Sunday, August 24, 2014

What big drop in new standardized test scores really means


           New standardized test scores are  out today in New York, and here’s a post that tells you what to make of the results. This was written by award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York, who has for more than a year chronicled on the test-driven reform in her state (here, and here and here and here, for example). Burris was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by more than 1,535 New York principals and more than 6,500 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 

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.

 Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog for the Washington Post.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Hear about why parents are refusing the tests in this incredible video from Change the Stakes:

How Do I Refuse the NYS Tests?

Refusing the tests is as simple as writing a letter to your principal and superintendent. You should also cc your refusal letter to your child's teachers. Your child's test will be scored as a "999" which is essentially a non-score. Again, your child will NOT receive a score. If your child is refusing the tests, instruct him or her to refrain from making any marks on the exam.

Below you can find a sample letter:

Dear School Administrator,

I am writing to inform you that my child, _______________, will be refusing the 2014 NYS ELA and Math Tests. My understanding is that this letter will be sufficient for my child to refuse and that he will not be required to verbally refuse these tests. I request that my child be allowed to read or engage in an alternate activity during the testing period. Please confirm receipt of this letter.


Frequently Asked Questions About Refusing the NYS Tests

Commonly Asked Questions

If my child is likely to do well on the NYS test and he or she refuses to take the test, will their teacher’s APPR score be negatively impacted?

Refusing the tests would not affect a teacher’s APPR Score as long as enough there are enough students tested to obtain a valid score. Interestingly, high achieving students could actually hurt a teacher’s growth score because in many cases they are consistently high achieving and therefore do not show growth beyond what is expected. If enough students refuse the test, there will not be sufficient data to generate a score based on the state tests. Considering that only 30% of students scored proficiently on last year’s exams, that would not necessarily be a bad thing. In this case, the teacher would design their own local assessment in order to gauge student growth and progress.

Will my child lose access to accelerated programs, Academic Intervention Services (AIS) or Special Education Supports if they refuse the test?

In a nutshell, no. State test scores are not sole factor for determining if a student qualifies for AIS. In the absence of state test scores, a district will simply rely more on other measures such a local assessments, reading benchmarks and progress monitoring. State test scores are in no way considered when determining the supports that a special education student will receive. Further more, districts like NPCSD rely on multiple measures when determining access to accelerated programs.

Will our school lose funding if less than 95% of students take the tests?

It is true that NCLB dictates that all districts/schools must have at least 95% participation on state tests in order to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  According to NCLB, any district/school that does not reach the 95% participation is considered a district/school that “failed to make AYP”.  They must bear this label. 

As part of the ESEA Flexibility Waiver that NYS received from President Obama, no new districts/schools will be identified as “Focus Districts/Schools” until after the end of the 2014-2015 school year.  What this means is that if a district was in good standing in 2011-2012 (and NPCSD was), they would have to fail to meet AYP for the 2012-2013, 2013-2014, and 2014-15 school years in order to have their designation changed to a “Focus” or “Priority” School.

What would happen if down the road, a school district, like NPCSD, became a “Focus” school?

For schools that do not receive Title I money, there are zero financial consequences at this point. However, if a district receives Title 1 money, there is a minor consequence. Many of our local districts do receive Title I money. For example, for the 2013-2014, New Paltz CSD will receive $181,311.

 If a district that is currently “In Good Standing,” like NPCSD, were deemed a “Focus” school for the 2015-2016 school year, the school district would be required to set-aside 5-15% of Title money that they have received into a separate “set-aside account.”  The money is NOT taken away from them

What happens to the Title I money that is set-aside? 

This money stays in the district, and the state requires that it be used for state-approved programs and services which might include tutoring for students, parental involvement, etc.  THIS MONEY IS NOT LOST.  And any of this money that is not spent on the state-approved programs and services is returned to the district’s general fund.

If the only reason that a district/school was given “Focus” status in 2015-2016 was because more than 5% of the district/school’s parents decided not to allow their children to participate in harmful tests, then the lawyers of the school district would certainly take notice.  It seems unlikely that a court would allow funding to be impacted in any way due to the actions of informed parents, especially since the district/school has no control over this. 

What about the schools with large numbers of student refusals last year?

To date there has been NO indication of any district/school anywhere in the state being impacted financially for failure to meet the 95% participation rate. Ichabod Crane Middle School near Albany and Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook had over 20% of its students refuse the tests.

