LISTEN — Class Disrupted Episode 8: The Faulty Promise of Tests

(Class Disrupted)

Class Disrupted is a weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every Tuesday).

Standardized tests have long been the go-to method of measuring learning. Now that coronavirus has upended the world of testing, it’s an opportunity to rethink test strategies, so we look at where they come from, and if the way we use them best serves kids.

We also hear from students themselves in this episode — what they’ve experienced the past few months, and what they’re expecting when school starts again. We look at four approaches schools could take when they resume that put the student experience first. The ideas in previous episodes come together to build a picture of what school could look like from the first day back.

Jessica, a parent: I have a 17-year-old son who was a rising senior in South Carolina. And my concerns about testing are that it’s going to be a little bit harder for him to differentiate himself from others without that testing. He doesn’t have a strong volunteer component because he plays a lot of sports. So he’s either on the field or in the classroom or studying mostly. He doesn’t have those other components that might set him apart from others. So that’s one of my concerns.

My other concern is I don’t really understand if the schools say that they’re test-optional, are they really test-optional? We keep getting a lot of conflicting information. Some say, “Yes, test-optional, we won’t even look at them.” Others say, “Well, it is test optional, but if you don’t send us your test scores, then you will be at a disadvantage to students that have higher test scores.”

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane: Hi, I’m Diane Tavenner.

Michael: And I’m Michael Horn. Thanks for joining us for Class Disrupted. Diane, as I’ve been on webinars and phone calls with high school parents across the country, I’m hearing a lot from parents like this one, who are worried about what college admissions might look like now that the SAT isn’t in play in the way that it once was, so many schools are going test-optional. And now that — let’s face it — nothing is in play like it once was, honestly.

Diane: Michael, I’m really grateful that tests like the SAT are in play because it gives us an opportunity to take a hard look at the why behind them and really unpack that, just as we did last week in our episode about grades. I want to ask some of the same questions about tests. And not just the SAT, but the standardized tests we use all the time in so many of our classes and grades and schools. Why are we so reliant on them? Are they the best way to serve our kids? And at this point, I don’t think it is going to surprise anyone that I feel strongly there’s a better way, and I think you do, too.

Michael: And perhaps that’s not surprising either. I do, indeed. But I’d go so far as to say I don’t think the issue is with the tests, per se. I’d probably say I think they are important in some cases. But the problem, in my mind, is how the tests are administered and how decoupled from learning they are in K-12 schools. It’s like tests are a symptom of a greater problem. Because just think of how we’ve used them: we’ve used them to sort students out of potential pathways, we close doors off to opportunities through tests, and to do all these things for which the tests were, honestly, never designed to do. And using the tests in that way, it equates to some really disastrous outcomes for kids.

Diane: What you are speaking to, Michael, are some very real problems with standardized tests. As a country we talk about how we want to educate all kids, and in fact, we put a bunch of these standardized tests in place so that we could literally leave no child left behind, but honestly, that just doesn’t ring true for so long now. We’ve been using these tests to close doors for kids and people get that, they understand that. Part of it is a selection problem — we’re only selecting for one thing — it’s super narrow and it doesn’t actually tell us very much.

It would be like if we went to a court or a jury, a trial, and it’s like hearing one piece of evidence and then making a ruling based completely on that one piece of evidence. And what happens is that we end up leaving all these other kids behind, and it might be a different story if we valued the entire array of skills, knowledge, and passion that every person brings to the world and we had ways of helping them select into a good fit pathway for them. But that’s just not how our standardized tests are being used.

Michael: You’re totally right. We’ve used them in incredibly narrow ways and we test a very narrow band of skills and knowledge and things of that nature. But because testing has become so important, it’s put a lot of pressure on our K-12 system to focus on them. And in my mind, schools haven’t generally done so in a very productive way. They’ve often narrowed the curriculum — which is honestly against what the research would suggest you should do to improve learning and subsequently raise scores — and all too often, Diane, they’ve taken the joy out of learning.

