Today’s NYTimes article by Mokoto Rich reports on the shenanigans going on in various states in their reporting of test results. The headline on her article, “Test Scores Under Common Core Show That “Proficient” Varies By State”, and the article itself summarizes the facts on the impact of setting cut scores on the standardized tests that are linked to the Common Core, but fails to underscore the political consequences of the practice… and makes no mention of how NYS gamed the tests to create large numbers of “failing” schools.
The setting of cut scores works like this: thousands of children across the country took the same standardized test. When the tests were graded, state departments of education determined what scores would be deemed “proficient”. Some states might require a student to get 40 correct answers to be deemed “proficient” while others might require a student to get 55 correct answers. If a governor who is running for president, say Governor Kasich, wants to be able to boast that his policies resulted in high rates of passing, he could prevail on his appointed Commissioner of Education to set a low score as “proficient”. If a governor wants to use test scores to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of teachers and public schools, say Governor Cuomo, he could insist that the Board of Regents and Commissioner of Education set a high score as “proficient”. In the meantime, no one is asking if these tests help teachers gain a better understanding of their students or of their pedagogy…. because everyone knows the answer is that they do not.
In the meantime, the focus on the inappropriateness of using standardized test results based on age cohorts is not called into question. Instead of questioning how and when students are tested parents and teachers are questioning what they are tested on. It’s the wrong question… for clearly all students need to master the same set of mathematics skills and develop the same reading comprehension skills at some point in their education. Our obsession with determining precisely what students need to learn at the end of first and second grade seems absurd to educators in other developed Western countries, many of whom do not even begin formal schooling until their children are 7 years old.
Moreover, our questions about what students learn results in countless hours of debates over settled science (e.g. evolution vs. intelligent design and climate change), settled history (e.g. the latest flap over the textbooks in Texas that described slaves as willing immigrant workers), and, as always, religion (e.g. the recent brouhaha over teaching about Islam in TN). At some point we need to shift the debate to the question of why it is important for a child to progress at the same rate as his or her age cohorts intellectually when we have no such expectation in terms of that same child’s physical growth. Alas, such a debate will not score points politically or result in the ability to measure teacher and school performance with seeming precision.
Anne Murphy Paul’s Motherlode article on the opt out movement, “Instead of Opting Out of Tests, Teach Students to Take Tests Right” utterly and completely misses the point of the opt out movement. In the article Paul naively suggests parents encourage students to test themselves, to avoid cramming for tests, to shuffle their work in unpredictable ways, to study the test itself after taking it, and to develop skills to be calm when a high-stakes test is administered. She ends this list with this preposterous assertion:
The opt-out movement has encouraged many parents and teachers to aspire to a world without tests. But better than getting rid of tests would be turning tests into promising opportunities.
This prompted me to leave the following comment, which drew from ideas Ms. Murphy had for ways that test could be useful:
Sorry, but the opt-out movement has NOT encouraged many parents and teachers to aspire to a world without tests… it wants a world where teachers and students are not obsessed with a single test but rather focussed on the day-to-day assessments that give the student, teacher and parent timely feedback on how well the student is progressing through the curricula adopted by the local district. Standardized tests do not encourage self-testing, do not help students space their study time, do not “change things up”, do not provide students with a means to “study the test” in advance, and because of their “black box” nature and the fact that the continuation of their school’s operation depend on successful pass rates they ADD to test anxiety.
The opt out movement wants testing to be done “…the right way now” to provide their students with “…a deep well of resources to draw on in the future.” They would welcome “…frequent, low-stakes exams instead of infrequent high-stakes ones” that would “…provide timely and detailed feedback on students’ answers to give them an opportunity to learn from the testing process”. They would welcome receiving “…results could be presented to students in a format that fosters a “growth mindset”  using scores like Highly Proficient, Proficient and Not Yet, while offering opportunities to improve and try again.”
Unfortunately the NY Regents and NY Governor do not want this kind of test. It would help if they listened to want parents want.
Ms. Paul seems to think that the Regents and the politicians want meaningful tests that will help inform instruction and help parents understand how their children are faring in schools. If that were the case, they would listen to teachers and parents and offer those kinds of tests…. but testing is designed to serve a different purpose altogether in the Global Education Reform Movement.
