Tag Archives: Pearson

Cory Booker Whiffs It.

Let’s not mince words: Betsy DeVos, the designated nominee for Secretary of Education, is a potential wrecking ball aimed at public schools.  The Michigan billionaire brings literally no qualifications to the post except a decades long zeal for privatizing public schools and an alliance with Christian Dominionists who see public schools’ secular and pluralistic mission as a threat to their values.  Her advocacy in Michigan helped spawn one of the most shoddy and unaccountable charter school sectors in the nation with the city of Detroit especially suffering under a bizarre maze of over capacity and an environment that was dubbed “The Hunger Games” for public school.  Even the typical funders of school choice and charter school networks tend to steer clear of Detroit because they simply have no idea what they are getting themselves into.  None of this seems to matter to DeVos who gives the impression that simply removing regulation and getting public money out of fully public schools is the only real goal — advocacy groups funded by her even blocked an effort to prevent failing charter schools from expanding.

It is possible, of course, that the reality of governing and managing the federal education bureaucracy will stifle her.  After all, the work of being a Cabinet Secretary is vastly different than the work of privately bending politicians to her will via campaign donations.  Further, the federal government only provides a small portion of the nation’s annual P-12 school budget, putting an inherent limit on the reach of the Secretary of Education.  However, Republicans are already suggesting that some or most of Donald Trump’s promised $20 billion school choice fund could come from the $15 billion spent on Title 1 grants.  $15 billion is not a lot of money compared to the $600 billion spent on public elementary and secondary education, but it reaches over 56,000 schools serving tens of millions of students.  There’s a lot of potential for chaos during her proposed tenure in Washington.

The DeVos nomination must pose a bit of difficulty for current education reform advocates who have really come into their own under President Obama.  Those who claim to stand for standards and accountability and push the narrative of “high performing” charter schools will have a difficult time defending DeVos funded outcomes in Michigan.  Perhaps more difficult is the fact that today’s education reformers have labored constantly to portray their issues – accountability and testing, privatization, breaking teachers’ unions – as matters of civil rights.  Whether writing for Peter Cunningham’s Education Post, or providing content for Campbell Brown’s The74, or lobbying Democratic politicians to favor policies long championed by Republicans like Democrats for Education Reform, education reformers do two things consistently:  1) distract from the fact that they are largely funded by what education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch has long called the “Billionaire Boys Club” who have no special interest in civil rights and progressive politics and 2) insist that turning as many schools as possible into privately managed charter schools and weakening teachers’ union rights are THE civil rights struggle of our time.  DeVos’ service as Secretary of Education will provide cognitive dissonance for these advocates.  On the one hand, she will almost certainly be a bonanza for the charter school sector.  On the other hand, she will serve at the pleasure of a President whose rise to office has sent spasms of joy among literal Nazis. Further, the incoming administration’s promises of mass deportation and “law and order” policies are aimed directly at the urban minority communities education reformers claim to serve.

Small wonder, then, that when “Democrats” for Education Reform issued a statement about the election, Shavar Jeffries suggested that Democrats resist any temptation to serve in a Trump administration.  In it, he invoked progressive principles and tried to tie them to reform priorities, but he also gave a strong nod to the condition of children in general in our communities and the need for a government that cares about those issues:

The policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump run contrary to the most fundamental values of what it means to be a progressive committed to educating our kids and strengthening our families and communities. He proposes to eliminate accountability standards, cut Title I funding, and to gut support for vital social services that maximize our students’ ability to reach their potential. And, most pernicious, Trump gives both tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes that assault the basic dignity of our children, causing incalculable harm not only to their sense of self, but also to their sense of belonging as accepted members of school communities and neighborhoods.

Less than a week later, Mr. Jeffries issued another statement about the nomination of Betsy DeVos.  The statement, more measured than the previous one, congratulated her and “applauded” her commitment to “high quality” charter schools.  The statement then turned to concern about other policies that might come from the new administration, called upon Ms. DeVos to be a “voice” against those policies, and once again blasted Donald Trump for his rhetoric.  To say that Ms. DeVos is an advocate for quality of any kind is belied by what she leaves in her wake in Michigan, but, as Mercedes Schneider points out, DFER’s lobbying arm, Education Reform Now, is a beneficiary of DeVos money.  It is hard to give full throated criticism to someone who can cut off your spigot.  This is the bind that education reformers find themselves in – unable to shout “huzzah” that one of their top allies is in the Trump administration lest they betray ideological dissonance….and unable to shout “boo” lest they bite the hand that feeds them.  America is the only advanced nation where education “reform” is made up of billionaires paying millionaires to wreck middle class unions teaching working class children.

And then there is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

Senator Booker is a bit of a phenomenon in the Democratic Party.  Having risen from city council in Newark to the mayor’s office then to the United States Senate in a little more than a decade, the Senator is well educated, charismatic, and he literally saved a neighbor from a burning building.  Actually, he also saved a freezing dog, fixed a broken traffic light, and personally shoveled out snowed in residents after a blizzard.  Give the man an armored body suit and a utility belt, and he could be Batman.  Political pundits already suggest him as a Democrat to watch out for in 2020.

What he isn’t, however, is a particular friend to public education.

While mayor of Newark, Mr. Booker famously partnered with Republican Governor Chris Christie to use a $100 million donation from Facebook CEO to reform the Brick City school system.  The resulting program, called “One Newark,” threw open the entire school system to choice and increased charter school options.  The implementation was flatly wretched, slating schools for closure even when they met their improvement targets, confusing parents and guardians in a poor managed enrollment process, sending children from the same family to schools in different wards, and leading to massive student protests and the eventual ouster of state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.  Mayor Booker was already in the United States Senate by the time Anderson was yanked from the project, but his finger prints were all over it, including $21 million spent on consultants who concocted the whole mess. This was no anomaly for Booker – his record is firmly in the education reform camp, including close ties to DFER and he has enjoyed campaign support from Andrew Tisch who was on the board of virtual charter school operator K12, Inc – which just happened to open 3 schools in Newark using their systems while Booker was mayor.

So what, exactly, does Senator Booker have to say about Betsy DeVos, a nominee who even his allies at DFER are being cautious about in tempering their enthusiasm?  A potential Secretary of Education who has never attended a public school, never taught at a public school, never sent her own children to a public school, has never studied education practice and policy at any level, and who has spent decades trying to funnel public education money into private hands?

I’m not saying anything.”

At an event where the Senator had no trouble voicing his, reasonable, concerns about Senator Jeff Sessions becoming Attorney General, he evaded entirely the chance to speak about Betsy DeVos, even though, as RollCall noted, he has served on the board of the Alliance for School Choice while she was chairwoman and spoke in 2012 to the American Federation of Children when she was chair of that organization – whose amiable title is largely cover for its support of vouchers and privatization.

I suppose the question was uncomfortable for Senator Booker.  Ms. DeVos is an ally, and she is certainly influential among some of the Senator’s donors.  She also promises to be a zealous advocate for expanding Mr. Booker’s favored school sector, charters, but she is likely to do so by gutting Title I funds to our nation’s most vulnerable communities, something not exactly on Mr. Booker’s agenda.

