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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Shock Doctrine: five reasons not to trust the results of the new state tests

Dear parents: As you may have probably heard, the new state test scores were released to the press and they are disastrous. 

Only 31% of students in New York State passed the new Common Core exams in reading and math. More than one third -- or 36% -- of 3rd graders throughout the state got a level I in English; which means they essentially flunked.  In NYC, only 26 percent of students passed the exams in English, and 30 percent passed in math – meaning they had a level 3 or 4.  Only 5% of students in Rochester passed.  

Though children’s individual scores won’t be available to parents until late August, I urge you not to panic when you see them.  My advice is not to believe a word of any of this. 

The new Common Core exams and test scores are politically motivated, and are based neither on reason or evidence.  They were pre-ordained to fit the ideological goals of Commissioner King and the other educrats who are intent on imposing damaging policies on our schools.  

Here are five reasons not to trust the new scores:

1-     1. The NY State Education Department has not been able to produce a decent, reliable exam with a credible scoring system in at least ten years. That’s why there have been wild gyrations from year to year in the percent of students making the grade.  For example, 77% of NYS students were at level 3 or 4 in English in 2009; this dropped to 53% in 2010 and 31% now. The last two years of exams created by Pearson have been especially disastrous; from the multiple errors in questions and scoring on the 2012 exams (including the infamous Pineapple passage)  to the epic fail of this year’s tests – which were too long, riddled with ambiguous questions and replete with commercial logos for products like Mug Root Beer.  Top students were unable to finish these shoddy exams, and many left in tears and had anxiety attacks.  To make things worse, the exams featured reading passages drawn straight from Pearson textbooks which were assigned to some students in the state and not to others.

2-     2. For nearly a decade, from at least 2003-2010, there was rampant test score inflation in NY state, with many of the same people who are now supporting the current low scores claiming with equal conviction that the earlier, rising test scores showed that NY State and NYC schools were improving rapidly.  The state test score bubble  allowed NYC Mayor Bloomberg to coast to a third term, renew mayoral control and maintain that his high-stakes testing regime was working, when the reality  was that, according to everyone who was paying attention, the exams had gotten overly predictable and the scoring too easy over time.  At the same time as the state exams showed huge increases, scores on the more reliable national exams called the NAEPs showed little progress. In fact, NYC made smaller gains on the NAEPs than nearly any other large school district in the country during these years.  

3.     3. The truth is that the new cut scores that determine the different proficiency levels on the state exams – which decide how many kids “pass” or are at Level 3 and 4 -- are arbitrary and set by Commissioner King.  He can set them to create the illusion that our schools are rapidly improving, as the previous Commissioner did, or he can set them to make it look that our public schools are failing, as King now is doing, to bolster support for his other policies.

4.     4. The primary evidence that Commissioner King now bases his overly-harsh cut scores upon is that the results are mirror the percent of students who test “proficient” or above on the NAEPs.  Yet while the NAEPs are reliable to discern trends in test scores, because they remain relatively stable over time, the cut scores that determine the various NAEP achievement levels are VERY controversial. See Diane Ravitch on how the NAEP’s benchmarks are “unreasonably high”; or this article that reveals that even the National Academy of Sciences has questioned the setting of the NAEP proficiency levels, and how many experts believe that level 2 on the NAEPs – or basic -- should be used instead to estimate which students are on track for college:

Fully 50% of 17-year-olds judged to be only basic by NAEP ultimately obtained four-year degrees. Just one third of American fourth graders were said to be proficient in reading by NAEP in the mid-1990s at the very time that international assessments of fourth-grade reading judged American students to rank Number Two in the world.

In fact, by using NAEP levels as support for his cut scores, King is either confused or disingenuous about what these levels really represent.

5.     5. So why are King, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein and the billionaires like Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch who are pulling the strings, so determined to prove that more that 69% of the students throughout New York State are failing?  This is the Shock Doctrine at work.  Naomi Klein has observed that when you scare people enough, it is easier to persuade them to allow you to make whatever radical changes you want, since the status quo will be perceived as so disastrous. In the case of these men, they would like to convince parents that their corporate agenda, including a steady diet of developmentally unsound standards, the Common Core’s rigid quota for “informational text” and overemphasis on testing,  and their favorite policies of closing schools and firing teachers based on test scores, expanding charter schools and online learning, data-mining and outsourcing educational services to for-profit vendors will somehow improve the quality of education in our state, even though there is little or no evidence for any of these policies.  

NYSED has even tried to persuade parents to accept their unethical plan to share the personal data of the state’s children with inBloom and for-profit vendors by claiming this will help ensure these students are “college and career ready.”  (By the way, as Politico reported last week, North Carolina became the fifth state to pull out of inBloom; now only New York, Illinois, and Colorado are still involved, and Massachusetts is sitting on the fence.) 

Joel Klein, who wrote an oped for Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post this morning in support of the new exams, appropriately entitled the The Good News in Lower Test Scores, now heads Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s online learning division, which is the largest contractor for inBloom.  For Klein and Murdoch, the drastic fall in state test scores is indeed good news, because it will help them market their computer tablets, data systems, and software products to make more profit.  In the case of Pearson, the world’s largest educational corporation, more schools will now be convinced to buy their textbooks, workbooks, and test prep materials, as 900 NYC schools have now done – in hope that their students may do better on the Pearson-state exams, that may even include the same reading passages as happened this year.

