Archives for category: Testing

Dear Marc,

I read your latest post about NAEP scores in which you say you are taking a long view. You dismiss the disappointing results of the 2015 NAEP, which showed almost no gains and some declines. You choose instead to look at the Long-Term Trend NAEP, which has been asking identical questions since 1973. You point out that 17-year-old scores are flat since the early 1970s, which persuades you that we are in big trouble.

For readers, let me explain that there are two different versions of NAEP. The one that was recently reported is called “Main NAEP.” Its curriculum framework is updated every seven to 10 years, and the content changes. Main NAEP is offered in every state every other year, in reading and mathematics. It also periodically tests other subjects, such as history, civics, and science. It gives data for individual states for students in fourth and eighth grades, enabling anyone to compare performance from state to state. It also reports on achievement gaps among students who are white and black, white and Hispanic.

Then there is the “Long-Term Trend” NAEP. It is offered every four years. The reading LTT started in 1971, the math in 1973. Unlike Main NAEP, the content almost never changes, although items that are obsolete are deleted (the one deleted item I recall from my time on the governing board of NAEP was about S&H Green Stamps). It breaks out scores by race and gender.

Marc, you note the impressive progress made by students at ages 9 and 13, especially black and Hispanic students. But you then go on to say that at the current rate of improvement, 80% of students would not reach “proficient” for many decades, perhaps more than a century. I have to disagree with you here, because setting NAEP proficient as a goal is as unrealistic as the NCLB mandate that 100% of American students would be proficient by 2014. NAEP proficient is a very high standard; it represents a very high level of achievement. NAEP started measuring state performance in 1992, and 23 years later, Massachusetts is the only state in the nation where as many as 50% of students have reached NAEP proficient. Why set an impossible goal?

It is true that the scores for 17-year-old students have barely moved, but not for the reasons you cite. It is not that students get dumb as they reach senior year, but that they don’t give a hoot about a test that means nothing to them. When I was on the NAEP governing board, we devoted an entire meeting to discussing the problem of motivation for students at age 17 or senior year. Seniors doodled or made patterns on the answer sheets. They didn’t care what their score was because they knew the test didn’t matter. It didn’t affect their grades; it didn’t affect their college prospects. They would never find out how they did. For them, it was a meaningless exercise. The board considered ways to motivate them. Suppose we offered a pizza party to encourage students to care? Suppose we offered cash prizes? We could not agree on a solution to the problem of motivating high school seniors to take seriously a test that didn’t count.

And that is why I am not surprised or alarmed by the test scores of 17-year-old students on a test that they know doesn’t matter to them.

David Whitman wrote a paper for the Brookings Institution called “The Surprising Roots of the Common Core: How Conservatives Gave Rise to ‘Obamacore.'” The goal of the paper is to persuade readers that conservatives, starting in the Reagan administration, laid the groundwork for national standards and tests. As a participant in some of the events he describes, I have a somewhat different take on the past.

Whitman was Arne Duncan’s speechwriter from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of a 2008 book for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute calling “Sweating the Small Stuff,” which praises “no-excuses” charter schools. His prime example was the American Indian Charter School in Oakland, whose leader subsequently resigned after $3.8 million went missing in a state audit. Given Whitman’s admiration for “no excuses” schools, it makes sense that he wrote speeches for Arne, who believes in them as an effective answer for the educational crisis of African American students who live in poverty.

There are several major differences between the advocacy for national standards in the Bush 1 administration and in the Obama administration.

First, the effort to develop voluntary national standards in the early 1990s did not take place in secret, as did the drafting of the Common Core standards.

Second, the mechanism of the Bush administration was not to convene a secret and unaccountable committee to write standards but to award grants to the nation’s leading organizations that represented teachers and scholars in each field. There was no federal involvement in the writing of the standards; each field wrote its own document about what students should know and be able to do.

Third, the Bush 1 effort was not limited to reading and math. It included the arts, science, foreign languages, history, economics, civics, and physical education.

Fourth, the Bush 1 effort did not direct any teacher about how to teach. The standards were guides, not directives.

Fifth, the Bush 1 strategy was a low-cost effort, as compared to the CCSS. The Bush 1 administration spent about $10 million, as compared to the $200+ million spent by the Gates Foundation to subsidize the CCSS.

Sixth, unlike CCSS, the Bush 1 push for voluntary national standards did not include any element of coercion. Teachers, schools, districts, or states could use them or not. The standards were truly voluntary. The theory of action was that if they were good, states would copy them, or parts of them, if they so chose.

Seventh, unlike the CCSS, there was no national public relations campaign to promote them on national television and in the print media.

Eighth, the Bush 1 voluntary national standards quickly failed after the U.S. history standards became a nasty, politicized national controversy in 1994. But when the standards failed, they didn’t drag anyone down with them, because so little was expended to create them. The Bush 1 standards did not take billions away from other purposes of schooling. They did not suck up education dollars as schools were forced to absorb budget cuts. They did not lead to increases in class sizes and billions spent on consultants and technology.

At the time the Bush 1 standards were written, Senator Lamar Alexander was Secretary of Education. He does not believe that the federal government should force states and districts to reform their schools to satisfy federal mandates. He has always opposed a “national school board.” Even as Secretary, he did not want that power. He believes in federalism.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration and the Department of Education do not understand federalism. They do not understand that federal laws specifically prohibit any federal official from attempting to influence or control curriculum or instruction. They recklessly promoted the Common Core standards, and they paid $360 million for testing the Common Core standards. Secretary Duncan pretends that the setting of national standards and the creation of tests aligned to those standards have nothing to do with either curriculum or instruction. What the federal government, and Secretary Duncan in particular, have done in trying to establish national standards and tests violates federal law. It is not only illegal, it is impractical. The theory seems to be that if everyone studies the same subjects and has the same tests, everyone will become equally successful. This is absurd. And the test results prove that the theory is absurd on its face.

Defend the Common Core standards if you wish. Use them if you choose. But please don’t say that they are a direct descendant of the failed effort in 1991-92 to create voluntary national standards, written by teachers and scholars. The Common Core standards will fail, not only because they cost billions to implement, but because of their indifference to teachers and to democratic processes.

Tim Slekar, dean of education at Edgewood College in Wisconsin, was outraged when he learned that the legislature passed a bill requiring all students to pass a civics test if they wanted to graduate from high school. His son will opt out of this test, and he urges other parents to do the same.

He writes:

Quick Fact. In the Spring, Representative James “Jimmy Boy” Edming slipped into the Wisconsin budget (without debate or public commentary) a provision that requires all students attending public schools to pass a Civics test in order to graduate from High School. According to Representative Edming it seemed like a”good idea” and would “help instill the responsibilities of citizenship.”

It’s now November and as a parent of a 10th-grade Wisconsin public school student I recently received a letter from my son’s school informing us that “successful completion of this exam will be required for graduation.”

Oh well what are you going to do?

I don’t know about all of you but as a social studies scholar and advocate for participatory citizenship I plan on challenging this disaster of a “good idea.”

Isn’t it amazing how legislators are so cavalier about writing laws telling schools and teachers how to do their job?

Here are Tim’s reasons for objecting to the mandated test as a graduation requirement:


It’s an exit exam for graduation and will have a detrimental influence on the graduation rate in Wisconsin.
He is already required to pass a civics course during his time in high school and I have faith in his teacher. She is best qualified and in the best position to assess my son’s knowledge of civics.
The civics test mandated is culturally insensitive and discriminatory.
This test actually diminishes civic participation.
This test will use valuable instruction time pushing a false patriotism at the expense of engaging experiences that motivate our students to become active citizens and critical “consumers” of political rhetoric.
It’s time to stop the mind numbing, skill and drill ethos that is destroying the potential of our children who overwhelmingly understand that the test and punish culture sucks the life out of their one chance to be educated.

Tim is willing to compromise. He will endorse the test requirement if the legislators who mandated it and other elected officials in the state also take it and publish their scores.