Still – “I’m not saying anything?”  With more than a week to contemplate the nomination, he cannot come up with anything more thought out than that?  He could have said, “I know and have enjoyed working with Betsy on issues of common interest, but the record of reform in Michigan is decidedly mixed.  My support depends upon her standing only for quality schools for urban children.”  Or he could have said, “Although I have found some common ground with Betsy before, I am very concerned that the new administration is eyeing money that 21 million children depend on.  If she supports projects that harm them I will certainly oppose her nomination.”  Or he could have said, “Betsy has advocated for ideas I can appreciate, but she should use her new position to strongly advocate for the dignity and safety of all of our children who have reason to fear the new administration. If she does not, I will oppose her nomination.”

But, no – “I’m not saying anything.”

Senator Booker had a chance to show that his education reform credentials are really wrapped tightly in at least SOME progressive principles.  He whiffed it instead.


Filed under Betsy DeVos, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Corruption, Cory Booker, DFER, Newark, One Newark, politics, School Choice, Social Justice

The Long Arm of the PARCC?

Dr. Celia Oyler is a professor of education at Teachers College.  Recently, a teacher contacted her with an intelligent and cogent critique of the recent PARCC examination, including a few selections of content from the test itself.  Dr. Oyler published this on her blog as the critique demonstrated very deep flaws within the test, specifically that PARCC is developmentally inappropriate, requiring students to read far above grade level, and that PARCC is dubiously aligned with the Common Core State Standards it allegedly assesses, requiring students to demonstrate skills not evident in the CCSS standards for their grade levels.  As a critique, the teacher’s observations, backed with selected material from the exam, was pointed and a very valuable contribution to the discourse on the examinations.  Because of the highly secretive nature of the exams and because of the extremely restrictive confidentiality agreements those who have access to it have to sign, it has been difficult to find critiques that are actually rooted in what the exams themselves require.

So, of course, that could not stand.

Within a week, Dr. Oyler was contacted by the CEO of PARCC, Laura Slover, with official “requests” that she remove “all of the material reproduced from the PARCC assessments.”  The letter claimed ownership of all “intellectual property” for PARCC, Inc., claimed that Dr. Oyler’s blog “infringed” on PARCC’s copyright, “amplified” the breach of confidentiality the teacher committed by revealing the content to anyone, and that as an “infringer” Dr. Oyler could “be held personally liable for the damages incurred by Parcc, Inc. and those who have contributed financially to the creation and validation of the assessments, including without limitation the possible need, not only to create replacement items, but to create and revalidate new test forms.” Ms. Slover demanded that the material be taken down within 24 hours and asked Dr. Oyler to reveal the name of the teacher who contacted her with the material.  In fact, she openly stated that PARCC’s willingness to “waive claims” against Dr. Oyler hinged not only on removal of the material from her blog, but also upon her cooperation in identifying the teacher — within 24 hours.

Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University received a similar letter from Ms. Slover because of her blog post linking to Dr. Oyler’s, and Dr. Ravitch as well as a number of other Twitter users had tweets linking to Dr. Oyler’s post removed from the micro-blogging platform.


PARRC, Inc.’s heavy handed tactics lead me to a number of observations:

First: We should, once and for all, dispense with the tomfoolery from Common Core and testing proponents that the PARCC, SBAC, and other Common Core aligned exams are valuable for individual students and their families.  For some time now, they have gone on about an alleged “honesty gap” in education where students and families were told by the previous state assessments that they were doing well in school while proficiency levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress “proved” they were actually floundering.  According to this line of thought, it is a good thing that many more students struggle to meet proficiency levels on the new exams because it is a hard “truth” that families must know.

For multiple reasons (kindly demonstrated by Jersey Jazzman both here and here), this is a load of hooey.  But it is even a bigger load of hooey that these tests demonstrate this new “reality” in any meaningful way for individual students and their families, and PARCC’s heavy handed response to test security breaches pretty well proves it.  Ms. Slover told Dr. Oyler that she could happily “view over 800 released questions from the spring 2015 tests that show the breadth and depth of the kinds of questions on the PARCC assessments.” That’s all nice, but a selection of hand curated items from the exams is not remotely the same as being able to view, and critique, the exam itself.  Without releasing the entire exam, as it is presented to students who take it, there is no real ability for parents or teachers or researchers to critically examine it to determine if it is the kind of assessment PARCC claims it to be.

Even more to the point, without returning the entire exam to both teachers and students, the claim that we are “no longer lying” to people about their education is just air. When my children take an assessment made by their teachers at school, we get to see what items they got correct and what items they got wrong.  We can inquire with their teachers about what the assessment says about their strengths and about their weaknesses.  We can find out what is going on in the school to help support our children in their learning, and we can ask what we can do at home to help support their teachers.  We can plan based on the assessment with the guidance of the professional teachers who know our children in context.

PARCC does no such thing.  Far from their claim to Dr. Oyler that “transparency is one of the hallmarks of PARCC,” the hallmark of PARCC is to label students on their proficiency scale and to provide a simple statistical comparison of students to other students.  Knowing that your child scored below, near, at, or above school, district, state, and national averages may be slightly more informative than previous assessments, but it doesn’t tell anyone jack frat about a single student’s strengths, challenges, or what can be done to better support that child.  Of course, there are many standardized exams that sort and rank students, especially college and graduate/professional school admissions examinations, but nobody pretends that those exams are meant to help individual students get a better education or to provide teachers and schools with actionable information on how to better serve students.

Those promises were made for PARCC.  They are unadulterated bull plop, and will remain so as long as the current reporting system remains in place where nobody knows a darn thing about how they actually did.

Second: I remain utterly mystified why PARCC retains such a copyright on a deployed exam in the first place.  The two testing consortia, PARCC and SBAC, were awarded $330 million in grants from the federal Department of Education to develop the assessments.  At the time, PARCC was comprised of 26 states – this year, they are down to 8 “fully participating” states.  The grant announcement in 2010 promised that PARCC would “replace the one end-of-year high stakes accountability test with a series of assessments throughout the year that will be averaged into one score for accountability purposes, reducing the weight given to a single test administered on a single day, and providing valuable information to students and teachers throughout the year.”  What we’ve gotten are – wait for it – annual end of year examinations and a set of “instructional tools” that teachers can use “at their discretion” during the school year.  States left for a variety of reasons, but the projected ongoing costs certainly played a role.  The consortium, however, still has expensive contracts with various states — New Jersey’s four year contract with PARCC could top $100 million.  Pearson, by the way, was the only bidder for the contract to write the exam.

PARCC, Inc has taken in a lot of public money to develop and produce the tests.  So one has to wonder why they get to maintain so much control of the test built for public use and on the public dime?  An architecture firm that is contracted to design a new city hall may be able to copyright the design, but they cannot tell the town who can enter the building or block off entire wings from the public.  When Northrop Grumman designed and delivered the B2 stealth bomber for the U.S. Air Force, they certainly filed patents on the technology, but they did not tell the Air Force who can see the finished product and when it could be used.  They built it with public money, and then they had to let the government decide how to use it and who could know anything about it – they relinquished control.

