You may have heard the good news that Great Neck, Long Island, scored among the highest school districts in the state, with 60-70% of students achieving "proficiency" on the high-stakes ELA and Math tests, newly configured for the Common Core standards which had yet to be fully implemented in the curriculum.
The bad news is that in a district accustomed to 80 to 90% "passing" rates, 30-40% of our students were deemed "nonproficient" - meaning that they are in jeopardy of failing to make the grade for college and career. This designation automatically triggers expensive academic remediation and forces the district to direct scarce resources away from everything from teams and extra-curriculars to keeping class size low.
For a community that demands educational excellence, these results are dismal, but consider the statewide results for the grades 3-8 exams:
- A mere 31.1% of grade 3-8 students across the State met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard (which is levels 3 & 4); 31% met or exceeded the math proficiency standard
- Only 16.1% of African-American students and 17.7% of Hispanic students met or exceeded the proficiency standard for the ELA revealing the persistence of the achievement gap
- A miniscule 3.2% of English Language Learners (ELLs) in grades 3-8 met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard; 9.8% of ELLs met or exceeded the math proficiency standard
- 5% of students with disabilities met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard; 7% of students with disabilities met or exceeded the math proficiency standard
The results were even worse for the Big 5 city school districts, Buffalo, Yonkers, Rochester, Syracuse and New York City, (see a summary of the test results, as well as individual school and district results, at: www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/pressRelease/20130807/home.html).
The overall performance has ignited the predictable condemnation of public education, enflamed assaults on public school teachers, and incited further reallocation of public monies to for-profit charter and private schools and that interesting alternative, online teaching factories.
But what was this test measuring, exactly?
The State Education Department claims that the ELA and math tests, based on the new Common Core standards, are measuring a student's readiness for college and career. But Great Neck provides the evidence that the test outcomes did not measure anything close to that. Indeed, how could it be that 98% of Great Neck students graduated and go on to college and virtually all of them complete college prior to this test? Shouldn't that mean that Great Neck would have a 98% passing rate.
Did the Great Neck students suddenly become stupid and our teachers instantly become inept?
Most people - especially those who have taken the test scores as evidence of failing public schools - do not realize that the test was based on the new Common Core Curriculum which has yet to be fully implemented - prompting one critic to suggest it was like teaching algebra then testing for knowledge of calculus. Most people do not realize that English Language Learners and Special Needs students are lumped into the mix despite their obvious disadvantage in being able to read, let alone absorb and reply to the "gotcha" questions; even competent readers had trouble completing the test in the 70 minute timeframe, so you could imagine the sheer torture for a child who has had less than two years to learn English or a dyslexic student.
And most people do not realize that the grade for "proficiency" was arbitrarily set high so that 31 percent of students, overall, would fail. In fact, even if 100 percent of students correctly answered 100 percent of the test, 100 percent of students would not have "passed." The test score is not a measure of what the student knows.
"Kids got the answers right, but they set passing rate so high - government believes that raising the bar is the way to get students to jump higher," commented Robert Schaeffer, public education director, of FairTest, a Boston-based organization that has opposed over-testing.
"It's insane - if there was a problem in gym with some kids not able to get over a 4-ft high bar, you don't expect them to get over 5 ft. bar. This is part of the misguided approach to education policy that has dominated this country for last 30 years."
Great Neck Schools Superintendent Thomas Dolan said it is a mystery how the four levels are set, but noted that "in November, 2012 the Commissioner [John King] predicted scores would drop by 30%, before a single test was seen or taken. And that is just about what happened. You can achieve such clairvoyance when you make the results match your prediction."
So what was the test really measuring? What are the impacts on our students and our school district? And what is the real objective of imposing the new test before the Common Core Curriculum standards were even implemented?
"I think it is very unfair to use students as pawns like this. Across New York State, hundreds of thousands of students will be greeted on day one with the message that they are not 'College and Career Ready'," Dr. Dolan commented. "These are students who left in June with the idea that they were succeeding and will be met in September that they got less smart over the summer because of this test. How can we expect students to return to school respecting an institution that every elected official treats with such disrespect and disdain?"
The statistics are thrown out there as if the children were widgets, but there are fragile individuals behind those numbers.
This is clear from the reaction from Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of New York State's Board of Regents as she dismissed the traumatic impact on children, altogether, from being subjected to such torturous exams for which they were not prepared (which also raises the issue that prior test results measured teachers' ability to "teach to the test".) She surely did not seem to care how some children may become test phobic or even school phobic, or how their parents may have reacted to their failure as evidence that their child was somehow slacking off.