The people and the children of the state of Wisconsin have a right to know if their elected leaders are proficient in their knowledge of American Civics. And I do not want any excuses like “I already graduated from high school.” Too bad. If all of our children have to prove their civic competency by taking a high stakes test then so do our elected representatives.

I want to see Governor Scott Walker’s scores!

Jeannie Kaplan, who served two terms on the Denver school board, describes here how the usual monied privatizers managed to win every seat on the Denver school board at the same time that “reformers” went down to defeat in nearby Jeffco and Dougco.

The money rolled in from Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)–the hedge funders–and other national reform groups to keep the privatization agenda in control, with not a single dissenter. Some of it is “dark money,” the kind that is hard to trace or not revealed until the election is closed.

Jeannie writes:

“Reformers” in Denver are claiming victory, and to some extent they should. They have been successful in buying a 7-0 school board. Following is the story of how the last seat was purchased on November 3 and how the big money was able to hold on to the two “reform” seats up for re-election.

“Should you not wish to read all of my analysis here are the headlines:

“District 1: The incumbent was going be difficult to beat, for while voting for all things “reform,” she has managed to keep most of “reform” out of her mostly affluent, mostly white district.

“District 5: There was no way “reformers” were going to lose this seat. This was the only remaining obstacle to a unanimous board, the only thing standing between public dialogue and silent acquiescence to all staff proposals.

“At large: Had the election been held on Friday, October 28, 2015, the challenger, Robert Speth, parent not politician, would have defeated Board President Allegra “Happy” Haynes.”

Read on.

Peter Greene observes that there is a burgeoning number of “I Quit” letters by teachers. It has become a genre of its own. But he wants the world to know that he is not quitting.

Here is how his “I don’t quit” letter begins:

Dear Board of Education:

Just wanted you to know that I am not going any damn where.

Yes, a lot of people have worked hard to turn my job into something I barely recognize, and yes, I am on the butt end of a whole lot of terrible education policy, and yes, I am regularly instructed to commit educational malpractice in my classroom.

But here’s the thing– you don’t pay me nearly enough for me to do my job badly, on purpose.

I’m not going to make children miserable on purpose. I’m not going to waste valuable education time on purpose. I’m not going to teach them that reading is a miserable activity with no purpose other than to prepare for testing. I’m not going to tell them that these big stupid tests, or any other tests, or grades, even, are an important measure of how “good” they are or how much right they have to feel proud or happy or justified in taking up space on this planet. I’m not going to tell them any of that.

Most of these new education reform policies are wrong. They’re bad pedagogy, bad instruction, bad for students, bad for education, and we all know it. I am not going to spend another day in my room pretending that I don’t know it.

Am I God’s gift to teaching, so awesome that I never need to listen to anybody about anything? Not at all. It’s a big, wide, complicated world, and I’ll listen to anybody who thinks they have something to share about how children can be educated.

But here’s the thing. I am a teacher. I am an education professional. I trained to do this job, and I have never stopped training and learning since I started on this path. This is my world. This is the work that I committed myself to. I live here, and that means I know more about this work than the edu-tourists just passing through.

Read it all. It will remind you that teaching is a noble profession, and that this is a time to fight off the barbarians and stand strong for what you know is right.

Maybe it is just me, but I find myself outraged by the “reformers'” incessant manipulation of language.

“Reform” seldom refers to reform.

“Reform” means privatization.

“Reform” means assaults on the teaching profession.

“Reform” means eliminating teachers’ unions, which fight for better salaries and working conditions.

“Reform” means boasting about test scores by schools that have carefully excluded the students who might get low scores.

“Reform” means using test scores to evaluate teachers even though this practice has negative effects on teacher morale and fails to identify better or worse teachers.

“Reform” means stripping teachers of due process rights or any other job security.

“Reform” means that schools should operate for-profit and that private corporations should be encouraged to profit from school spending.

“Reform” means acceptance of privately managed schools that operate without accountability or transparency.

“Reform” means the incremental destruction of public education.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s lines from his prophetic novel 1984:

“War is peace.

“Freedom is slavery’

“Ignorance is strength.”

The goal of the leadership in the novel was to teach the population “doublethink.” To believe in contradictory ideas.

