Testing Backlash Will Harm Disadvantaged Kids

Diane Ravitch explains (again) why she no longer supports the Common Core standards. She gets as column in The New York Times for this because she’s not just any old disaffected wordsmith.

She gained a following when she publicly renounced No Child Left Behind after having served as an Assistant Secretary for Education when the first Bush administration proposed it. And she later argued for national standards and assessments.

The Common Core and related tests aren’t national. But they would be if all states adopted them, as I think the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association hoped when they initiated the lengthy standards development process back in 2009.

I’m not by any means prepared to assess the standards. Nor the curricula that translated them into classroom lessons. Nor the tests developed to measure how well students have learned what they were supposed to.

But I don’t need that sort of expertise to recognize problems in the Ravitch piece. (Those interested can find a point-by-point rebuttal by Blair Mann at the Collaborative for Student Success.)

What concerns me most is the hostility to standardized tests — now directed at the Common Core, but older and fostered by major teachers unions.

They’ve licensed — and in some cases, encouraged — what are essentially parental strikes, i.e., refusals to let their kids take the tests. That, of course, skews results. And it’s justifiably alarmed major civil rights organizations.

Now, teachers do have griefs — among them, the way some school districts use standardized test scores to evaluate their performance, without factoring in the unique challenges of educating poor children and others disadvantaged in the classroom, e.g., because they’re still learning English.

Parents too have legitimate objections — mostly the barrage of tests administered in part to prep students for the relatively few tests No Child mandated and in part to collect more scores for the teacher evaluations.

But neither the Common Core itself nor the related tests have anything to do with how schools use scores, for good or ill, or how much testing they do in hopes of getting kids to score high.

Both, as I (and many others) have written before, have their roots in the just-superseded No Child. Now we have a new version of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — the also ambitiously named Every Student Succeeds Act.

States get more flexibility, of course. The U.S. Department of Education is expressly prohibited from using its clout to promote or deter their choices, as it did with the Common Core.

States still have to test students at certain points in their education, however. And the Department of Education must still issue rules to spell out everything the law requires them to do.

The test issue, therefore, takes on a special timeliness. So, therefore, does one of Ravitch’s beefs with the Common Core. The tests, she rightly says, are tougher than those that some states used before they switched.

She faults them because failure rates are “staggeringly high” for blacks and Hispanics, students with disabilities and those for whom English is a second language.

This, she says, creates “a sense of failure and hopelessness among them.” We should instead insist that all children have equal opportunities to learn, back that with sufficient funding and let teachers teach and test however they choose.

But we’d then have no reliable basis for determining whether the equal educational opportunity mandate in the Civil Rights Act has any practical effect at the school, district or state level. Likewise the more equal academic achievement that Title I has always aimed to promote.

Nor would teachers, administrators or policymakers. The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, which Ravitch says suffice, yield only state-level comparisons, though states may get breakouts for some large urban districts.

The tests don’t reflect what every child has learned (or not), let alone learned what any current curriculum calls for. And the criterion they’ve used for low-income students is less reliable now than it used to be because many schools can now serve free meals to all their students, not only those qualified by their family’s income.

The real value of the NAEP is that the tests remain relatively consistent over a long period of time and provide a useful perspective on states’ own assessment scores. We need that, since some states shrewdly kept their tests easy — or made passing easier.

We shouldn’t, of course, dismiss the “hopelessness” low scores may foster in students already struggling because they don’t have the advantages their better-off peers enjoy. And we surely shouldn’t dismiss the need to make equal educational opportunity a reality everywhere.

But the ignorance Ravitch seems to advocate isn’t bliss for low-scoring students. They already know they can’t read the textbooks, do the math problems, understand the science behind the experiments, etc.

And it’s not bliss for their parents, who surely want to know whether their kids are learning what they’ll need to be “college and career ready,” as the Common Core intends.

We don’t need only standardized tests that reflect school-by-school learning. We need breakouts that tell us whether children with long-known disadvantages have mastered critical knowledge and skills.

ESSA requires the breakouts, plus some we haven’t had before. And the draft rules reportedly track the law (paywall precludes link).

States can still develop their own tests — or use those already developed to reflect the Common Core. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia chose the latter. But more than half have since decided to design their own.

They’ve defected mainly for political reasons. In some cases, state lawmakers perhaps responded to parents’ outcries when their kids scored lower because the tests were harder.

But more, it seems, want to push back against the Common Core itself, viewing it as one of the Obama administration’s intrusions into their affairs.

Now Ravitch has lent her authority to rejecting the Common Core — and the standardized tests that yield reliable cross-state comparisons. Worse, she’s lent her authority to opting out of any standardized tests in our public school systems.

A classic case of killing the messenger, I think.







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