on capacity, passion, presence and relevance (CP²R). To ensure the model is valid and reliable, we also brought in a psychometrician—Dr. Steve Hecht. In addition to evaluating schools, standardized assessments are used because they can predict retention with some certainty. Thus, we argue that there are other, better ways to determine whether a learning opportunity is a good “fit” for a person.

By fit, we mean that the person has capacity and passion for what a learning opportunity, that it is relevant, and that they can be present for the moments of learning. By capacity we mean intellectual, social, emotional, and physical capacities. Passion refers to what a person likes, finds important, and wants to spend time and energy with. Relevance includes self, family, peer group, and community. Presence includes attention, present focus, awareness, and acceptance. As standardized assessments in their current iteration only measure a narrow definition of intellectual capacity, CP²R provides a much broader perspective and includes other elements of learning that matter. When teachers and schools make educative decisions, they can consider whether a learning opportunity is a good fit based on students’ capacities and passions, whether it’s relevant, and if they can be present and focused. Likewise, students can use the CP²R model to consider if they are a good fit for learning opportunity—such as selecting classes, joining a club or team, and choosing between various college and career paths. CP²R has potential to redefine what counts for teaching and learning.
To make some of our concerns for public education, like the AIC, and offer solutions, including CP²R, my friend and colleague—Dr. Chelsie Hultz—and I started a podcast called EDHeads on the Good Talk Network.

Late last fall, we invited North Dakota Superintendent Kirsten Baesler to be our guest to discuss perceived learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic. Because learning loss discourse is often framed around changes in standardized test scores, I wanted to be upfront with Superintendent Baesler and sent her a PDF of the book and our most recently published CP²R article. As we recorded the podcast, I learned Superintendent Baesler is much more concerned with the AIC than I had previously realized and she seemed quite intrigued by CP²R as different way to make sense of learning. In fact, after the show she promised to follow up with me. About a month later, Superintendent Baesler reached out to discuss CP²R. I accepted the offer and asked if I could bring Nathan, Michelle, and Steve to the meeting. Our initial meeting went well. We discussed our mutual concerns of the AIC and the conundrum of how federal funding requirements make it practically impossible to forgo requiring annual standardized assessments altogether. In response, we shared our CP²R model as a way to reframe what counts for learning and prioritizing educational decisions in valid and reliable ways while providing balance to the narrow purview traditional standardized assessments. In particular, we discussed how CP²R could help meet two relatively new state laws that require public schools in North Dakota to provide meaningful, relevant learning opportunities outside the classroom.

We have already met again with Superintendent Baesler and members of her staff, and we are scheduled to meet some more. In addition, we have begun meeting with local school districts and educational cooperatives to pilot our CP²R model so that it can be utilized to make educational decisions and reframe what counts for learning for a wide variety of schools across North Dakota and beyond.

In closing, I am reminded of Dr. David Stovall’s powerful call to action found at the end of the foreward in our book:

"What we've known for so long cannot continue to ravage our communities and the people we say we love. We have been challenged to do something other than talk about the intentional damage of the Assessment Industrial Complex in secrecy. The secret is out. At this point, you will either join the resistance or choose to perish with an enemy that continues to profit from your suffering. In the end, I think the aforementioned options leave you with a pretty simple choice. "

Building on David’s poignant argument, it will be important to replace the AIC with something better—something not grounded in eugenics and corporate profits—because there is a legitimate need for good assessments and evaluations for schools, colleges and other educational institutions. And after 18 years of teaching and 10 years of studying collateral damage caused by the AIC, I’m convinced CP²R is our best way forward.

Daniel R. Conn, Ed.D.

Associate Professor

Minot State University

Teacher Education & Kineseology

Department Chair

Master of Education Program Director


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