Tanis is an elementary special education teacher and public school parent in New York’s Hudson Valley. She is a co-founding parent of the state-wide organization, New York State Allies for Public Education, which is allied with over 50 parent and education organizations across New York State. She is also a steering member of Re-Thinking Testing and a frequent speaker at education forums across the state. Bianca is the parent of a child with a disability, and has been an outspoken critic of the Common Core State Standards, high stakes testing, and their negative consequences for students with disabilities. She is a frequent guest blogger on several educational blog sites and can be read here , here and here.
By Carol Burris and Bianca Tanis
Why would policymakers create tests that are designed to mark as failures two out of every three children? For the second year in a row, that is the question that New York parents are asking. The 2014 New York State Common Core test scores were recently released, and there was minimal improvement in student performance. Proficiency or “passing” rates went up 0.1 in English Language Arts (ELA) and 4.6 percentage points in math, despite the rollout of the $28 million, taxpayer funded curriculum modules, and greater familiarity with the tests. Proficiency rates continued to be horrendous for students who are English Language Learners—only 11 percent “passed” math, and 3 percent “passed” the English Language Arts tests. Results were equally dismal for special education students, whose “passing” rates were 9 percent in math and 5 percent in ELA.
Whether there are modest increases or decreases in scores, however, is inconsequential. Whether or not these tests are appropriate and fair evaluations of student learning is far more important. High-stakes tests, despite denials, always have and always will drive instruction. That is why bad tests based on inappropriate standards matter.
So how do the New York Common Core tests stack up? While the release of the scores caught the attention of the press, the release of two other important reports about the tests received little attention. The first is the release of the technical report evaluating last year’s Common Core tests, and the second is the release of 50 percent of this year’s test questions.
Let’s begin by looking at the technical report of the 2013 Common Core tests.
Here are some important takeaways:
- The test items were far too difficult for many students, thus providing teachers and parents with no real information on what they learned. For many students, the tests were little more than exercises in frustration. For example, on the third-grade ELA test, students with disabilities, as a group, could only answer about 31 percent of the questions correctly. For the bottom 25 percent of test takers with disabilities, the scores were the same as you might expect from chance.
On the eighth-grade math test, results were similar. The average student with a disability was awarded only 29 percent of the possible points. Students with disabilities at the 25th percentile got only 16 of the possible 72 points. Similar results were obtained by the state’s English Language learners, and results were not much better for students in high-needs school.
We are not able to disaggregate the results for children who live in poverty. In the state of “no excuses,” their results are not provided in the report. We do know however, that in the Big Four cities ( Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and Yonkers), which are home to so many of the state’s poorest students, results were nearly identical to those of special education students across the state.
- The achievement gaps between the percentages of subgroups of students scoring at the bottom grew. Here are a few examples. Between the 2012 New York State test based on the former standards, and the 2013 Common Core test, the gap between white and black students scoring at Level 1 — which indicates “limited knowledge and skills” that are “insufficient” in meeting standards — ballooned. It increased by 266 percent in fourth-grade math, and 271 percent in eighth-grade English Language Arts. Gaps between white and Latino students in eighth grade ELA on the same measure increased by 190 percent. The gaps between students in well-resourced, low-needs schools and underfunded, high needs schools grew as well. Comparing performance on the 2012 ELA test with the Common Core ELA test, the gap in the percentage of students scoring at level 1 increased by 105 percent for third-graders. These are not “cherry-picked” examples. These patterns occurred across all grade levels.
The release of 50 percent of the questions provides further insight into why the tests produce such poor results.
Let’s start with the third-grade passage, Science Friction. It includes phrases based on unfamiliar puns such as “Spore score and seven weeks ago…” and required knowledge of terms such as acidic, decomposition, and inhibition. It comes as no surprise that when it was published, this text was considered appropriate for Grades 4-7 by one reviewer, and for Grades 5-7 by another. Fourth graders were tested on a passage from Lawn Boy, by Gary Paulsen, a text generally read in Grade 6.
In addition to passage difficulty, the questions themselves required skills out of the reach for many young children. Consider this fourth-grade question on the test based on a passage from Pecos Bill Captures the Pacing White Mustang by Leigh Peck.
Why is Pecos Bill’s conversation with the cowboys important to the story?A) It predicts the action in paragraph 4B) It predicts the action in paragraph 5C) It predicts the choice in paragraph 10D) It predicts the choice in paragraph 11
Visualize the steps required to answer this question. First, 9-year-olds must flip back to the conversation and re-read it. Next, they must go back to the question and then flip back to paragraph 4. Complete this step 3 more times, each time remembering the original question. In addition to remembering the content of each paragraph, they must also be mindful that choices A and B refer to the action in the related paragraph, while choices C and D refer to a choice. Similar questions were on the third-grade test. Questions such as these are better suited to assess one’s ability to put together a chair from Ikea than they are to assess student’s understanding of what they read.
One interesting side note–test creator, the Pearson Corporation, included a similar story about Pecos Bill in its fourth-grade ReadyGen anthology of stories billed as a “comprehensive core literacy curriculum built specifically for the Common Core learning standards in partnership with the NYC Department of Education and Pearson.” Does that constitute a bit of an edge for schools who buy Pearson products perhaps?
Students taking the New York State Common Core-aligned math assessments fared somewhat bette — but not by much. Here is an example from the fourth-grade math test:
A grocery store had cans of soup on 7 different shelves. The bottom 4 shelves each had 29 cans. The top 3 shelves each had 42 cans. What was the total number of cans on the shelves? After 56 cans of soup were sold, a clerk moved the remaining cans to a display case. The display case had shelves that could each hold 9 cans. How many shelves were needed to fit all the remaining cans?
Math questions that require strong skills in reading pose significant challenges for ELL students, special education students and weaker readers. Which skill are we assessing—math or reading? In addition, the question asks students to organize multiple pieces of information and to execute a five-step procedure, an extraordinary challenge for many students with learning disabilities, especially when they are only nine years old.
Finally, along with the release of the scores, the New York State Education Department provided the first official tallies of students who “opted out” from taking the exams. Between 55,000 and 65,000 students were opted out of the 2014 New York Common Core tests by their parents. That number should come as no surprise to readers of this blog, who read about New York Opt Out here.
A recent poll shows that a majority of New Yorkers now opposes the Common Core. Three of the four New York candidates for governor have publicly stated that they would suspend it. Only Andrew Cuomo, the current governor who is seeking re-election, supports it.