But not PARCC, Inc which goes so far as to continuously monitor social media to detect students and others who know test content divulging any of it in public.  While it is certainly fair for the testing consortium to keep strict control on the test as it is under development and in current use, the refusal to generally distribute the test after it is done using the copyright system is noxious and thoroughly antithetical to the stated purposes of the exam, undermining any reason for the public and for educators to have faith in it as anything other than a means of sorting and ranking children and schools without real transparency. We’ve paid for PARCC’s development as a nation. The various states pay for PARCC to distribute and to deploy the exam in their states and to score them.  But not one person has a right to see the entire exam, and not one parent or teacher has the right to see how particular students did on the exam and to learn from it.  And Ms. Slover revealed PARCC’s real reason in her letter to Dr. Oyler when she threatened to hold her “personally liable for the damages incurred by Parcc, Inc. and those who have contributed financially to the creation and validation of the assessments, including without limitation the possible need, not only to create replacement items, but to create and revalidate new test forms.”

In other words: money.  PARCC wants to recycle as much as the exam as is practical, and holding the copyright threats over those who want to study and discuss the exams is the best way of doing that.

So PARCC may hold a legal copyright – but the fact that they were allowed to do so in their contracts is absurd.

Third: Even if PARCC’s copyright is legally valid, is Ms. Slover’s application of that copyright – threatening bloggers and having content removed from social media – valid?  Copyright does not provide a complete protection from revealing material that is under copyright, and Dr. Julian Vasquez-Heilig, Professor at California State University at Sacramento, makes a pointed observation that “fair use” allows for limited reproduction of copyrighted material for a variety of purposes such as “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.”  The fair use doctrine is not absolute and requires a careful balancing analysis in each and every case.  For example, “fair use” would not allow someone to set up a College and Career Readiness Assessment Partnership (or, CCRAP, if you will) and then just distribute the entire test under the guise of an “educational” purpose.

However, Dr. Oyler’s post was clearly a critique and designed to inform the public about the nature of the PARCC examinations.  While fair use under that category would have to be argued by people with expertise, it is hard to imagine why such an argument cannot be made.  Diane Ravitch reports that a board member of the Network for Public Education is an attorney with significant experience in intellectual property law, and his opinion was that PARCC’s claim has little merit.  Not only were most of the materials considered objectionable descriptions rather than excerpts, but also the question of fair use for actual quotations has to be considered given the purpose of of the blog.

Another potential fair use exception should be considered as well: news reporting.  While the law on this is a complex and shifting landscape, it is true that there have been court rulings that grant bloggers the status of journalists.  Critically examining the PARCC tests could not be more in the public interest regardless of the organization’s desire to wield copyright to prevent that examination from happening.  100s of millions of dollars of federal money was spent developing them.  States are contracted to spend 100s of million of dollars more using them.  While the secrecy about the tests make them utterly useless in helping teachers and schools design better instruction for students individually and collectively, the exams are being used for very high stakes purposes.  Annual testing is a requirement under federal law, including the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act that passed last year as the successor to No Child Left Behind.  While states and districts have more flexibility in the use of testing under the new law, there is no indication that states are rushing to remove growth measures based on standardized tests from teacher evaluations, so PARCC still has an impact on teachers’ careers.  Students and schools are still being ranked based largely on standardized test data, and under agreements with the Obama administration that are still in effect, states are obligated to identify their lowest performing schools using standardized test data.  What exactly will come when the new law is in full effect is unknown,  but there is no reason to believe that annual tests will cease to play high stakes roles in how students are sorted, how teachers are evaluated, and how schools and districts are ranked.

I find it very hard to entertain the notion that PARCC Inc’s interest in being able to continually dip into a pool of unreleased test items outweighs the public’s interest in knowing the content and the quality of tests we’ve already spent huge sums of money on and which are and will continue to be used for high stakes purposes.  PARCC needs to put down the copyright club and legitimately engage the public whose tax dollars fund its entire existence.


Filed under Common Core, Data, ESSA, NCLB, PARCC, Pearson, Privacy, Testing, VAMs

Lies, Damned Lies, and PARCC Scores

In February of this year, as communities and schools in New Jersey were awaiting the arrival of PARCC testing, I wrote this opinion piece for the Bergen County Record.  In it, I said:

What can be expected? If experiences of other states that have already implemented PARCC- and CCSS-aligned exams are illustrative, New Jersey’s teachers, students and parents can expect steep declines in the percentage of students scoring in the higher levels of achievement. Neighboring New York, for example, has its own Pearson-designed CCSS-aligned exam, and the percentage of students scoring proficient or highly proficient was cut essentially in half to roughly 35 percent for both math and English….

….There is no reason to believe that 11th-graders today are any less skilled than their peers who took the HSPA last year or who took the NAEP in 2013, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that a drop in scores on PARCC will be exploited for political purposes.

It is a terrible burden being proven correct so often.

The New Jersey DOE released its report on the statewide results on PARCC this week, and immediately their meaning was thoroughly misrepresented by the media and by state Commissioner David Hespe. Writing for NJ.com, Adam Clark said that the results mean “The majority of New Jersey students in grades 3 through 11 failed to meet grade-level expectations on controversial math and English tests the state says provide the most accurate measurement of student performance yet.”  In the same article, Commissioner Hespe is cited as saying:

Overall, the results show that high school graduation requirements are not rigorous enough for most students to be successful after graduation, state Education Commissioner David Hespe said. The 2014-15 results set a new baseline for improving student achievement, he said.

“There is still much work to be done in ensuring all of our students are fully prepared for the 21st century demands of college and career,” Hespe said.

Neither claim is remotely based on a factual representation of what these test scores mean.  As my colleague Dr. Chris Tienken noted:

To begin with, the statement that the majority of students “failed to meet grade level expectations” is entirely dependent upon the “meets expectations” and “exceeds expectations” being a proper representation of “grade level” work for each year tested.  There is no basis for making this determination.  PARCC has not provided research to bolster that claim, and, more importantly, we know that reading passages in the exam were specifically several grade levels above what can be developmentally expected of different aged readers.  Russ Walsh of Rider University analyzed sample PARCC reading passages that were available in February of this year, and he found that using most agreed upon methods of determining readability that they were inappropriate for use in testing.  There is no justification for such choices in test design unless the test makers want to push the cut scores for meeting and exceeding expectations well above what the median student is even capable of developmentally.  It is therefore entirely unjustifiable to call these examination results proof that our students are not doing their work “at grade level,” and honestly, it is getting damned tiring to have to repeat that endlessly.

Commissioner Hespe’s comments were no more helpful, and certainly were not based in facts.  The Commissioner repeated the often heard claims that the PARCC exams represent a more appropriate set of skills to demonstrate that our students are “ready” for the 21st Century and to measure their “college and career readiness,” but the justifications for those claims have never been subjected to public scrutiny.  While the language of “college and career readiness” is slathered all over the Common Core State Standards and the aligned examinations written by PARCC and SBAC, repeating a slogan is a marketing tool rather than research validation.  Five years after the standards were rammed through into 43 states and the District of Columbia, we are no closer to understanding the validity of the claim that the standards embody “college and career readiness” nor are we closer to knowing that the examinations can sort out who is or is not “ready.”

Further, the Commissioner’s claim that the test results “prove” that New Jersey high school graduation requirements are “not rigorous enough for most students to be successful after graduation” rests on two unproven contentions: 1) that PARCC actually is sorting those who are “ready” for college and careers from those who are not and 2) students who do not score “at expectations” or above can blame any lack of success they have later in life on their primary and secondary education rather than on macroeconomic forces that have systematically hollowed out opportunity.

