Merryl Tisch: Let Them Eat Test Scores

New York State Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch addressed the winter institute of the New York State Council of School Superintendents last week.  Her prepared remarks were fairly dry compared to the lively yet facile talk given by keynote speaker Michael Petrilli, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who extolled the gathered superintendents to be “cage busting” leaders without mentioning that most of them were being routinely stiffed by Albany’s school aid budget.  Dr. Tisch stuck to three main points: rigor, flexibility, and comparing parents who opt their children out of annual standardized exams to people who refuse to get their children vaccinated.  Oh wait, that last one was folded into her discussion of “the future.”  I’ll get back to that.

Dr. Tisch’s comments on rigor were brief and not exceptionally interesting.  She took issue with an unnamed “national leader” in education who claimed a good school was one “where parents want to send their children, teachers want to teach, and students are engaged.”  According to Dr. Tisch, this missed a necessary component: “…students are challenged by high standards and are supported in their growth by great and caring teachers.”  Neither “high standards” nor “rigor” are actually defined by Dr. Tisch, and I am familiar with entire schools of educational philosophy that assert student engagement actually comes from doing challenging and meaningful work in partnership with teachers who support student growth, so Dr. Tisch’s objection could have been phrased as simple clarification and served a much more useful purpose.

However, I would point out that this focus on “high standards” as a proxy for “rigor” or “engagement” is a patently simplistic.  In my critique of Michael Petrilli’s comments to the same audience of superintendents, I pointed out that the connection between recognized high quality standards and student achievement as measured on assessments like the NAEP is tenuous at best, and it points to a need to actually pay far more attention to the systems that support (or fail to support) teaching than to the documents that serve as a starting place for planning.  Chancellor Tisch, however, has demonstrated little patience for systemic change, and last November announced she would move aggressively by Spring to start closing New York City’s most struggling schools even though Mayor De Blasio had only just announced a three year program to turn around those schools.

Amongst its other, undefined, characteristics, “rigor” simply has no patience.

Dr. Tisch’s remarks quickly pivoted to flexibility, where she was just as vague and rambling as her shorter remarks on vigor had been.  There is some boilerplate acknowledgement that “one size does not fit all,” and a few specific points where the Regents have either asked for more flexibility from the USDOE or delayed high stakes consequences for students.  The superintendents got an acknowledgement that “college readiness is complicated,” and that a single test score cannot capture qualities like “persistence, collaboration, and creativity.”    However, they were assured that the Regents understood this as the Diploma with Advanced Designation “requires persistence through advanced math and science courses, as well as advanced coursework in CTE or World Language or the Arts.”

Well, gosh.

I am baffled by Dr. Tisch’s assessment of “flexibility” that includes no mention of content, pedagogy, differentiation of instruction, reduced class sizes, co-teaching, organizational and leadership changes, or frankly anything else that actually might result in improved teaching reaching more students.  Highlighting a request to the federal government for the “flexibility” to treat English language learners in a sane and humane manner is highlighting a minimal obligation and does not speak to me of a department whose cup is overflowing with much flexibility.  Further, saying an “advanced designation” Regents Diploma “requires persistence” because it requires advanced coursework is mistaking dutifully checking off ticky boxes with a complex and highly variable psychological phenomenon.  “Collaboration and creativity” get stunningly brief mentions but no substance whatsoever.

This thinking is not merely stuck inside the box, but it is holding desperately on to the box and wailing in terror at the thought of being dragged out it.

Dr. Tisch turned to discussion of “the future” with a brief boast that the Board of Regents has proposed a $2 billion increase in school funding which is, in fact, the largest increase proposed by anyone in Albany.  That sum, while substantial and welcome, would be, if it passed, more than $3.5 billion SHORT of the minimum sum necessary for the state to meets its obligations in the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement.  I am certain the superintendents were pleased to hear her actually address the issue of foundational aid and the gap elimination adjustment, but they probably would have liked more than a paragraph on it.  She also previewed the Regents’ priorities that the next state Commissioner be someone who is “good at listening, explaining, and adjusting course as warranted” among other qualities.  This is good news in no small part because the outgoing Commissioner of Education, John King Jr., was fundamentally incapable of listening, demonstrated no ability or willingness to explain anything to anyone, and was as willing to “change course” as a cat is willing to be walked on a leash.