BOTTOM LINE:  A school district does NOT lose funding if there is less than 95% participation on state tests.

But what if?

Let’s say that a district/school happens to be Title I.  Let’s assume that they fail the 95% participation rate.  Let’s assume that the ESEA Waiver is imaginary (like Peter Pan). Let’s assume that the district/school is not listed as “Focus” for any other reason other than the 95% participation rate.  Let’s assume that the NYSED forces the district to set aside 15% of their Title I money solely because responsible well-informed parents refuse tests (even though NYSED has never done this to date).  Let’s assume the school district does not stand-up for the children and does not file a lawsuit.  Let’s assume that a court does not intervene to prevent funding loss to school children.  Let’s assume that all of the set-aside money happens to be spent on state approved programs (that are somehow supposed to magically fix the participation rate caused by responsible well-informed parents standing up for their children).  Let’s assume that none of the set-aside money goes back into the general fund.  We know that NPCSD receives $ 181,311 in Title I funding and has to set-aside (15% which amounts to approx. $19,500) and is forced to spend all of it on state approved programs (that won’t fix the participation rate).  Let’s assume that this district has 4,500 taxpaying households. 

Let’s assume that ALL of that above happens (which seem ridiculous).  Then each taxpaying household would have to come up with an extra $4.50 per year to replace the money spent on senseless programs.  Wow!  $4.50 per year???  Still worried about funding???

Why should I consider having my child refuse the NYS state tests?

There is NO evidence to support the premise that tying teacher and school evaluations to test scores will result in increased academic achievement.

No child should ever be compelled to participate in a demoralizing and developmentally inappropriate learning experience against the wishes of parents or caregivers. Parents must give permission for students to participate in sports and sex education, but State Education does not believe that parents should have a say in their child’s test participation.

These tests do NOT benefit the individual child in any way. Scores are not given until the following school year and even then provide next to NO information regarding the student’s individual performance. The tests yield NO data can be used to help the individual student.

Excessive testing takes away approximately 25% of our children's academic school year. The amount of time that a 3rd grader will spend on NYS tests exceeds the time spent taking Medical Boards and the Bar Exam, voluntary examinations undertaken by adults.

Excessive testing forces teachers to "teach to the test.” Schools may say that they do not “teach to the test” but despite the best intentions, this is not true. When 20-40% percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on state test scores, this creates a siutation whereby a teacher must choose between delivering instruction that they know to be sound and delivering instruction that will focus on test taking strategies and what is “on the test” in order to safeguard their employment.

Attaching teacher evaluations to state scores destroys teacher autonomy. - Teachers can no longer choose the pace of instruction that they feel is most appropriate for their students.They must adhere to the strict and relentless pace set by the tests.

Excessive focus on test scores narrows the curriculum. The arts and music are short changed as there is no state measure in these areas.

Excessive testing teaches children that there is only one right answer in academics and in life.Students are encouraged to learn formulaic methods of reading and writing in order to score maximum credit on the tests.Outside of the box thinking is not encouraged.

Excessive testing costs millions of dollars of taxpayer money to produce and thousands of dollars of our school district's money to implement.School districts will incure expenses in the tens of millions of dollars to implement the unfunded mandates set forth by Race to the Top.

Refusing the test is the ONLY POWER that parents have to take back public education from corporate interests. Refusing the tests is the ONLY POWER that parents have to ensure the quality of their child’s education. Despite listening to the concerns and outrage of thousands of parents and educators for months, Commissioner of Education John King and the NYS Board of Regents insist that they will continue to carry out their reform agenda without delay.

What’s wrong with the Common Core and Education Reform in NYS? In a nutshell…

The Accountability Mandates in Race to the Top:
·      Discourage emphasis on “un-tested” subjects like art and music, which are often areas of significant strength for students for students who struggle in other academic areas.
Eliminate teacher autonomy over pacing in the classroom. The pace is dictated by “the test,” not the students. This hurts both struggling learners and “gifted” students.
Require schools to share sensitive, personally identifiable student information that can be shared with 3rd party vendors without parental consent. For students with disabilities, this often includes information that in a medical setting would be protected under HIPAA law. However, their educational records (including IEPs) are afforded no such protection.
Discourage teacher responsiveness to student interests –if content is not on the test, there is NO time to pursue student directed avenues of inquiry.
   Ignore research indicating that standardization is decreasing student creativity, a quality that is needed in the fields of engineering, medicine, music and art. (Kim 2011) Read more about that here.
NYS proficiency levels are based on cut scores and levels of proficiency that are not based in research or evidence, but rather on an illogical and faulty premise. Read more about that here,