Let’s consider the first part of that claim.  PARCC claims that its Pearson written exam is a “next generation” assessment that really requires students to think rather than to respond, but does it actually achieve that end?  Julie Campbell of Dobbs Ferry, New York, has had experience with students taking the New York common core aligned examinations which are also written by Pearson, and while she is supportive of the Common Core Standards, she is highly critical of the caliber of “thinking” the exams require:

The four-point extended response question is troubling in and of itself because it instructs students to: explain how Zac Sunderland from “The Young Man and the Sea” demonstrates the ideas described in “How to be a Smart Risk-Taker.”  After reading both passages, one might find it difficult to argue that Zac Sunderland demonstrates the ideas found in “How to be a Smart Risk-Taker” because sailing solo around the world as a teenager is a pretty outrageous risk! But the question does not allow students to evaluate Zac as a risk taker and decide whether he demonstrates the ideas in the risk taker passage. Such a question, in fact, could be a good critical thinking exercise in line with the Common Core standards! Rather students are essentially given a thesis that they must defend: they MUST prove that Zac demonstrates competency in his risk/reward analysis.

So one can hardly be surprised to find an answer like this:

 One idea described in “How to be a Smart Risk-taker” is evaluating risks. It is smart to take a risk only when the potential upside outweighs the potential downside. Zac took the risk because the downside “dying” was outweighed by the upside (adventure, experience, record, and showing that young people can do way more than expected from them). (pg 87)

Do you find this to be a valid claim? Is the downside of “dying” really outweighed by the upside, “adventure”? Is this example indicative of Zac Sunderland being a “Smart Risk Taker”? I think most reasonable people would argue against this notion and surmise that the student has a flawed understanding of risk/reward based on the passage. According to Pearson and New York State, however, this response is exemplary. It gets a 4.

There may not be “one right answer” in an examination like this, but what might be actually worse is that students can be actively coached to submit “plug and play” answers which mimic a style of thinking but which have no depth and, worse, can be nonsensical just so long as they hit the correct rubric markers.

We should also question Commissioner Hespe’s contention that these exams are showing us anything new about our high school graduates and students in general.  They most decidedly are not.  Again, the New York experience is illustrative. Jersey Jazzman does an outstanding job demonstrating that in New York State, even as proficiency levels tumbled off the proverbial cliff, the actual distribution of scale scores on the different exams barely moved at all.  The reason is simple: once raw scores are converted into scale scores on a standardized exam, they, by design, reflect a normal distribution of scores, and it does not matter if the exam is “harder” or not — the distribution of scaled scores will continue to represent a bell curve, and once the previous scores and current scores are represented by a scatter plot, 85% of the new scores are explained by the old scores.  In other words: the “new” and “better” tests were not actually saying anything that was not known by the older tests.  The decision to set proficiency levels so that many fewer students are “meeting expectations” is a choice that is completely unrelated to the distribution of scores on the tests.

So let’s check if we really are concerned that New Jersey students are graduating not “ready for college and careers.”  Here are the statewide scores on PARCC according to the DOE release:



So this means, in the language of PARCC, that “only” 41% of New Jersey 11th graders are “on track” to be “college and career ready” in English, and “only” 36% of Algebra students are similarly situated (Again, remember that score distributions are likely almost entirely unchanged from the previous state assessments – this is about how high the cut scores are set).  Oddly enough, the DOE pretty much admits that we did not need PARCC to demonstrate this to us because New Jersey participates in the National Assessment of Educational Progress testing every several years, and, wouldn’t you know it, NAEP and PARCC results are not perfectly aligned, but they come pretty darned close (as do SAT and ACT scores):


The high school reading and algebra proficiency levels are almost entirely identical comparing PARCC to NAEP.  Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University sat on the NAEP Board of Governors and has repeatedly explained that both the “advanced” and “proficient” levels in NAEP represent very high level work at the “A” level for secondary students.  So not only have the PARCC scores told us things about our students in NJ that we already knew from NAEP, but also it reaffirms the NAEP findings that over 40% of New Jersey high school seniors are capable of A level work in English and over a third of those students are capable of A level work in Algebra.

If the goal is to have all of our students “college and career ready” by reading and doing algebra at the “meets” and “exceeds expectations” level on a test roughly correlated to NAEP levels indicating A level achievement, then we might as well shut down shop right now because our schools will always fail.  Moreover, we should vigorously question the implication that any student getting respectful if not outstanding grades in core subjects is doomed to failure, and we should certainly question a goal of “college and career readiness” that appears entirely limited to “ready for admission to a 4 year selective college.”  The nonsensical approach of using cut scores to identify the percentage of students likely to seek a 4 year degree and labeling them our only students who are “ready” is based more on a desire to label more schools and students as failures than any other consideration.

The reality is that there are crises relating to education and opportunity both in New Jersey and in the country as a whole.  The first crisis is related to the distribution of opportunity via our education system.  I can walk a few miles from the campus where I teach and find a community where over 70% of the adults over the age of 25 have a college degree, and I can walk a few miles in the exact opposite direction and find a community where that is only 12% of the population.  That is unacceptable and needs to change; it is also something that we knew full well before the PARCC examinations came along, and which we will not address by berating test scores while ignoring the importance of fair and equitable school funding.

The second crisis is in our economy and the simple fact that our economy has shown no signs of actually needing more people with bachelors degrees.  Since 1986, the dollar adjusted wages for people with a BA in the country have grown only by $700, but the college wage premium has grown largely because of the collapse of wages for people without those degrees:


Far from needing many more college graduates, which would push wages even further down, we need an economy where people who work full time without a degree can survive well above subsistence level and closer to their college educated peers as they used to before 1980.  Unless Commissioner Hespe and his fellow PARCC supporters are arguing that college really is the new high school – in which case they had better get to work right away finding a way to make it free for everyone because we cannot possibly survive an economic system that both requires everyone to have a specific degree and requires them to accumulate crushing debt in pursuit of it.

(Just a side observation:  remember when PARCC promised that their “next generation assessments” would “help teachers know where to strengthen their instruction and let parents know how their children are doing”?  It is now about half a year later, and those students have been in their NEW teachers’ classrooms for almost 2 full months now. It is far too late for teachers to even use the score reports to make adjustments in their curricula that they were developing all summer long without the PARCC results. If the goal of the assessments was to give teachers actionable data in anything remotely resembling real time, they are a crashing, embarrassing failure, and given the testing schedule in late Spring, they are likely to remain so.)


Filed under Common Core, Opt Out, PARCC, Testing

Was Arne Duncan Ever a Child?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appears displeased with the national Opt Out movement.  In an interview with New York Times reporter Motoko Rich at the Education Writers Association national seminar in Chicago this week, Secretary Duncan stated that the federal Department of Education might have to “step in” if states do not make sure districts have enough students who take the federally mandated annual tests. States are required to have at least 95% of students in all schools be tested in each year from grades 3 to 8 and once in high school under the current provisions of No Child Left Behind, and in most states those tests are currently being aligned with the Common Core State Standards whose adoption was encouraged by Secretary Duncan’s DOE via the Race to the Top grant competition and the offer of federal waivers from the most punishing provisions of NCLB.  Secretary Duncan gave some acknowledgement that some students may be over tested, but he also went on to say:

 …the tests are “just not a traumatic event” for his children, who attend public school in Virginia.

“It’s just part of most kids’ education growing up,” he said. “Sometimes the adults make a big deal and that creates some trauma for the kids.”

Where to start?

Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog took on the broader set of Secretary Duncan’s comments earlier this week, and coined the term “Duncanswer” whereby the Secretary gives a response to a question that is entirely canned and skillfully uses ideas from the question itself to cover that he has no real understanding of the issue.  I’d like to offer an additional feature of a “Duncanswer”: utter refusal to accept responsibility for any negative outcome of your choices.

The Secretary of Education essentially told the parents of nearly 200,000 students in New York state alone that if any children are traumatized by the Common Core aligned testing it is their own damn fault.  His statement indicates that he views annual testing, particularly THIS annual testing, as simply an aspect of childhood, perhaps inconvenient, but not really a big deal.  But the important thing to remember is that if children leave the testing crying or sick to their stomachs, then it is their parents’ and teachers’ fault for being so dramatic.

Perhaps a review of recent history is necessary.  While Bill Gates may have been central to funding the development of the Common Core State Standards, we simply would not see them in classrooms across the country with standardized testing rolled out already and teachers’ evaluations connected to those tests without Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his signature initiatives.  In the midst of the financial crisis, the federal DOE enticed states with promises of funding via the Race to the Top grant competition.  Even states who did not get grants were encouraged to adopt signature reforms with the offer of waivers from the most punitive provisions of NCLB.  States seeking grants or waivers agreed to adopt common standards to prepare students for “college and careers” and to use accountability systems based on “student growth.”  It was, of course, just a coincidence that “college and career readiness” is the catchphrase of the Common Core State Standards which were less than a year old in 2011, but which had already been adopted, often sight unseen, by dozens of states climbing over each other for grants or waivers.  Since states would soon need new standardized tests aligned to the CCSS standards for use in teacher evaluations, it must have been a coincidence that Secretary Duncan had already awarded over $300 million to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) in 2010 to develop shared assessments for the standards that had been completed in June of that year.

So from an idea among some ambitious people with no actual experience in teaching and no expertise in child development and learning in 2008 to the development of completed and copyrighted K-12 standards in both English and mathematics in 2010 to adoption by dozens of states before the standards were finished to full scale roll out of aligned examinations with connection to teacher assessments in 2015, the entire system that we have today is fully the responsibility of Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration.  Others may have provided monetary support, may have glad handed various stake holders, and may have taken on the development process themselves, but none of that work would be guiding education in 43 states and the District of Columbia without Arne Duncan’s efforts.

And let’s be perfectly clear: nothing in education does or should move this quickly.  As Diane Ravitch of New York University notes, following “due process” guidelines for the development of standards of this scale and nature is important to ensure they are developed thoughtfully and that they are developed in a manner that is responsive to the numerous stakeholders in the policy.  In the time spent writing the standards, a more legitimate process would have possibly begun to compile the research base on content and learning necessary to begin the drafting process, but the backers of the standards, including Secretary Duncan, had a priority to move quickly before input could bog down the process.  If Secretary Duncan is irritated that so many people are now opposing the standards and the accompanying testing, he might want to learn that, in general, people do not like turning around and finding out that the entire basis upon which they thought their children’s education rests has been changed without public discussion.

And if the dissatisfaction is growing, it is because although parents did not know about the Common Core standards (as 55% did not in a 2013 survey), they have little chance to avoid learning about the examinations now.  While many parents are not well informed about them, that will certainly change over time as PARCC and SBAC exams continue in subsequent years. Parental discontent in New York has grown since the Pearson designed Common Core exams debuted here in 2013, and parents’ reasons are not baseless or simple whims. Multiple sources document known reading passages in the New York exams that are substantially above grade level and requiring students to answers questions on a standardized exam that objectively have multiple correct answers.  Elementary school students are sitting for examinations that take longer overall to complete than the bar exam.  With high stakes testing already having narrowed school curricula nationwide, parents would be correct to worry that teachers, faced with evaluations based on statistically invalid measures of their effectiveness from those tests, will face more pressure to devote time to test preparation.

Secretary Duncan, is it ” just part of most kids’ education” for kids to sit in tests that are longer than the bar exam, with reading passages years above their grade in complexity and interest level, ever single year?

Or is it the result of a set of choices that you helped set in motion?  One has to wonder what Secretary Duncan recalls about being a child if he thinks this system is “just part of most kids’ education” and not a rather extraordinary set of circumstances that is reaping some very sour fruit.  These exams are not magic.  By most reports they are not even all that good.  And they are far more disruptive than a basic accountability system needs to be.  But, boy howdy, the Secretary of Education is making them high stakes.  Just consider what Secretary Duncan did to Washington State when they had the nerve to allow districts to choose between state and local assessment in evaluating teachers.


But what can we make of the Secretary’s threat that the federal government may have to “step in” if parents opting children out of exams continues to grow?  Parental refusal to allow a child to take the exam is not a state policy violating an agreement between the USDOE and the state government.  States are not orchestrating opt outs, and in many cases, parents are given dubious information about the legality of their choice.  Can Secretary Duncan threaten states where opt out numbers mean many schools are not reaching the 95% testing threshold?

Dr. Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall University and Dr. Julia Sass Rubin of Rutgers University say the matter is hardly cut and dry.  First, the federal mandate for 95% testing exists so that schools cannot deliberately hide subgroups of students from accountability.  There is nothing in the law or in the intent of the law that prevents parents from refusing a child’s participation, and it is not the schools that are organizing test refusal.  Further, they note that the waiver agreement between states and the USDOE can override that testing requirement; in New Jersey, for example, only 250 schools are actually held to the 95% testing requirement and if they do not make it, up to 30% of their Title I money can be used by the state for specific interventions.  That doesn’t take money away, however; it allows the NJDOE control over money that it technically has control over anyway.

Drs. Tienken and Sass Rubin additionally note that if the USDOE has to sanction districts and schools for missing the 95% testing target they have missed the boat already.  In New Jersey alone, 175 schools missed the 95% target in 2014 without penalty, and, in fact, no school has ever been treated punitively by the USDOE for not having 95% of its students tested.  Can Secretary Duncan suddenly drop his agency on states and districts not for any actions taken by those governments but because their parents have gotten unruly?  How does he propose those communities seek compliance when his entrance into the matter can only make more people angry at the direction of educational policy?

For that matter, does he think he can long maintain his ability to coerce the states if the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act makes it out of Congress in its current form?

However this plays out, we can likely guarantee one thing: Arne Duncan will accept responsibility for absolutely none of it.  Maybe he just never stopped being a child.


Filed under Common Core, NCLB, Opt Out, PARCC, Pearson, Testing

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

Pearson’s Intellectual Property — Why Is This Even a Thing?

