Less Resources, Harder Tests: Common Core in the Last Days of Obama



The bell hadn’t even rung to begin class yet, but Ce Ce already had enough.


She saw the pile of standardized test look-a-like sheets on the front desk and immediately asked if she could go to in-school suspension.


I’m not kidding.


She’d prefer to spend the day in silence doing homework isolated from the rest of the class than practicing high stakes testing with her peers.


And she’s not alone. This happens every year now. As assessment season gets closer, administrators push teachers to do test prep. And students revolt.


I’m not exactly sure why. Test replicas are not my favorite things to do, either, but they’re not THAT bad. I don’t think it can be my teaching since the mutiny usually happens before I’ve even begun.


It’s the testing. Pure and simple. Some students are so demoralized by the very prospect of skill-and-drill that spending one more second reading passages and filling in bubbles seems a fate worse than death.


And I can’t really blame them.


In the last two years, Pennsylvania has modified its mandatory assessments until it’s almost impossible for my students to pass.


Bureaucrats call it “raising standards,” but it’s really just making the unlikely almost unthinkable.


Impoverished students have traditionally had a harder time scoring as well as their wealthier peers. But the policy response has been to make things MORE difficult. How does that help?


Consider this: If a malnourished runner couldn’t finish the 50 yard dash, forcing him to run 100 yards isn’t raising standards. It’s piling on.


Oh. Both your arms are broken? Here. Bench press 300 lbs.


Both your feet were chopped off in an accident? Go climb Mt. Everest.


That’s what’s happening in the Keystone State and across the country. We’re adding extra layers of complexity to each assessment without regard to whether they’re developmentally appropriate or even necessary and fair to gauge individual skills.


Where Common Core State Standards have been adopted (and Pennsylvania has its own version called PA Core), annual tests have become irrationally difficult. That’s why last year’s state tests – which were the first completely aligned to PA Core – saw a steep drop off in passing scores. Students flunked it in droves.


Where the previous tests were bad, the new ones are beyond inappropriate.


Take Text Dependent Analysis (TDA). It’s something we’ve always done in language arts classes, but it’s meaning has subtly changed thanks to PA Core.


Two years ago, it used to denote that students had to refer to the text when writing essays. Now it’s come to mean something more – referring to the text (or texts) with at least two degrees of complexity.


On the Reading section of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, students must peruse several passages and respond in writing.


Before PA Core, middle school students might have had to read one passage and then explain what its main idea was. This would require them to cite specific examples from the text. For instance, “This passage is mostly about bears because the author writes about hunting them in the Klondike, the ways in which their habitat is affected and their hibernation instinct.” Then students would have to go into more detail highlighting sections of text that support this.


Now students have to read TWO passages and write about something that pervades BOTH but is still tremendously complex. For instance, a 6th grade example released from the state has students read a poem and a folktale about people tricking others into sharing food. Then they have to write about the theme of both pieces and analyze how it is developed in each text using specific references.


The texts concern nothing most students would find interesting and are difficult to understand for children of that age. Moreover, properly developing an essay of this type should be done over the course of several classes. But middle schoolers are expected to do this in a single testing session.


Test proctors are instructed to put aside about 80 minutes for the essay and several related multiple choice questions though, technically, students can take as long as they’d like. They could be given extended time to write for several hours if they want. But most children at this age simply don’t have that kind of stamina. They are not physically and mentally prepared to sit and concentrate like that.


It’s a task many adults would find challenging, but we’re expecting 10- and 11-year-olds to do it!


Can middle school students (ages 10-14) handle this level of complexity, especially in such a short amount of time?


Honestly, it depends on the child. Everyone matures at a different rate. However, for most of the students I have taught in over a decade of middle school experience as a Nationally Board Certified teacher with a Masters Degree in Education, it is my professional opinion that this level of mastery is out of reach.


In fact, at an in-service training, administrators at my building had the entire teaching staff attempt this essay to show us what was expected from students. The general consensus was that it was unreasonable.


