Author Archives: Diane Ravitch

Yong Zhao Explains What Is Wrong with PISA

Yong Zhao posted the first of five blogs about the faulty claims of PISA, the international test that false reformers love to cite as evidence that our schools are failing and our kids don’t work hard enough. The five blog posts are drawn from Zhao’s much awaited new book. If you have not read his other books, order them now. Catching Up or Leading the Way and World Class Learners. You will enjoy them.

Zhao calls PISA “one of the most destructive forces in education today. It creates illusory models of excellence, romanticizes misery, glorifies educational authoritarianism, and most serious, directs the world’s attention to the past instead of pointing to the future. In the coming weeks, I will publish five blog posts detailing each of my “charges,” adapted from parts of my book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education.”

In this post, Zhao demonstrates one of the misleading claims made by Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA.

Zhao writes:

“Andreas Schleicher has on many occasions promoted the idea that Chinese students take responsibilities for their own learning, while in “many countries, students were quick to blame everyone but themselves.” France is his prime example: “More than three-quarters of the students in France … said the course material was simply too hard, two-thirds said the teacher did not get students interested in the material, and half said their teacher did not explain the concepts well or they were just unlucky.” Students in Shanghai felt just the opposite, believing that “they will succeed if they try hard and they trust their teachers to help them succeed.” Schleicher maintains that this difference in attitude contributed to the gap between Shanghai, ranked first, and France, ranked 25th.”

Zhao shows by citing PISA rankings that this claim by Schleicher does not withstand scrutiny. It is false.

He writes:

“What’s intriguing is that the countries whose students are least likely to blame their teachers all have a more authoritarian cultural tradition than the countries whose students are most likely to blame their teachers. On the first list, Singapore, Korea, Chinese Taipei, Shanghai-China, Japan, and Viet Nam share the Confucian cultural tradition. And although Japan and Korea are now considered full democracies, the rest of the countries on the list are not[3]. In contrast, the list of countries with the highest percentage of students blaming their teachers for their failures ranked much higher in the democracy index. Norway ranked first; Sweden ranked second, and Switzerland was number seven. With the single exception of Italy, all 10 countries where students were most likely to blame their teachers ranked above 30 on the Democracy Index (and Italy ranked 32nd).

“One conclusion to draw from this analysis: students in more authoritarian education systems are more likely to blame themselves and less likely to question the authority—the teacher—than students in more democratic educational systems. An authoritarian educational system demands obedience and does not tolerate questioning of authority. Just like authoritarian parents [2], authoritarian education systems have externally defined high expectations that are not necessarily accepted by students intrinsically but require mandatory conformity through rigid rules and sever punishment for noncompliance. More important, they work very hard to convince children to blame themselves for failing to meet the expectations. As a result, they produce students with low confidence and low self-esteem.

“On the PISA survey of students’ self-concept in math, students in Japan, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Viet Nam, Macao-China, Hong Kong-China, and Shanghai-China had the lowest self-concepts in the world, despite their high PISA math scores[4]. A high proportion of students in these educational systems worried that they “will get poor grades in mathematics.” More than 70% of students in Korea, Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Viet Nam, Shanghai-China, and Hong Kong-China—in contrast to less than 50% in Austria, United States, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands—“agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they worry about getting poor grades in math[5].”

And he concludes:

“In other words, what Schleicher has been praising as Shanghai’s secret to educational excellence is simply the outcome of an authoritarian education.

“As discussed previously, Chinese education has been notoriously authoritarian for thousands of years. In an authoritarian system, the ruler and the ruling class (previously the emperors; today, the government) have much to gain when people believe it is their own effort, and nothing more, that makes them successful. No difference in innate abilities or social circumstances matters as long as they work hard. If they cannot succeed, they only have themselves to blame. This is an excellent and convenient way for the authorities to deny any responsibility for social equity and justice, and to avoid accommodating differently talented people. It is a great ploy that helped the emperors convince people to accept the inequalities they were born into and obey the rules. It was also designed to give people a sense of hope, no matter how slim, that they can change their own fate by being indoctrinated through the exams.”

Our policymakers wish our students and teachers would think, act, study, and behave like their counterparts in Singapore and Korea. But first they will have to change America’s irreverent, anti-authoritarian culture. Good luck with that!

Comedy Central, are you listening?

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education, an educational policy analyst, and a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

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Jason Stanford: “Divergent” is a Major New Film about Testing Abuse

Testing is rapidly becoming radioactive. No one lies it, yet Congress can’t bring itself to drive a stake through the withered lifeless heart of NCLB, nor call a halt to Race to the Top’s promotion of even more testing.

Jason Stanford says a new film called “Divergent” shows how standardized testing is harming students, determining their future, and inspiring rebellions against it. It will debut on March 21.