Diane:  Michael, we often talk about how you value what you test and you test what you value. And so I think that’s what we’re getting at here. To your point, sadly, it’s not even what the research says that people are doing here mostly. People, when they think about how they’re going to get better on these tests…they’re just doing what’s familiar to them. If kids aren’t doing well on tests, people think we need to remediate them. We need to give them another worksheet. We need to try to really cram that information in their head. Larry talked about this in our second episode, if you remember, when he said, “Oh, the textbook companies get really good at giving you precise worksheets to test the exact question that so kids can get better on it.” When we do that, we lose sight of developing everyone, and we’re not offering options. Todd Rose put this so well when we talked to him, Michael, but we had to cut it from that episode. So I want to go back to some of what he said on this.

Todd: Picasso would never have gotten to Stanford’s visual arts program unless he had fantastic SAT scores, which is really absurd. You know what I mean? It’s like you’re not looking for talent of the broadest kind. You’re not looking for allowing kids to show what they care about and are good at. You’re literally saying, “Dance the way we’re telling you to dance.” And it’s awful. And then kids get in [to college], the same thing happens again, only now it’s on your dime. And so throughout the system, there’s a handful of things that really never show up. One is actually accepting that the kid’s individuality matters. There’s nothing about trying to equip them with more autonomy and agency and the ability for them to have more self-direction. That’s not the focus. And we’re not really trying to cultivate human potential of the broadest kind. We’re still stuck in this idea that there’s only a limited number of spots, so let’s try and find the fairest way to figure out the kids that deserve it.

Michael: OK, Diane, so I remember Todd not just talking about how the system sorts and narrows options for students and all of that. But I also remember how enthusiastic he was about what he saw as a chance for change. And this is where I come in with some optimism, too. I’m actually really excited, Diane, that testing has been so thoroughly disrupted because it’s like we’ve been forced into a timeout, and like other impacts of the pandemic, it’s given us an opportunity to pause, to reflect, and now, hopefully, to innovate.

My great worry, though, even though I have all that optimism, is that schools treat this as a one-year problem. Because sure, they can come up with solutions for this year, for applicants like the rising senior at the top of the episode. Colleges have actually figured out for years how to evaluate homeschooled applicants and international applicants, so they will come up with a fix. Not to dismiss parents who are worried about this right now, but this is a very solvable problem not just this year, but for the next many years. But if they look at this through the prism of just getting through the next year, in my mind, it’s a missed opportunity. Because then we just go back to a system that actually doesn’t serve any of us, least of all kids.

Diane: Michael, like you I’m optimistic, and I’m thinking about building bridges to the future we want and not those piers into the ocean.

And we’re in a place right now where we just don’t have the test scores we’ve gotten used to and we’ve been relying on for years — and that’s not just at the college level, but really all through K-12. And so we’re really out of our comfort zone. I love being out of our comfort zone because I think it gives us a chance to do something different.

What if we took this moment to start engaging with students as the individuals they are — as full human beings, as opposed to widgets in an industrial model that we created a century ago? Because Michael, if we do that well, if we develop kids as individuals, and if we see them that way, the selection process doesn’t become that big of a deal because kids will make the selection decisions themselves. They will have the freedom to say, “This is what I want to do. I know myself. I know myself well. I know what the options are for me. I know what I’m good at. And I’m going to go after that and I’ll be a good fit for it.”

Michael: It’s such an important point because it really flips the paradigm of selection on its head. What you’re talking about here is really a student-centered approach. And I think it’s important to hear from some of the students themselves about what their experiences have been like over the past few months to remind us of what they’ve gone through and also to capture how they’re feeling about returning to school.

Student 1: I was in third grade when the schools closed down. At school, I don’t know, I just had a lot of fun. Some people feel differently at school; for some people school isn’t their favorite. But for me I really liked school.

All the sports closed, too. I had just started baseball practice. And my team was really good then it just got canceled for maybe next summer. We don’t quite know yet what’s going to happen. Like, how we’re going to eat lunch or how big the classes are going to be, so we just have to wait for now. I don’t know… It’s just strange right now. Everything’s strange.

Student 2: Well, the first time it was announced, everyone in the class cheered except for me, because they all thought it would be like a vacation, but I was pretty worried.

The teachers have been providing online work that doesn’t feel productive to me in that it’s not self-explanatory. And a computer can’t be a teacher.

