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Common Core tests as a game changer

With this year’s introduction of Common Core-aligned tests, flawed as they were, the city schools enter a new era. The transition will be a game changer that will bring angry reactions by teachers and students, and wider class and racial performance gaps. Student achievement measurement may become discredited for awhile, as an exasperated public throws up its hands in confusion.

Those could be the best things to happen to standardized testing in 10 years.

Achievement plummeted on this first try at new tests. City students scored 20 points lower in ELA and 30 points lower in math, with less than 30 percent of Grade 3-8 students meeting proficiency standards. But the tests set an extremely high bar — probably too high — in what amounted to a premature effort to test students against the new Common Core. Curriculum didn’t start to be available until late in the year and the Dept. of Education didn’t have the leadership required to manage such a dramatic transition.

But there is no going back. The New Common Core tests, which will continue phasing in over the next few years, may get better, especially if current state test-maker Pearson PLC moves out the way. But they will remain harder: they will ask students to do more explaining, analyzing and creating.

And here’s the thing: these are the very skills educators want to teach and have had to forego in favor of test prep. Right now, teachers are out of practice, and so are their students. But these are the skills they want to teach. So they will demand more autonomy, an end to the culture of test prep, more time and resources.  As long as the state and city don’t slap ridiculous consequences onto the new scores, students and teachers alike will become less bored and hopefully more engaged.

Harder tests are going to result in widening gaps between better- and less-prepared students. Typically that means racial and wealth gaps, as well as gaps between English proficient and ELL students and between general and special education kids.

These were the gaps that No Child Left Behind set out to eliminate back in 2002. To the extent this succeeded, and it didn’t much, the cost was relentless test prep and/or dumbing down of tests.  Now, as the gaps widen on the Common Core tests, parents will be outraged and politicians will distance themselves from the schools. So they should. Bringing poorly prepared students up to standards is the work of brilliant and passionate teaching, which has been forced underground in the NCLB era. Its reemergence can come only if good educators are free to work. They cannot be commandeered by mayors running numbers. A next generation teacher force can only be brought into being by experienced educators who are not ruthlessly tracked by narrow performance monitors.  

Accountability and Legacy

The education mayor, the education president. These monikers turned out to be albatrosses around the necks of Michael Bloomberg, George Bush and many others. Their legacy is a culture of measurement, not of learning. Testing has become laden with consequences that the tests themselves were never meant to support, including judgments about schools, teachers, and even “where we are heading as a society.”

One of the best things these new tests could do is force accountability to grow up. The city has overwhelmed us with data that, on close examination, is really the same data points parsed a hundred different ways. What’s more, the numbers appear to lie, or at least, they zing up and down without apparent reason.

Common Core tests could do two things about accountability. The first is to force us to adopt a more rounded assessment of students and schools. The second is to put standardized tests back their rightful, and less overblown, place.

So less than a third of students meet standards. Well, what else do we know? How do students perform on social studies projects, lab work, art and music, sports, leadership activities, group tasks, or community service? What 21st century skills do they have; what ones need to be developed? What are the best models for teaching those skills? What can students tell us about what they do and don’t understand and what helps them learn? And how do we measure those?

There needs to be some opening up — more quantitative data that uses non-numerical measures. We have agreed that more than half of teacher evaluations will be based on observations of classroom performance. Why can’t we assess our students that way?

It would be a relief if tests become more the province of educators. Politicians don’t find scales, cut scores, p values and item analysis inherently sexy. But good measurement requires expert interpretation. If the heat gets turned down under testing, and we all agree it’s complicated, then public attention may return to subjects, to projects, to school activities and to learning.

 Of course, there’s another scenario, in which the new tests are simply misused as the old ones were, to pass judgment based on partial evidence, to bash and shame and to claim undeserved legacies. But after a decade of this, teachers and parents, not to mention students, are pretty fed up. Their voices lend hope for a turnaround.

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10 Comments:

  • 1 chaz
    · Aug 10, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    How come you are giving Cuomo, Obama, and Duncan a free pass? They are just as much accountable for this fiasco as the Mayor and the ex-President.

