When New York State gave new Common Core-aligned standardized tests to students a few months ago, a number of parents decided to “opt out” because they don’t believe the test results mean anything. Here’s a related post, by Liz Rosenberg, co-founder of NYCpublic.org, an organization that is creating new opportunities for public school parents to learn, organize, and take action together. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner, Sue Schaffner and their two children.

By Liz Rosenberg

Earlier this month, New York state made headlines when it revealed how poorly schools and districts had fared on the state’s new Common Core-aligned standardized tests. Beginning August 26th, families of the roughly 400,000 New York City public school pupils who took the tests can log into ARIS (the system that stores student records) to see their children’s ELA and math scores. My partner and I, however, have decided that we will not be joining our fellow parents in this endeavor. Instead, we are sending our school a letter asking that they not share this year’s scores with our daughter nor send them home via backpack or snail mail.

Why? In order to trust the reliability of this year’s scores, we would need to believe that the tests are valid instruments that can accurately measure what our daughter knows and is able to do. But how can we — or educational experts, for that matter — assess the tests when we can’t even see them? When New York signed a contract allowing Pearson LLC, the producer of the tests, to keep the actual tests private, it enabled the for-profit testing behemoth to shield itself from scrutiny — and to dominate the lucrative test-prep market.

Since only small fragments of the tests are being made public, the only other state-condoned resource that we have to go by are the curricula the state has purchased and posted online (produced by Core Knowledge and Expeditionary Learning). Looking at a series of lessons that focus on frogs, we find a text called “Everything You Need to Know about Frogs and Other Slippery Creatures” (DK Publishing). Who wouldn’t want third graders to read a book by this title? But reading a book in class with your teacher is quite different than testing students on their ability to analyze a particular text.  “Everything You Need to Know about Frogs and Other Slippery Creatures” has a Lexile score of 1040 (Lexile is a well-regarded system for mapping the complexity of texts), which puts it in the sixth-to-eighth grade range of text complexity. The Lexile “analyzer” predicts that an average third-grade reader will comprehend 50% of this text. Assessing students using texts that are three to five years above their grade level does not help teachers or parents learn much of anything about what those students know and are able to do.

Many high-profile ed reform advocates, like U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have voiced their support of New York State Education Commissioner John King’s choice to set the bar for proficiency on the tests so high. “I think the only way you improve is to tell the truth, and sometimes that’s a brutal truth,” he commented.

Aside from “telling the brutal truth,” is there something else to be gained politically from King’s choice? Perhaps he (and by extension, his boss, Gov. Andrew Cuomo) want to use low proficiency rates to justify some of the reforms they have put in place. The more “trouble” our schools are in, the more we need the state or city to move to fix them. The fixes range from assessment driven “personalized learning environments” (part of the national Race to the Top applications for this year) or commercially produced curricula to closing district schools, opening more charters, and placing more schools on the turnaround list. They also include expanding standardized testing to even our youngest students — those in kindergarten through second grade.

As money and personnel are diverted to these “reforms,” the byproducts are larger class sizes; curricula that have no ties to schools, students, or communities; an exodus of talented teachers frustrated by their loss of autonomy; a stronger argument for charter schools, and a weakened union.

Given all of this, the state has not given us any reason to trust the scores our daughter (or anyone’s daughter or son) received this year. So my partner and I will have to rely on factors other than the state’s standardized test scores to evaluate our child’s learning and progress towards the standards. Our faith will lie with our school, our daughter’s teachers, and with our own ability to assess her learning in relationship to the standards.