The Common Core Learning Standards:
·      Pre-Supposes that students will demonstrate greater academic gain by arbitrarily making standards more difficult to achieve. There is NO evidence to support this.
I  Ignores the basic pedagogical tenant that student engagement is the largest influence on student learning. By teaching to developmentally inappropriate standards, we risk losing student engagement and actually risk a decline in student achievement.
Are based on flawed research. One of the premises of the Common Core Standards is that text complexity has declined since the early 20th century and that we have “dumbed down” the curriculum. Researchers from Penn State published a report in October of 2013 that indicates text complexity has in fact increased. (Gamson, Lu, and Eckert, 2013) That study can be found here: pe=ref&s        iteid=s peer

·      Due the erroneous assumption that text complexity has decreased, the Common Core arbitrarily increased grade level reading benchmarks by 2 to 3 years. In doing so, the achievement gap widened overnight and many students have been turned off to reading. Read more about this here,

·      Encourage instructional methods that are not aligned with evidenced based best practice. The Common Core promotes a reading strategy called “Close Reading.” Close Reading encourages students to rely ONLY on the information on the next rather than accessing their own background knowledge and personal experiences.

·      Compel the use of mental math strategies and multiple methods to solve a single problem. Research shows that direct and explicit instruction in one strategy is the most effective way to learn a new concept. The Common Core encourages a type of learning that will result in a student who is “a jack of all trades, master of none.”

·      Were created without the input of elementary school teachers, pre-school teachers and child development experts. You can read about the CCLS work groups here,

·      Carry a liability waiver which you can read here,

·      Do nothing to address the real problems facing students – poverty, insufficient funding of public schools, lack of appropriate support and access to assistive technology.

The rushed implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards:

·      Ignored the fact that students are sensitive to change and improper scaffolding.
·      Resulted in students receiving instruction without being taught the necessary pre-requisite skills.
·      Widened the achievement gap by raising standards “overnight.” Students who were struggling prior to implementation suddenly found themselves significantly further behind.
·      Resulted in 25 million dollars being spent on curriculum materials rife with errors and inappropriate content, many of which have not yet been released even though students are already being tested on the standards.
·      Could have been predicted and prevented. Public feedback in 2010 revealed significant concern regarding a possible rushed implementation. You can read about that here,

The Common Core Raises the Questions:
·      Will the teaching of developmentally inappropriate learning standards result in more students being erroneously identified as learning disabled?

·      Will the lack of teacher autonomy and the inappropriate use of test scores to evaluate teachers cause more experienced teachers to shy away from teaching students with the highest level of need?

·      Why would New York State adopt copyrighted, unproven learning standards that they have no control over and no ability to revise?

·      What are the long term effects of using learning standards that have no basis in
evidence or scholarly research?

·      What was wrong with the previous standards held in NYS? You can read the 2005 NYS Math standards here,

·      Why did many members of the Common Core Validation Committee refuse to sign off on them?

·      Why did the Board Of Regents and The NYS Education Department award millions of dollars to curriculum companies and subcontractors outside of New York rather than keeping these dollars in the NYS economy?

Bomer, R., Maloch, B.  (2011).  Relating Policy to Research and Practice: The Common Core Standards.  Language Arts, 89, 38-43

Burris, C. (2013, August 12. How come officials could predict new test score results? The Washington Post. Retrieved from                  test-scores/.

Ferguson, D., (2013/2014).  Martin Luther King Jr. and the Common Core, A critical reading of “close reading”. ReThinking Schools, Volume 28, No.2.  Retrieved from         

Gamson, D.A., Lu. X., & Eckert, S.A. (2013).  Challenging the Research Base of the Common Core State Standards: A Historical    Reanalysis of Text Complexity. EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER, 42, 381

New York State Education Department.  Mathematics Core Curriculum, Revised 2005.  (2005). Retrieved from

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.  (2010).   Common Core State       Standards Public License.  Retrieved from

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.  (2010).   Reactions to the March                   2010 Draft Common Core State Standards: Highlights and Themes from the Public Feedback.  Retrieved from     

Kyung H.K. (2011). The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.      Creativity Research Journal, 23:4, 285-295. Retrieved from