So we see schools closed, teachers and principals fired, and we are supposed to believe this is “reform.”

The media, with few exceptions, say that what is happening almost everywhere is “reform,” so it must be reform to replace public schools with privately managed charters, and to fire experienced professionals and replace them with newcomers, with untrained and inexperienced teachers and with principals who taught for one or two years.

It must be reform to allow out-of-state billionaires to buy local and state school board elections so they can control the schools of a state they don’t live in.

I confess I am also irritated by the habit of referring to young children as “scholars.” To me, a scholar is someone who has devoted his or her professional life to the advancement of knowledge. If a five-year-old is a “scholar,” what do you call a distinguished university professor who is widely recognized for her research and publications?

Has the public been suckered into believing that the destruction of public education is “reform”?

Does the public willingly accept the idea that hedge fund managers and equity investors are taking control of what is supposed to be a public responsibility?

Will we let them monetize our children and their public schools?

Does the public understand that a small group inside the Beltway wrote the “national standards” behind closed doors, that one billionaire (Bill Gates) paid for them and paid millions to national education organizations to advocate for them, and that the federal government bribed 45 states to endorse them?

How long will the public tolerate tests tied to those standards that are designed to fail 65-70% of the nation’s children?

How much longer will we allow the nation’s children to be labeled and sorted by standardized tests whose outcomes may be predicted by family income?

When will the public realize that test-based accountability does not improve education, does not promote better teaching, and actually reduces the quality of education?

How long can the Emperor parade through the streets before someone tells him he is naked?

How long can a charade persist before the public knows they have been conned?

How long will it take to unmask this great theft of a democratic institution that belongs to the public, not to entrepreneurs, foundations, rightwing ideologues, hedge fund managers, or their compliant politicians?






Gary Rubinstein, who teaches mathematics at elite Stuyvesant High School in New York City, is a crack data analyst. Although he was one of the first to join Teach for America, he has become one of the most perceptive critics of “reform.”

In this post, he examines Louisiana’s claims of great success on Advanced Placement exams.

He writes:

To education ‘reformers,’ test scores are the ultimate measure of success. Test scores are the evidence that the country’s education system is broken. Test scores of certain charter schools prove that most teachers in this country have low expectations and don’t try very hard. Schools have been shut down over test scores. Teachers have been fired over test scores.

Contrary to the narrative of common core proponents, there are currently many national tests that can be used to compare test scores of different states. There’s the NAEP, the ACT, the SAT, and, probably the highest quality of all of them, the Advanced Placement exams. Though I’m not a huge fan of a lot that The College Board does, I find the tests that I’m knowledgeable about, AB Calculus, BC Calculus, and Computer Science, to be good tests.

Education ‘reform’ leaders use low test scores as a way to justify their radical policy changes. “Kids can’t wait,” they say. They promise that they know what works and that they just need some time for their changes to take effect.

In Louisiana, the State Education Commissioner John White has boasted for the past three years about increased participation in taking AP exams, but he underplays the continued very low passing rates of students on those exams. Gary has commented on these AP passing rates every year and notes that this year, John White is claiming “big gains.” So Gary takes a closer look.

He finds that Louisiana has passing rates (a score of 3 or higher) that are third from the bottom in the nation.

True, the participation rates have gone up, but even so, Louisiana continues to be one of the lowest performing states in the nation.

Gary writes:

In addition to the state-by-state data released by the College Board, the state of Louisiana, a few months ago, released AP data for their districts and their schools. These numbers are shockingly low and certainly seem to be something that ‘outcome driven reformers’ want to ignore. Sci Academy, which is one of those New Schools For New Orleans schools touted on Oprah, for example, had over 110 students take an AP exam while less than 10 of them passed one. Out of about 500 students who took an AP in the entire Recovery School District, only 27 students, or 5.5% passed one.

‘Reformers’ like to say that they get increased freedom in exchange for increased test score accountability. They are truly running out of time to deliver on their promises.