Rick Hess, the conservative commentator at Education Week, revealed the motives behind the promoters of these exams in a column called the “Common Core Kool-aid”:

First, politicians will actually embrace the Common Core assessments and then will use them to set cut scores that suggest huge numbers of suburban schools are failing. Then, parents and community members who previously liked their schools are going to believe the assessment results rather than their own lying eyes… Finally, newly convinced that their schools stink, parents and voters will embrace "reform." However, most of today's proffered remedies--including test-based teacher evaluation, efforts to move "effective" teachers to low-income schools, charter schooling, and school turnarounds--don't have a lot of fans in the suburbs or speak to the things that suburban parents are most concerned about….Common Core advocates now evince an eerie confidence that they can scare these voters into embracing the "reform" agenda. 

My advice is not to let this ruin your summer or your view of your child’s school.  When you receive your children’s scores, do not allow the results to wreck their self-confidence.  These new Common Core exams and harsh proficiency levels are meant to scare parents.  

To achieve their ideological ends, politicians, billionaires, and educrats are not only willing to define your children in terms of their test scores, but also to redefine them as failures – to help them implement their mechanistic, reductionist, and ultimately inhumane vision of education.  It is all a high-stakes game, carried out by people with little thought about how these wild test score gyrations affect the self-esteem of the children whose fate they claim to care about.

For an eloquent critique of the callous thinking at work, please also read Carol Burris, NYS principal of the year, in today’s Washington Post, and Diane Ravitch, on the political motives of the people who are setting these standards.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes people can be so delusional. The conspiracy theorists are holding back progress. Perhaps, the scores are what they are, scores. Nothing more or less.

Pissed Off said...

I am the cynic here. The test scores of the past were extremely inflated and many kids who supposedly passed had very little ability in math and reading. Common core testing is not the problem, except of course when it is used to judge teachers.

Patrick Walsh said...

Thank you, Leonie, for the most comprehensive analysis I've read on this debacle. It is difficult to take in the utter cynicism of Gates, Broad, Obama, King and so on but take it in we must. Bless you for all you do.

Anonymous said...

I looked at the individual school scores in district 26 in queens where my son goes to school and his school (as well as most of district 26) scored pretty well - 30-40% level 4. So we know the good districts still did good and the other school district who couldn't spend all that time on test prep this year had kids who flunked and brought down the averages. All this shows is that the kids were memorizing the old tests and the past results did not indicate anything.

Jeff Nichols said...

I would add to this brilliant analysis a sixth reason to ignore the test scores: as long as the public discussion revolves around what kinds of tests we should have and what uses they should be put to, we are neglecting the real issues confronting our schools. It is not a mystery how to achieve higher academic performance in our public schools, and there is no magic test or data system that will get what we all claim we want, for schools to better prepare students for life (not just for "college and careers"!!!). Listen to parents and teachers and children: they want smaller class sizes, a diversified curriculum, professional respect and autonomy for teachers, decent school facilities. When you hear "reformers" talking meaningfully about those things, then you can start to believe they're really interested in quality education. Until then, we parents have to "just say no" to the outrageously incompetent testing regime our politicians have unfortunately succeeded in imposing on our children's schools. It is time for a testing boycott in New York State and beyond.

Renee Dinnerstein said...

Parents should be given the opportunity to see the tests. Then they would understand that theft didn't "raise the bar" so much as introduce inappropriate questions.

juan said...

does anyone know if the test scores for individual children are available and where to access them?

Concerned said...

Actually, Anon, the scores are not what they are. The tests were designed so that a large number of students wouldn't score as "proficient," thus lowering the ethical value of the test. Furthermore, there were reading passages given to students that were at least two grades above their reading level.

Students are spending an incredible amount of time in schools preparing for exams that do NOT accurately measure their level of skill, knowledge, or mastery. The tests do not allow for students with disabilities (I've seen the simile comparing them to a person who has one leg being asked to walk without a crutch or other assistive device & to do so at the same level of ability and speed as a person with two legs), nor do they allow for students who do not speak the language natively.

The statistics presented are not an accurate representation of student's abilities or knowledge. Statistics are not an accurate representation of information anyway. I can take a poll of 4 people and if three of them say that the leaves on trees are hot pink swirled with blue, then *statistically* it's true that leaves on trees are hot pink swirled with blue.

It's not the conspiracy theorists that are holding back progress, it's the people who are feeding you the bullsh** that students are incompetent (aka Commissioner King, Mayor Bloomberg, etc), and are touting the failing scores as proof that their reform plan is the one that will work. Don't buy it.

Anonymous said...

There was over 40% failure rate (Level 1 & 2) on 6th, 7th and 8th grade math exams in Bronxville.

This is a district some of the highest SAT averages in the state.

Joel said...

The children don't get dumber, the test questions are unfair and prove nothing. Parents should ignore the results. Children were totally unprepared. The only one who are benefiting are the test prep companies who will now make a fortune providing test prep material geared to the new test.Yes the scores will go up, the question is will the children really be any smarter.

Anonymous said...

I think it's particularly telling that the cut scores were changed so that more students got level four, even as far fewer scored at level three. This has a couple of results. One is that it makes a level four a less scarce--and less valuable--result, which makes it harder to evaluate schools (as a NYC parent exercising "choice.") No, one doesn't only use the proportion of students scoring at the advanced level to evaluate schools, but it has traditionally been a quick and dirty way to see if a school is getting its brightest students where they need to be.

It also has the effect of ensuring that some of the most informed, educated parents, i.e. those whose kids are most likely to score a four, are less likely to question the value of the whole testing complex. In other words, if your own kid gets fours, you're more likely to say that the system works than if your high-achieving student gets 2s. Anyway, just my two cents, but it's worth thinking about.

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