Bob Braun, a five decade veteran of the Newark Star Ledger and currently an independent blogger, blew up a portion of the internet on Friday by reporting that Pearson, the international education giant responsible for the PARCC examinations currently underway, was “spying” on students’ social media activity.  According to a letter from Watchung Hills Regional High School District Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett, the district test coordinator got a late night phone call from New Jersey DOE after Pearson initiated a “priority one alert” for a breech of test security within the district.  NJDOE informed the district that they believed Pearson’s alert was for a student who took a picture of a test item during testing and posted it to Twitter, and the state suggested that the district should discipline the offending student.  However, upon examination, the district ascertained that a student had tweeted a comment well after testing was over and included no picture at all.  The tweet has since been deleted by the student, but given the 140 character limit on Twitter, it is extremely unlikely that any significant breech of test security could have possibly occurred.  However, the incident revealed that Pearson is monitoring social media for any and all references to the testing going on and is prepared to initiate state level investigations of individual students (how else would NJDOE know the district and student involved?) over very flimsy circumstances.

The story took off very quickly as did Mr. Braun’s accusation that Pearson is “spying” on students’ social media.  The web site was loading very slowly on Friday night likely due to very high traffic, but by later that night it was completely inaccessible and Mr. Braun reported on Facebook that his web host informed him a denial of service attack was underway from an as of yet unidentified sources.  Meanwhile, outraged parents and anti-testing/anti-PARCC sentiments took off in social media:

Let me state that I am unconvinced that “spying” is exactly the correct word over “monitoring.”  The reality is that most corporations of any size are monitoring social media routinely to check on their reputations and potential scandals.  In a world where social word of mouth is genuinely a thing, it makes business sense for them to do so, and social media is not communication in the private space.  If you don’t believe me, wait until you have a bad customer experience with your cable company and then take to Twitter about it — If you don’t get a response from someone in corporate within 24 hours, I owe you a coffee.

However, even from a “monitoring” social media perspective, Pearson’s actions are troubling.  I will concede that the company — and participating PARCC states — have an interest in test security while a standardized test is being deployed (although I also agree with Peter Greene that this level of test security does not bode well for the quality of these exams), but what, exactly, causes Pearson to raise a “priority one alert” and contact a state department of education with sufficient information to locate a district and specific child in question?  What information about a minor’s social media use does Pearson consider its business to pass along to the top education officers in a state?  To what depth does Pearson consider itself able to impose a gag order on other people’s children and use state capitols to enforce it?

Remember — the child in question did not send out a photograph of the exam, merely a single tweet limited to 140 characters AFTER testing for the day was over.  For that, Pearson initiated contact with the NJDOE that sent Trenton thundering into the student’s social media account and alerting district officials when frankly, nothing should have happened at all.  Thankfully, Superintendent Jewett is reasonable and knowledgeable about social media; it could have easily gone south really quickly.

Pearson’s hyperactive attitude towards test security is disturbing not only because of how it is being enacted without concern of proportion, privacy, and the implications of initiating state level investigations into unremarkable student speech.  It is also disturbing because of its connection to Pearson’s larger perspective on its intellectual property and the allowance the public sector gives them in defense of it.  While discussing this on Twitter, I encountered a user who stated that he “applauded” Pearson “defending its intellectual property,” which led me to a single question:

Why is Pearson’s intellectual property even a thing after it delivers a exam to be used for public education?

Considering the following:

  • PARRC was seeded with part of a federal grant worth over $300 million to create examinations for the Common Core State Standards.
  • Pearson was the only bidder for the contract to write the examinations for PARCC.
  • That makes the Pearson written PARCC examinations the only CCSS examination in 12 states and the District of Columbia — Pearson writes CCSS aligned examinations for other states such as New York.
  • Pearson’s contract with New Jersey alone is worth more than $100 million over 4 years.
  • The examination is high stakes – with implications for teacher evaluation and a possible future role in graduation requirements.
  • The examination is used by the state to fulfill federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act that all students in all schools between grades 3-8 and in grade 11 be tested in English and Mathematics.  Unlike other standardized examinations students takes, these exams are mandated by state and federal laws.
  • Pearson has no intention of releasing complete copies of this year’s exams even after they have been fully deployed and assessed.

This isn’t even like copyright rules preventing photocopying textbooks — textbooks publishers rightly expect that schools will buy enough copies of their texts for students using them, and they are in direct competition with other potential text providers.  Pearson has an exclusive contract to provide examinations for millions of students (a contract it did not exactly sweat bullets to obtain).  These examinations are used for high stakes purposes.  The examinations fulfill federal mandates for testing in our public schools, and they inform personnel decisions locally, administrative decisions at the district and state levels, and federal actions nationally.  The company is providing a contracted service in our public education system which is, itself, compulsory and, for the time being at least, democratically controlled.

Once they are done writing the exams, why isn’t Pearson required to turn the entire kit and kaboodle over to the state and thus to the voters and tax payers who provide the vast majority of decision making and funding to public education?

I am unaware of a construction company that, after delivering a highway project, reserves lanes for its own use or to pull up and recycle in other projects.  Generally speaking, government buildings do not have entire floors blocked off for use of the contractors who built them.  When Northrop Grumman delivered the USS Ronald Reagan to the Navy, they did not block off sections of the ship that the Navy cannot access.  If such companies create or develop a process of construction or tool for use in construction, they can protect that via patents, but once the contracted item is finished, we generally understand it as belonging to the public who paid for it.

But when it comes to items that are not physical in nature, we accept an arrangement where the public foots enormous costs to only lease the product in question.  Think of electronic voting machines.  I can think of few things as important as protecting public confidence in the integrity of their vote, but companies are not required to make the code for voting machines open source and the public depends upon leaks to inform us of potential security holes in the devices.  Similarly, Pearson is providing a mandated service for our compulsory public education system, and the results of that service will have actual consequences not just for the individual teachers and students involved, but also for the entire system.  Confidence in what they are providing and informed decision making about whether or not what they are providing is desirable requires open and informed discussion and debate — such discussion and debate is impossible while Pearson’s intellectual property is valued more highly than the public purposes it allegedly serves.

In a small way, you cannot even blame Pearson.  They made contracts with states that allowed them to behave this way, and they are a publicly traded company with $17.75 billion in market capital.  Doing everything to maximize their revenue and return to investors is what they do and not a secret.  However, we elect governors who appoint leaders to state education departments; they represent us.  Craven obsequiousness in making contracts worth 100s of millions of taxpayers’ dollars is unnecessary and unacceptable.  It is possible, I suppose, that if our elected leaders and their appointees insisted upon reasonable contracts and the full disclosure of all test materials after the tests are over, then the cost would go up, perhaps to a level states could ill afford and leading to pulling back of the test and punish regime that is currently driving education policy and warping curriculum into test preparation.

Heavens.  That would be terrible.


Filed under Common Core, Corruption, PARCC, Pearson, Testing

Exit The King….An Opportunity for Union Leadership?

Dr. John B. King Jr., the Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York, is stepping down from that position and will become a senior adviser to United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  While the announcement drew praise from the usual suspects who support Dr. King’s agenda of charter schools, Common Core State Standards, high stakes testing, and teacher evaluations based on test scores, supporters of traditional, fully public, schools had harsh criticisms for the outgoing Commissioner. Education activist and director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson stated:

John King was the most unpopular commissioner in the history of NY State.  He showed no respect for parents, teachers or student privacy.  Ironically, he was intent on protecting his own privacy, and routinely withheld public documents; our Freedom of Information request of his communications with inBloom and the Gates foundation is more than 1 ½ years overdue.  His resignation is good news for New York state; hopefully he will be unable to do as much damage at the US Department of Education.