He writes:

“Because of its resourceful and tough female protagonist, Divergent will draw comparisons to The Hunger Games franchise. But the popular Jennifer Lawrence movies are all about income inequality and poverty whereas the new film, based on the 2012 bestseller by Veronica Roth, questions whether our children can still determine their own futures.

“The central feature of Divergent is that children are given aptitude tests that sort them by virtues, sometimes separating them from their families. These sorting tests are nothing new in popular young adult fiction. Harry Potter had the Sorting Hat that grouped students based on their innate traits. The Hunger Games held a lottery to single out a boy and a girl for ritualized murder. And in the Percy Jackson novels, only genetics—not skill, talents, or knowledge—could get a child into Camp Half Blood.

“But Divergent, intentionally or not, puts high-stakes testing at the center of the educational dystopia it portrays. As in present-day reality, testing takes time away from classroom instruction and occurs on a single day. The Divergent tests measure aptitude, not comprehension, and serve mainly to sort students according to immutable traits into one of five factions “to determine who we are and where we belong.” In schools, we use standardized tests to figure out whether someone is “college or career ready.”

Who decided tat the testing corporations would become THE gatekeepers of social and economic privilege?

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Good News! TEA Sues Governor, Commissioner re Junk Science VAM

The Tennessee Education Association filed a second lawsuit against the use if value-added assessment (called TVAAS in Tennessee), this time including extremist Governor Haslam and ex-TFA state commissioner Huffman in their suit.

The teachers rightly say that the evaluations are unfair, a point on which most reputable researchers are in their corner.

“TEA’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of Knox County teacher Mark Taylor, an eighth grade science teacher at Farragut Middle School. Taylor was unfairly denied an APEX bonus after his TVAAS estimate was based on the standardized test scores of only 22 of his 142 students.

“Mr. Taylor teaches four upper-level physical science courses and one regular eighth grade science class,” said Richard Colbert, TEA general counsel. “The students in the upper-level course take a locally developed end-of-course test in place of the state’s TCAP assessment. As a result, those high-performing students were not included in Mr. Taylor’s TVAAS estimate.”

“While Mr. Taylor’s observation score was ‘exceeding expectations,’ his low TVAAS estimate based on only 16 percent of his students dropped his final evaluation score below the threshold to receive the APEX bonus,” Colbert said.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Taylor’s situation is not an uncommon one. Many teachers across the state – particularly at the high school level – are being unfairly evaluated on an arbitrary percentage of their students.”

Gosh, Arne Duncan only recently hailed Tennessee as one of the stars of Race to the Top. Not so much.

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Tennessee Teacher Sues to Invalidate Teacher Evaluation System

In one of what is likely to be a tidal wave of lawsuits, the Tennessee Education Association sued the state because a teacher was denied a bonus based on the state’s flawed evaluation system.

“The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Knox County teacher who was denied a bonus under that school system’s pay plan after Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) data for 10 of her students was unknowingly attributed to her.

“TVAAS is Tennessee’s system of measuring student growth over time. It generates data based on student test scores on TCAP and end of course tests.

“In this specific case, the teacher, Lisa Trout, was assigned TVAAS data for 10 students after being told her evaluation would be based on system-wide TVAAS data because she taught at an alternative school.

“The TEA lawsuit cites two different memos which indicated that Ms. Trout could expect an evaluation (and bonus eligibility) to be based on system-wide data. At the conclusion of the school year, Ms. Trout was informed that her overall evaluation score, including observations and TVAAS data was a 4, making her eligible for a bonus under the Knox County pay plan.”

The system, the suit alleges, is arbitrary:

“The TEA goes on to contend that Ms. Trout and similarly situated teachers for whom there is little or no specific TVAAS data are held to an arbitrary standard in violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“Specifically, the suit notes: ” … the majority of teachers in the Knox County Schools … have had their eligibility for additional compensation (under the APEX bonus system) determined on the basis of the test scores of students they do not teach and/or the test scores of their students in subjects unrelated to the subjects they teach.”

“The suit alleges that such a system violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because some teachers are evaluated and receive bonuses based on the scores of their own students while other teachers are held accountable for students they do not teach and over which they have no influence or control.

“In short, the entire system is flawed and should be discarded.”

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Rochester Teachers Sue State Over Teacher Evaluations

The Rochester Teachers Association is suing the state over its teacher evaluation system, alleging that it does not take into account the impact of poverty on classroom performance.

RTA says the evaluations are “junk science.”

“ALBANY, N.Y. March 10, 2014 – The Rochester Teachers Association today filed a lawsuit alleging that the Regents and State Education Department failed to adequately account for the effects of severe poverty and, as a result, unfairly penalized Rochester teachers on their APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) evaluations.