In one of the most disingenuous ploys ever concocted, High Achievement New York, a self-identifed “coalition of teachers, parents, civic, civil rights and business groups who share a commitment to a brighter educational future for every child in New York” is advocating that the state stay with the Common Core standards and offer a seven step plan for implementing them. Here’s the first step of the groups plan:
- Renaming the Standards: Several states have dropped the “Common Core” moniker to put their own stamp on the standards, something Chancellor Tisch suggested last week. For instance, the standards in Arizona, Florida and Iowa are now known as “Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards,” the “Next Generation Sunshine State Standards” and “The Iowa Core,” respectively. Survey after survey shows strong support for higher learning standards in ELA and Math, and annual assessments of college and career readiness, but support drops when those components are called Common Core.
One of the Uniserv reps I worked with in MD had a great aphorism for this kind of thing: “You can’t paint C-O-W on the side of a horse and expect to get any milk”… and re-jiggering these standards or shortening the time for summative assessments will not address the fundamental problem, which is the use of common core test results as the sole metric for determining “success” in school and now, in NYS, “success” as a classroom teacher. Nor will it address the fundamental assumption of the common core, which is that all children are expected to develop at the same rate intellectually in all content areas, an idea that is preposterous on its face yet implicit in the way the common core is presented. We won’t get better performance from a re-branded set of standards any more that we could get milk from a re-labelled horse.
The “reformers” believe that “underperforming schools” are the result “underperforming teachers” and consequently recommend that those “poor teachers” be replaced. In a NYDaily News op ed column published today, Michael Mulgrew, the UFT NYC President, offers compelling evidence that the replacement of teachers will not solve the problem. Why? Because in many the so-called “failing schools” have massive turnover to begin with:
A UFT review of personnel records at these (failing) schools (the state’s technical term for the list they’re on is “out-of-time”) tells a radically different story from that being told by the “reformers” — a story of how hundreds of teachers despair of helping kids in poorly managed and under-resourced schools, and who ultimately, battered by the arduous process, choose to move on to other schools or other lives.
Our review shows that 64% — nearly two-thirds — of the 921 teachers on staff at these eight “out-of-time” schools in 2010 have already bailed out. Almost half of those who left — 45% — went to other schools in the system. About 23% retired. And 21% resigned, heading for different school systems or different careers entirely. Disability, death and other reasons accounted for the balance.
Some schools have had the door revolve even faster. Fordham Leadership has only nine of the 46 teachers who were there in 2010. Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx has only two of the nearly 40 teachers who were there in 2010. Excluding those two hardy veterans, the Banana Kelly staff has been wholly replaced not once, but twice, in the last five years — a turnover rate of nearly 200%.
If the reformers notion that wholesale replacement of teachers would lead to improvement was valid, why did these schools that replaced 2/3 of their staff not improve? Mulgrew’s data suggests the real problem is not that the teachers are poor— after all nearly 1/3 of the teachers from the “failing schools” transferred to other presumably “successful” schools in the district. Mulgrew concludes that what is needed is more support for those schools in the form of stability, specialized curricula, and expanded services of the kind advocated by the mayor. He concludes his essay with this:
The problems of the city’s struggling schools can be solved by real strategies, but not by political sloganeering. “Get tough on teachers” may warm the hearts of “reformers,” but it is a distraction from the real work that needs to be done.
I hope that some of the “tough” Governors running for President who tout “evidence based decision making– like Walker, Christie, Kasich, and Bush– take a look at Mulgrew’s evidence and take it to heart when they formulate their ideas on education. It would also help if Congress looked at this as well… but I expect the test-and-punish paradigm will remain in place.
Peter Hancock of the Lawrence Journal-World reports that Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson is touring the state offering breathless accounts of the findings of a survey he conducted to determine what the public and businesses are seeking in students… and it ISN’T the things that are easy to measure using standardized achievement tests! Instead, Watson found:
…the vast majority of skills people listed as important were nonacademic skills, such as communication, interpersonal skills, citizenship and ethics, and the ability to work in teams with other people.
And he was astonished to find that those nonacademic skills were especially prized by business leaders. This is not at all surprising to me, since I recall similar findings from surveys of businessmen conducted in the 1990s… and the reason for this should be obvious to anyone who follows the impact of technology. Most jobs today require interpersonal interactions since many factory jobs and “back room” functions have been taken over by robots or other technological advances.
And Weston’s solution to the findings?
Watson said schools will probably be asked to put more emphasis on career planning by identifying students’ passions and interests at an earlier stage, and making individual plans of instruction for each student.