Chancellor Tisch reserved the longest portion of her address to a defense of testing and to denouncing the opt out movement.  The defense of annual testing of all children is familiar by now and as wrong as it is when uttered by Secretary of Education Duncan or the editorial board of The New York Times: If we don’t test every child in every school in every grade then kids “disappear.”  As far as monitoring the system overall is concerned, this is inaccurate and representative sampling of student populations in ways that are minimally intrusive are fully capable of telling us how we are doing as a whole.  If Dr. Tisch is worried that individual students “disappear” then our efforts would be far better served working to give all teachers access to more sophisticated and less intrusive formative assessment tools that could actually provide useful feedback during the school year and could help teachers and parents effectively discuss individual students’ progress. The insistence on mass delivered standardized tests attached to high stakes has already done sufficient damage to curriculum breadth and done so little to raise student achievement on stable measures like the NAEP that there is no good argument to maintain it.

The the Chancellor turned to opting out:

If you encourage test refusal, you have made a very powerful statement. We all want the tests to be even better – as short as possible and as closely matched to instruction as possible.  That is a fair critique, and we continue to improve the tests over time.

However, some have a very different goal.  They have said they want to bring down the whole system on which adult accountability is based – even if only a little bit – on evidence of student learning.

I am much less cynical, and I see things very differently.  I believe that test refusal is a terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing.

Why on earth would you not want to know whether your child is on track for success in the fifth grade or success in college?  Why would you not want to know how your child and your school are doing compared to other children in district, region, and State?  Why would you not want to know the progress of our multi-billion dollar investment in education?  Why would you not want to know whether all students are making progress, not just the lucky few?

I do not pretend that test results are the only way to know, but they are an important piece of information.  They are the only common measure of progress we have.

We are not going to force kids to take tests.  That’s not the New York way.  But, we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.

We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up.  Most of us don’t refuse to get a vaccination.  We should not refuse the test (emphasis mine).

Most of this section of her talk betrays the same staggering lack of imagination that is common among the defenders of annual testing — and it conflates entirely different purposes of assessment.  Keeping tabs on the system and how it functions does not require annual testing of all children to be effective, and keeping tabs of individual children is done with much greater nuance and usefulness by a raft of other tools, both qualitative and quantitative, that teachers can use in ways that actually inform instruction of individual children.  If the Regents want to help teachers develop them, adapt them, and create systems for effectively communicating between school and the home, then that would be a welcomed effort, but Dr. Tisch is mainly saying the critical element here is locating every child’s place on a box and whisker plot while she pays very minor lip service to more useful measures.

The truly telling part, however, is her comparison of refusing to have a child tested with refusing routine medical care and vaccination.  Despite a half-hearted attempt to note that tests are not the only way to know how a child is doing, Dr. Tisch apparently believes that having your child sit for a standardized examination is as important to that child’s long term readiness in school as having your child vaccinated against polio is to keeping your child out of an iron lung. The comparison is actually breathtaking because whereas annual visits to the doctor usually involve a number of different measures of health and keeping a routine vaccination schedule is based upon individual and public health concerns, annual standardized testing provides a generally crude snapshot look at individual children’s academic accomplishments and test refusal has zero impact on any one else’s ability to get an education. “Opting out” of routine medical care is frequently a decision to discount well-established science about personal and communal health benefits.  Opting out of high stakes standardized examinations is a decision based upon — well, I will only speak for myself and my family here.

Absent massive changes, my wife and I intend to opt our oldest child out of New York’s Common Core aligned and Pearson designed examinations.  Our reasons are a bit more involved than Dr. Tisch apparently assumes:

First, the tests are of questionable appropriateness for the age of the children taking them.  Russ Walsh of Rider University in New Jersey examined Pearson’s sample reading passages for the PARCC exams, and he found that by most accepted measures of readability, the material was up to two grade levels above the age of the children taking the exams. While the Common Core exams are meant to be challenging, this is an absurd way to design a mass standardized test and a completely back door way to redefine what is considered average skills.  My family objects to a standardized exam that is designed to flummox students who are not entering the test well above their grade level skills.