Requiring this level of difficulty simply ignores children’s basic humanity. Most of my students come to me not knowing how to write a good essay. If they were all computers, I could break up everything they needed to know into small bits, give it to them piecemeal over the course of the year, and they would learn. But they are not computers – they are children.


That’s why they rebel. We’re demanding more from them than they can give.


It might be different if we met them half way. It might be more reachable if higher expectations came with additional help.


If my students had any chance to achieve at this level so early in their cognitive development, we would need to bring in a team of writing specialists, a flurry of councilors, nutritionists, and wrap around social services. However, no resources have been added to help students meet these added testing hardships. In fact, Pennsylvania has slashed school budgets by almost $1 billion annually.


All the responsibility is thrown on the underfunded schools as if the few teachers who haven’t already been furloughed can somehow perform magic.


A surgeon can’t operate without tools. Nor is he expected to do the job of nurse and physical therapist as well.


It’s a matter of less resources and harder tests, then blame teachers when it doesn’t work.


It’s not just bad policy; it’s a denial of reality.


Add to that the social, cultural and economic aspects. Lawmakers pretend everyone is starting from the same point, but this is demonstrably untrue.


I teach mostly black and brown kids at a high poverty district. Many of my students only get a hot meal at school. They’re malnourished, violence-scarred, and under-equipped. They have few books in the home. Their parents aren’t around because the adults are working multiple jobs to support them. They live in violent neighborhoods where gunshots, drive-bys and premature death are commonplace. And you think they somehow have the same chances of scoring well on standardized assessments as children without these problems!? You expect them to prioritize standardized testing!?


And after years of being subjected to child abuse as education policy, the only thing they’ve learned from testing is that they’re not good at it and they might as well not try.


Is it any wonder some of them would rather sit in our school’s version of prison than stay in class and practice test taking strategies?


We’re running up against the nature of cognition and how young minds grow. We’re ignoring the social, cultural and economic conditions in which these children live. And we’re pretending this is somehow a fair and just accounting of children’s academic skills and their teachers’ effectiveness.


Children need to be engaged. They need to see how an assignment affects their lives. They need to care. They need intrinsic motivation, which is almost impossible to find for a test that is essentially extrinsic.


Our current education policy is the equivalent of holding a gun on children and demanding they perform almost impossible tasks.


It is time to stop the violence. It’s time to end the child abuse.


But is anyone listening?

33 thoughts on “Less Resources, Harder Tests: Common Core in the Last Days of Obama

  1. In 600 AD, china started using the big standardized test (BS Test). Since the 1970’s their department of education has fought to stop teaching to the test and the unreasonable pressure on students to perform to no avail. They realize that their system is harming creativity and rounded growth, but the culture tells parents that the path to a good future is success on the BS Test so they put their children in private test prep schools and place unhealthy pressure on them to win.

    We are developing that same kind of sick system and the only way that I can see to reform it is to have a complete moratorium on BS Tests. No SAT, no ACT, no state tests. We already have the sick high stress system established in our culture. If we continue down the present path, our children will become more unhappy, hate learning and creativity will be stolen from them. Worst of all, their mental and physical health is being harmed. We need to stop now. It is dangerous and the longer we pursue this testing competition folly, the more entrenched this bad idea will become.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the high stress exams are the teacher written and graded exams. Those are the ones that keep students from graduating, that drive down GPA and class rank. Exams that do not have any impact on students lives create no stress.


      • In many states, the high stakes tests are being tied to graduation. In Pennsylvania, starting in 2018, students will be required to pass all Keystone Exams to get a diploma. My students aren’t afraid of the tests I make. They know I’ll assess them fairly. It’s the tests made by corporations that profit off their failure that rightly worry them.


      • Steve,

        Not that many states. Last I looked the majority of states were like mine and had no exams tied to graduation. That is what has often confused me about the phrase “high stakes”. Almost all the exams, certainly the ones before high school, are no stakes at all for students.

        I see the Keystone exams beginning in 2018 are for algebra 1, biology, and literature, with composition and civics down the road. If students do not pass them the first time, they can take them a second time. If they fail a second time, they can take the test a third time. If students can not pass them a three tries, they can do an alternative project that meets with the approval of district officials. Do you think this will be a significant barrier to students who should graduate from high school?

