Revisiting the Common Core Education Reform Agenda
By Jack Bestor
Volume 44 Issue 5
By Jack Bestor
The controversy surrounding Common Core standards and the associated testing expectations continues to rage on with opposing positions firmly entrenched. Unfortunately, the long-trusted print and television media have been co-opted by special interests such that they no longer serve as honest purveyors of education news. Even though it may be difficult to ascertain truth from fiction in the blogosphere where educators and parents find their voice, with some critical thinking and increased awareness of the motives behind the issues, an intelligent thinker can begin to ferret out what rings true and is likely to represent an alternate perspective to that presented by special interests. As practicing school psychologists, we live this awareness every day in discussions with our students, parents, and colleagues who feel that their voices are not heard.
Diane Ravitch addressed the NASP 2012 Annual Convention as keynote speaker. Dr. Ravitch explained that:
Education policy today is on a collision course with reality. The emperor has no clothes. The needs of children are dismissed as unimportant. All that matters to our national leaders is test scores. They must go up or heads will roll.
She went on to remind us that:
The current heavy reliance on incentives ignores the fact that students are subject to many influences other than their teachers. The reformers choose to ignore the importance of family and community. They choose to ignore how poverty affects student motivation, attendance, and school performance.
School psychologists are uniquely qualified to advocate for sound educational policies; through our training, we best understand the intricate complexities associated with all kinds of test protocols and are well versed in learning theory. Yet, our silence during this contentious debate has been deafening. At a time when we—for the sake of our students—should be speaking out on the unsubstantiated psychometric properties of these mandated accountability measures, we need to speak up. When students are exposed to invalid, unreliable, nonstandardized tests, we should be forthright, honest, and courageous in giving our opinions about this destructive misuse of testing. We understand that assessments with predetermined cut-scores well above grade-level expectation have no place in our schools, since they are meant to fail two thirds of the students taking the test. We deal individually with the damage to vulnerable learning populations, such as students receiving special education who are reevaluated through the IEP process, ELL students, and many RTI-identified underachievers. Anya Kamenetz (2015), in her recent book, explained that multidisciplinary social scientist David Campbell’s Law indicates that:
When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. If you give people a single number to hit, they will work toward that number to the detriment of all other dimensions of success. The more you turn up the pressure to hit that number, the worse the distortion and the corruption gets.
We alone in the public schools have the skill set to determine whether a test protocol meets the highest standard of fairness and equitability for our students. We are uniquely qualified to understand the psychometric properties of a test, its validity and reliability, and whether they have been properly obtained and are independently verifiable. We should not need to be reminded that our ethical standards require that we protect students from unfair and unproven test protocols.
We are also uniquely positioned to understand the pressure and stress that this testing causes our students. In our schools, we see the time that is spent narrowing the curriculum to address the specific areas measured by the tests. We see what is taken away from the school day to accommodate teaching to the test as well as teaching how to navigate the technology of the test. Play has disappeared from the curriculum. Creative and independent study projects have fallen to the wayside. Recess has been shortened. And opportunities to engage in artistic expression, music and drama, and even physical education, have found their time decreased. We more than anyone in school understand why some students are acting out behaviorally when their developmental and individual learning needs are ignored. Scripted lessons treat everyone the same; it does not matter that the instruction is developmentally inappropriate for the student. As school psychologists, we are expected to participate on support teams to identify the importance of individualization in learning; one-size-fits-all curriculum runs contrary to everything that we understand about learning. Who else, in school, can speak for these stressed-out and struggling students if we don’t?
We are uniquely positioned to evaluate the statistical formulae that are recommended for use in holding teachers and schools accountable for student progress. We can counsel teachers and administrators as to the flawed value-added model (VAM) that has been discredited by the American Statistical Association, the National Research Council, and the National Academy of Education. Statistical correlation differs from causation, and independently duplicated research has shown that a teacher’s influence on student performance is far less than has been otherwise promoted by the developer’s of the VAM sham. Dr. Edward H. Haertel (2013), Stanford University professor, reported on the inadequacy of the VAM statistical algorithms in determining teacher effectiveness:
Teacher VAM scores should emphatically not be included as a substantial factor with a fixed weight in consequential teacher personnel decisions. The information they provide is simply not good enough to use in that way. It is not just that the information is noisy. Much more serious is the fact that the scores may be systematically biased for some teachers and against others, and major potential sources of bias stem from the way our school system is organized. No statistical manipulation can assure fair comparisons of teachers working in very different schools, with very different students, under very different conditions.
Our voice should be united and must be heard on this important issue of using a flawed formula in evaluating our colleagues and ourselves; the formula will be used if knowledgeable professionals remain quiet.
We are also uniquely trained to understand and protect the privacy of students. For years, it was understood by parents and educators that FERPA regulations guaranteed confidentiality of student test results and family information. Recent changes in FERPA regulations have gone unreported to unsuspecting parents while student data is made available to private organizations that can claim a research interest. Maria Naughton (2015), a Connecticut education advocate, warned that:
Privacy protections for our youngest citizens are undergoing a troubling transformation due to recent policy changes and requirements in education.… Behaviors common in preschool, like biting and whining, while just a blip on the radar of child development, may now be logged forever in an electronic student record.
Demands for school accountability under No Child Left Behind have created a mandate for state longitudinal data systems. Student scores on all test performance measures are readily entered into public school databases from preschool to well into college. As a result, children as young as age 4 have reading and math scores entered into a district data storage system, in many cases well before they are developmentally ready for such assessments. In this era of government overreach, who is responsible for protecting the confidentiality and privacy of students and parents, many of whom have not even been informed that those protections are now nonexistent?
So, where are our voices? Having worked for 41 years in the trenches like many of you, I understand that it is a tricky path that we walk as we work within the public school system that pays our salaries. Each of us has to find a way to maintain our professional integrity and remain true to our obligation in protecting and serving our students and parents while supporting our teacher colleagues and speaking out against mandated, but misguided, policy initiatives. Easier said than done! Not a welcome task, but we have been remiss for too long as the education reform industry pushes forward with what we and all teachers know are unproven instructional and assessment practices.
Haertel, E. H. (2013, March). Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores.” 14th annual William H. Angoff Memorial Lecture presented at the National Press Club, Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/PICANG14.pdf
Kamenetz, A. (2015). The test. [e-book]. Philadelphia, PA: Public Affairs.
Naughton, M. (2015, January 23). Student privacy concerns continue to grow. NCAdvertiser.com. Retrieved from http://ncadvertiser.com/43686/student-privacy-concerns-continue-to-grow/#axzz3qBG1Vx6i
Ravitch, D. (2012, February). Will school reform improve education? Keynote address at the NASP 2012 NASP Annual Convention, Philadelphia, PA.
Jack Bestor, NCSP, is a recently retired school psychologist in Connecticut and a past recipient of the Connecticut Association of School Psychologists Lifetime Achievement Award