Test Scores Released Today in New York: Just Another Arbitrary Way to Discredit Public Schools (and Hurt Children)
Today New York released the scores from last spring’s round of standardized testing. This time the tests and the scoring are based on the more demanding standards being imposed by the new Common Core.
In a cascade of Orwellian language, Shael Suransky, who heads up testing for the New York City Schools, wrote to school officials to prepare them for a shocking drop in scores. He asks them to spin the new lower scores as a step toward “equal opportunity,” and he assures school leaders that “we are also making sure it is not punitive. These results will not be used to evaluate teachers this year (emphasis mine), and students and schools will not be punished.”
The tests are pegged to benchmarks resembling those used for many years to interpret the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), called the nation’s report card. Diane Ravitch, who has served on NAEP’s board, has continued to warn about the danger of using such standards. Here is her comment yesterday: “What you need to know about NAEP achievement levels is that they are not benchmarked to international standards. They are based on the judgment calls of panels made up of people from different walks of life who decide what students in fourth grade and eighth grade should know and be able to do. It is called ‘the modified Angoff method’ and is very controversial among scholars and psychometricians. Setting the bar so high is one thing when assessing samples at a state and national level (the purpose of NAEP), but quite another when it becomes the basis for judging individual students. It is scientism run amok. It is unethical. It sets the bar where only 30-35% can clear it. Why would we do this to the nation’s children?”
This morning, anticipating New York’s release of the new lower test scores, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss publishes an excellent piece by Carol Burris, New York’s 2013 Principal of the Year. Burris asks us to recall Charles Dickens’ novel, Hard Times, in which Burris reminds us, “School Master Gradgrind, obsessed with data and facts, humiliates ‘Girl number 20’ who cannot ‘define a horse’… The chapter is a chilling and uncanny allegory for the data-driven, test-obsessed reforms that are now overwhelming our schools.”
Burris continues: “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.’… 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.”
In 2005 (revised to its current form in 2008) the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy published a simple critique of the test-and-punish strategy of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Ten Moral Concerns in No Child Left Behind. Supporting a “whole child” philosophy of education, the Committee criticized the narrow, arbitrary, and punitive strategy of NCLB: “As people of faith we do not view our children as products to be tested and managed but instead as unique human beings, created in the image of God, to be nurtured and educated.” “The law has not acknowledged that every child is uniqiue and that Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) thresholds are merely benchmarks set by human beings.”
The nation’s test-and-punish public education strategy has not diminished despite intense criticism of NCLB. These days scores on standardized tests are being used to judge not only children’s achievement but also the performance of their teachers and their schools. Financial rewards and punishments for schools and educators have ensued along with school closures and privatization. Perhaps Dickens’ Hard Times would be a good choice for the mass of book clubs and reading groups that have sprung up across the land.