If we go back in the fall, I think it’s a very risky move. One thousand students can’t be controlled by only a few teachers. Even if everyone’s saying, “Keep your mask on and keep distance,” kids have missed each other and will be hugging each other and doing unsanitary things.

Student 3: The first two weeks, we didn’t have anything. We didn’t really have Zoom meetings; we didn’t have anything. And then the teachers talked and kind of started to give us more work. And it was really interesting because some teachers gave us a lot of stuff and some gave us nothing. And I think it’s going to impact how much we know about different classes and just how much we know overall, because I feel like it’s a big year of learning — freshman year. And I feel like a lot of it was taken away.

It’s been pretty overwhelming and it feels kind of weird because you’re just at home and there’s so much going on outside of just coronavirus. And it’s hard to just be… like you can’t do a lot.

Student 4: I definitely expected to be out of school because all of the teachers were preparing for it. They told us that we probably weren’t going to come back. But it was also really sad though, because you don’t really realize what it’s like to be distant from your classmates until it actually happens. It’s going to be very weird for my class because we all just finished our freshman year. So for friends that you don’t spend 24 hours a day with, it’s going to take a little bit to reconnect with each other and just feel natural.

Student 5: I didn’t know that I’d be leaving school. They just said two weeks, and I was like, “Well, it’s not fun, exactly, but I mean, it’s not that bad.” But then I realized that it was going to be longer than I expected. And then it’s the whole year and we just don’t know what’s going to happen next year. But I felt like it was really hard.

I feel really scared when something new happens. My parents are all like, “Oh, something bad’s happened and we have to break it to her,” but I know that they are struggling just as much as me. Twenty years from now, I’m going to tell my kids, “Oh, I survived coronavirus and it was really hard. And so if you’re whining, then just know that I’ve been through a lot and I was just in third grade.”

Diane: Wow, Michael. You know I get so excited when we talk to kids. I love hearing from the kids. I know this is only a small sampling and that many kids have been through much worse since March, and we should not forget that and we should hold that really close. But it’s pretty clear from these kids that there’s been a lot of upheaval in their worlds.

Michael: I know. Imagine though, put yourselves back in their shoes. You’re getting pretty much ousted from your school building overnight, torn away from your friends. They say, “Oh, it’ll just be for a couple of weeks.” And then it’s a few months. And then it’s the rest of the year. Then you’ve experienced all of this really confusing, haphazard learning while schools scrambled to figure out how to teach you in ways they were totally unprepared for.

Diane: And then there’s all this confusion about grades. Some people are tossing them out, some people are getting all A’s, it’s caused kids to really rethink what learning is all about. Then not having access to learning in some cases at all, it really caused them to miss it in surprising ways. That may not have been what people expected.

Michael: I think that’s right. It also looks different, obviously, depending on the age of the student. We’re under incredible stress as a nation right now, and even if you try to avoid the headlines, you really couldn’t except if you were in the youngest of years. Because it’s not just what life looks like with the pandemic, and all the news surrounding that, but also this moment of great civil unrest and, I would say, awakening right now. While certainly many kids have been aware of inequities and racism their whole lives, there are a lot who I’m imagining are just waking up to it, and many I suspect are losing faith in systems they’ve always taken for granted.

Diane: I think that’s right, Michael, it’s like the perfect storm. There’s the pandemic and the sheltering. There’s this financial crisis from so much loss. There is incredible fear and unrest in our communities of color. And quite frankly, across the country, there’s so much going on. So even if kids do get to go back to school in the fall, they’ve got all of that and then school is not going to look the same. It’s going to look really different, and young kids will understand that.

Yet sadly, what many districts are talking about doing is as soon as they get kids back in the building, giving students a time-based standardized test to figure out how much learning they lost. And let’s just think about that from the perspective of a student for a minute.

So I’ve had all this stuff happen. I’m dealing with all this stuff. I get back in the building and you’re going to give me a test? What does that say to me about how you feel about me and how you see me? The science would just never bear this out as a good idea, Michael. Tests are threatening under the best circumstances and to introduce greater fear and threats to our kids when they walk back on our campus is just unconscionable.

