By Michael Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers and ST Caucus Hudson Valley Coordinator
Let’s talk about the Common Core and high-stakes testing as an experiment.
Why? There are two reasons.
First, when experimenting on people, it is important to acknowledge it’s an experiment because it has the ability to do harm. This is a significant point because Governor Cuomo and the State Education Department refuse to acknowledge the damage being done to children.
Second, as an experiment, it is as likely to fail as it is to succeed. The proponents of Common Core and high-stakes tests like to immerse themselves in a lot of data and pretentious language. Testing proponents and the State Education Department use data and complex language to hide simple realities that when exposed are indefensible. They cannot defend a great deal of their reform agenda and it seems smarter when packaged in this way. As comedian John Oliver points out, “If you want to do something evil, embed it in something boring”. It keeps opposition to a minimum.
But ultimately this is an experiment, as likely to raise a generation of students that have their psyches irreparably damaged which results in students subsequently dropping out or walking away from the pursuit of higher ed, as it is to promote a new generation of enlightened problem solvers. The fact is, we do not know. No cohort of students has ever received Common Core instruction K-12, let alone Common Core instruction paired with high-stakes testing. Is it responsible to experiment with all of the students in the state? I do not think so, but experimenting we are.
If the State Education Department saw this as an experiment, we would have an Independent Review Board (IRB) that would be tasked with monitoring the progress and protecting the subjects (our children) from unintended negative consequences. In fact, nobody in SED is monitoring the state’s children to see if damage is being done, despite all of the accounts directly presented to the Chancellor and Commissioner during hearings across the state last year.
Anecdotally, we appear to be creating and witnessing a real crisis in childhood. There are consistent reports of increases in fragile student populations, anxiety and school phobias in younger grades, the need for medication to get through the school day and on and on. The lack of oversight might have been understandable if the proponents of Common Core did not hear directly from parents last year, but they did, and the parents were mocked in response. They were told by Arne Duncan that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought it was.” This is a common reaction from proponents of education reform and it is both dismissive and dangerous. Imagine if other professionals we entrust to protect our children acted in this manner. Could you imagine a doctor telling the parent of a sick child, for example, “deal with it; your child just isn’t as healthy as everyone else”? For some reason, we seem to accept harm-inducing attitudes from education reform proponents more than doctors.
The reality is, however, unlike in the 1980’s when Ronald Reagan called us a “nation at risk” by not monitoring our students, we are creating some very large cracks for kids to fall into and damage is being done to children who cannot speak up for themselves.
In order to understand how this came to be, it is important to understand some of the math behind the assessments. I will try to do this in clear, non-pretentious language, unlike the State Education Department.
They are trying to keep you from understanding what is going on and I need you to understand.
I need you to understand two numbers from the College Board and the SAT. One is a score of 1630 and the other is 66th percentile.
In 2013, the State Education Department contracted with the College Board to establish what “college and career ready” would mean in New York State. They reduced all of the complexities of why students succeed or fail in college to a single SAT score. I know that is ridiculous and that is why colleges put little emphasis on SAT scores because they are poorly correlated with college success, but that is what SED did.
The College Board came back with a score of 1630 on the SAT, which is in the 66th percentile, meaning that in order for students in New York to be considered college and career ready, they need to do better than 66 percent of all college-bound students across the country. “College-bound” is significant because only students who have identified themselves as college bound take the SAT.
The first problem with setting our state benchmarks to the SAT is that we’re dealing with two different populations. In New York State, all students take the Common Core assessments, but a much more selective group (college bound students) take the SAT. This skews the data to make the performance of our students look worse.
There are obvious issues with this methodology for individual students but there are also larger issues. The score of 1630 on the SAT is most likely going to come from a student with a family income between $160,000-$200,000. You see, the College Board, which creates the SAT, recognizes how well scores correlate with family income. So the success students with an SAT score of 1630 have in college may be due to the benefits of affluence, and not the score itself. A recent study of 123,000 students at 33 widely differing colleges that have SAT optional admissions policies found the difference between submitters and non-submitters to be five one-hundredths of a GPA point and six-tenths of a percent in graduation rates. In short, the study found no difference at all.
What is important to understand also is which students do not submit SAT scores. These are primarily students of color, women, first in family to attend, and students with learning needs. These are the students not getting a score of 1630 but who are just as successful as those identified by standardized tests. The larger risk here is the inherent classism in tying our K-12 student success to metrics based on the SAT. As Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier points out:
The score on your SAT or other exams is a better predictor of your parents’ income and the car they drive than of your performance in college. The credentials of our testocracy legitimize a new elite, and give them an inflated sense of their worth. They believe that they are entitled to power because they got it through their individual merit. Our testocratic meritocracy has let those already at the top of the heap rule, and keep their power, without any sense of moral or political accountability.