Dr. King’s problematic tenure began in May, 2011, and he swiftly moved to push through the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and accompanying testing systems that his predecessor Commissioner David Steiner had committed to when Dr. King served as his Deputy Commissioner.  This editorial, appearing in the Hudson Valley paper The Journal News, summarizes Dr. King’s time as Commissioner as “tone-deaf” and characterized by his inability to listen to criticism:

Many parents and educators in this region have offered reasonable, passionate and often convincing arguments against the growing state focus on testing, data-crunching, and evaluating teachers with a formula that is easily picked apart. But King has not been willing to engage his critics. This position has enraged many and created a bizarre stare-down between the state Education Department and many school districts that are supposed to be part of the same team.

The problems with Dr. King’s governance of NYSED are multifaceted.  The EngageNY website, set up by the State Education Department as a clearinghouse of information on the Common Core State Standards and materials designed for leaders and teachers, was quickly called out for hurried and poorly designed “resources” placed on the site when it debuted.  New York Principal Carol Burris documents in this article parents who found links to inappropriate materials under “make test prep fun”, and materials posted for modules on 8th grade algebra which included links to topics that are taught in calculus.  As with many things associated with the Common Core, the rush to both develop and implement the standards has led to a “get the product out and clean it up later” mentality that is emblematic of Dr. King’s leadership and many other reformers.

Questionable materials from EngageNY might have been overlooked by many in the public, but the CCSS are tied to high stakes testing on student proficiency in the standards — and Dr. King has been moving New York at a rapid clip in that direction as well.  Predictably, those who have had close contact with the exams have noted, within the allowed parameters of a nondisclosure agreement with testing giant Pearson, how the exams are confusing and inappropriate for the age of students who have to take them, another likely effect of their being rushed to meet Dr. King’s implementation schedule.  Principal Elizabeth Philips of PS 321 in Park Slope noted earlier this year in the New York Times:

In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes….

…At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.

As troubling as the quality of the exams used to assess students’ “College and Career Readiness” AND their teachers’ effectiveness is, the way that the scores were deliberately (and opaquely) engineered to rate only 30% of students as proficient and highly proficient is worse.  State officials, including Dr. King, warned that the scores from the first round of CCSS aligned testing would produce dramatically lower results, but those warnings were predicated on schools not having sufficiently aligned curriculum materials yet.  However, Principal Burris provided an in-depth analysis of how the cut scores for each level of achievement were determined, and her conclusion is troubling:  Dr. King asked for a specific analysis from the College Board on SAT scores that predict “success” in first year courses at 4 year colleges and universities, and the result of that analysis was used to determine what scores on the CCSS aligned tests would be labeled as “proficient” and “highly proficient” as the committee worked through the materials with representatives from the State Education Department.  The result was that 31% of students taking the tests scored as proficient and highly proficient — and the evidence points to the conclusion that Dr. King and the SED wanted that result.

By the way — the percentage of New York residents over 25 with a BA?  32.8%Far from finding a vast educational wasteland where only a third of students succeed, the tests found the percentage of students likely to pursue higher education.

Not that Dr. King, the Regents, or anyone from the Cuomo administration was eager to explain it that way and justifying it as a good assessment system for the entire student population.  This became painfully clear when Dr. King attempted a publicity tour of town hall meetings that erupted disastrously in Poughkeepsie  in Fall of last year.  While keeping his usual calm and soft-spoken demeanor in face of extensive and heated criticism, Dr. King also remained entirely impervious to the concerns of the gathered parents and other community stakeholders.  After the Poughkeepsie forum, he also changed the schedule, canceling meetings, and switched formats so he appeared with a number of other state officials — and despite claiming the goal was to listen to concerns, nothing has dissuaded Dr. King from barreling on at full speed.  In early April of this year, he told an audience at New York University that New York was on the right path and “We’re not retreating” from the combined reforms ushered in during his tenure. In the same talk, he essentially dismissed parents who were opting their children out of the testing by saying “they are now denying themselves and their teachers the opportunity to know how their children are performing against a common benchmark used throughout the state.”  While Dr. King’s steadfastness earned him high praise from allies like Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and reform organizations, some lawmakers in Albany noted his poor representation of his ideas and his unwillingness to listen to others’ ideas, leading to bipartisan calls for his improvement or resignation last year.  Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti (D. Westchester) noted:

“For quite some time, Education Commissioner John King has closed off all meaningful conversation with parents, educators, administrators, and elected officials who have highlighted serious deficiencies in State Education Department policies,” Abinanti said. “He has exhibited a conscious disregard for their concerns.

“He should be listening, educating where criticisms are unfounded, and adopting changes where criticisms are valid,” the lawmaker continued. “His rigidity makes him unsuited for the position of Education Commissioner. Commissioner King should resign immediately.”

Assemblyman Abinanti was joined in this criticism by Republican Senator Jack Collins and New York State Allies for Public Education, and they were joined in April of this year by the New York State United Teachers’ Delegate Assembly who withdrew support for New York state’s Common Core implementation, supported parents who opt their children out of state examinations, and called for Dr. King’s removal as Commissioner.

But being a failed education reform leader is a lot like being a failed hedge fund manager — others have to live with the consequences of your actions while you get a quiet send off to another lucrative position, so Dr. King is off the join Secretary Duncan in Washington, D.C.

Dr. King is obviously a greatly intelligent man.  His academic accomplishments, which include a B.A. from Harvard University, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and both an M.A. and Ed.D. from Teachers College at Columbia University, are appropriately described as impressive as hell.  He was born in 1975 which means that he was 22 in 1997.  According to his biography, he taught for 3 years, and joined the founding leadership team for Roxbury Prep charter school, and from there moved to become Managing Director of the Uncommon School charter network, a chain on “no excuses” and extremely high attrition charter schools in various urban communities.  Dr. King was 34 years old when he was tapped to become Deputy Commissioner of NYSED, and he was 36 years old when he succeeded David Steiner as Commissioner and became the daily leader for the 7000 public and private schools, the 270 private and public colleges and universities, the 7000 public libraries, the 900 museums, the 25 public broadcasting services, and all of the different licensed professions that comprise the University of the State of New York.  He had never led a fully public school as principal, and he had never been in the leadership of a public school district.

Dr. King is an excellent example of how experience and specialized knowledge matter.  He is an impressively intelligent man who clearly impressed some very important people with his intelligence and commitment to a set of ideas for education reform.  However, understanding the complexities of public education requires both special knowledge and experience.  Public school governance is a peculiar case study where a structure that looks like a typical hierarchical bureaucracy is subjected to multiple levels of democratic control and where various stakeholders have overlapping sets of both complimentary and competing interests.  These same stakeholders are not limited in their access to the organization by the rules of top down corporate management either, and they can access the different layers of authority and practice without having to go through official channels.  Governing such a structure, as any principal or superintendent knows, takes more than intelligence and knowledge; it takes leadership, political acumen, negotiating skills, and flexibility in the face of emergent needs and complications.  While these skills may be innate, all of them are honed by experience.

If Dr. King had been a superintendent of a complex school system for ten years when he was tapped to become Deputy Commissioner, his intelligence and knowledge may have been tempered by a proper understanding of the complexities of public education and the skills needed to leverage the various stakeholders.  Instead, he clearly had no idea how to work with those constituencies and frequently favored opacity and rigidity when implementing major changes to something both parents and teachers take incredibly personally.