Michael: Yeah. And so it’s clear when you think about it from the students’ perspective how off-putting it would be in the best of cases and how deeply unsettling and threatening it would be in many others. But I also imagine that you’ve thought a lot about this from the teacher’s perspective.

Diane: Absolutely, the teacher experience is so close to my heart. It’s what we’re working on and thinking about every day. So now, just imagine you’re a teacher. You’ve missed your kids so much, you’re excited to be back with them, but you’re really nervous. There’s a huge focus on keeping them safe and you safe and everyone safe.

We were all getting used to the proper protocols and social distancing and wearing masks and washing our hands constantly, and maybe taking temperatures at the door. This is a huge job that no one is used to. And it feels like as educators, we now take on this role, this new role of “vigilant safety officer” or something.

And some of us are wondering if we’re even going to get a chance to teach. So it’s not easy for any of the people in the building and in the school environment. It’s going to be super restrictive. There’s a fundamental change in how we’re going to engage with each other at school. And the first thing you’re going to do is give kids a test?

Then as a teacher, I’m like, “Why did I do that?” The district is going to take these scores. I don’t know when I’ll see them, what am I supposed to do with that information? Because then my kids come back tomorrow and it’s going to be highly politicized and there’s going to be all these headlines… How is that helpful?

Michael: Yeah, so a lot of this seems daunting, right? But we have to ask ourselves, as a country, as states, districts, communities, what’s our goal? Step back and go to that first principle. Is our goal to write about, tweet about, fight about how badly we’ve failed our kids? Or is it to do something about it? And more importantly, to empower the students themselves to do something about it. Because what we really want is to take a learner-centered approach that gives them the tools to own the learning process.

Diane: Exactly, Michael. You asked me about the teacher perspective, and so let me just tell you what my instinct is as a teacher. When I come back, I want to build connection with my kids. I want them to know that I care about them and that I missed them and that we’re in this together. I want to tell them that none of us have the answers and we’re going to be doing things that none of us have ever imagined doing.

And in order for us to have those conversations, I can’t be having them sit at their desks and taking standardized tests. I need to actually be engaging with them. I need to really absorb the learning science about what it takes to build a trusting connection between human beings. And I think this is something that most teachers are really good at. It’s what they do intuitively. It’s why they got into teaching. And if we give them the space and the encouragement to do it, I think they’re going to follow their instincts.

Michael: Okay, so let’s state it: that first thing you do is to build connection and relationships. So instead of confronting kids with what inevitably will feel like a test of how far behind they are, the teacher could talkto their students and not en masse, either.

Diane: Right, and then we’d spend time acknowledging how different this experience of school really is. And talking about how people are going to be afraid for their health. It feels scary when people are taking your temperature and there are all these new rules to follow. And so we actually have to build a community around it, to ask, what are we doing here together? Why would we risk our health to be here? Why would we be careful in this community? How can we trust each other?

Michael: This is such an important point. I want to jump in here, Diane, with the parent perspective, too, because it’s so critical to the conversations we’re having in my household right now. I’m really worried as the parent of 5-and-a-half-year olds, because if they go to school and are constantly told what they can’t do, we’re going to build a generation of kids who are just afraid of things. And I don’t want their teachers to become hugging-police, blowing the whistle when kids get too close. I think we can take a much more positive spin and reframe it around the opportunity here to take care of each other. This is now how we do this. And the possibility is of what, as a group of humans working together, we can accomplish together — not what we’re no longer allowed to do.

Diane: Michael, we haven’t had such a strong rallying cry for collective purpose probably since Sputnik. Doing the right thing can be a positive experience as opposed to a negative one. But kids need to understand why. They care about the why. This is what people don’t realize about kids. This goes back to us needing to trust them and empower them and give them real answers.

Michael: Yeah, I think you’re right. And if people want to recall what it feels like to have 5-year-olds, that’s why they’re always asking why. Now with that all set as the first two steps, if you will, what would you do next?

Diane: Well, for me, Michael, again I just come back to this idea of trust instead of telling them, “We’re going to give you a test because we know you’ve lost learning.” I would ask them, “What do you feel like you need to learn or want to learn? What do you feel like has happened for you? Where are you? What do you feel like you may have missed? And what are your goals?”