There is real power in the education reformers’ strategy of tying school success to a 1630 on the SAT, which again is earned by only 34% of college bound students nationally.
Let me demonstrate to you how powerful the State Education Department’s strategy of hiding behind data and pretentious language is. Let’s look at a very public statement made by Cuomo to attack our schools. In the governor’s State of the State address, he said, “Only 38% of New York’s students are graduating college and career ready.” This sounds horrific and it would justifiably raise alarm, if it were true, but when you apply the 1630 and 66th percentile to this, you have the scientifically accurate statement. Thirty-eight percent of New York’s students are on target to get a 1630 on the SAT, which is better than thirty-four percent of just college bound students, significantly better than students across the country. This hardly works in the Cuomo’s favor which is why SED buries the information in complexity and pretentious language.
Now let’s move towards how this has negative consequences for children. The first thing to understand is what separates a high two from a low three on the state’s third through eighth-grade assessments. It is a benchmark tied to a 1630 on the SAT, a score, again, only 34% of college bound students nationally attain. So a student with a 3 on the third grade assessment is on target to get a 1630 and a student with a high 2 is not.
Arne Duncan said, “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not.”
All kids are different and develop at unique rates. In our elementary classrooms, there are a wide range of ages and abilities based on when individual children mature. To think that these tests are good enough to predict an outcome a decade down the road is laughable, or would be laughable, if actual second graders were not currently attached to this reality.
I teach high school physics and I know how damaging to a child a low SAT score can be. It can take months to get that child to believe in herself again, but it happens, and she goes on to college and becomes successful. Now we have a new reality with a new problem. Nobody that promotes this regime of high-stakes testing can answer the following question for me: knowing how fragile the human psyche is, what am I supposed to do in the future with students to get them to believe in themselves after the entire bureaucracy of the State Education Department has come down on them and labelled them not “college and career ready” in third grade, then again in fourth, and in fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh? Will they understand that what we really meant to say was they were not on target to getting a 1630, and that thousands upon thousands of kids go to college and are successful every year with less than a 1630? Will they have long ago written off prospects of college and career as ever being attainable? Are we raising a generation of kids that will be numb to success and failure because of the inappropriate standards we forced them to chase?
Furthermore, the new teacher evaluation law just passed adds another level to the stress that students will feel, since it makes these tests the lone student performance indicator on a teacher’s evaluation. It is inappropriate to make students feel that their ability or inability to master new information is tied to the evaluation and livelihood of adults that they care deeply for–their teachers. Learning is hard and when classes are taught well, students will make mistakes. Mistakes in a consequence-free environment are learning opportunities. Mistakes in a high-stakes environment are corrosive.
In my physics class, I regularly point out that pressure builds diamonds, but it will also bring down bridges. The environment that students learn in matters.
Unlike traditional curriculum which starts in kindergarten and builds each successive grade on a developing and broadening base of knowledge and skills, the Common Core starts with getting a 1630 on the SAT and moves down through the grade levels. There is a reason why first grade is the new third grade. If you need all of your students to perform in the top 34% of students nationally, you have to get cracking early, even if the child is not developmentally ready. Kevin Glynn, from Lace to the Top, had a recent analysis dealing with released items from the third grade ELA test. He did not analyze the passages but the questions themselves, and found that many items written for third graders were written on the 7th, 8th and even 9th grade reading levels. This is what you must do when trying to differentiate between the top 34% and top 35%.
When this is how students are tested, this is how they are taught.
The SAT only tests reading, writing and math. If you want to get all students to do better than the top 34% nationally in these subjects, that is what you will teach, and you will do it relentlessly. This is why we are seeing less of everything else. Less recess, music, art, science, social studies; less creativity and less sanity. This is an inescapable treadmill for our schools, teachers and, unfortunately, students.
Nobody knows what the long-term effects will be because this is an experiment. It has never been done and nobody is monitoring it for unintended negative consequences. We may find out too late that 1630’s are great goals but horrible systemic benchmarks. We may marginally move test scores up, but at what cost? If you never look for the damage, you will never find it, until it is too pervasive to ignore.
Let us remember these are children: ambitious, imperfect, fragile and deserving of our protection.
The Lakeland Federation of Teachers is a union representing the teachers, nurses, and therapists in Westchester County’s largest suburban school district