Why the Opposition to Testing and the Common Core?

I spent the last 20 years of my career dealing with data as a means to improve instruction, and I coached lots of people about how to make sense of data, standardized and local, as a useful component of daily instruction.  As teachers or administrators, we can’t know what our students have mastered without good tests, whether they are formative tests that are not graded, unit tests, interim benchmark tests, or standardized accountability tests.  In my own state of New York, there is a rising movement among some parents, some of whom are teachers, to opt-out of state NCLB tests.  Opposition to ‘national’ testing and the Common Core is growing in other states, supported by various groups who are concerned about increasing federal influence on local educational policies, costs, the misuse of tests for purposes other that what they were designed to do.

The two national testing consortia are talking about designing the tests to improve their utility as vehicles for instructional improvement, but whether these goals will be a part of the basic package of new tests or available at additional cost to local districts remains a bit fuzzy.  States are beginning to question the cost benefit analytics of the programs–both consortia are designing online testing while many school districts, including the low income districts that have always been the targets of the accountability movement, are going to struggle with paying for the Internet infrastructure and hardware required to support online testing.

So in broad terms, the growing opposition to the Common Core and the national testing programs represent multiple issues of concern to a growing variety of stakeholders, and they overlap significantly, making this a very complex situation.  Let’s review some of them here.

1.  Use of data for instructional improvement.  In New York, where at one time all state sponsored tests were released publicly after testing was complete, we could use the results for instructional improvement planning.  We had specific information about how the questions aligned to standards, we could see the question, and we had a p-value which told us how difficult the item was state-wide.  This was very useful for teachers, but that’s gone now that NCLB tests are secure.  Without seeing the questions, the rest of the information (how I did compared to anyone/everyone else) provides very poor instructional information.  I can still see whether I did well or poorly on a particular performance indicator, but I don’t have decent details about exactly what my kids have missed and I have to guess about why.  If I am in a district that has purchased commercial assessments that give me access to the questions, I have this capability during the school year, but many publishers tests are also secure and I have to rely on a generic description of academic trends that isn’t particularly useful.  I get far more information on what a student’s weaknesses are when I can review the test question and analyze the wrong answer responses as I want to plan interventions.

2.  Purpose of the tests.  Critics of NCLB testing write about this regularly.  The tests were not designed for either instructional improvement or teacher evaluation.  They have been co-opted by politicians and businessmen as a means to promote agendas other than school improvement.  Psychometricians who are not involved in developing or marketing these tests have written extensively about their concerns when they are used for high stakes teacher evaluation, or for determining student placement.  We don’t do the latter in NY, as far as I know, though there have been some examples of placement consequences for kids–it’s a local issue.  But in other states, testing occasionally has greater impact–promotion or retention, acceptance in accelerated programs or placement in remediation–based on results.  Often the uses of results doesn’t match the psychometric properties of the tests, which is problematic.  And in New York, where the state says it’s own tests count only for 20 of 100 points in a teacher evaluation, the rubric for the 100 points actually creates situations in which the 20 points on the state test can actually override the other 80 points.  This means everything about New York’s intricate evaluation systems can be blown away by a weak performance on the state 20% measure, meaning this 20% can, for some teachers, amount to the only measure of teacher quality that counts.

3.  Lack of transparency.  I hope this issue will go away with time.  It’s rather difficult to get information about the actual behavior of state tests–how did the results break out by student sub group?  By district demographics?  By years of teacher experience?  By class size?  By SES factors?  How did low income kids do in a district where they are 6% of the population compared to a big city, where they are a majority?

Moreover, everyone involved in rolling out new teacher assessments and new academic goals of the Common Core has been overworked and hard pressed to clarify what is coming.  As we heard repeatedly from the highest levels of New York State Education officials early on, these changes are like an airplane which is being constructed during flight.  Sadly, this is about the closest thing to  transparency I can think of early in the process–there wasn’t much more to be said.  They didn’t know how to get from where they started to the intended goal.

The proper answer to such comments from school boards and the public was often something like this:  “Where is the FAA?  Who approved the takeoff of this untested aircraft in the first place?  There’s too much being done here with no piloting, no research, no shakedown flights. But this concern was shoved under the rug.  New York adopted these changes to get $700 million of federal funds over 4 years, which was less than a half a percent of the per pupil spending on public education in the state.

And this is not just a New York issue, it’s national.  We don’t usually do this kind of take-off in other arenas, but it happens too often in education.  Let’s try the next new idea that some expert says is the solution to our problems, while we ignore the fact that it’s an untested and unproven program or methodology.  Did we know the Common Core was a singular organizational initiative from an educational think tank hired by the Council of Chief State School Officers which has, in effect unilaterally influenced the direction of public education?  Would truly empowered state education officials around the nation have adopted something this massive and unproven if they were not required to do so by other political forces, or if substantial federal funding during an economic downturn didn’t bribe them into agreement with Race to the Top conditions?  Would the public have found this a good use of funds if it were clear that there’s no evidence it would work?

4.  New teacher and principal evaluation systems.  A few districts in my region of New York who closely monitor new evaluation regulations are concerned about how honors class teachers did–they have all the high performing kids, and they think their special ed teachers got higher evaluation growth scores in their state testing measures because a point or two of improvement at the lowest level of performance is easier to get than increases among students already at the top.  This is one of the general criticisms of accountability programs that use any version of growth or value-added scoring.  From state to state, have the data been made available to independent researchers for an objective review? Do we have multivariate analyses available to look deeply at the results?  If not, why not, or when will this happen?  And if we do, so what?  Most states are about to change their tests again, from what they have been using to the new PARCC or Smarter Balanced consortia tests under development.  So the nature of available data is changing from last year, before the Common Core curriculum implementation, to Common Core based testing, and then in two years, to tests from one of the two consortia.  This fundamentally means three versions of accountability tests in as few as 4 years in many states, making comparisons of student achievement a statistical challenge for accountability purposes, to say the least.