Lisa Rudley, the leader of the New York State Allies of Parents and Educators and a prominent proponent of Opt Outs, here presents to the Cuomo Commission to review the Common Core standards and tests. Lisa is a public school parent in Ossining, New York.

She explains the origins and flaws of the Common Core standards, and she explains the critique of them.

She also offers specific recommendations to improve education in the state.

She expresses the impact of the standards and high-stakes testing on children with disabilities and students who are new to English.

She demands a thorough review and changes in standards, assessment, curriculum, and teacher evaluation.

She says, “When you hurt teachers, you hurt kids. And when you hurt kids, parents get very angry.”

With leaders like Lisa and NYSAPE, parents are leading the way to a much better, far richer, quality of education than the one offered by the “reformers.”

But whoa! Hang on. Don’t turn it off when Lisa finishes. She is followed by the informed and eloquent Jamaal Bowman, principal of the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action. He has a series of clear and pragmatic recommendations on truly reforming the public schools.


Emily Talmage lives in Maine, where she blogs about the latest fads to “reform” American education. In this post, she shows the relationship between the theories of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist who was renowned in his time for his belief in behaviorism, and today’s big new idea: competency based education. In President Obama’s recent “Testing Action Plan,” he endorsed the strategy of competency based education, where every student moves at his or her own pace through programmed instruction on computers. The plan sets aside $25 million to encourage states to try new forms of assessment, including competency-based models. Although this approach is often referred to as individualized, customized, and personalized instruction, it is a direct descendant of B.F. Skinner’s teaching machines. In a previous post, she noted that:


A shift to competency-based education has been in the works a least a decade, with the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Gates Foundation, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (among others) at the helm of this shift.



Here, she sets the ideas of B.F. Skinner, enunciated in the 1950s, alongside those currently on the website of testing company Questar, whose assessments have been adopted by New York State:


Here’s Skinner:

As soon as the student has written his response, he operates the machine, and learns immediately whether he is right or wrong. This is a great improvement over the system in which papers are corrected by a teacher, where the student must wait perhaps until another day, to learn whether or not what he is written is right.

Such immediate knowledge has two principle effects: it leads most rapidly to the formation of correct behavior. The student quickly learns to be right…


Now compare the Skinner quote with this description that comes from the website of Questar – the testing company recently adopted by New York State:

With tablets and the right software, this approach is possible on an individualized basis: after every five minutes of individualized tablet-based instruction, students would be presented with a brief series of questions that adapt to their skill level, much as computer-adaptive tests operate today. After that assessment, the next set of instructional material would be customized according to these results.


Here’s Skinner again:

Another important advantage is that the student is free to move at his own pace. With techniques in which a whole class is forced to move together, the bright student wastes time, waiting for others to catch up, and the slow student, who may not be inferior in any other respect, is forced to go too fast. …A student who is learning by machine learns at the rate, which is most effective for him. The fast student covers the course in a short time, but the slow student, by giving more time to the subject, can cover the same ground. Both learn the material thoroughly.


Now, compare this with Questar:

Because students progress through subject material at their own pace, they can be grouped by ability instead of grade level, similar to competency-based learning approaches currently being tried in various schools and districts.

Questar and Skinner…pretty much indistinguishable, aren’t they?



Vermont continues to be amazing.


It recently issued a letter to parents telling them not to worry about the Common Core tests because the passing mark is set so high that they are meaningless. No national the world has ever reached the level expected of students on these tests.


This is an excerpt from the letter:


These tests are based on a narrow definition of “college and career ready.” In truth, there are many different careers and colleges, and there are just as many different definitions of essential skills. In fact, many (if not most) successful adults fail to score well on standardized tests. If your child’s scores show that they are not yet proficient, this does not mean that they are not doing well or will not do well in the future. 


We also recommend that you not place a great deal of emphasis on the “claims” or sub-scores. There are just not enough test items to give you reliable information.


The Vermont Board hits on a bizarre aspect of the Common Core and the associated tests: There is no single curriculum or test that can test for both college and career readiness. The student who plans to go to an Ivy League school, the student who plans to be an electrician, and the student who plans to join the military, the student who plans to be a farmer, cannot be judged by a single measure.






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