Kids will be much more motivated and interested if they’re working towards something that they want to do and that they believe in, versus someone else telling them, “Oh, you missed this or you don’t know that or you lost all of this.” That is such a deficit perspective and it just doesn’t motivate people. The science is super clear about this. And so, we need to think about how you’d feel if you were told these things. I mean, you… I know you’re laughing, right?

Michael: It’s accusatory, right? It’d be terrible.

Diane: It’s almost like you’d want to prove me wrong. It’s almost like you’d say, “No, I didn’t lose anything!” And that’s just a natural human reaction. And so I would want to connect with them and try to help them with their goals.

We’ve talked a lot about this on this podcast — the cycle of setting a goal and making a plan. So I would use that approach. I, as a teacher, need to have a map of where I want them to be going and I need to be. Helping them make those connections and making sure I’m checking that they’re getting to what they need. But I first just need to really trust that they’re going to want to do that for themselves.

Michael:Let me just synthesize that a bit, Diane, because you’ve covered a lot of ground. But it also seems like we have four clear steps in front of us:

So step one is building relationships and those connections.

Step two, I’d summarize as coming together around a sense of purpose with this new school reality, reframing it from a negative to a positive.

The third thing, if I’m hearing you right, is understanding students’ goals, their own sense of what they need right now at this point in their lives and what they want.

And then the fourth step that you’re starting to talk about is where the teacher connects the student’s goals to what’s important from the perspective of the curriculum. Is that about right?

Diane: Totally. Michael you’ve got it.

Michael: All right. Awesome. So then we need to address the elephant in the room here, because I imagine a lot of teachers and parents will be listening to this and thinking, “OK, sure, maybe that works for an independent school with small class sizes or maybe for kindergarten or, or maybe even first grade, but how do you do this if you’re anything but that?” And it occurred to me as I was listening to you talk about these four things that the podcast up to this point has actually already addressed the “how,”so I think it’d be helpful to connect those dots for our listeners just to really feel a few examples of what doing these four things would look like.

Diane: Agreed. And look, we’ve heard again and again — from experts and from students — how important connection and sense of community is. That part doesn’t have to be hard. You can build community in a group in the space of an hour, you can build a shared purpose by kids sitting in a circle — even a socially distant circle, Michael — and doing a check-in. And there are some very simple protocols that groups all around the world use for this. It’s really possible.

Michael: Yeah, we see it in schools all around. And for some reason, though, I will confess that even as you’re saying that, and I know it’s possible, I do also have in my mind, someone like the busy chemistry teacher, for example. I don’t know why we keep going back to chemistry here and pushing on your button there. But that teacher sees at least 150 students in the course of the day. And she feels like she has to start delivering content from day one because she has this curriculum guide. She’s got to get through all the subject matter. And so for someone like her, I’d actually say that this is an opportunity to simply flip the classroom, which we talked a little bit about in the first and second episodes and spend a little bit of time in the classroom in conversation with small groups or one-on-one and take the stress off the delivery of content.

Diane: Michael, I think that’s true. And I think the other point to really emphasize here is that you have to go slow to go fast sometimes. It’s tempting to feel like, “Oh my gosh, we’ve lost so much time. I don’t know how we’re going to make it up. We’ve got to dive right in. We can’t lose another minute.” But what I would say to that chemistry teacher is unless you actually help those kids feel safe and invested and connected, they’re not going to learn anything. And I won’t get wonky on you here, but there’s all these big, fancy science words and whatnot that tell us very clearly that kids who were in a state of fear and worry and anxiety, they don’t learn. You’re not going to get any chemistry in their heads.

Michael: It makes sense, right? If you’re in a fight-or-flight mode, how are you going to be receptive to learning? But hearing you talk, it also brings up to mind something else, which seems like a big opportunity actually for us to question the sheer breadth of what’s covered in classes and how we feel like we have to get a concept almost every other day in the school year down.

And we could really slim it down at this point, not just in high school chemistry, but all the way down to the elementary school. Do elementary schoolers really need to learn the life cycle of a butterfly at a specific time during the year? And yes, that’s on my mind because my kids are focusing on that right now at home. No, they don’t necessarily need that piece of content right now.

