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Do These Tests Have Educational Value?

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The results are in and the news is bad. Student scores plummeted dramatically on New York State math and reading tests administered last spring that are supposedly aligned with new national Common Core Standards. Statewide, only 31% of students passed the reading exam or the math exam. The previous school year, on a different series of tests, 55% of the state's students were considered proficient in reading and 65% in math.

The airwaves and the Internet have been abuzz with explanations, apologies, and outrage. For months, state and local education officials have tried to prepare parents for the anticipated low scores. On August 7, 2013 State Education Commissioner John B. King sent an open letter to "New York State Parents and Families" acknowledging that "students struggled on this year's test" but this was because the state had introduced higher standards and more difficult tests so "every single one of our students" would be on track for college and careers by the time they graduate from high school. At a press conference, King, said the test scores should not be seen as a reflection on districts, schools, and teachers, but as a new "baseline" for future student performance. He was also confident that the scores on tests developed by the private Pearson Education corporation, a subdivision of the global Pearson media conglomerate, accurately assessed student mastery of common core standards.

At a press conference, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg rejected criticisms of the tests and actually called the results "very good news." He blamed the media for focusing on declines in student performance. Meanwhile United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argued the drop in scores was because "Too many school systems lied to children, families and communities. He believes that with the new Common Core Standards and tests "Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable as educators."

An editorial in The New York Times took a similar position. It claimed:

"Over the last decade or so, most states deceived the public about the dismal quality of public schools by adopting pathetically weak learning standards that made children appear better prepared than they actually were. Not surprisingly, when states like Kentucky dropped the charade and embraced more challenging standards, scores dropped precipitously. That same scenario is playing out in New York State, which, this week, released the first round of scores from tests linked to the rigorous Common Core learning standards, which have been adopted by all but a handful of states."

While test scores were down all across New York State, the results were definitely uneven.

  • In New York City, test scores fell in every school district, but were more pronounced in poorer communities. In nine New York City school no students at all passed the math exams.
  • In Rochester, New York, an overwhelmingly minority upstate urban school district located in a city abandoned by industry and middle-class White families that fled to the suburbs, only five percent of students passed either the reading or math tests.
  • Statewide, only fifteen percent of Black students and nineteen percent of Hispanic students passed the math exams, compared with half of White students and over sixty percent of Asian students.
  • Only six percent of students with learning disabilities passed English.
  • Students whose first language is not English did even worse. Only three percent of nonnative speakers were proficient.

Other New Yorkers have not been much less sanguine (sanguine is a good Common Core vocabulary word for any high school readers that means cheerfully optimistic), especially on Long Island where the opposition to Common Core and the new assessments is more intense. A growing Opt-Out movement of parents who do not want their children's education directed by high-stakes assessments argues "The test results help our cause by forcing districts to publicly acknowledge the flaws in the state's testing policy, instead of defending them."

In at least two districts, school superintendents have spearheaded the opposition to the testing regime. William Johnson of Rockville Centre called the data provided by the tests "uninterpretable," adding that the test scores did not have much meaning for his district. John Rella, Superintendent of Schools in the Comsewogue School District on Long Island charged that these tests were part of a campaign to "shake confidence in public education" at a time when school budgets are being slashed and the media is creating a "toxic environment towards public education." He described the message being delivered by the testing regime as "unconscionable" and "hurtful to children."

In a blog published on The Washington Post webpage, Carol Burris, the principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre compared "data-driven, test-obsessed reforms" being promoted by the New York State Education Department and the Obama administration with depressing scenes from a Charles Dickens novel about 19th century schools in industrial Great Britain.

According to Burris,

"Because of the Common Core, our youngest children are being asked to meet unrealistic expectations. New York's model curriculum for first graders includes knowing the meaning of words that include "cuneiform," "sarcophagus," and "ziggurat." Kindergarteners are expected to meet expectations that have led some early childhood experts to worry that the Common Core Standards may cause young children harm. If we are not careful, the development of social skills, the refinement of fine motor skills, and most importantly, the opportunity to celebrate the talents and experiences of every child will be squeezed out of the school day."

Burris argued that the so called curriculum reforms are being pursued without evidence that higher tests scores actually signal that students will be more ready to perform in college. She also charged that:

tremendous financial interests" are "driving the agenda about our schools -- from test makers, to publishers, to data management corporations -- all making tremendous profits from the chaotic change. When the scores drop, they prosper. When the tests change, they prosper. When schools scramble to buy materials to raise scores, they prosper. There are curriculum developers earning millions to created scripted lessons to turn teachers into deliverers of modules in alignment with the Common Core (or to replace teachers with computer software carefully designed for such alignment). This is all to be enforced by their principals, who must attend "calibration events" run by "network teams."