“The suit, filed in state Supreme Court in Albany by New York State United Teachers on behalf of the RTA and more than 100 Rochester teachers, argues the State Education Department did not adequately account for student poverty in setting student growth scores on state tests in grades 4-8 math and English language arts. In addition, SED imposed rules for Student Learning Objectives and implemented evaluations in a way that made it more difficult for teachers of economically disadvantaged students to achieve a score of “effective” or better. As a result, the lawsuit alleges the Regents and SED violated teachers’ rights to fair evaluations and equal protection under the law.

“SED computes a growth score based on student performance on state standardized tests, which is then used in teacher evaluations.

“Nearly 90 percent of Rochester students live in poverty. The lawsuit says SED’s failure to appropriately compensate for student poverty when calculating student growth scores resulted in about one-third of Rochester’s teachers receiving overall ratings of “developing” or “ineffective” in 2012-13, even though 98 percent were rated “highly effective” or “effective” by their principals on the 60 points tied to their instructional classroom practices. Statewide, just 5 percent of teachers received “developing” or “ineffective” ratings.

“The State Education Department’s failure to properly factor in the devastating impact of Rochester’s poverty in setting growth scores and providing guidance for developing SLOs resulted in city teachers being unfairly rated in their evaluations,” Iannuzzi said. “Rochester teachers work with some of the most disadvantaged students in the state. They should not face stigmatizing labels based on discredited tests and the state’s inability to adequately account for the impact of extreme poverty when measuring growth.”

“RTA President Adam Urbanski said an analysis of Rochester teachers’ evaluations for 2012-13 demonstrated clearly the effects of poverty and student attendance, for example, were not properly factored in for teachers’ evaluations. As a result, “dedicated and effective teachers received unfair ratings based on student outcomes that were beyond their control. The way the State Education Department implemented the state testing portion of APPR adds up to nothing more than junk science.”

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Everything you need to know about Common Core

Diane Ravitch, the education historian who has become the leader of the movement against corporate-influenced school reform, gave this speech to the Modern Language Association on Jan. 11 about the past, present and future of the Common Core State Standards.

Here’s her speech:

As an organization of teachers and scholars devoted to the study of language and literature, MLA should be deeply involved in the debate about the Common Core standards.

The Common Core standards were developed in 2009 and released in 2010. Within a matter of months, they had been endorsed by 45 states and the District of Columbia. At present, publishers are aligning their materials with the Common Core, technology companies are creating software and curriculum aligned with the Common Core, and two federally-funded consortia have created online tests of the Common Core.

What are the Common Core standards? Who produced them? Why are they controversial? How did their adoption happen so quickly?

As scholars of the humanities, you are well aware that every historical event is subject to interpretation. There are different ways to answer the questions I just posed. Originally, this session was designed to be a discussion between me and David Coleman, who is generally acknowledged as the architect of the Common Core standards. Some months ago, we both agreed on the date and format. But Mr. Coleman, now president of the College Board, discovered that he had a conflicting meeting and could not be here.

So, unfortunately, you will hear only my narrative, not his, which would be quite different. I have no doubt that you will have no difficulty getting access to his version of the narrative, which is the same as Secretary Arne Duncan’s.

He would tell you that the standards were created by the states, that they were widely and quickly embraced because so many educators wanted common standards for teaching language, literature, and mathematics. But he would not be able to explain why so many educators and parents are now opposed to the standards and are reacting angrily to the testing that accompanies them.

I will try to do that.

I will begin by setting the context for the development of the standards.

They arrive at a time when American public education and its teachers are under attack. Never have public schools been as subject to upheaval, assault, and chaos as they are today. Unlike modern corporations, which extol creative disruption, schools need stability, not constant turnover and change. Yet for the past dozen years, ill-advised federal and state policies have rained down on students, teachers, principals, and schools.

George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top have combined to impose a punitive regime of standardized testing on the schools. NCLB was passed by Congress in 2001 and signed into law in 2002. NCLB law required schools to test every child in grades 3-8 every year; by 2014, said the law, every child must be “proficient” or schools would face escalating sanctions. The ultimate sanction for failure to raise test scores was firing the staff and closing the school.

Because the stakes were so high, NCLB encouraged teachers to teach to the test. In many schools, the curriculum was narrowed; the only subjects that mattered were reading and mathematics. What was not tested—the arts, history, civics, literature, geography, science, physical education—didn’t count. Some states, like New York, gamed the system by dropping the passing mark each year, giving the impression that its students were making phenomenal progress when they were not. Some districts, like Atlanta, El Paso, and the District of Columbia, were caught up in cheating scandals. In response to this relentless pressure, test scores rose, but not as much as they had before the adoption of NCLB.

