NY principals: Common Core tests fail

New York’s new state exams are supposed to be aligned with the new Common Core Standards, but a group of principals says they’re poorly aligned, unbalanced, take too much time and often confuse students.  

The English Language Arts tests focused mostly on one skill — “analyzing specific lines, words and structures of information text” — while ignoring other “deep and rich” skills.

. . . the testing sessions—two weeks of three consecutive days of 90-minute (and longer for some) periods—were unnecessarily long, requiring more stamina for a 10-year-old special education student than of a high school student taking an SAT exam. Yet, for some sections of the exams, the time was insufficient for the length of the test.

Students faced more multiple-choice questions than ever before, the principals complain. “For several multiple choice questions the distinction between the right answer and the next best right answer was paltry at best.”

The math tests contained 68 multiple-choice problems often repeatedly assessing the same skills. The language of these math questions was often unnecessarily confusing.

The principals also object to “putting the fate of so many in the education community in the hands of Pearson – a company with a history of mistakes.”

Public school spending falls for the first time

U.S. public-education spending per student fell in 2011 for the first time since 1977, reports the Census Bureau. Public schools spent $10,560 per student, a drop of 0.4 percent from the year before. Adjusted for inflation, spending per pupil dropped once in 1995, according to the Wall Street Journal. In real dollars, spending per pupil was down 4 percent in 2011 from the peak in 2009.

New York spent the most per pupil at $19,076, followed by Washington, D.C. at $18,475. Utah spent the least, $6,212 per student, followed by Idaho at $6,824. (Both low-spending states have lots of Mormons, which means large families and fewer social problems.)

Thirty states increased per pupil funding: New Hampshire is spending 6.8 percent more.  Twenty states and the District of Columbia spent less. Illinois cut spending by 7.4 percent.

In the future, more education spending will go to teacher pensions and health benefits, leaving less for instruction, predicts Kim Rueben, a senior fellow with the Tax Policy Center and an expert on the economics of education.

Too soon for Common Core tests?

Move ahead with Common Core testing, editorialized the New York Times on Sunday.  Tough new math and English tests “are an essential part of rigorous education reforms” designed to teach reasoning skills.

In Kentucky, the first state to adopt Common Core-aligned tests, the proportion of students rated “proficient” or better in math and reading dropped by about a third, notes the Times, which warns New Yorkers to prepare for a shock.

California won’t be ready for Common Core testing, which is scheduled to start in the 2014-15 school year, editorializes the Los Angeles Times. The state “hasn’t figured out how to go about training teachers, and won’t begin to adopt new textbooks — a slow and politically rancorous process — for at least two years.”

What’s more, common core is expensive, requiring extensive new training for teachers, new textbooks and computers on which the new tests must be taken. It’s unclear where the state will find the money.

At the rate the state is going, teachers will end up being trained before the English curriculum is even in place, and instruction would start before the new textbooks are in anyone’s hands. Yet if the school reform movement has its way, teachers will be evaluated in part based on how well their students do on the very different standardized tests that go with the new curriculum. Reflecting the concern that teachers throughout the state have been expressing, one California teacher recently tweeted that within a couple of years, “we start testing on standards we’re not teaching with curriculum we don’t have on computers that don’t exist.”

Teachers believe they’re being “set up for failure,” the editorial warns. Common Core will be “yet another education flash in the pan” unless it’s “carefully implemented with meaningful tests that are aligned with what the students are supposed to learn.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wants to cut off federal money to implement Common Core State Standards, but his proposal probably isn’t going anywhere.

Tougher tests spur anxiety, opt-outs

New York’s new Common Core-aligned tests are bringing “protests and tears,” reports the New York  Times.

Complaints were plentiful: the tests were too long; students were demoralized to the point of tears; teachers were not adequately prepared. Some parents, long skeptical of the emphasis on standardized testing, forbade their children from participating.