"What we are doing here today is creating a new baseline," Tisch said. "While everyone will be eager to compare last year’s test scores results with the year before, I would urge us all to really embrace that fact that this is a new standard, a significant standard, that has been created to adapt and adapt to a higher learning achievement goal for students in New York State, New York City, Rochester, Buffalo, Yonkers, Elmira, and nationally, and that New York is and will continue to lead the way."
But on Tuesday, April 16, a 13-year old 7th grader at the Finley Middle School in Glen Cove, accustomed to getting 4s on her exams and under a lot of pressure from her parents to excel at school, went home from the first day of the three-day ELA test and "fell" out of a window to her death. Police are treating the case as a suicide.
How many of parents who demand high-achievement from their students are taking their "lack of proficiency" out on them, keeping them from playing with friends so they can devote more time to study?
How many parents will now shell out $100 or more an hour on tutors? How much of the stretched Great Neck public schools budget will have to be diverted to remediating students who scored 1s and 2s, and with the property tax cap (which will be round 1.6% this year, in line with CPI), that will almost certainly mean that Great Neck will have to go the way of many of the other schools in the state: cutting out music, art, theater, sports and clubs and ultimately, even abandon low-class size.
It gets worse: this year, two of this year's Regents will also be structured around the Common Core, and it is likely that the bar will again be set so that a significant percentage fails. Now this is really serious because students are required to pass 5 out of 7 Regents in order to graduate.
"Self-esteem is not to be underestimated," Roger Tilles, the Regent representing Long Island, who has been outspoken in his opposition to over-testing, told me. "I've gone through the process with my own kids - one who was learning disabled, and starting 5-6 years ago, the 3-8 testing, was a good indicator where we were going." Special Ed kids, he said, are required to be tested at their age level rather than at the grade level they are learning at, so if a child of fifth grade age was learning English at the 3rd grade level, that child would have to take 5th grade test, knowing they would fail.
The same is true for ESL kids who must be tested along with their cohorts if they are in the US for one year and a day. "It's common knowledge that it takes 2-3 years for a non-English speaking student to learn enough to pass the test, so they knew they would fail, but that's the federal guidelines." If the intent was to force districts to allocate resources to these particular groups, the testing regimen is designed to make even districts which have done just that, like Great Neck, fail.
"It's a terrible self-esteem issue. It takes a long time to get over because they fail a test. Parents were just as much appalled by it," Tilles said."These tests should have been diagnostic, not high-stakes....Now schools will have to give remediation to those who got 2s and 1s."
"Why the eagerness to inflict harsh punishment on students?" questioned Diane Ravitch, who served on the National Assessment Governing Board — which oversees federal testing — from 1997 to 2004, and has become a harsh critic of the accountability movement. "What about the kids who can’t swim — should they jump into the deep end, too? Why “rip the Band-Aid off” the children who can’t read English, the children who are struggling to read and the children with disabilities? They need support, encouragement and true education — not shock treatment.
"The New York test contained long reading passages and questions written on an eighth-grade level. Why expect fifth-grade students to answer questions that are above their ability? Teachers told me that many students didn’t have enough time to finish the test.
"The leaders of the state seem intent on discouraging students, teachers and principals. Why do they want public schools to look bad? That is a question for them to answer."
I think there is an answer.
"The political purpose of the testing regimen is to prove that public schools are failing. This will then lead to a greater push for vouchers and charter schools and will create an investment opportunity for entrepreneurs," GNPS Superintendent Dolan said. "The purpose of the testing is to attack education, attack teacher professionalism, do away with tenure and privatize education. This is not Chicken Little talking here. Diane Ravitch (and others) have connected the dots far better than I could do in this space.
"If, as the Commissioner claims, the purpose of raising the standards and these more difficult tests is to help schools THEN WHY ARE THEY RELEASED TO THE PRESS WITHIN HOURS OF THEIR DELIVERY TO US?
"If any other proof is needed of this plan, consider the way that public schools have seen their finances attacked as well, by way of cuts in State Aid and the Levy Cap (down to 1.66% next year!!!) In addition to proving what failures we are, they will also need to strangle us."
The tests cost our district hundreds of thousands of dollars to administer - preparing, testing, scoring - not counting mandated academic remediation that follows, and the thousands of hours of lost instruction that are spent on tests, practice tests and practice-practice tests.
"We will now be obligated to provide AIS (Academic Intervention Services) to hundreds of students who have not been scheduled for it. Again, our budget was settled last May, and we have had this obligation thrust upon us now," Dr. Dolan added.
Asked what question I should have asked, Dr Dolan volunteered, "Have I lost my mind in being so blunt?
