The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What big drop in new standardized test scores really means

By Carol Burris

The release of New York Common Core tests scores brings to mind the opening of Charles Dickens’s “Hard Times”:

With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature and tell you what it comes to…

This is setting the stage for Chapter 2, entitled “Murdering the Innocents.” School Master Gradgrind, obsessed with data and facts, humiliates “Girl number 20” who cannot “define a horse.”  The humiliated young girl is quickly measured and done, deemed to be “possessed of no facts.”  In Gradgrind’s class, each child is a numbered vessel into which knowledge must be poured — faster and more efficiently from the pitcher of fear.

The chapter is a chilling and uncanny allegory for the data-driven, test-obsessed reforms that are now overwhelming our schools. This week, New York’s “hard times” measures were made public. There was no surprise when the new definition of “proficiency” was about 30 points below the old one. That’s what the system was designed to do. Yet the new, imperious Gradgrinds will predictably use the results as the rationale to propel their reforms. They have built their careers, reputations and, in some cases, their fortunes, coming up with inventive ways to show public school teachers as inept and to present the vast majority of public school students as below par.

While the fingers point and the blame is assigned, “The Innocents” are forgotten.  New York’s students labored through days of testing so that the ignorance of the “number 20s” could be exposed for all to see.  The question is: To what end?

Their failure, of course, was preordained. This drop was predicted by Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz in March before any bubble was filled and by Commissioner John King who declared that scores would “likely drop by 30 points” before the last test was sealed in its packet.  If a teacher in my school told me that he designed a test that was so hard that the passing rate would drop by 30 points and the majority of his students would fail, I would walk him to the door.

The rationale here is muddled at best, but the detriments are obvious. For instance, young students in New York State who are developing as they should will be placed in remedial services, forgoing enrichment in the arts because they are a “2” and thus below the new proficiency level. That is where the vast majority of students fall on the new scales — below proficiency and off the “road to college readiness.”  Students, who in reality may not need support will be sorted into special education or “response to intervention” services.  Parents will worry for their children’s future. The newspapers will bash the public schools and their teachers at a time when morale is already at an extreme low. The optimism teachers first felt about the Common Core State Standards is fading as the standards and their tests roll into classrooms.

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.

What is equally disconcerting is that these reforms are being pursued with little or no evidentiary grounding. There is, for instance, zero sound research that demonstrates that if you raise a student’s score into the new proficiency range, the chances of the student successfully completing college increases. New York’s new cut scores are an attempt to benchmark state scores to the proficiency rates attached to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or, NAEP. Yet the connections between NAEP scores and college performance are so spurious that researchers have yet to claim that NAEP scores have any predictive value at all when it comes to college and career readiness.  In addition,  the NAEP proficient level is very high, not at grade level at all.  In fact, most analysts consider the NAEP Basic level to be at grade level.  You can read about the problems with using NAEP as a benchmark here.

In light of all of the above, my advice to parents is this. Remember that these tests are hardly a measure of your child’s value or promise as a student. Be outraged if she is now labeled “below proficient” based on tests that were designed to have scores drop like a stone.  Your conversations with your child’s teacher or principal can give you far better insights into her academic and (just as importantly) social and emotional growth.

In fact, in the upcoming months, there will be far more important issues to worry about than our children’s test scores.  As schools and their teachers are hammered due to the score drop, there will be tremendous pressure to further narrow the curriculum and cut out all of the enrichment that can make young children smile with anticipation on Monday mornings. Don’t allow your schools to become the Dickensian places that are “in all things regulated and governed by fact” and where teachers are obliged to “discard the word Fancy altogether” as the government officer in “Hard Times” directed Gradgrind and his students to do.

If you think I am exaggerating, I suggest you read the Metrics and Expectations found here and ask, “Is this the way I want my neighborhood school to be run?” See how infrequently the words “parent” and “student” are mentioned.  If you think that parents and students matter, you will be disappointed.  Local control has no place in “metrics and expectations.”

The bottom line is that there are tremendous financial interests 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.”

We who are inside schools have been sounding the alarm, although perhaps not as loudly as we should. But in the end, it will be parents, speaking with each other and with their local school boards and legislators, who will insist that sanity prevail and local control and reason be restored. It will be parents who insist that school not be a place of the continual measurement of deficits, instead standing as places that allow students to show what they know beyond a standardized test. Parents won’t “buy the bunk” and they will tire of data driven, rather than student driven, instruction. Then the “Hard Times for These Times” will end.