“All the kids were, like, open-mouthed, crazy-shocked and very upset,” said.Maya Velasquez, 14, an eighth grader at the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering.

Education officials are predicting test scores will nosedive in the first year.

 Across the city on Thursday, teachers and principals reported that the test required more stamina and concentration than students were used to.

Students said they struggled with questions that asked them to discuss how a writer constructed a story rather than about the content of the passage itself. One question, for instance, asked students to analyze how an author built suspense in describing a girl whose rope snapped while in a cave.

At the Computer School on the Upper West Side, students said teachers had warned them that the test would be the most challenging they had taken. “When they ask, ‘What’s the main idea?’ and you have to put it in your own words, it’s a lot harder,” said Ron Yogev, a sixth grader.

That was the point. David Coleman, president of the College Board and an architect of the Common Core standards, told critics to chill. “When the alternative is shallower passages and shallower questions, what are we debating here?” he said.

Some parents, especially in affluent areas, are opting out of testing, notes Dana Goldstein in a blog post on Test Resentment and the Politics of the Common Core.

The new tests were “rolled out” before many schools and teachers received new curriculum materials and training.

. . .  the decision to move quickly was a deliberate one on the part of state policy-makers; since the exams are tied to teacher evaluations and high school graduation requirements, rolling them out sends a strong message that officials expect instruction to improve now. The risk is that the Common Core movement will lose political support as families and schools receive low test scores, and that states like New York will grade the exams on such a steep curve that their purpose–raising expectations–will be watered down.

It takes “fortitude” to stick with rigorous tests when many students do badly — especially if they’re middle-class students — Goldstein concludes.

Too many (would-be) elementary teachers

State Output

Some states produce enough elementary teachers to fill anticipated openings, but others produce twice as many as needed—or more.

Supply Demand Percent Difference
Colorado 1,169 1,099 106%
Connecticut 701 600 117
Delaware 373 122 306
Illinois 9,982 1,073 930
Kentucky 1,275 730 175
Louisiana 1,033 650 159
Maryland 1,011 723 140
Massachusetts 1,175 1,051 112
Michigan 2,903 1,227 236
Minnesota 1,179 709 166
Mississippi 751 660 114
New York 6,498 2,800 232
Pennsylvania 6,048 1,420 426
Tennessee 1,970 1,380 143

In many states, colleges are churning out too many would-be elementary teachers, reports Education Week.

New York and Michigan prepared twice as many elementary teachers as needed in 2011-12. Pennsylvania turned out four new graduates for every job opening. Illinois issued nine new elementary-teacher certificates in 2009 for every one first-time teacher hired in 2010.

By contrast, Colorado and Michigan produce just enough new elementary teachers to meet demand. (That’s assuming nobody moves from Illinois and Pennsylvania.)

Colleges should be more selective about admitting teacher candidates and train them more intensively, argues the National Council on Teacher Quality.

“We could improve, enhance, and extend the quality of teacher preparation, and therefore produce better-qualified new teacher graduates, but probably fewer in number,” agrees Arthur E. Wise, former president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Prospective elementary teachers have lower academic qualifications than other college graduates, concludes a 2007 Educational Testing Service report. (Secondary teachers have higher-than-average test scores.)

“We could raise the bar and get teachers with higher aptitudes in classrooms and still have plenty of elementary teachers,” (NCTQ’s Arthur) McKee said.

Testing first

New York schools will spend more days on testing and test prep than instruction in 2013-14, according to Students Last, a satire site.

New York State’s Education Commissioner John King (said):  “We acknowledge that given the number of days for benchmark assessments, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, state tests, mid-terms, finals, exams for English Language Learners and those taking alternative assessments, unit tests, make-up days for those who were absent and given that teachers typically use the weeks before a high-stakes exam for test preparation, that for the first time in New York State history there are actually fewer instructional days than testing days.”

Asked if he saw anything wrong with requiring more testing than teaching, Commissioner King responded, “I don’t really give a crap. My children attend private school.”