Basically, I agree with Johnson, Rella, and Burris. Common Core Standards and the New York State assessments are supposed to emphasize deep analysis and creative problem-solving, but I saw none of it on sample math problems published in The New York Times.

This is a sample grade seven math question.

Carmine paid an electrician x dollars per hour for a 5-hour job plus $70 for parts. The total charge was $320. Which equation can be used to determine how much the electrician charged per hour?

1. 5x = 320 + 70

2. 5x = 320 − 70

3. (70 + 5)x = 320

4. (70 − 5)x = 320

I gave this problem to a group of teacher education students and many had the same trouble that the seventh graders had. They knew that cost equals labor (5X) plus materials ($70) or 5X + 70 = 320. But the choices with 320 on one side of the equation are incorrect. You have to take a second step and translate the equation into 5X= 320 - 70. THEY HAD A RIGHT ANSWER BUT THEIR RIGHT ANSWER WAS NOT ONE OF THE CHOICES.

The same group of preservice teachers had trouble with these two eighth grade math questions.

A lab has two bacteria cultures. Culture A contains 8 x 10^4 bacteria, and culture B contains 4 x 10^6 bacteria. How do the two cultures compare in size?

1. Culture A contains twice as many bacteria as culture B.

2. Culture A contains 1/2 as many bacteria as culture B.

3. Culture A contains 1/25 as many bacteria as culture B.

4. Culture A contains 1/50 as many bacteria as culture B.

Some simply did not remember they had to add, not multiply, exponents. Others realized that 10^6 is 100 times more than 10^4, but one hundred times was not a choice, you had to divide it in half in a second step.

What is the solution to this equation: 2(x − 3) = 2x + 5

1. x = 2(3/4)

2. x=−2(3/4)

3. There is no solution.

4. There are infinitely many solutions.

The correct answer is that there is no solution, but how many people have the confidence in their math ability to make that choice?

So if the tests are not really promoting higher order thinking that will achieve Common Core Standards and better prepare students for college and careers, what are they doing?

First, as far as I can tell, these were poorly designed tests, a consistent problem with Pearson tests. New York State should demand its money back. A well-designed test has a range of difficulty and starts with easier questions so students feel comfortable taking the test and do their best. As a result it produces a range of grades and gives teachers a sense of the level where individual students are performing. This test seemed to only have difficult questions so anxious students panicked and did poorly and teachers have no idea what they actually know.

For an eighth grade reading passage titled "Jason's Gold," questions had multiple correct answers and students were asked to figure out which ones the test writers thought were best. These were opinion questions presented as if they had factual answers. It is also unclear to me how knowing the meaning of the word "momentous" in line 18 or understanding a comparison of people to iron-filings demonstrates readiness to start a career or go to college.

Second, the tests were unfair because students in higher grades were tested on work from earlier grades that they were never taught. It was even worse for non-English speakers - BECAUSE THEY DON'T SPEAK ENGLISH. Imagine how you would perform on a test on a subject you never studied or administered in a language you do not know.

Third, students always score lower when a new test is introduced because they were taught, and teachers reviewed, for the previous series of tests. This happens every time, and scores rebound when teachers have copies of the new tests and students study from them. Next year New York State, if the testing regime continues, can claim miraculous improvement when nothing has changed except that teachers and students are familiar with the tests. My guess is that savvy school administrator will concentrate test prep on students who scored closest to the next highest level. It will be easiest to get them over the threshold so it looks like schools, teachers, and test review material are making a difference.

Fourth, as with many standardized tests, they most accurately reflect the social conditions of the lives of students. Except that no one in political power wants to address the growing social inequality gap in the United States. All they seem to want to do is give harder and harder tests.

I think the tests are really being used as weapons against teachers and schools to force them to adopt questionable but expensive curriculum being marketed by test prep companies that seem to have enormous influence over politicians. Instead of buying packaged test prep and curriculum programs, New York State can get the best bang for its buck by having students memorize a few simple lower order thinking rules.

1. Remember the order of operation when solving math problems and to ADD exponents.

2. These are two-step problems. Do the second step before you look at the choices.

3. If the problem does not have an answer have confidence in your ability, the problem probably does not make sense.

4. The reading tests are asking for opinions not facts and they want their opinions not yours.

5. Remember: Hunger Games! "May the odds be ever in your favor."