5.  Narrowing of the curriculum.  How many fewer art, music, drama, etc. classes are gone, and replaced by supports for ELA and math?  Why does the edu/politico establishment ignore the evidence about the utility of arts and music education and their connection to math and science success?   How many kids have no more recess because they are scheduled for support time?  How many schools have dropped career education options in high schools?  How have the fiscal pressures of the past few years forced districts to make narrowing curricular decisions because of the fear of poor test results?  Is the focus on ELA and math appropriate for all students?

6.  What is college and career ready, anyway?  In the Atlantic Monthly of October 2012, Dana Goldstein wrote an important feature called “The Schoolmaster” about David Coleman, credited by many as the leading creator of the Common Core State Standards.  A nonprofit Coleman founded, Student Achievement Partners, provided the intellectual basis to the Council of Chief State School Officers. If Goldstein’s work is as accurate as it feels, he is far more important than our Secretary of Eduction.  He clearly has had more influence on the direction of US education than any other single individual, likely in our history.  And he’s now the head of the College Board, where his concepts of college and career readiness could transform the nature of SAT tests in the near future.

I happen to agree with the concept of Common Core State Standards, and I think their emphasis on critical thinking skills are long overdue, but defining success with a narrowly defined concept of college and career reading misses some important options for a substantial population of students.  Many educators think this focus rather significantly neglects the notion of career ready–we have been eliminating career and tech education all over, or transforming it into expensive tech honors programs at regional BOCES or Intermediate School or Educational Service Agency  locations as career education begins to emphasize forensics and high tech.  So where will we get our plumbers and carpenters and cabinet makers and auto mechanics and house painters and landscape gardeners?

7.  Local control of education.  Here’s the philosophical issue of the day: Should states/local school districts have virtually given up their role in determining the direction of their children’s education?  Constitutionally, this is a state role (which all but one state, Hawaii, turn over largely to local school boards) and not a federal one.  Though the Common Core is an initiative of states working together, it was not an initiative that involved local professional educators from the beginning.  It was an initiative farmed out to Coleman’s nonprofit business, pushed by the business/political wing of K-12 reformers, gained support from those concerned about the generic failures in urban centers across the country, and then offered as fundamentally a take it or leave federal money on the table proposition to the educational establishment throughout the nation.  The claim that all the states were directly involved in these plans is technically correct, but practically speaking the results were top down impositions, not bottom up reforms.

8.  Lack of funds for professional development.  In New York, teacher and principal evaluation rules mandate districts to provide professional development for teachers in order to be able to terminate them.  Given that schools have to upgrade/update technology infrastructure and hardware to prepare for online testing, and given a new state property tax cap, and given that increasing numbers of districts around New York are facing real economic stress and even bankruptcy, there won’t be any money to provide PD for low performing teachers.  Even a mediocre lawyer can prevent the termination of a teacher because the district’s responsibility for support to a weak teacher will be missing.  So who thought this was a good idea?

Many states claim their test results will be used to guide professional development programs to improve the work of teachers.  However, it’s typical to observe the decline in funding for educational professional development nationwide.  Schools are spending the money on assessments, not on professional development, and the tests themselves, as noted earlier, are both secured and not designed for teacher use to promote instructional objectives.  So two forces disconnect assessments from teacher improvement–funding and inappropriate test design.

Nationally, the movement to tie teacher evaluations to test scores was fueled significantly by Federal Race to the Top eligibility requirements.  This is another ‘reform’ initiative fueled without a quality research base of support.  Proponents of testing, and those wanting to pry public money out of the hands of school boards so that it’s available to alternate commercial programs have jumped on the novel idea that one can appropriately predict a student’s future success based on the scores of a teacher’s students.  The model is appealing, as it suggests an easy metric on which to judge the performance of schools and individual teachers.  But having followed the arguments closely for 10 years, it isn’t working particularly well anywhere.

Today, many groups are finally responding to some or all of these concerns by pushing back.  Some of the parent arguments arise out of fear for the well-being of their children, some out of frustration at loss of local control, some out of growing awareness of rising assessment costs and little demonstrable efficacy in using tests for instructional improvement.  Some opponents are teachers who are fearful of adverse consequences to themselves.  Academics, politicians and the occasional state education official are more openly questioning the speed of implementation, the lack of piloting, the unintended consequences, the public relations disasters in states where Common Core based testing produces a drop in test scores (teachers are not yet trained in the new curriculum objectives), and the mismatch between test design and the use of test scores.

Does the push-back accomplish much?  To date, not really.  Does it make a statement that might force politicians to take a second look at the unintended consequences of parental opposition?  The consequences of testing?  A real cost-benefit analysis of CCSS and national testing?  I personally hope it does, but I don’t think it will amount to much unless it continues to grow.  Get up to speed, and get involved!

One thought on “Why the Opposition to Testing and the Common Core?

  1. Thank you for your informational assessment on Common Core. This makes me think of Nancy Pelosi’s Obamacare theory that “we have to pass it to find out what’s in it,” which is foolish and short-sighted. The future of our children and our country is at stake, and we need to know what we are doing and whether it will truly be a benefit, not just blindly let it be forced into implementation. Greater Federal control and loss of local control is never a good idea. Spread the word, get involved. If we do nothing, this will be pushed through regardless of consequences.

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