Yes, they need to learn to read, and they want to learn to read, by the way. Rare is the student who doesn’t want to learn how to read and open this entire world for him or her. So focus there. And chances are they’ll pick up a book about the life cycle of a butterfly one day, and you can build that into a text or something that you give them later. You don’t have to rush to make sure you get that in there. There are other ways that that child will pick that up if it’s important.

Diane: You’re absolutely right, Michael, go slow to go fast. We can’t say it enough. Let’s stick with reading for a little bit as an example because I think it offers us an example of how you can do two things with one.

And so we’ve talked about how there’s a need to figure out where kids are, what they know, what they don’t know. Teachers need to have that information. Well, instead of giving second graders a standardized test to check their reading, what lots of schools already do — in sort of a gold standard for reading assessment that we often don’t do because we think it takes too much time — is to actually have the teacher sit with the child and do reading and assess them. And what you can do in ten minutes even is so powerful. There’s so much information you can get from that. And, by the way, look at that, Michael, you’re doing the reading assessment and the teacher one-to-one connection right at the same time. It feels like, if I’m a student, someone’s listening to me, they care about me. They see me, they know me.

Michael: It’s such an important point because I think testing doesn’t need to be seen in this deeply impersonal way that alienates or makes someone feel bad now. With that all said, let’s talk about steps three and four.

There’s the goal-setting step three and the connection to the broader curriculum in step four. It seems to me that this is where the learning cycle we’ve talked about so much in this podcast comes in. You know, having the student set a goal, make a plan, learn (of course), execute that plan, show what they know—the testing part—and then they reflect on their performance and set another goal and make another plan, and then go around and round.

Diane: Exactly. And what I love here is how we’re bringing everything together, because that cycle is best accomplished through a project that builds in the habits of success. And projects are kind of like a three-for-one, because they also help to build students’ connections with one another and with the teacher as they work together. And if school gets interrupted again, which is highly likely, students who are engaged in a project don’t need the school to tell them what to do. They’ve got their project; they’ve got their sense of purpose.

I’m not suggesting that schools completely turn into project-based learning schools overnight — but they can start small, with one well-crafted, meaningful project — and personally, I have this dream that we as a country build a project around the virus. There’s so many interesting things here. So many scientific concepts, so many ethical dilemmas, so much. We could build the most interesting, engaging projects that help kids develop real helpful knowledge. They would help them understand the why of what’s happening in their schools and be bought-in as part of the solution.

Michael: I think it’s such an important point because it really connects to that second step. And so now we’ve interwoven this in everything we’ve done because it’s building that connection. And it’s building that why, it’s building that caring, and turning all these things that could be seen as a negative, into a positive. And then there’s the digital access aspect of this and the tools that we talked so much about in that episode with Larry Berger, which would be so key to this, right? Because they’d be using those tools to gain knowledge and insight that would help them build these solutions for these projects that they’re tackling.

Diane: Michael, the digital piece here is essential, and it’s one of the reasons we started with that foundational piece in the podcast. From day one, schools need to make sure kids have access to technology, and a personalized program that helps them build their math and literacy skills and meets them where they are, and does embedded assessment while they’re learning. Teachers can use those results. Students can use those results. Parents can use those results! That is so much more powerful because when you get that result, you get right back to work, as opposed to having some standardized tests that who knows when you get the results. The tools are out there!

Michael: It’s absolutely right. Schools unquestionably have their work cut out for them this summer and there is still a lot of uncertainty and so forth, but amidst all this uncertainty, amidst this pause that we talked about at the beginning of the podcast, it’s such a great opportunity.

And look, we’ve done this before as a nation. We’ve risen to the occasion of a rapidly changing world — that’s how the industrial model came about in the first place. And so we can start to build the bridges in education again to meet our society’s current needs. And, in my opinion, it’s imperative that we do so. So with that, thanks again for joining us on Class Disrupted, and we’ll see you next time.

Thanks for listening and thanks to our awesome crew, making this all work. Jenna Free, our writer, Steve Chaggaris, our producer and Nathan James, helping us with publicity and graphics. We’ll see you next time on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a lifelong educator and innovator and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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