Second, the New York State Education Department, led by John King Jr., set the proficiency cut scores in a way that deliberately and predictably places almost 70% of the students in our state as below proficiency and did so with no public explanation as to why.  NYSED pegged cut scores to performance levels roughly indicative or SAT scores that were roughly indicative of first year college “success.”  There has been no public discussion or debate about why this is an appropriate way to define “proficient” for all students, regardless of their college plans, but the result was entirely predictable — the percentage of students reaching “proficient” is slightly larger than the percentage of adults over 24 in New York with a BA.  My family objects to opaque changes in the meaning of test scores.

Third, the lack of explanation of what these scores mean or attempts to justify the way they were set has resulted in a thoroughly dishonest representation of what the scores mean from a multitude of sources, including the media, anti-tenure and pro-charter school advocates, and Governor Cuomo himself. Campbell Brown who has taken the legal battle to strip teachers of tenure protections to New York, repeatedly says the test scores mean students are not reading or doing math “at grade level.”  The charter school advocacy group “Families for Excellent Schools” released a report where it uses the test scores to claim that over 140,000 NYC students are in schools where 90% of the students cannot read or do math at grade level, and this misrepresentation is dutifully repeated in the media. Governor Cuomo repeatedly uses the test scores to insist that there must be many more incompetent teachers in our schools. The combined goal of this rhetoric is obvious: the closing of many more public schools so they can be turned over to charter school operators who appropriate the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement while funneling public money into private hands and increasing segregation of the schools.  My family objects to the cynical and opportunistic manipulation of the test scores that has gone on without a peep of objection or correction from the Board of Regents, the department of education, or the Commissioner.

Fourth, both Dr. Tisch and the governor intend to use the test scores in invalid ways that will objectively harm educational quality in our state. Dr. Tisch, in communications between her office and Governor Cuomo, endorsed raising the percentage of teacher evaluations governed by standardized test scores from 20% to 40%.  Governor Cuomo’s “Opportunity Agenda” calls for raising it to a full 50%.  Both of these ideas are horrible and run contrary to the warnings and advice of actual experts in statistics and evaluation.  Far from improving education in our state, these plans will hasten an already alarming narrowing of the curriculum and give teachers heavy incentives to teach to the test.  Instead of ferreting out bad teachers, this will take random and unpredictable aim at even excellent teachers.  Dr. Tisch thinks people who object to this want to tear down the “adult accountability” system, but it would be more accurate to say we object to that system being built upon a foundation of Grade A Bullplop.  My family does not want our child’s test scores used to further deprofessionalize teachers and harm the curriculum.

Fifth, my child will not gain a blessed damned thing by sitting for hours upon hours in these examinations.  Our oldest child is quite bright as every teacher from pre-K until now has attested.  Our oldest child is also quite creative and can spend hours in inventive and imaginative play.  Our oldest child also does most thinking and reasoning via talk, so work that is entirely done silently at a seat is sometimes a struggle and sometimes torturous.  While it is true that school work (and work work) will eventually necessitate an ability and willingness to work for long stretches in silence, it is also true that our oldest child is a young kid and should fully explore being that first.  Further, future school and work will also necessitate discussion and collaboration, qualities that our standardized exams do not remotely address.  My child needs assessments that demonstrate a full range of strengths and challenges rather than one that will foster a sense of failure and inadequacy and then be used to punish teachers for having a student who thinks orally. My family objects to subjecting our child to frustration that serves no constructive purpose.

I would submit to Dr. Tisch that far from being like refusing routine medical care, our plan to refuse standardized tests is akin to switching medical providers because the last three times you went with a mild fever and headache the doctor’s boss insisted you have a colonoscopy.  And then used the results of that to fire the doctor because you didn’t get better.

If Dr. Tisch is serious that standardized tests are “an important measure” then she should be working to rehabilitate them so they are only being used for what they can actually accomplish.  Testing to monitor how the system is serving students needn’t be disruptive of the entire system.  Assessment to check student progress and communicate that to parents should consist of a broad portfolio of tools for teachers to use in the classroom, and the NYSED would do better to invest in those and in new pathways to communicate to parents and guardians.  Testing to evaluate teachers based upon adequate yearly progress using value added measures should be tossed onto the dung heap of abandoned educational fads in favor of teacher evaluations designed to identify actually beneficial teaching in the classroom.

What does the future hold, Chancellor Tisch?  A school system whose improvement is based upon models of growth and support?  Or lots and lots of tests?

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Filed under Common Core, New York Board of Regents, Pearson, Testing

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