Carol Burris, a noted high school principal in Long Island, New York, writes here about the Senate hearings on the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and the unrealistic expectations for the effects of standardized testing that some senators expressed.


Burris admired the clear-eyed statement of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who described the two worlds of education:


“My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it. One is the world of contract and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal state and local level. And the other is a world of principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.”


And she appreciated Senator Lamar Alexander’s concern about federal overreach that turns Congress or the federal Department of Education into a “national school board.”


Most bizarre to her was Colorado Senator Michael Bennett’s statement: “In my mind if you want to cure this problem of poverty in our country, the way to do that is by making sure that people can read when they’re in the first grade.”


She comments on Bennett: I am glad the senator began the sentence with the phrase, “in my mind” because surely that is the only place his theory could be true. Even if there were advantage to the onset of early formal reading instruction (and there is not), to think that first-graders fluently reading would “cure poverty” is not only indefensible, it trivializes the great economic inequities that are the root cause of our nation’s greatest challenge.


Burris then reviews the claim advanced by many senators that annual testing is needed to close achievement gaps between children of different racial and ethnic groups. She shows that this is not true, that NCLB has not closed achievement gaps after a dozen years of trying, and that in New York, since the advent of Common Core testing, achievement gaps are actually growing.


Students in special education, she writes, are especially harmed by the emphasis on high-stakes tests and offers New York state as an example of this harm:


New York has just phased in a new non-diploma credential called CDOS for special education students. It was passed in anticipation that fewer students with disabilities will be able to meet the requirements for a high school diploma as the Common Core graduation Regents are phased in. This certificate certifies that the student has some workplace experience—but it is not a high school diploma and it cannot be used to apply for college, trade school or to enter the military. There was testimony at the hearing that before NCLB special education students were assigned to work with the janitor. Clearly, thanks to Common Core test-based accountability, it appears those days will return, at least in New York.


Despite the outcry of parents and teachers about the effects of high-stake testing, Congress and the administration are not listening:


Evaluating teachers using VAM accelerates the narrowing of the curriculum and makes some students more attractive than others to teach. When teachers begin losing their jobs based on test scores, how easy will it be to attract excellent teachers to schools with high degrees of student mobility and/or truancy? Who will want to teach English language learners with interrupted education, or students with emotional disabilities that make their performance on tests unpredictable? And yet Governor Cuomo now demands that VAM be increased to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Education Secretary Arne Duncan still defends the inclusion of test scores in teacher evaluation.


This continued racketing up of high stakes is demoralizing to teachers and students alike, and Burris predicts it will hurt students and public education: