From the first moment that I looked at some practice tests for the English Language Arts tests that were given recently, I knew that the kids and their teachers were in trouble.
Let me say first of all, that I am something of a test expert. For several years, I wrote test items for the eleventh grade American History Regents exam, travelling to Albany each year to work with a team of teachers from all over the state. In addition, I was a staff developer for the New York City system and the managing editor for the city special education division’s Curriculum Development Unit.
And, as a classroom teacher for more than 25 years, I developed thousands of tests for my own students.
Throughout all that time, there was one guiding principal: never test students on skills or material that you have not taught and practiced.
To do so not only would have been unfair to the students, but it would have made the tests unreliable and downright useless at a measure of student ability and knowledge.
That is why, when I looked at the practice test, my first thought was that the questions were in the deep end of the pool when the kids were just learning how to swim.
One that stuck in my mind was a passage from a 1920’s magazine about aspirin.
Because the source article was written nearly 100 years ago, it contained some archaic language and syntax that would have been confusing to today’s adults, nonetheless eleven-year-olds.
So the kids were at a disadvantage right away, trying to figure out the words they had never seen before, working them out through context. Then, the question called for skills that have never been tested before, nor taught by the teacher who showed me the sample questions. She admitted that she had been “teaching to the old test” for the past several years, trying to keep her kid’s all-important test scores up while trying to keep her job.
“Education has nothing to do with what we have been doing for the past couple of years,” the teacher admitted with a nervous laugh. “It has been all about the numbers.”
“The only skill we have taught is how to answer a four part multiple answer test question.”
After reading the page-long article, which talked about the development of aspirin and why the new drug could be important, students had to answer a series of questions.
The first question asked students to find two words used by the author that showed he thought that the new drug would have a positive impact and then defend their answer in writing. Since the two words that I found to fit the answer were archaic and no longer used, I found it hard to believe that 11-year-olds would know enough about the meaning of those words to answer the question.
There was another question in the sequence that clearly had two right answers and it was a crapshoot as to which one the state would mark as correct.
I knew then, and do did the teacher, that the test would dissolve those kids who care into tears and lead teachers to pull their hair out.
The state’s ed department and Board of Regents, of course, do not care about that. They needed to force the test on the kids in order to qualify for money under the draconian Race to the Top program that is nothing more than a bribe to get states to do the bidding of President Barack Obama and his acolyte, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, an old New York hand whose ideas were discredited when he worked for the city but who then became a genius when he was promoted to national status.
Educators do his bidding not because he is right, but because he has all the chips in the game.
I have nothing against standards. I have nothing against the Core Curriculum, although I would like to see it field-tested somewhere prior to the state’s being forced to adopt it whole hog. The fact that it has never shown to be successful in helping kids reach either college of career goals is sort of left in the wind. I would like to ensure that it works before we all dive in.
Under Race to the Top, that is impossible. Every state has to just accept on faith that Duncan and his minions know what they are doing. That’s a laugh.
Both the state and the federal bureaucracies are made up of Phd’s from Penn State and Ohio State, Yale and Harvard. They are chosen directly after getting their degrees and have little or no classroom experience.
I know from experience, after meeting with they for years in the World Trade Center (does that now date me) that they have little idea about the problems faced by classroom teachers, nor do they care. The trick is to use all that high-tech learning theory they just acquired whether it works or not.
To understand what is going on, you have to turn to a real expert like Dianne Ravitch. Since the 1960s, she had been involved with education and in writing about education. Her first book, “The School Wars,” detailed the long 1967 New York City three-month teacher’s strike, in which I served as the chapter chairman in a large junior high school in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the neighboring district to Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the community that sparked the strike by firing all of its Jewish chapter leaders.
Ravitch, who was deeply involved in writing the “No Child Left Behind” law with its testing component as an member of the federal department of education, said that she realized in 2004 that the high-stakes reliance on testing was bad for education and became an opponent of the law and the testing programs that was its most important component. In 2010, she wrote a highly-acclaimed book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education.”
“Did the students suddenly become stupid,” Ravitch asks, referring to the results on the most-recent test. “Did their teachers become suddenly incompetent overnight? Did schools fail en masse? None of the above. The state Board of Regents, having decided that the old tests were too easy, changed the tests and raised the passing mark. Three years ago, they did something similar — raising the passing grade on the grounds that the tests were too easy, the bar too low. This time, however, the state has aligned the tests with a set of ostensibly national standards known as the Common Core, which have been heavily promoted by the Obama administration as a measure of college and career readiness. But Common Core has never been subject to trial or field-testing anywhere. No one knows whether it measures or predicts readiness for college and career readiness. Nobody has explained why eight-year-old students in America should be tested to see if they are on a path for college. As for careers, most of them probably want to be cowboys, police officers or astronauts.”
She added, “The scores should not be taken seriously. There is no science involved in setting the passing mark. It is a judgment call. It is subjective. State Education Commissioner King and Regents Chancellor Tisch could have set a passing mark wherever the chose. They chose to set the bar so high that most students would fail. This is like raising the hoop higher in a basketball game or pushing the wall further back in a baseball game to make it harder to score.”
One last comment, this one from New York City principal Carol Burris, who was recently named the state’s teacher of the year.
Recently, in her blog, Burris wrote, “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. “Their failure, of course, was preordained. This drop was predicted by Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz in March 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.”