Then along came the Obama administration, with its signature program called Race to the Top. In response to the economic crisis of 2008, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Education $5 billion to promote “reform.” Secretary Duncan launched a competition for states called “Race to the Top.” If states wanted any part of that money, they had to agree to certain conditions. They had to agree to evaluate teachers to a significant degree by the rise or fall of their students’ test scores; they had to agree to increase the number of privately managed charter schools; they had to agree to adopt “college and career ready standards,” which were understood to be the not-yet-finished Common Core standards; they had to agree to “turnaround” low-performing schools by such tactics as firing the principal and part or all of the school staff; and they had to agree to collect unprecedented amounts of personally identifiable information about every student and store it in a data warehouse. It became an article of faith in Washington and in state capitols, with the help of propagandistic films like “Waiting for Superman,” that if students had low scores, it must be the fault of bad teachers. Poverty, we heard again and again from people like Bill Gates, Joel Klein, and Michelle Rhee, was just an excuse for bad teachers, who should be fired without delay or due process.

These two federal programs, which both rely heavily on standardized testing, has produced a massive demoralization of educators; an unprecedented exodus of experienced educators, who were replaced in many districts by young, inexperienced, low-wage teachers; the closure of many public schools, especially in poor and minority districts; the opening of thousands of privately managed charters; an increase in low-quality for-profit charter schools and low-quality online charter schools; a widespread attack on teachers’ due process rights and collective bargaining rights; the near-collapse of public education in urban districts like Detroit and Philadelphia, as public schools are replaced by privately managed charter schools; a burgeoning educational-industrial complex of testing corporations, charter chains, and technology companies that view public education as an emerging market. Hedge funds, entrepreneurs, and real estate investment corporations invest enthusiastically in this emerging market, encouraged by federal tax credits, lavish fees, and the prospect of huge profits from taxpayer dollars. Celebrities, tennis stars, basketball stars, and football stars are opening their own name-brand schools with public dollars, even though they know nothing about education.

No other nation in the world has inflicted so many changes or imposed so many mandates on its teachers and public schools as we have in the past dozen years. No other nation tests every student every year as we do. Our students are the most over-tested in the world. No other nation—at least no high-performing nation—judges the quality of teachers by the test scores of their students. Most researchers agree that this methodology is fundamentally flawed, that it is inaccurate, unreliable, and unstable, that the highest ratings will go to teachers with the most affluent students and the lowest ratings will go to teachers of English learners, teachers of students with disabilities, and teachers in high-poverty schools. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Education wants every state and every district to do it. Because of these federal programs, our schools have become obsessed with standardized testing, and have turned over to the testing corporations the responsibility for rating, ranking, and labeling our students, our teachers, and our schools.

The Pearson Corporation has become the ultimate arbiter of the fate of students, teachers, and schools.

This is the policy context in which the Common Core standards were developed. Five years ago, when they were written, major corporations, major foundations, and the key policymakers at the Department of Education agreed that public education was a disaster and that the only salvation for it was a combination of school choice—including privately managed charters and vouchers– national standards, and a weakening or elimination of such protections as collective bargaining, tenure, and seniority. At the same time, the political and philanthropic leaders maintained a passionate faith in the value of standardized tests and the data that they produced as measures of quality and as ultimate, definitive judgments on people and on schools. The agenda of both Republicans and Democrats converged around the traditional Republican agenda of standards, choice, and accountability. In my view, this convergence has nothing to do with improving education or creating equality of opportunity but everything to do with cutting costs, standardizing education, shifting the delivery of education from high-cost teachers to low-cost technology, reducing the number of teachers, and eliminating unions and pensions.

The Common Core standards were written in 2009 under the aegis of several D.C.-based organizations: the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve. The development process was led behind closed doors by a small organization called Student Achievement Partners, headed by David Coleman. The writing group of 27 contained few educators, but a significant number of representatives of the testing industry. From the outset, the Common Core standards were marked by the absence of public participation, transparency, or educator participation. In a democracy, transparency is crucial, because transparency and openness builds trust. Those crucial ingredients were lacking.

The U.S. Department of Education is legally prohibited from exercising any influence or control over curriculum or instruction in the schools, so it could not contribute any funding to the expensive task of creating national standards. The Gates Foundation stepped in and assumed that responsibility. It gave millions to the National Governors Association, to the Council of Chief School Officers, to Achieve and to Student Achievement Partners. Once the standards were written, Gates gave millions more to almost every think tank and education advocacy group in Washington to evaluate the standards—even to some that had no experience evaluating standards—and to promote and help to implement the standards. Even the two major teachers’ unions accepted millions of dollars to help advance the Common Core standards. Altogether, the Gates Foundation has expended nearly $200 million to pay for the development, evaluation, implementation, and promotion of the Common Core standards. And the money tap is still open, with millions more awarded this past fall to promote the Common Core standards.

Some states—like Kentucky–adopted the Common Core standards sight unseen. Some—like Texas—refused to adopt them sight unseen. Some—like Massachusetts—adopted them even though their own standards were demonstrably better and had been proven over time.

The advocates of the standards saw them as a way to raise test scores by making sure that students everywhere in every grade were taught using the same standards. They believed that common standards would automatically guarantee equity. Some spoke of the Common Core as a civil rights issue. They emphasized that the Common Core standards would be far more rigorous than most state standards and they predicted that students would improve their academic performance in response to raising the bar.

