That Light at the End of the Tunnel – Should We Be Worrying?

Principals received embargoed Progress Report grades last week, one principal told me,

“I got a ‘D,” you think they’ll close us before Bloomberg’s gone?”

“Maybe you can bring your score up.”

“Two of my best teachers left for safer schools closer to their homes, I got more kids from the shelter, I love my kids … if I had more guidance counselors and social workers, maybe we can do something … and this Common Core fiasco … I’m toast …”

With fanfare the commissioner points to the Network Team Institutes (NTI), the EngageNYS website, the vendor produced K-2 and 3-5 curriculum and the Student Learning Objectives (SLO) for the non-state exam tested subjects. The state proudly announces its lead role in the PARCC state consortia, the coalition of states that is creating the Common Core with all computer tests that will be rolled out in the 2014-15 school year. Apparently in the halls of the ornate State Education building it looks like we’re turned a corner in New York State.

There a number of small problems.

* Funding disparities from school district to school district are among the widest in the nation.

* Schools do not currently and will not by 2014-15 have the computer capacity to administer the tests online, as required by PARCC.

* How can you create a test without a curriculum? Will PARCC create a national curriculum?

* Books and materials currently in use have no congruency with the Common Core and in this financial climate it will take years to replace – or, and yes, should we be buying hardcover books, or E-Books?

* The PARCC sample test items that have been released are more difficult by many degrees than the current test items.

* Will PARCC replace the current Regents exams? Will PARCC mirror the New York State course graduation requirements or will we have to revamp course offering? Should PARCC be driving what we teach in New York State?

* Who is paying for all of this? The feds? The state? Local school districts faced with the annual draconian property tax cap cuts?

* And, will this incredible regimen of testing improve student achievement, improve instruction in classrooms, or simply enrich test makers? Does evidence-based apply to the adoption of the PARCC exams? Or, blind faith?

* Have parents and the public realized the type of testing regimen that each and every kid will undergo?

“The evolving two-pronged approach would give states the option of using a version of the Smarter Balanced test whose multiple sessions and classroom activities span nearly 6½ hours in grades 3-5, close to seven hours in grades 6-8, and eight hours in high school, or the group’s original version, which lasts about four hours longer in grades 3-8 and about five hours longer in high school”

The light at the end of the tunnel might be an oncoming locomotive.

Do not fear brave teachers and parents the superintendents and the commissioner know exactly how to deal with a problem of this stature.

You will remember that prior to 2010 state grades 3-8 reading and math scores increased every year. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein were jubilant, the State Commissioner giddy, the “reforms,” were a success! Superintendents, who work under contracts, were secure in their jobs (unless school budgets were defeated or the football team lost), principals and teachers happy, although a little baffled by the success.

Newly selected Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner Steiner sniffed a foul odor and asked Harvard psychometrician Daniel Koresh to examine the exams, and, lo and behold, the state test makers had been making the exams easier each and every year. Commissioner Mills, Steiner’s predecessor was given a pass and never questioned and damage control ensued.

Commissioners and superintendents understood the lesson: don’t cheat, well, not quite, don’t get caught whittling away at the tests.

David Tyack and Larry Cuban in their seminal study Tinkering Toward Utopia point to an inconvenient truth.

Reforms only take hold, become “sticky,” if classroom teachers and parents are vested in the reforms.

Reforms trumpeted from the aeries of Washington or Albany or Tweed drift off into the ether.

The most powerful lobbying organization in the education workplace, not the teachers union, not parents, the NYS School Superintendents Association, is quite effectively following in Commissioner Mills’ footsteps.

The association is richly funded by a wide range of organizations that do business with school districts. To be precise, the organization is accepting money from potential vendors and then lobbying the legislature, the commissioner and the regents in favor of policies that the potential vendors and the superintendents favor. Not illegal, just a bit sleazy.

The English Regents used to be administered on two successive days – students were asked to write two essays each day. Superintendents whined the test was too hard, two days were too much, and some students didn’t come back for day two. Possible solutions: make the exam a morning-afternoon one day test. Nope, the commissioner proposed and the Regents affirmed cutting the test in half – a one day/two essay exam – scores soared. A success? For whom? Do easier tests that increase graduation rates increase college and career readiness?

Clearly not, but, the state is measured by graduation rates, we do what we have to do is the mantra.

In the spring of 2012 the commissioner bemoaned that the Global Studies/Geography Regents had the highest failure rate among the five required exams. The solution he proposed: make the exam optional. The test is too hard – skip the test … mind boggling! To their credit of the Regents rejected the proposal. Back again at the September meeting: divide the test into two exams, one at the end of the ninth grade and one for the tenth grade – budget permitting. (In this financial climate, clearly budget will not be permitting) The Deputy Commissioner who made the presentation cryptically mentioned that although the Global Studies/Geography Regents was in state regulations the course wasn’t! The state high school graduation requirements requires two years of Global History and Geography: one begins to wonder – especially when the state proposal speaks of a ninth grade course – geography, economics and civics, is the state intending to quietly move the 12th grade courses in economics and civic (participation in government) into the ninth grade and eliminate the 12th grade course?