He also said they should work more closely with local businesses to give students more exposure to real-world work environments.
For those who follow education in VT and NH, these “innovations” will song familiar. Both states re emphasizing experiential learning and VT has mandated Personalized Learning Plans for all students entering 7th grade. Will Kansas catch up with New England? Only if they catch up the the state support these state offer, which is arguably insufficient and inequitable but is a king’s ransom as compared to Kansas. Hancock implies that help may be on the way:
The discussion comes at the same time the Kansas Legislature is preparing to craft a new funding formula.
Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, who was recently named to chair an interim committee that will soon start working on a new funding formula, attended Wednesday’s presentation and said the survey information will be useful in helping design that new formula.
My hunch: the new formula will not address the fundamental needs of the state and will not remedy the inequities already in place in Kansas… but I hope I’m wrong!
NYS’s new Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, walked into a mess and seems to be doing her best to make things even worse.
First the mess. Governor Cuomo passed legislation that binds schools to an evaluation system that is heavily dependent on value added measurements (VAM) based on standardized test results. Parent groups in NYS, particularly those in middle class districts, launched a successful opt-out movement against the standardized tests, a movement that makes the use of VAM in many districts an impossibility. The Board of Regents does not wholeheartedly support VAM (see previous post) but their chairman champions it.
In addressing these concerns, Ms. Elia seems to have come up with solutions that will ultimately alienate everyone. She’s recommended trimming back on the length of the tests– which will arguably make their VAM applications less valid. She’s switched vendors from Pearson to Questar, a company that will devise a completely new set of tests— further diminishing the validity of VAM measurements. In doing so, she has completely sidestepped the real concern of parents, which is the effects of test-based accountability on the curriculum in their schools. As one opt-out leader noted, Commissioner Elia’s actions will NOT change their thinking:
“Half a disaster is still a disaster,” said Loy Gross, a co-founder of the parent activist group United to Counter the Core, who added shortening the tests was just tinkering around the edges of a very large problem.
“And no,” she added, “it’s not going to appease parents who will continue to opt their kids out of tests.”
Based on her previous performance in FL, Ms. Elia is unlikely to back away from using tests as a major component of teacher evaluation, contentiousness over standardized testing will continue indefinitely, and children and teachers will have to wait for another Governor to take office before the problem is resolved… and by then the full privatization plan may be implemented. I hope this prognosis is wrong!
Diane Ravitch’s post late yesterday lamented the Regent’s decision to continue using VAM as a basis for teacher employment, referencing an article that appeared in the Gannett papers that explained the background behind the 10-6 vote to support the state law enacted at the behest of governor Cuomo. Two of the Regents quoted in the article clearly see the flaws with the system:
“Quite frankly, I have met with hundreds of people, and all I hear is the joy of teaching is being squeezed out of them as a result of this process,” said Regent Judith Johnson, whose district stretches from Poughkeepsie to Westchester County. She voted against the proposal.
Having worked in that region for five years I am confident Ms. Johnson got an earful! One Regent who was among those who held their nose and voted in favor of the proposal on the grounds that they were compelled by law to devise an evaluation system in accordance with the law, wanted to be on record for his skepticism:
“We have to express a lack of confidence in the current evaluation system,” said Regent Roger Tilles of Long Island, who voted for the rules. “We have to express a lack of confidence in the current growth model. We have to … call for changes to the evaluation system as it currently exists.”
Diane Ravitch, concluded her post with this question:
Has anyone in Governor Cuomo’s office figured out where they will find better teachers to replace those who are fired as a result of his eagerness to oust teachers?
Having just read about the ridiculous arrest of a student in TX who brought a home-made clock to school to show his science class in TX, I left the following response to Ms. Ravitch’s question:
Where will Cuomo find better teachers to replace those who are fired? If teaching to the test is the goal (and it clearly IS the goal of the Regents and Mr. Cuomo) they might look to hire computer programmers and security guards. Programmers know how to develop algorithms for tasks that are iterative and standardized: they can write the programs for the inexpensive computer tablets that will be issued to each child. Security guards can maintain order and arrest creative students who make things at home— like the young man in Texas who made his own clock. With this combination NYS won’t need as many old-fashioned “teachers”— you know, the kind that get to know each child and design differentiated lessons that meet their needs.
My concern is that some charter school owner might read this and take it seriously… because that seems to be the staffing configuration many virtual schools favor.