Integral to the Common Core was the expectation that they would be tested on computers using online standardized exams. As Secretary Duncan’s chief of staff wrote at the time, the Common Core was intended to create a national market for book publishers, technology companies, testing corporations, and other vendors.

What the advocates ignored is that test scores are heavily influenced by socioeconomic status. Standardized tests are normed on a bell curve. The upper half of the curve has an abundance of those who grew up in favorable circumstances, with educated parents, books in the home, regular medical care, and well-resourced schools. Those who dominate the bottom half of the bell curve are the kids who lack those advantages, whose parents lack basic economic security, whose schools are overcrowded and under-resourced. To expect tougher standards and a renewed emphasis on standardized testing to reduce poverty and inequality is to expect what never was and never will be.

Who supported the standards? Secretary Duncan has been their loudest cheerleader. Governor Jeb Bush of Florida and former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee urged their rapid adoption. Joel Klein and Condoleeza Rice chaired a commission for the Council on Foreign Relations, which concluded that the Common Core standards were needed to protect national security. Major corporations purchased full-page ads in the New York Times and other newspapers to promote the Common Core. ExxonMobil is especially vociferous in advocating for Common Core, taking out advertisements on television and other news media saying that the standards are needed to prepare our workforce for global competition. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed the standards, saying they were necessary to prepare workers for the global marketplace. The Business Roundtable stated that its #1 priority is the full adoption and implementation of the Common Core standards. All of this excitement was generated despite the fact that no one knows whether the Common Core will fulfill any of these promises. It will take 12 years whether we know what its effects are.

The Common Core standards have both allies and opponents on the right. Tea-party groups at the grassroots level oppose the standards, claiming that they will lead to a federal takeover of education. The standards also have allies and opponents on the left.

I was aware of Common Core from the outset. In 2009, I urged its leaders to plan on field testing them to find out how the standards worked in real classrooms with real teachers and real students. Only then would we know whether they improve college-readiness and equity. In 2010, I was invited to meet at the White House with senior administration officials, and I advised them to field test the standards to make sure that they didn’t widen the achievement gaps between haves and have-nots.

After all, raising the bar might make more students fail, and failure would be greatest amongst those who cannot clear the existing bar.

Last spring, when it became clear that there would be no field testing, I decided I could not support the standards. I objected to the lack of any democratic participation in their development; I objected to the absence of any process for revising them, and I was fearful that they were setting unreachable targets for most students. I also was concerned that they would deepen the sense of crisis about American education that has been used to attack the very principle of public education. In my latest book, I demonstrated, using data on the U.S. Department of Education website that the current sense of crisis about our nation’s public schools was exaggerated; that test scores were the highest they had ever been in our history for whites, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians; that graduation rates for all groups were the highest in our history; and that the dropout rate was the lowest ever in our history.

My fears were confirmed by the Common Core tests. Wherever they have been implemented, they have caused a dramatic collapse of test scores. In state after state, the passing rates dropped by about 30%. This was not happenstance. This was failure by design. Let me explain.

The Obama administration awarded $350 million to two groups to create tests for the Common Core standards. The testing consortia jointly decided to use a very high passing mark, which is known as a “cut score.” The Common Core testing consortia decided that the passing mark on their tests would be aligned with the proficient level on the federal tests called NAEP. This is a level typically reached by about 35-40% of students. Massachusetts is the only state in which as many as 50% ever reached the NAEP proficient level. The testing consortia set the bar so high that most students were sure to fail, and they did.

In New York state, which gave the Common Core tests last spring, only 30% of students across the state passed the tests. Only 3% of English language learners passed. Only 5% of students with disabilities passed. Fewer than 20% of African American and Hispanic students passed. By the time the results were reported in August, the students did not have the same teachers; the teachers saw the scores, but did not get any item analysis. They could not use the test results for diagnostic purposes, to help students. Their only value was to rank students.

When New York state education officials held public hearings, parents showed up en masse to complain about the Common Core testing. Secretary Duncan dismissed them as “white suburban moms” who were disappointed to learn that their child was not as brilliant as they thought and their public school was not as good as they thought. But he was wrong: the parents were outraged not because they thought their children were brilliant but because they did not believe that their children were failures. What, exactly, is the point of crushing the hearts and minds of young children by setting a standard so high that 70% are certain to fail?

The financial cost of implementing Common Core has barely been mentioned in the national debates. All Common Core testing will be done online. This is a bonanza for the tech industry and other vendors. Every school district must buy new computers, new teaching materials, and new bandwidth for the testing. At a time when school budgets have been cut in most states and many thousands of teachers have been laid off, school districts across the nation will spend billions to pay for Common Core testing. Los Angeles alone committed to spend $1 billion on iPads for the tests; the money is being taken from a bond issue approved by voters for construction and repair of school facilities. Meanwhile, the district has cut teachers of the arts, class size has increased, and necessary repairs are deferred because the money will be spent on iPads. The iPads will be obsolete in a year or two, and the Pearson content loaded onto the iPads has only a three-year license. The cost of implementing the Common Core and the new tests is likely to run into the billions at a time of deep budget cuts.