Regent Tallon strongly supported the proposal and challenged the reporters in the audience – we are not “dumbing down” the requirements! An old aphorism comes to mind, “walks like a duck, talks like a duck,” if you aren’t “dumbing down” the regents what are you doing?

Is their evidence that students are failing the ninth grade work on the exam which covers two years of work?

The answer: no, incredibly the state has not done a study.

A just released Ed Week article points us directly to the answer: a NAEP Report says simply, student can’t write. Students are failing the Global History/Geography Regents because of their failure to write cogent essays.

“After decades of paper-and-pencil tests, the new results from the “nation’s report card” in writing come from a computer-based assessment for the first time, but only about one-quarter of the 8th and 12th graders performed at the proficient level or higher. And the proficiency rates were far lower for black and Hispanic students.”

Are there schools in high poverty neighborhoods with high pass rates on the regents, and, if so, why? The answer is yes, and the reason is a thoughtful emphasis on the teaching of writing across the curriculum areas, not just in the English classroom, kids writing multiple times in every classroom every day.

The locomotive tumbles down the tracks. Teacher evaluation, or, as Columbia professor Aaron Pallas calls it, “firing your way to excellence”  appears to be at the top of the state ed agenda.

The template for the teacher evaluation plans is cryptic – over a hundred pages long and so dense that probably only the writers and state staff understand them. Shouldn’t principals and teacher be able to understand the metric that will evaluate them?

The Student Learning Objectives (SLO) that will be at the core of system that measures high school teachers and other teachers in non state exam tested teachers (about 70% of all teachers) are dense, to be polite. As a teacher, do you understand the Student Learning Objectives that will be used to evaluate you? See sample SLOs here.

Not to worry – those Jesus-Moses-Mohammad type individuals, the “distinguished educators” will whisper secrets that they have closely guarded, and, voila!! Poverty, foreclosures, gangs, hunger, societal dysfunction will be gone.

Yes, we cannot wait until social dysfunction abates, poverty is not an excuse,  it is an obstacle.

When principals, teachers and parents have no confidence in the core policies espoused from Washington to Albany to Tweed that oncoming locomotive just gets larger.

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4 responses to “That Light at the End of the Tunnel – Should We Be Worrying?

  1. Ed, as always, is asking the right questions. Unfortunately those on the train are not interested in the passing landscape and are counting on the cow catcher in the front of the locomotive to push obstacles off the track.

    It is possible to create an assessment without a curriculum, but first you have to have clear standards for performance (The you build the curriculum to help students achieve those standards.). That is the essence of the backwards-design model in the work of Wiggins, McTighe and others. It was the basis for the standards movement which, when it was being implemented in District 2 under the leadership of Tony Alvarado and his successors prior to the Bloomberg takeover, was having a real impact on how teachers taught.

    Writing across the curriculum is important, but the most critical element is not to accept anything less than excellent writing from our students. Every assignment must meet the standards for proficient or better writing or the student cannot pass. (We make allowances for IEP driven students by insisting that they master essential writing skills not, as the DOE does now, some meaningless percentage of the standard.)

    In the current climate where numbers passing is more important than what they passed with; where test scores are based on a scale that allows one to answer 35% of the questions correctly and still get a 65; and where everyone is judged, in whole or in part, by test scores that do not really measure what they purport to. (No reading test tells us if the student actually picks up books and reads them on her/his own. ( Isn’t that what we mean by reading?) the temptation to fudge the numbers or to outright cheat is always there.

    We can fudge the numbers by dumbing down the test. We can fudge them by making false comparisons, as Joel Klein frequently did by comparing NYC scores to the state average which included the NYC scores and then claiming he was leading the city to catch up to the rest of the state. Take out the NYC scores which lowered the state average adn the gap remained the same as it had always been. We can fudge the numbers through outright cheating or by looking the other way when students cheat. The Stuvvesant scandal and a number of principals who were never disciplined for the questionable practices in their schools.

    These are the outcomes of the high stakes testing locomotive that is running down our students. Someone needs to apply the brakes and start a dialogue about what standards we need students to achieve and what we have to do in the classroom to get there. As long as our conversation is about testing the locomotive continues to pick up speed and will eventually derail our students and our economy.

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  2. Very provocative article, as many of your pieces are. The answers to these weighty questions are many. None of them easy. The test preparers don’t seem to be addressing the questions at all. Seems teachers, principals and students are caught in a web with no answers really dealing with the big questions!

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  3. Attempts to mandate curricula and standards have historically had little effect except to temporarily build the careers of those who enforce them.

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  4. A multiple choice test is much cheaper and easier to mark than an essay test. A machine can check multiple choice tests, only a trained teacher can mark an essay. Having marked for NYC numerous times I can tell you that process is complicated indeed.
    It is also much easier to cheat when the tests are taken on a computer. If we do not have the technology to administer the tests in place yet, and we all know we don’t, than we certainly don’t have the technology to insure that the students are the one inputting the answers. Data is easy to manipulate once it is entered.

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