        It is hard to asses the fairness of these exams, but would you think that exams written by non-profit organizations like Penn’s GSE would be fairer? Some states do use exams written by schools of education.


      • Teaching Economist, here is what the local NAACP thinks about it. This is a letter the organization wrote in 2013 to the Pennsylvania State Board of Education:

        The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes that for most people, education is the gateway to the economic mainstream; and that as such, education is a civil right.

        For this reason, the Pennsylvania State Conference of NAACP Branches strongly opposes regulatory action that links the Keystone Examination to high school graduation. We call for the removal from Chapter 4 of Keystone Examinations as a high school graduation requirement. We are certain that such a regulation will create a shameful condition that defames the dream of a free society.

        We base our position on the following recognitions.

        1 It is clear that the regulation linking Keystone Examination scores to high school graduation is a present day form of Eugenics. Hidden under the cloak of “the business community has asked for an improved workforce”, and “colleges are concerned about the number of students needing remediation”, attaching Keystone Examinations to graduation is clearly based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society through selective scores on a paper and pencil test. This is a clandestine social movement that strips children of their dignity and self worth while it fails to address or to access any of the characteristics that lead to successful employment, as delineated on the Pennsylvania Labor and Industry web site

        2. It is clear that the regulation linking Keystone Examination scores to high school graduation is a human rights violation. It is an unspeakable horror for students who have completed the work assigned by their local school district to a satisfactory level to be told that they fail to graduate based on Keystone Examination scores. Such an action will create an atrocity that will rain down a holocaust on our youth and our society as a whole. To deprive young people of their diploma based on single criteria also deprives them of the freedom to prosper in life. Ultimately, withholding the diploma based on single criteria will deprive them over their lives of decent income, decent food, decent homes, and hopeful prospects as well as the security of justice.

        3. The potential to destroy the social order is clear. Pushing masses of students out of high school without a diploma will create a subculture of poverty comprised potentially of up to 60% of our young citizens. It will result in a sea of frustrated parents whose aspirations for their children have been dashed by the actions of the state; and leave them to deal with the life-long trauma imposed on their families.
        4. The disparate impact on women of linking Keystone examinations to graduation is clear. As a result of a regulation that creates a distinction of high school failure, women will be further excluded and restricted in their economic and social access in an economy where existing pay discrimination has been demonstrated.
        5. The cruel and unusual nature of failing to graduate from high school is a life-long punishment that condemns a person to having the doors to life slammed shut and to being consigned to a life of low income, limited housing choice, limited career choice, limited further education choice, and a limited vision for their progeny.

        6. The disparate impact of the use of an arbitrary Keystone Examination score as a graduation requirement on students in underfunded schools is clear. Law makers have created a system of entrapment for the youth of Pennsylvania. They have brought students unawares into the danger and difficulty of a life of adversity. They have failed to provide the resources necessary to succeed on the exam while an obstacle – success on Keystone Examinations – must be overcome in order to move into a stable future.

        7. The depraved indifference of regulating Keystone Examination scores as the requirement for high school graduation is clear and easily substantiated. Much has been presented to the public in the way of data and fact as to the harm of the use of such a tool. Evidence has been presented that questions the construction and content of the test. It is clear that the test does access the qualities needed to predict a good employee. The field of education has long since dismissed a test as a valid predictor of a student’s success in higher education. Given this information, clearly to impose such a regulation is deficient in a moral sense of concern, lacks regard for the lives of the children who will be harmed, and puts their lives and futures at risk.

        The Pennsylvania State Conference of NAACP Branches cannot overstate the profoundly awful impact of regulating Keystone Examination scores as a requirement for high school graduation. It is a human rights violation to block and deter forever human beings from the opportunity to develop their potential and to pursue their dreams. It is abuse of power for the state to set such policy. This is an action so brutal that it is tantamount to lynching our own young.