Other controversies involve the standards themselves. Early childhood educators are nearly unanimous in saying that no one who wrote the standards had any expertise in the education of very young children. More than 500 early childhood educators signed a joint statement complaining that the standards were developmentally inappropriate for children in the early grades. The standards, they said, emphasize academic skills and leave inadequate time for imaginative play. They also objected to the likelihood that young children would be subjected to standardized testing. And yet proponents of the Common Core insist that children as young as 5 or 6 or 7 should be on track to be college-and-career ready, even though children this age are not likely to think about college, and most think of careers as cowboys, astronauts, or firefighters.

There has also been heated argument about the standards’ insistence that reading must be divided equally in the elementary grades between fiction and informational text, and divided 70-30 in favor of informational text in high school. Where did the writers of the standards get these percentages? They relied on the federal NAEP—the National Assessment of Educational Progress-which uses these percentages as instructions to test developers. NAEP never intended that these numbers would be converted into instructional mandates for teachers. This idea that informational text should take up half the students’ reading time in the early grades and 70% in high school led to outlandish claims that teachers would no longer be allowed to teach whole novels. Somewhat hysterical articles asserted that the classics would be banned while students were required to read government documents. The standards contain no such demands.

Defenders of the Common Core standards said that the percentages were misunderstood. They said they referred to the entire curriculum—math, science, and history, not just English. But since teachers in math, science, and history are not known for assigning fiction, why was this even mentioned in the standards? Which administrator will be responsible for policing whether precisely 70% of the reading in senior year is devoted to informational text? Who will keep track?

The fact is that the Common Core standards should never have set forth any percentages at all. If they really did not mean to impose numerical mandates on English teachers, they set off a firestorm of criticism for no good reason. Other nations have national standards, and I don’t know of any that tell teachers how much time to devote to fiction and how much time to devote to informational text. Frankly, I think that teachers are quite capable of making that decision for themselves. If they choose to teach a course devoted only to fiction or devoted only to non-fiction, that should be their choice, not a mandate imposed by a committee in 2009.

Another problem presented by the Common Core standards is that there is no one in charge of fixing them. If teachers find legitimate problems and seek remedies, there is no one to turn to. If the demands for students in kindergarten and first grade are developmentally inappropriate, no one can make changes. The original writing committee no longer exists. No organization or agency has the authority to revise the standards. The Common Core standards might as well be written in stone. This makes no sense. They were not handed down on Mount Sinai, they are not an infallible Papal encyclical, why is there no process for improving and revising them?

Furthermore, what happens to the children who fail? Will they be held back a grade? Will they be held back again and again? If most children fail, as they did in New York, what will happen to them? How will they catch up? The advocates of the standards insist that low-scoring students will become high-scoring students if the tests are rigorous, but what if they are wrong? What if the failure rate remains staggeringly high as it is now? What if it improves marginally as students become accustomed to the material, and the failure rate drops from 70% to 50%? What will we do with the 50% who can’t jump over the bar? Teachers across the country will be fired if the scores of their pupils do not go up. This is nuts. We have a national policy that is a theory based on an assumption grounded in hope. And it might be wrong, with disastrous consequences for real children and real teachers.

In some states, teachers say that the lessons are scripted and deprive them of their professional autonomy, the autonomy they need to tailor their lessons to the needs of the students in front of them. Behind the Common Core standards lies a blind faith in standardization of tests and curriculum, and perhaps, of children as well. Yet we know that even in states with strong standards, like Massachusetts and California, there are wide variations in test scores. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution predicted that the Common Core standards were likely to make little, if any, difference. No matter how high and uniform their standards, there are variations in academic achievement within states, there are variations within districts, there are variations within every school.

It is good to have standards. I believe in standards, but they must not be rigid, inflexible, and prescriptive. Teachers must have the flexibility to tailor standards to meet the students in their classrooms, the students who can’t read English, the students who are two grade levels behind, the students who are homeless, the students who just don’t get it and just don’t care, the students who frequently miss class. Standards alone cannot produce a miraculous transformation.

I do not mean to dismiss the Common Core standards altogether. They could be far better, if there were a process whereby experienced teachers were able to fix them. They could be made developmentally appropriate for the early grades, so that children have time for play and games, as well as learning to read and do math and explore nature.

The numerical demands for 50-50 or 70-30 literature vs. informational text should be eliminated. They serve no useful purpose and they have no justification.

