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The Pseudo-Science of Common Core and High-Stakes Testing

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It seems that the more students, teachers, and families express concern about Common Core and high-stakes testing, the more its proponents rush to defend the indefensible with unsubstantiated claims for their wonderfulness. In April, while Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed a Democratic Party fund-raiser in Holbrook, New York parents, teachers, and school administrators protested outside against his endorsement of Common Core. Cuomo's response is to tweak Common Core to make it more compatible, but not to reconsider its basic tenets and its impact on education.

Two years after it supposedly implemented Common Core, New York State Education Department has decided it finally needs to consult teachers about what should be taught and wants to set up a Common Core Institute with Common Core Fellows. According to Ken Wagner, the deputy commissioner for curriculum, assessment and education technology, but someone who has not actually been a classroom teacher, "We're looking to find out if this is a model that works." Of course you would have expected them to find out "if this is a model that works" before subjecting students to rounds and rounds high-stakes tests.

Meanwhile, in the press and in the media, especially in New York, to question Common Core and high-stakes testing means you are anti-child, anti-change, and anti-progress. According to an editorial in The New York Times: "The new Common Core learning standards, which set ambitious goals for what students should learn from one year to the next, are desperately needed in New York . . . To keep the momentum going, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Board of Regents, which oversees education in the state, need to resist any effort to roll back the reform."

An editorial in Newsday claimed: "Teachers say the implementation has been too quick, and the evaluations of their work based on student scores has been unreliable. Parents say the curriculum is impossibly rigorous, and lower test results are crippling student self-esteem. Both groups are wrong to fight the changes."

At least two members of the State Board of Regents, Betty Rosa of the Bronx and Kathleen Cashin of Brooklyn are highly critical of the Common Core standards and standardized tests, but they are ignored. Cashin charged the education department with ignoring teachers and principals who complained that many of the test questions are ambiguous and developmentally inappropriate.

In the rush to defend Common Core and high-stakes assessment, too many questions are going unanswered.

According to the website EngageNY, developed by the New York State Education Department to promote and defend Common Core and high-stakes testing, "Data Driven Instruction and Inquiry (DDI) is a precise and systematic approach to improving student learning throughout the year." The website has a cute little graphic, an unbroken "inquiry circle" with arrows connecting endless rounds of assessment, analysis, and action. Nice assertion. Nice graphic. Evidently the Times and Newsday agree.

But how true are the claims? How precise is the assessment? How accurate is the analysis? How systematic is the action? Are we looking at a pseudo-scientific justification for Common Core standards and high-stakes testing?

New York State Education wants educators from "district superintendent, to superintendent, to principal, to teacher" to continuously ask three questions. "Where are we in terms of our goals? Where are our students in terms of their college and career readiness? How do we get there from here?" Excellent questions, but do Common Core and its high-stakes-assessment provide answers to these questions?

In recent letters published in The New York Times and Newsday, Bruce Torff, a colleague at Hofstra University challenged New York State, Pearson, and Common Core advocates to demonstrate the reliability of their curriculum and assessments. According to Torff, "Best practice in educational and psychological measurement requires test developers to shoulder the burden of demonstrating the validity and reliability of their instruments. Unfortunately, the state and its test designer, Pearson, do not make validation data for state tests available to the taxpayers who fund them." Torff challenged state officials to make all test validation data available to the public.

Maybe we just need a new Common Core high-stakes testing logo. COMMON CORE $TANDARD$ lead to COMMON CORE LE$$ON$ leading to COMMON CORE A$$E$$MENT$ and back to COMMON CORE $TANDARD$ in an endless loop surrounding Pearson and the other companies that make money by marketing Common Core.

In New York State Item Review Criteria for Grade 3-8 Mathematics Tests, New York State claims it has in place an "Item Review Criteria" framework that ensures Grade 3-8 Common Core Mathematics Tests measure Common Core for Mathematics with "high quality questions" that are clear and appropriate; fair; bias free; and consistent with Common Core. It makes the claim for its English Language Arts exams. The problem is that just because a question is consistent with Common Core does not mean either Common Core or the question make sense or are what should be taught in mathematics at a specific grade level. Lousy standards make for lousy questions and vice versa.

According to a report, "Common Core's Validation: A Weak Foundation for a Crooked House," released by the Pioneer Institute in Boston, among other things that New York State has left out is that five of the twenty-nine members of the national Common Core Validation Committee "refused to sign a report attesting that the standards are research-based, rigorous and internationally benchmarked." In addition, "no member of the Validation Committee had a doctorate in English literature or language and only one held a doctorate in math, " and as a group they had little experience in curriculum development.

According to another analysis of the Common Core standards curriculum writing teams, of the original fifteen members of the Common Core Standards Mathematics work group, only one had been a math teacher in a standard American high school. Most of the team members were from the testing industry. Of the fifteen members of the English/Language Arts team, only five had secondary school classroom teaching experience. None had taught elementary school, special education, or English language learners.

While New York State continues to push Common Core and high-stakes assessment, other states are reconsidering. Indiana passed a law withdrawing from Common Core. In North Carolina, which was awarded a federal Race to the Top grant when it endorsed Common Core, a state legislative committee recommended pulling out of the Common Core consortium. Legislative bodies in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are also considering pulling out. A lot of this opposition has been inspired by Tea Party complaints of federal over-reach. I do not mind the over-reach, I would just like to see some real discussion about what should be taught in American schools and what college and career ready really looks like.

Ironically, conservative business groups like the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are defending Common Core. I suspect it is because their members anticipate they will make money off of state and federal funding. inBloom, a non-profit corporation funded by the Gates Foundation to provide computer systems for managing the data collected as part of the Common Core high-stakes tests recently announced it planned to end operations because of rising parental opposition and fear about how data would be used.

As the New York State Department makes clear, the Common Core and high-stakes assessments are attractive because they provide plenty of data for evaluating students, teachers, and schools and for "driving" instruction and they make state officials sound like they are being "scientific." But a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times by two New York University faculty members shows that data such as this can give a very distorted picture of what is actually taking place. Big data is great for finding correlations, but does not tell is whether correlations are meaningful and its can be tricked into giving the answers you want. For example, computer programs that evaluate student writing look at sentence length and the use of vocabulary. If teachers want their students to score higher, they just have to tell them to write longer sentences and to use obscure words and to forget about meaning and creativity. In fact, I predict that as students and teachers become more familiar with the high-stakes Common Core assessment scores will go up, not because the students are learning better, but because they are more familiar with the type of questions that are on the test.

One leading critic of Common Core and the high Stakes assessments, Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Center, New York, carefully detailed how tests can be used to show whatever you want to show simply by changing the way raw scores are translated into final grades. If you set the conversion score low, many students pass. If you set it high, you can claim that our schools are failing our children. Burris also showed how New York and Kentucky defined college ready differently, so Kentucky students, teachers, and schools all scored significantly higher than they did in New York. Burris concluded, "There is no objective science by which we can predict future college readiness using grades 3-8 test scores. You can, at best make assumptions, based on correlations, with score thresholds that are capricious. To make college readiness predictions for 8-year-olds is absurd and unkind."