"No…I just think that there are some hills worth dying on and Public Education might be the one right now. The Emperor (King) has no clothes and many of us need to be prepared to say so and accept the consequences. I am."
You hear calls for more charter schools which are curiously exempted from the "bureaucracy" and mandates that tangle "public" schools, but you also hear calls for extending the school day and the school year. How do you afford that with 2% cap? Well, you shift gears to more online courses from companies like K12, the nation's largest online curriculum company, which interestingly enough was founded by the former Education Secretary William Bennett and is now headed by Andrew Tisch, Merryl's brother-in-law (see "Florida Investigates K12, Nation’s Largest Online Educator," September 11, 2012).
Ultimately you won't have teachers in the classroom at all: you will have a "master teacher" conducting on-line education and teacher aides responsible for maintaining discipline in the classroom.
Consider that since the 2008 financial collapse, 35,000 K-12 public education positions have been eliminated in New York State. On the other hand, e-learning is now a $5.4 billion industry.
"There are people who would like a teacher-proof curriculum, and that would involve automated delivery, with video tape, computers and script so that the teacher in front of the students has little discretion," said Schaeffer of FairTest. "It is interesting that where they send their kids is small classes, high teacher-student ratio, hands-on context." And no standardized tests.
Indeed, if standardized tests are such a good idea for students, why is it that private schools, charging $25,000 and more for annual tuition, are exempted from state tests including the Regents and the Common Core?
Now consider that the tests are also used to evaluate teachers with complex algorithms based on the test results this year and compared to prior years. And just as 31% was set as the percentage of students to be deemed "nonproficient," the algorithms are constructed so that 5-7% of teachers will be deemed "ineffective" and put on a "watch list" for possible removal after one year. Even in Long Island. Even in Great Neck.
Understandably, what happens is that the tests put so much pressure on the teacher that they spend inordinate amount of time teaching for the test, and less for a better education.
"Many schools around the state, especially high needs area, have doubled up on English and math because that's on the test, and eliminated music, art, social studies, after-school activities because they have nothing to do with how the students score on English and math which are what the teacher's grade and school's grade and evaluation are based," Tilles said.
"But that has a bad effect on what good educators think are things that actually help students achieve, become good citizens, and actually do better on math and English - music and art for example. Indeed, schools that have music and art like Great Neck actually do better, as the results on even this latest round of tests shows."
When education professionals and even school board members speak out in defense of their students, though, they are smacked down as protecting their turf.
Nonetheless, teachers and parents are beginning to stand up and speak out. And it is less about the Common Core than it is about high-stakes testing.
"I know of no teacher who objects to raising the standards for all students. But raising standards is not to be confused with measuring whether students have reached those standards," Michael Greenberg, head of Great Neck North Middle School English Department wrote in a letter to the editor published by the New York Times, Aug 8.
"Any teacher who constructs a test that only 26 percent of the students can pass should admit that the test was unrealistically challenging. When I saw the test in April — a test that many students could not finish, a test that left many in tears — I knew that the test was too hard.
"These test results are not surprising; the state Education Department had predicted a precipitous drop. They are, however, disheartening. The state has swatted a fly with a hammer," Greenberg wrote.
"I think the Common Core is a good program," Tilles commented. "I think the testing coming at the same time is a terrible program and a great way to disparage the Common Core, and I'm afraid the Common Core will be lumped in with poor testing and poor evaluation process, and therefore people will dump the Common Core." (There is already a group called STOP Common Core in New York State).
"Every teacher and administrator that I have talked to feel the common core is a very good aspirational goal and it will take a few years to put in place."
Great Neck public schools "will continue to incorporate Common Core Standards and I anticipate that when students are given a chance to be tested on what they have learned (rather than what they will be learning), they will do just fine," Dr. Dolan said. The new curriculum " has introduced higher level material taught in some different ways. It asks students to understand fewer topics, but at a deeper level. It has changed the order in which things are taught.
"Our principals and teachers have worked very, very hard to raise the bar for all students and I am proud of their efforts and the results."
Carol Burris, an award-winning principal of South Side High School in New York, is more critical. "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," she wrote in the Washington Post.
"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."
Carol Burris concludes, "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."
Senator John Flanagan (Long Island), who chairs the Education Committee, will be holding hearings to review the impact and effectiveness of recent state education reforms, and focus on several major issues including state assessments, the implementation of common core state standards, and the protection of student privacy (Sept. 17, Long Island, Suffolk Community College; Oct. 1, Syracuse City Hall; Oct. 16, Buffalo City Hall; Oct. 29, NYC Senate Hearing Room)
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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