In every state, teachers should work together to figure out how the standards can be improved. Professional associations like the National Council for the Teaching of English and the National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics should participate in a process by which the standards are regularly reviewed, revised, and updated by classroom teachers and scholars to respond to genuine problems in the field.

The Common Core standards should be decoupled from standardized testing, especially online standardized testing. Most objections to the standards are caused by the testing. The tests are too long, and many students give up; the passing marks on the tests were set so high as to create failure.

Yet the test scores will be used to rate students, teachers, and schools.

The standardized testing should become optional. It should include authentic writing assignments that are judged by humans, not by computers. It too needs oversight by professional communities of scholars and teachers.

There is something about the Common Core standards and testing, about their demand for uniformity and standardization, that reeks of early twentieth century factory-line thinking. There is something about them that feels obsolete. Today, most sectors of our economy have standards that are open-sourced and flexible, that rely upon the wisdom of practitioners, that are constantly updated and improved.

In the present climate, the Common Core standards and testing will become the driving force behind the creation of a test-based meritocracy. With David Coleman in charge of the College Board, the SAT will be aligned with the Common Core; so will the ACT. Both testing organizations were well represented in the writing of the standards; representatives of these two organizations comprised 12 of the 27 members of the original writing committee. The Common Core tests are a linchpin of the federal effort to commit K-12 education to the new world of Big Data. The tests are the necessary ingredient to standardize teaching, curriculum, instruction, and schooling. Only those who pass these rigorous tests will get a high school diploma. Only those with high scores on these rigorous tests will be able to go to college.

No one has come up with a plan for the 50% or more who never get a high school diploma. These days, a man or woman without a high school diploma has meager chances to make their way in this society. They will end up in society’s dead-end jobs.

Some might say this is just. I say it is not just. I say that we have allowed the testing corporations to assume too much power in allotting power, prestige, and opportunity. Those who are wealthy can afford to pay fabulous sums for tutors so their children can get high scores on standardized tests and college entrance exams. Those who are affluent live in districts with ample resources for their schools. Those who are poor lack those advantages. Our nation suffers an opportunity gap, and the opportunity gap creates a test score gap.

You may know Michael Young’s book The Rise of the Meritocracy. It was published in 1958 and has gone through many editions. A decade ago, Young added a new introduction in which he warned that a meritocracy could be sad and fragile. He wrote:

If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage. Power corrupts, and therefore one of the secrets of a good society is that power should always be open to criticism. A good society should provide sinew for revolt as well as for power.

But authority cannot be humbled unless ordinary people, however much they have been rejected by the educational system, have the confidence to assert themselves against the mighty. If they think themselves inferior, if they think they deserve on merit to have less worldly goods and less worldly power than a select minority, they can be damaged in their own self-esteem, and generally demoralized.

Even if it could be demonstrated that ordinary people had less native ability than those selected for high position, that would not mean that they deserved to get less. Being a member of the “lucky sperm club” confers no moral right or advantage. What one is born with, or without, is not of one’s own doing.

We must then curb the misuse of the Common Core standards: Those who like them should use them, but they should be revised continually to adjust to reality. Stop the testing. Stop the rating and ranking. Do not use them to give privilege to those who pass them or to deny the diploma necessary for a decent life. Remove the high-stakes that policymakers intend to attach to them. Use them to enrich instruction, but not to standardize it.

I fear that the Common Core plan of standards and testing will establish a test-based meritocracy that will harm our democracy by parceling out opportunity, by ranking and rating every student in relation to their test scores.

We cannot have a decent democracy unless we begin with the supposition that every human life is of equal value. Our society already has far too much inequality of wealth and income. We should do nothing to stigmatize those who already get the least of society’s advantages. We should bend our efforts to change our society so that each and every one of us has the opportunity to learn, the resources needed to learn, and the chance to have a good and decent life, regardless of one’s test scores.

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New Study Finds That Colleges Don’t Need the SAT or the ACT

A major new study by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) looked at the college performance of eight cohorts of students from 33 colleges and universities. These 33 institutions do not require students to submit standardized test scores for admission. Like many previous studies, this one found that high school grades are better predictors of college success than scores on college entry examinations like the SAT or ACT.

The bottom line: Colleges and universities can learn more about future students by reviewing their four-year record of persistence and achievement rather than the results of an arbitrary test offered on one day, particularly one where some students have the means to pay for tutors to boost their scores. Colleges and universities do not need admission test scores to know which students are likely to succeed. The entry exams tend to have a disparate and negative impact on the neediest students. They are an unworthy gatekeeper. They waste the time, effort, and money of students. They benefit the testing corporations and the test prep industry, not students who hope to gain entrance to of institutions of higher education.

