The “No Stakes” Testing Shell Game Begins: How Can We Use Tests To Improve Teaching and Learning, not, to Flail and Fail?

In a recent letter to school superintendents, John B. King Jr., the state’s education commissioner, discouraged administrators from making placement and promotion decisions based solely on the tests. Speaking by telephone last week, Dr. King told me, “I worry that there’s a pedagogical mistake made in believing that if there’s more test prep, students will do better on the test.” … (Gina Bellafante, New York Times, March 28, 2014 )

A “pedagogical mistake?”

Over a dozen years the Bloomberg administration closed 150 schools based on poor test scores. The de Blasio administration has already retreated from their anti-charter school ideas, not to focus on test scores is foolish, the commissioner’s dismissal of test prep is simply a sign of his disconnect from the realities of life in schools in the world of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

Test scores drive school closings, tenure decisions, promotion decisions, attracting students and just plain ego … our kids “doing better” is an affirmation of our teaching skills.

New York State raced to the front of the line and decided to switch to Common Core tests without any substantive professional development, with results that should not have been surprising.

Commissioner King tried to forewarn parents, the scores were not terrible and we should look at the scores as a new beginning.

“These proficiency scores do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college and career readiness in the 21st century,” King said. “I understand these scores are sobering for parents, teachers, and principals. It’s frustrating to see our children struggle. But we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by frustration; we must be energized by this opportunity. The results we’ve announced today are not a critique of past efforts; they’re a new starting point on a roadmap to future success.”

The scores were terrible, in fact, appalling, two-thirds of students across the state failed the tests and subgroup passing rates were considerably more distressing.

31.1% of grade 3-8 students across the State met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard; 31% met or exceeded the math proficiency standard
• The ELA proficiency results for race/ethnicity groups across grades 3-8 reveal the persistence of the achievement gap: only 16.1% of African-American students and 17.7% of Hispanic students met or exceeded the proficiency standard
• 3.2% of English Language Learners (ELLs) in grades 3-8 met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard; 9.8% of ELLs met or exceeded the math proficiency standard
• 5% of students with disabilities met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard; 7% of students with disabilities met or exceeded the math proficiency standard

The commissioner created a tsunami led by suburban parents and parents from middle class neighborhoods in the cities pushed back, the pushback grew and grew. Over 55,000 viewers clicked on a U-Tube of King’s dismal performance in Poughkeepsie.

As parents met and advocated and threatened their electeds the legislature began to wriggle in their seats. The Board of Regents hastily passed a lengthy resolution slowing the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, however, moving ahead with the tests.

The resolution did not the assuage parent outrage; the governor appointed a task force that quickly released a number of tepid recommendations.

In the scramble to complete a budget a jumble of ideas to mollify parents was included in the budget

The governor’s website describes the changes in law,

The Budget puts into law a series of recommendations to immediately improve the implementation of the Common Core in New York State, including banning standardized “bubble tests” for young children, protecting students from high stakes testing based on unfair results, ensuring instructional time is used for teaching and learning and not over-testing, and protecting the privacy of students.

The 2014 tests, for students, would be a “no stakes” test; the tests alone cannot be used for promotion decisions. To summarize Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner, a “2” is the new “3.” Wagner describes a grade of “2” as “partial proficiency,” sort of a “partial pregnancy.”

Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner has been emphasizing that no students “fail” the state tests. Students are graded on a 1-4 scale, with a 3 or 4 indicating that a student is “proficient” in a subject. A 2 or 1 have long been understood to mean that a student had failed and needed remediation. “Level 2 does not indicate failure,” Wagner said. “It demonstrates that a student is demonstrating partial proficiency.”

South Orangetown Superintendent Ken Mitchell, president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, called the redefinition of a 2 “Orwellian” and “a bureaucratic attempt to relieve political pressure from a public that is awakening.”

Orwellian is an excellent term. (Wikipedia definition – The encouragement of “doublethink”, whereby the population must learn to embrace inconsistent concepts without dissent, the revision of history in the favor of the State’s interpretation of it).

As I understand the new law, Common Core State Standards test scores have no impact on kids; however, they have full impact on schools, principals and teachers, and, oh yes, we should abjure test prep. Why would anyone fail to practice, especially if the end game was a high-stakes single event?

David Epstein in “The Sport’s Gene” explores the intersection of talent and practice, “Could … grit and determination overcome … lack of innate ability? Where does the intersection between talent and practice lie?”

State Ed, with a disclaimer, provides sample questions, you better believe teachers are going to integrate practice, aka, test prep, into their lessons. (See sample 8th grade ELA questions here). A few years down the road, unless sensibility intervenes, the state will adopt the PARCC tests, tests that measure achievement in the 26 states in the consortium, pretty close to a national exam. (See the sample 8th grade PARCC questions here).

The commissioner doesn’t seem to understand; as long as tests are the measurement of “principal/teacher effectiveness” the lead up to the tests will include practice, crafting lessons that enable students to master the tests. To make the task even more difficult the state tests are not based on a curriculum, the CCSS tests reflect the skills embedded in the standards (CCSS). The state has begun to release “voluntary” curriculum modules; teachers find the state produced modules, to be polite, “unwieldy.” (See Grade 8 ELA curriculum map here).

Ideally, students would produce artifacts, examples of a range of student work reflecting the standards, For example, one of the anchor standards in writing,

Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

In the current world of George Orwell the state, or PARCC, will create multiple choice questions or a “structured” response to measure the extent the student has mastered the standard, absent a “content-rich curriculum.”

Tests should inform instruction, and by “tests” I mean student work, teacher-constructed tests, a range of tasks similar to the assessments used in the Performance-Based Assessment Consortium.

The current teacher evaluation law in New York State is a charade – only 1% of teachers scored an ineffective grade in the 12-13 school year.

Linda Darling-Hammond describes a totally different system that both assists teachers as well as leading to a summative assessment. (See Linda Darling-Hammond, One Piece of the Whole: Teacher Evaluation as Part of a Comprehensive System for Teaching and Learning, in the current issue of the American Educator).

Parents are still outraged, principals and teachers feel abused, kids are nervous, maybe it’s time for a close look at where we’re going and what we’re doing, maybe time for a “restart.”


One response to “The “No Stakes” Testing Shell Game Begins: How Can We Use Tests To Improve Teaching and Learning, not, to Flail and Fail?

  1. Whenever I hear an educator talk about discounting Tests as a measuring tool for progress, I worry. Iworry because I know from experience, that the single most significant thing I ever did at least in the elementary school, was to install and mandate a required 30 minute TEST Taking Skills intstructional period every day following the pupil lnch periods. I saw to it that grades 3 and up were supplied with more then sufficient resources to implement the instruction required. And it worked magnificently. You dont get better at things unless you practice, practice and practice some more. IN closing, I can well remember back over some 25 years, when the question of test taking should be devalued as a criteria for promotion, and they asked a female African Americasn principal of an elementary school in East Harlem. A young “wet behind the ears” columnist was sent to interview the lady and in a heartbeat in answer to the question, the Principal said, “I will cease test giving, as soon as I hear that Harvard has done the same”. Harvard is still testing, and so should we.


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