        Joan Duvall-Flynn, Ed.D.
        Chair, Education Committee

        J. Whyatt Mondesire,
        President, PA State Conference of NAACP Branches

        SOURCE: http://keystonestateeducationcoalition.blogspot.com/2013/09/letter-from-education-committee-of.html


      • Steven,

        The NAACP might want to look at the research comparing African American boy’s standardized test scores to African American boy’s teacher assigned grades. The general pattern of higher test scores for boys and higher GPA’s for girls is especially strong for African Americans.

        But back to my original point. Do you think exams written by nonprofit making, non corporate organizations like schools of education would worry students less? How many students do you think should graduate from high school would be prevented from graduating by the exam? How, in fact, do you decide who should graduate from high school and who should not?


      • Teaching Economist, why do you like standardized tests so much? Why do you linger on Diane Ravitch’s blog and other sites critical of testing if you only want to discuss how great the testocracy is? Have you seen the constant correlation between testing and socio-economic status? Why are you cherry picking one area where boys do better on testing than girls? Doesn’t that also mean that the tests are biased against female test takers? Why have any tests written by corporations? Why not have tests written exclusively by the actual classroom teacher or at least approved for use by the teacher? Who should graduate? Anyone who tries their hardest. Effort is a better indicator of success than anything else.


      • Steven,

        Again, any thoughts about the substance of my post? Would exams writen by nonprofits organizations that are not corporations be fairer to your students or was that simply something to distract readers from what you feel is the actual issue here?

        The bias question is an interesting one. Girls do worse on standardized exams than would be predicted by their grades, boys do better on their standardized exams than would be predicted by their grades. What I ask is that you entertain the possibility that teacher assigned grades are biased against boys and the evidence is to be found in by looking at standardized exams.

        I was the actual classroom teacher for about 15,000 students over the last quarter century. I can not view myself or the grades that I have assigned my students as the definitive evaluation of their knowledge of the material I teach. If you teach a course required for high school graduation, you might be interested in watching the TED talk about the God Complex: https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_harford/transcript?language=en

        I think your criteria for who should graduate from high school as “those who try their hardest” is very informative. Do students who try hard but are illiterate deserve a high school diploma? Is a high school diploma simply an award for students willing to put up with many small and pointless tasks a because the teacher assigned points to those tasks? What do you do with students who don’t have to try very hard at all in you class, the ones that will ace exams but not turn in homework? If you have enough weight on the exams they will likely pass, perhaps even an A, but that much weight on the exam might well fail a hardworking but less bright student.


      • Teaching Economist, the best people to make educational decisions are the ones who are actually present in the classroom – not testing companies. The teacher may think that a certain pre-made test is valuable or selected questions from it can be modified to be appropriate. However, this should be the teacher’s decision. Local school board’s, parents and even students should have input as well. As to bias, no evaluation system is ever 100% free from it. But I trust the person who is actually present more than corporate people who profit off failure. Finally, how can you ask anyone to do better than his or her best? Except in situations of severe mental disabilities, putting the emphasis on effort usually results in high achievement. It shows that the teacher and students are working together – the relationship is not adversarial. These are just my thoughts. They seem pretty common sense to me. But then again, I’m just a classroom teacher with little interest in economics.


      • Steven,

        Again, some states use exams created by schools of education at public universities, not testing companies. Would these tests be ok given that we trust those schools of education to be the ones who train the teachers that you would have exclusive say on evaluating public school students?

        As for bias, right now colleges are dominantly female institutions, with about 60% of the student body being women. There are two African American women with a bachelors degree for every African American man. Those are the numbers with standardized test scores providing some counterweight to high school class standing and GPA. What do you think will happen when the counterweight is removed?

        You raise an interesting question about graduation standards: should we award a high school diploma based on a teacher’s assessment of the effort a student put into a class or should we award a high school diploma based on evidence that the student has mastered the abilities that we expect from a high school graduate? If, as you say, effort does lead to achievement, looking to see if the student has mastered the abilities will automatically verify that they have worked hard. I am sensing though that you want students you think to have worked hard to be awarded a high school diploma even if they have not mastered the abilities we expect from a high school graduate. Is that correct?