Here is the abstract of that study:

“This study examines the outcomes of optional standardized testing policies in the Admissions offices at 33 public and private colleges and universities, based on cumulative GPA and graduation rates. The study also examines which students are more likely to make use of an optional testing policy, and how optional testing policies can offer important enrollment and financial planning benefits. Four cohorts of institutions are examined: twenty private colleges and universities, six public universities, five minority- serving institutions and two arts institutions, with a total of just under 123,000 student and alumni records. Few significant differences between submitters and non-submitters of testing were observed in Cumulative GPAs and graduation rates, despite significant differences in SAT/ACT scores. Optional testing policies also help build broader access to higher education: non-submitters are more likely to be first-generation-to-college students, minorities, Pell Grant recipients, women and students with Learning Differences.”

Here is the summary:

“Previous research on standardized testing in admissions has examined the predictive value of testing and its fairness across widely differing pools of students. For over thirty years but increasingly in the last decade, hundreds of institutions have made admissions testing optional. This three-year study is the first major published research to evaluate optional testing policies in depth and across institutional types.

“With various forms of optional testing policies, the thirty-three colleges and universities in this study make admissions decisions without standardized testing as a credential for all students. Deliberately, the study reaches beyond the various “top 25” or “most competitive” lists. We include institutions in four categories: twenty private colleges and universities, six public universities, five minority-serving institutions, and two arts institutions, a total of approximately 123,000 student records at institutions with enrollments from 50,000 students to 350, located in twenty-two US states and territories. They vary widely, from a large scientific and technical university to a Native American college, from traditional liberal arts colleges and universities to fine arts/design institutions to urban and rural minority-serving institutions. We tried to ask, “Who is doing the heavy lifting, serving broad constituencies? Who is exploring the breadth of human intellect and promise in imaginative ways? Who is reaching out to serve students most desperately in need of access to higher education?”

“A fundamental question is: “Are college admissions decisions reliable for students who are admitted without SAT or ACT scores?” Many national educational research and philanthropic organizations such as the Lumina Foundation have presented findings to demonstrate that America will need to find successful paths to higher education for hundreds of thousands of additional first-generation-to-college, minority, immigrant and rural students, in order to grow America’s economy and social stability. This study provides the research support for optional testing as at least one route by which that can happen.

“Test scores contribute to college guidebook rankings. Perhaps equally important is self- selection by students who do not apply to colleges based on perceptions of testing or on advice from their high schools or parents. The National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) “Report on the Commission on the Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admissions” urged colleges and universities to “take back the conversation” about testing from the various groups for whom testing was either a profession or a cause. i This study is a contribution to that discussion.

“Does standardized testing produce valuable predictive results, or does it artificially truncate the pools of applicants who would succeed if they could be encouraged to apply? At least based on this study, it is far more the latter. In a wide variety of settings, non- submitters are out-performing their standardized testing. Others may raise the more complex issues of test bias, but we are asking a much simpler and more direct question: if students have an option to have their admissions decisions made without test scores, how well do these students succeed, as measured by cumulative GPAs and graduation rates?”

Here is a summary of the findings:

“With approximately 30% of the students admitted as non-submitters over a maximum of eight cohort years, there are no significant differences in either Cumulative GPA or graduation rates between submitters and non-submitters. Across the study, non-submitters (not including the public university students with above-average testing, to focus on the students with below-average testing who are beneficiaries of an optional testing policy) earned Cumulative GPAs that were only .05 lower than submitters, 2.83 versus 2.88. The difference in their graduation rates was .6%. With almost 123,00 students at 33 widely differing institutions, the differences between submitters and non-submitters are five one-hundredths of a GPA point, and six-tenths of one percent in graduation rates. By any standard, these are trivial differences.

“• College and university Cumulative GPAs closely track high school GPAs, despite wide variations in testing. Students with strong HSGPAs generally perform well in college, despite modest or low testing. In contrast, students with weak HSGPAs earn lower college Cum GPAs and graduate at lower rates, even with markedly stronger testing. A clear message: hard work and good grades in high school matter, and they matter a lot.

“• Non-submitters are more likely to be first-generation-to-college enrollees, all categories of minority students, women, Pell Grant recipients, and students with Learning Differences (LD). But across institutional types, white students also use optional testing policies at rates within low single digits of the averages, so the policies have broad appeal across ethnic groups.

“• Non-submitters support successful enrollment planning in a broad range of ways. They apply Early Decision at higher rates, increase enrollments by minority students, expand geographic appeal by enrolling at colleges far from their homes, and allow for success by Learning Difference students.

“• In a surprise finding, non-submitters display a distinct two-tail or bimodal curve of family financial capacity. First-generation, minority and Pell-recipient students will need financial aid support, but large pools of students not qualifying for or not requesting financial aid help balance institutional budgets.

“• Non-submitters may commonly be missed in consideration for no-need merit financial awards, despite better Cum GPAs and markedly higher graduation rates than the submitters who receive merit awards. Institutions may want to examine their criteria for merit awards, especially the use of standardized testing to qualify students for no-need merit funding.”

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education, Research Professor of Education at New York University and posts at dianeravitch.net.

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