The first comment is satire too. At least, I hope so.

Do charters serve fewer disabled students?

Charter schools are doing a better job serving special-needs students than reported, according to a New York State Special Education Enrollment Analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Nationwide, charters serve fewer special-ed students, according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report. However, the New York study finds “important variations in the enrollment patterns of students with special needs,” said Robin Lake, CRPE director.

In New York, charter middle and high schools enroll more special-needs students than district-run schools, according to CRPE. Charter elementary schools enroll fewer.

Some district-run elementary schools offer programs for special-needs students, the report noted.

Charter schools at the elementary level might also be less inclined to label students as needing special education services. This raises a troubling question: are charter schools under-enrolling or under-identifying students with special needs, or are district-run schools over-identifying them?

Instead of setting statewide special education enrollment targets, policy makers should set “school or regional targets that pay careful attention to those very specific factors that influence such enrollment choices as locations, grade-spans, and neighborhoods,” the report advises.

Setting targets assumes that every school should include the same percentage of disabled students. I’d like to see more schools (charter or district-run) designed for students with specific special needs, such as attention deficit disorder or autism, and more designed for academically gifted students.

Elite students excuse cheating

Cheating is easy to rationalize, say students at New York City’s elite Stuyvesant High School in the New York Times.

The night before one of the “5 to 10” times he has cheated on a test, a senior at Stuyvesant High School said, he copied a table of chemical reactions onto a scrap of paper he would peek at in his chemistry exam. He had decided that memorizing the table was a waste of time — time he could spend completing other assignments or catching up on sleep.

“It’s like, ‘I’ll keep my integrity and fail this test’ — no. No one wants to fail a test,” he said, explaining how he and others persuaded themselves to cheat. “You could study for two hours and get an 80, or you could take a risk and get a 90.”

A recent alumnus said that by the time he took his French final exam one year, he, along with his classmates, had lost all respect for the teacher. He framed the decision to cheat as a choice between pursuing the computer science and politics projects he loved or studying for a class he believed was a joke.

“When it came to French class, where the teacher had literally taught me nothing all year, and during the final the students around me were openly discussing the answers, should I not listen?” he said.

Stuyvesant students are competing for highly selective colleges. They work very hard in the classes they care about, but try to limit their workload in other classes. Copying homework is considered OK, students told the Times. Cheating on tests requires some extra excuse-making.

In June, 71 juniors were caught texting his each other answers to state Regents exams.

Education and civil rights group charge the elite high schools’ admissions test screens out black and Hispanic students, reports the Times. The Specialized High School Admissions Test is the sole criterion for admission to eight specialized schools.

According to the complaint, 733 of the 12,525 black and Hispanic students who took the exam were offered seats this year. For whites, 1,253 of the 4,101 test takers were offered seats. Of 7,119 Asian students who took the test, 2,490 were offered seats. At Stuyvesant High School, the most sought-after school, 19 blacks were offered seats in a freshman class of 967.

“Stuyvesant and these other schools are as fair as fair can be,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a news conference. “You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is.”

School funding: Quietly unequal

The rich districts get richer in Illinois, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and North Carolina, according to a new Center for American Progress report, The Stealth Inequities of School Funding. In these states, schools in higher-poverty districts receive less state and local dollars than low-poverty districts, the report finds.

On the state level, there’s no relationship between education spending and results, according to a State Budget Solutions study, which analyzed state spending from 2009 to 2011. Spending more didn’t raise graduation rates or ACT scores. Spending less didn’t lower performance.

Massachusetts, which has the strongest academic performance in almost every subject area and the highest ACT scores, spend less of its state budget on education than 45 other states, SBS reported.

CUNY launches community college experiment

If community college students enrolled full-time, learned basic skills in for-credit classes, took a well-planned schedule of courses, received mandatory tutoring and counseling . . .  Would they earn degrees?  City University of New York’s New Community College will test whether an intensive, highly structured program will increase graduation rates.