      • No, I do not favor using tests made by schools of education unless the teacher has examined the test and found it helpful. Just about every teacher pulls material from multiple sources that make sense in his or her classroom environment. I’m for teacher autonomy because only the teacher is in the best position to make these decisions.You say you were a teacher once, Teaching Economist. It must have been a long time ago if you’ve forgotten this or perhaps you just never trusted in your own judgement enough.

        I am very perplexed by your claims about standardized tests and female students. Yes, numerous studies have shown that girls often are better prepared for school than boys. They do better in almost every subject, but this has nothing to do with standardized testing. Girls do better almost irregardless of how we assess them. They mature more quickly and have greater self-control. There are things teachers can do to help such as letting children get up out of their seats, more hands-on activities, etc. However, relying more on standardized tests is not one of them. These are poor assessments that are biased based on socioeconomics and race. YOU’RE the teaching Economist. How do you not know that?

        Finally, there is no greater predictor of future success than effort. Yes, I am in favor of giving diplomas to students who have shown consistent effort throughout their K-12 years. Outside of special education, this rarely results in students who have not achieved significant levels of mastery in most subjects. However, you may get a student who sneaks through that does not have a level of mastery in a given subject that would be ideal – let say in Geometry. That has always happened. Nothing has ever stopped it. We could make things exceedingly difficult and deny those students a diploma, but what good would that do? These children would now be inelligable for most of the jobs in our economy – even those that don’t require geometry. I think that would be a gross injustice.


      • Steven,

        Good to clear up the whole profit making corporation rhetoric and see that it is not really relevant to your position. I am still teaching just as I have done for well over over a quarter century. My university depends entirely on teacher assigned grades for admission, giving automatic admission to any student with a 2.0 average in a set of academic classes. Like most other large public research universities, we only retain about 80% of our student from freshman to sophomore year. Perhaps we are misunderstanding grades for effort as grades that reflect achievement.

        As for trusting my own judgement, I am concerned that I will develop a God complex. To quote Tim Harford’s talk, ” ….it feels so much better to stand there and say, “Here in my own little world, I am a god, I understand everything. I do not want to have my opinions challenged. I do not want to have my conclusions tested.” It feels so much more comfortable simply to lay down the law.”. Reading and thinking about blogs like this help protect me against developing a God complex, and I hope that my comments might protect others from developing a God complex as well.

        The systematic differences between teacher assigned grades favoring girls and standardized test scores favoring boys has long been a subject of research, though largely at the high school level because that used to be where the standardized test scores were generated. Here is a paper ( http://people.terry.uga.edu/cornwl/research/cmvp.genderdiffs.pdf . I link to the working paper because the published paper is behind a pay wall.) that shows that the systematic inconsistencies between teacher assigned grades and standardized test results begins in kindergarten and remains through fifth grade. You can look at the literature review in the paper for some research of the gap in high school.

        The major finding of the paper is that

        Girls in every racial category outperform boys on reading tests, while boys score at least as well on math and science tests as girls. However, boys in all racial categories across all subject areas are not represented in grade distributions where their test scores would predict. Boys who perform equally as well as girls on reading, math and science tests are graded less favorably by their teachers, but this less favorable treatment essentially vanishes when non-cognitive skills are taken into account. For some specifications there is evidence of a grade “bonus” for boys with test scores and behavior like their girl counterparts.

        I think you are wrong about the causal connection between graduating from high school (or college for that matter) and a reasonable job. In many ways it is the characteristics of the individual student that lead to both high school graduation and reasonable employment. Employers are interested in high school graduates because it serves as a signal that the person has a certain skill set (which might include effort, but might also include the logical thinking that is required in geometry). If high school diplomas no longer serve to identify students with that skill set, they will become irrelevant to employers.


  2. When will teachers and their associations and unions finally band together and refuse to commit professional malpractice? En masse.
    Asking parents to refuse tests ignores our professional responsibilities. And taking unified…union…action on behalf of our students and our profession is entirely appropriate. Sure there are consequences for principled action. Let’s take on that responsibility.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.