With Dr. King on the way out, there is an opportunity for New York and national union leadership to leverage a difference.  The next Commissioner will be appointed by the Regents, so the next Commissioner will still be committed to CCSS, high stakes testing, VAM based teacher evaluation, and charter schools.  However, there is no need for the next Commissioner to be closed off to all stakeholders outside of the NYSED, and there is every possibility that a Commissioner with genuine school and district leadership experience will understand how to negotiate and how to adapt to changing circumstances.  A Commissioner who has led a complex school district will be more likely to understand that leveraging complex changes requires time, resources, development, and a constant process of revising plans to respond to emergent needs that are inherently unpredictable.

I have no doubt in my mind that such a leader is exactly the kind of person that Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch has no interest in appointing. But a public campaign to explain the need to the state could pressure her to seek an appointee interested in her reform agenda but with the skills that would blunt it. That is far from perfect, but the current leadership in Albany precludes the perfect.

Last month, I wrote an open letter to AFT President Randi Weingarten, and to my surprise, she contacted me directly and responded on my blog.  She responded to my concerns that union leadership was so concerned with maintaining a “seat at the table” with policy makers that the union was failing to vigorously oppose and denounce damaging policies that were coming from politicians from the union’s traditional political allies:

To advance this mission—which is the soul of the union—we have to use every single tactic and strategy available. That means at the ballot box, the bargaining table, the town square and the picket line, and it also entails the building of community and school partnerships, devising solutions and taking the risk to try things–provided they are good for kids and fair to educators. We must always work as a democratic institution that builds the trust, the agency and the activism of our members. That’s what we mean when we say solution driven, member mobilized and community engaged.

When we have the responsibility of being the bargaining agent, we can’t walk away from the table. It is at the table where we have a legal voice—a voice that many governors, like Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin or soon-to-be former Gov. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, have rushed to obliterate.

More important, if we want to make a difference in the lives of our students, our communities and the wonderful people we represent, we need to be able to both fight back and find common ground. It can’t be either/or. We can’t take only one of these approaches. Which approach depends upon what will best serve our students, our schools, our profession and our communities. And while those decisions on which tools to employ and which strategies to adopt will vary under the circumstances, our values must always be firmly held. It is about keeping “our eyes on the prize.”

I won’t say that President Weingarten and I are seeing exactly eye to eye here, but perhaps we are on the same step ladder.  And while the union has been more clear of late in challenging the anti-public school rhetoric coming from Albany, the compromise of continuing to engage with the policy makers, of staying at the table, is a compromise that should give the NYSUT and its parent AFT some chips to cash in.  I hope that in the coming weeks, the Regents will hear clearly, forcefully, and PUBLICLY from the teachers’ strongest representatives that our state needs a Commissioner who understands public education, knows the perspectives of the communities, parents, students, and professionals who make up public schools, and is willing to make education reform an iterative process instead of a set of rigid commandments.

New York State’s 600,000 professional teachers and million of public school students deserve a Commissioner with these experiences and skills.  And we need the most powerful voices in the state to call for that in public.

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Filed under Common Core, New York Board of Regents, schools, Testing, Unions

Who is more important? Pearson? Or our children?

Some background:

My wife and I have two children who are public school students in New York City.  We, as many other parents do, had our eldest tested for admission to the city’s gifted and talented program.  I’ll be honest – this child is exceptionally bright, but creative use of verbal language, imagination, story telling (our eldest’s strengths), are not really part of the tests used to qualify.  Regardless, the score was high enough to qualify for a seat which was assigned by lottery.

Our youngest sat for this year’s examinations in January. Sibling preference in admission at the G&T programs meant that if that score had qualified as well both our children would be in the same school next year.

Our youngest missed by the smallest margin.

Now I must be clear about this.  Our family does not deserve anyone’s sympathy.  It was by sheer luck of a random drawing among the many children who qualified that got our eldest a seat.  Our youngest was not owed a seat, and our zoned school is another one of the highest regarded schools in the city and is very close to the other school.  We know families who schlep across town to three different schools in pursuit of the cherry that the NYC Department of Education has placed on top the public school system.  Then there are the families whose kids qualify but for whom there are no seats because they’ve greatly overpromised what they can deliver.  Then there is the entire issue of how so many of the qualifying students are concentrated in affluent districts in the city.

So we will be fine, but since we would prefer our family’s attention to concentrate on one school for as long as possible, we took the opportunity to make an appointment with the DOE to review our youngest’s test.  That appointment was today, and we were given twenty minutes to sit with the exam and the answer key under the supervision of a DOE employee.  It was actually a more helpful experience than I anticipated, and our DOE representative was really quite delightful and very skilled at explaining the tests and how they were administered.  I can tell you the following:  We found that our child was prone to picking distractors, especially as each section of the exam progressed. We found one indisputably incorrectly scored item which means the exam is flagged for an immediate rescore.  We also found a handful of items that I strongly suspect would make my friends in measurement and quantitative methods cringe.

And that’s all that I can tell you.

You see, our child was assessed using the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) and the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT-2), both of which are products of Pearson, and in order to get a look at the examinations, I had to sign a non-disclosure form.  Chew on that for a minute.  An official of the New York Department of Education had me and my wife sign a form promising that we would not specifically or generally disclose the contents of an examination that was administered to our child for the purpose of selecting a public school.  The contents of that examination, several of which arguably violate principles of good test design for young children, must be kept secret even though, of course, it will be redesigned for the next year’s exams and even though I can purchase any number of OLSAT related materials directly from Pearson.

I cannot even really blame Pearson here.  They have developed the examination, and there is significant money at stake for them in a) keeping too much of their material from being seen by competitors and 2) making certain that people have to purchase exam related materials from them.

On the other hand, I have no trouble blaming craven politicians and bureaucrats who contracted Pearson and agreed to terms like this which are good for business, but bad for public discussion of education policy.  What we did today allows my family to pursue our interests as a household, but it disallows any informed discussion with the broader community about the nature of measurements that determine substantial educational opportunities.  And there are real discussions that ought to be had.  This year, three times as many children qualified for seats in the coveted citywide G&T programs as there were seats available, but these qualified children are not randomly distributed across the city.  Districts 2 and 3 in Manhattan combined for 623 of those Kindergarten aged children qualified for entry to citywide programs while districts 7,8, 9, 12 (The Bronx), 16, 23, 32 (Brooklyn), and 29 (Queens) had none.  With an income segregation index of 57 in New York City, there is an important discussion to be had about the nature of these tests and whether they identify gifted or privileged children.  But Pearson’s intellectual property is more important than that discussion.


Which is ironic given how eager New York was to join with InBloom, the data storage cloud service that was going to provide storage for student records and allow technology and publishing companies to mine that data to create products for sale.  It was only the vigorous activism by advocates like Leonie Haimson on Class Size Matters that put enough pressure on Albany to halt the project, but it is by no means the only one that sees student data as a commodity.

What does it say that your child’s school records are able to be used without your consent for private purposes but that private materials with profound impact upon public school children and their opportunity must be protected?

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Filed under Pearson, Privacy, Stories, Testing