the pseudo science of common core and high stakes testing

It seems that the more students, teachers, and families worry about Common Core and high-stakes testing, the more people who support them rush to defend things that can’t be defended by making claims about how great they are that can’t be proven. In April, parents, teachers, and school administrators protested outside a Democratic Party fund-raiser in Holbrook, New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo was speaking. They didn’t like the fact that he supported Common Core. Cuomo’s answer is to make some changes to Common Core to make it more compatible, but not to question its basic ideas or how it affects education.

Even though Common Core was supposed to be put into place two years ago, the New York State Education Department has finally decided that it needs to talk to teachers about what should be taught. It wants to set up a Common Core Institute with Common Core Fellows. Ken Wagner, who is the deputy commissioner for curriculum, assessment, and education technology but has never been a classroom teacher, says, “We want to see if this is a model that works.” You would have expected them to find out “if this is a model that works” before giving high-stakes tests over and over again.

In the press and media, especially in New York, asking questions about Common Core and high-stakes testing is seen as being against children, change, and progress. An opinion piece in The New York Times says: “New York really needs the new Common Core learning standards, which set high goals for what students should learn from one year to the next. To keep the reform moving forward, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Board of Regents, which is in charge of education in the state, need to fight any attempts to roll it back.”

In an article in Newsday, it was said: “Teachers say that the programme was put in place too quickly and that judging their work based on how well their students did was not reliable. Parents say that the curriculum is too hard and that low test scores hurt students’ self-esteem. Fighting the changes is a bad idea for both groups.”

At least two members of the State Board of Regents, Betty Rosa of the Bronx and Kathleen Cashin of Brooklyn, are very critical of the Common Core standards and standardised tests, but they are not listened to. Cashin said that the education department didn’t listen to teachers and principals when they said that a lot of the test questions are hard to understand and not good for kids’ ages.

Too many questions are not being answered in the rush to defend Common Core and high-stakes testing.

According to EngageNY, a website made by the New York State Education Department to promote and defend Common Core and high-stakes testing, “Data Driven Instruction and Inquiry (DDI) is a precise and systematic way to improve student learning throughout the year.” The website has a cute little graphic of an unbroken “inquiry circle” with arrows connecting endless rounds of assessment, analysis, and action. A good point. Nice picture. The Times and Newsday seem to agree.

But are the claims true? How accurate is the report? How well does the analysis work? How planned is what’s happening? Are the Common Core standards and high-stakes tests being backed up by fake science?

New York State Education wants teachers, principals, and “district superintendents” to keep asking the same three questions. “Where do we stand with our goals? Where are our students when it comes to being ready for college and a job? Where do we go from here?” Good questions, but do the Common Core and its high-stakes tests answer these questions?

Bruce Torff, a colleague at Hofstra University, wrote letters that were recently published in The New York Times and Newsday. In these letters, he asked New York State, Pearson, and supporters of the Common Core to show that their curriculum and tests are reliable. The way Torff sees it, “As a matter of best practise in educational and psychological measurement, test developers need to show that their instruments are valid and reliable. Unfortunately, the state and Pearson, the company that makes the tests, do not give the taxpayers who pay for them validation data for state tests.” Torff told state officials that they should make all data about how tests are validated available to the public.

Maybe all we need is a new logo for high-stakes tests based on the Common Core. Common Core Standards lead to Common Core Lessons, which lead to Common Core Assessments, which lead back to Common Core Standards in a never-ending loop that makes money for Pearson and other companies that market Common Core.

In New York State Item Review Criteria for Grade 3-8 Mathematics Tests, the state says it has a “Item Review Criteria” framework that makes sure Grade 3-8 Common Core Mathematics Tests measure Common Core for Mathematics with “high quality questions” that are clear and appropriate, fair, free of bias, and in line with Common Core. It says this about the English Language Arts tests it gives. The problem is that just because a question fits with Common Core doesn’t mean it makes sense or is what should be taught in math at a certain grade level. Bad standards lead to bad questions, and the same is true for questions.

The Pioneer Institute in Boston released a report called “Common Core’s Validation: A Weak Foundation for a Crooked House.” One thing that New York State hasn’t mentioned is that five of the twenty-nine members of the national Common Core Validation Committee “refused to sign a report attesting that the standards are research-based, rigorous, and internationally benchmarked.” Also, “none of the Validation Committee members had a Ph.D. in English literature or language, and only one had a Ph.D. in math.” As a whole, they didn’t have much experience making curriculum.

According to another analysis of the teams that wrote the Common Core standards curriculum, only one of the fifteen original members of the Common Core Standards Mathematics work group had taught math in a typical American high school. Most of the people on the team worked in the testing business. Only five of the fifteen people on the English/Language Arts team had taught in a secondary school classroom. None of them had taught first grade, students with special needs, or English language learners.

While New York State keeps pushing Common Core and high-stakes tests, other states are having second thoughts. Indiana has a law that says it is leaving Common Core. North Carolina got a federal Race to the Top grant when it supported Common Core, and a state legislative committee has now suggested that the state withdraw from the Common Core consortium. Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania also have legislative bodies that are thinking about leaving. A lot of this opposition comes from the Tea Party, which says that the government is doing too much. I don’t mind that they go too far, but I would like to see a real conversation about what should be taught in American schools and what it means to be ready for college and a career.

Ironically, Common Core is being defended by conservative business groups like the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I think it’s because their members think they can make money from state and federal money. inBloom, a non-profit organisation funded by the Gates Foundation to provide computer systems for managing the data collected as part of the Common Core high-stakes tests, recently said it would stop operating because parents were becoming more opposed to the tests and worried about how the data would be used.

The New York State Department makes it clear that the Common Core and high-stakes assessments are appealing because they provide a lot of data for evaluating students, teachers, and schools, “driving” instruction, and making state officials sound “scientific.” But a recent opinion piece in The New York Times by two professors from New York University shows that this kind of information can give a very skewed picture of what is really happening. Big data is great for finding correlations, but it doesn’t tell us if those correlations mean anything, and it can be tricked into giving the answers you want. For example, when a computer programme looks at a student’s writing, it looks at how long the sentences are and how many words are used. If teachers want their students to get better grades, all they have to do is tell them to write longer sentences, use harder words, and not worry about making sense or being creative. In fact, I think that as students and teachers get used to the high-stakes Common Core assessment, scores will go up, not because students are learning more, but because they know what kinds of questions are on the test.

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