    I believe your politics are showing here.

  • 2 S. Bailey
    · Aug 12, 2013 at 10:48 am

    I am glad that the writer mentioned the need to return to teaching,Social Studies, Music, Art and Science subjects that were put on the back burner for “double blocks” of Language Arts , where grammar was not taught and Math where the curriculum changed every year and teachers hated ” Everyday Math”. Education became a money making machine for publishers and consultants. The tests were riddled with mistakes, and old standard literature was bastardized ” the pineapple has no sleeves” for an analogy of ” The Tortoise and the Hare”
    And if you were allowed to teach with one license for 22 years in Middle school, you were summarily excessed because one does not possess the “proper” license! To be replaced by a “newbie” with no classroom management skills!
    I think you get the picture about the bastardization of the New York City school system over the last 12 years!
    Anyone need an attorney who has 22 years experience successfully teaching 11- 14 year olds , the hardest age group to teach, Law and Civics ? Let me know since I am not ” qualified” to teach I NYC Middle School! And the saga doth continue!

  • 3 Shoshana Berkovic
    · Aug 12, 2013 at 11:04 am

    “It would be a relieve if tests become more the province of educators.”

    Relief, not relieve.

    Please correct and resubmit.

  • 4 UFT: Call Arthur Goldstein, Classroom Teacher | Diane Ravitch's blog
    · Aug 12, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    […] of New York City’s powerful teachers’ union, just published a strange and somewhat incoherent article, saluting the collapse of test scores and the arrival of Common Core, which is sure to return […]

  • 5 Myrtle Franklin
    · Aug 12, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    Also, there is tense misalignment in that sentence.
    “It would. . .if become” should read either “It will. . .if become” or “It would . . .if became.”

  • 6 Revised: UFT: Call Arthur Goldstein at Once! | Diane Ravitch's blog
    · Aug 12, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    […] of New York City’s powerful teachers’ union, just published a strange and somewhat incoherent article, saluting the collapse of test scores and the arrival of Common Core, which is sure to return […]

  • 7 Angered UFT Teacher
    · Aug 12, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    “With this year’s introduction of Common Core-aligned tests, flawed as they were, the city schools enter a new era. The transition will be a game changer that will bring angry reactions by teachers and students, and wider class and racial performance gaps. Student achievement measurement may become discredited for awhile, as an exasperated public throws up its hands in confusion. Those could be the best things to happen to standardized testing in 10 years.”
    Ms. McAdoo, with all due respect, this is an opinion straight out of Arne Duncan’s Katrina mouth.
    Your opening paragraph, above, is the only coherent words worth mentioning. Long since the Titanic sunk many years ago, its legacy remains by unearthing chair changing year after year. This is a slap in the face to all UFT members. yes, the politics are showing in this amazing disregard for teachers and students. And by the way, I do follow the money. The UFT has much to answer to.

  • 8 Arthur Getzel
    · Aug 12, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    I cannot believe that our union believes that there are any value in these tests. Unproven standards being assessed by invalid tests will not develop the higher level skills you may want. And yes, these tests will be used against teachers based on the new teacher evaluation system that has been forced down our throats. I just attended a training session as my school’s chapter leader. We were not allowed to asked questions during the training. All questions had to be sent to “talent coaches” who were assigned to us. All I know is that they said quickly in the middle of this training that if a teacher makes no growth in state and local measures, the teacher is ineffective even if their classroom observations showed they were highly effective instructors. Therefore, if a special education teacher instructs very challenging disabled students in a high need schools, there is a good chance they would end up in this category. However, the coaches said that according to state this will be less than 1% of all teachers assessed. How can people get a number when this system has not even been implemented yet? Easy! The state does what they always do. They make up a number.

  • 9 A
    · Aug 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    Who’s side are you on? After reading this, I don’t think it’s the educators you are defending. For shame.

  • 10 Martin Luther King IV
    · Sep 4, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Civil Disobedience must be used if we cannot strike. I mean, what if we all decided not to do what they (DOE) say to do? There is no way we can take care of our families and the work they have told us to do with the UFT’s blessing.