Education

Why New York State's Common Core Test Scores Should Be Ignored

Test scores in the accountability era reflect political, not pedagogical, priorities.

Photo Credit: Pakawat Suwannaket via Shutterstock.com

Late last week, New York schools learned how they performed on Common Core-aligned state tests in reading and math. Results show an incremental improvement over last year’s scores, when passing rates plummeted to below 30 percent. The black-white achievement gap remains unchanged.

With few exceptions, news outlets have reported the scores as a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark picture: though scores have inched up, around two thirds of students are still performing “below proficient.” While last year’s drop was steep, the Common Core, we’re told, is working. The marginal gains seen this year have quickly been spun to legitimate the tests, while entrenching a familiar narrative of school failure.

Establishment media and policymakers have taken for granted a simple fact: the legitimacy of these tests. But as empirical measures, are they worthy of our attention?

Like the rest of the country, New York has seen its standardized test scores vacillate over the last decade, at times drastically. But as the recent history of standardized testing shows, these changes haven’t been rooted in the classroom so much as in lawmaking chambers. Test scores in the era of accountability reflect political, not pedagogical, priorities.

The age of standardized testing began in earnest with Bush’s No Child Left Behind in 2002, which mandated that literally every student be “proficient” by 2014. Facing the impossible, states did the expected: they diluted education standards to increase test scores.

Nowhere was this more pronounced than in New York. Between 2002 and 2008, New York City eighth-grade passing rates nearly doubled in English and math. By 2009, the New York Timeswas giddily reporting how “state test scores before and after the mayor took control chronicle a steady march upward.” Bloomberg told the paper, “I’m happy, thrilled… ecstatic, I think, is a better word.”

But on national tests given biannually and unattached to any incentives, New York’s scores remained static. As the news media credulously trumpeted each new report of gains, they appeared unconcerned that the same state actors pushing education policy also set the cut scores—the marks students need to be deemed passing. Meanwhile, schools increasingly centered their curricula around rote test preparation.

By 2010, the achievement data had grown suspect, and state officials were being pressured to address the soaring passing rates.When they finally realigned the benchmarks, scores dropped precipitously. The Timesblared, “On New York School Tests, Warning Signs Ignored,” glossing the role the paper itself had played in its uncritical coverage of inflated scores. 

With notable exceptions (see: Massachusetts), similar stories played out across the country. In fact, the modern era of standards-based school reform, often pegged to the 1983 Reagan-commissioned report A Nation At Risk, was forged from fudged data. The report warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.” To drive the point home, the authors evinced decades of drooping SAT scores.

A 1990 reappraisal of the data told a different story. Researchers divided test takers into subgroups along socioeconomic lines and found that SAT scores had actually increased—in every subgroup. So why the overall decline? The pool of test-takers had expanded: Lower-income students were taking the SAT in increasing numbers, which depressed the aggregate score. A Nation At Risk mistook a story of expanding opportunity for one of declining achievement.

Three decades later, accountability crusaders wave the banner of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a set of tougher curriculum guidelines intended to replace less rigorous state standards. The introduction of tests aligned to the Common Core has had reform types like Jeb Bush predicting drops in achievement massive enough to have “people running for cover.”

When Kentucky debuted CCSS-aligned tests, Bush’s predictions were borne out: scores dropped about thirty points. Officials in New York warned of the same as they prepared to become the second CCSS-tested state. Indeed, 2013 scores plummeted by about thirty points, as predicted. The whole thing was sold as a “reality check,” finally a real accounting of “how far the state has to go to prepare children for jobs in the new global economy.”

But there’s a simple reason officials knew precisely how far the scores would drop: once again, they themselves set the cut scores.

As New York principal Carol Burris outlined in the Washington Post, education chiefs set benchmarks at points they knew perfectly well would render about two thirds of students “below proficient.” Participants in a panel that reviewed the cut scores described a process circumscribed by testing giant Pearson, which manufactures the tests. As one panelist related:

“The problem is the underlying assumption that these tests are helping us. They're not. Pearson's tests were unbelievably bad, the worst I've seen, and the reality of using tests designed to rank students is something we haven't gotten our heads around.”

This year, officials predicted slight gains before scores were tabulated—not surprising given the added familiarity schools had with the tests. But there was also the matter of cut scores: as in the late ‘00s, this year administrators lowered the hurdles for passing tests. They justified the move by claiming this year’s tests were harder, but they’ve released only half of the data necessary to evaluate such claims, raising the hackles of testing transparency advocates.

Dubious as such a process may be, it serves potent political purposes. Education reform groups interested in curtailing teachers unions and promoting market solutions like charter schools delight in accounts of the public education’s failure.

Take Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter group that dropped an unprecedented $6 million on political advertising for charter schools this year. Earlier this month they released a report warning that 90% of students were below grade-level in a quarter of New York’s schools—numbers derived, of course, from last year’s test scores. “Our city is facing a K-12 schools crisis of epic proportions,” the group’s CEO told the Daily News.

All told, test scores in the age of accountability have never been the empirical and objective measures they purport to be, let alone stable social indicators. This isn’t to say these efforts are totally unjustifiable. Test-based accountability has undoubtedly spurred a few apathetic teachers to buck up, while new standards may help novice teachers focus their instruction.

But there are far more teachers who’ve seen testing pressures narrow and dull their curricula. Nationwide, the ranks of music and art teachers have thinned, while those in tested subjects have grown. Cheating scandals have proliferated, as exemplified by Rachel Aviv’s recent New Yorkeraccount of otherwise stellar educators driven to alter exams in test-crazy Atlanta.

So what good are test scores? As a snapshot, they do provide a reliable proxy for socioeconomic levels. Study after study demonstrates the primacy of parental income in test score variation. And in outlier cases like Success Academy charter schools, impressive scores might evidence phenomenal teaching—or a scholastic culture dominated by monomaniacal test preparation, together witha system that winnows out the neediest students.

But the national fetish with testing data has the insidious effect of distracting us from actual problems. Low-income and nonwhite students, for example, experience far more repressive discipline regimes than their white peers. Every year, budget-conscious districts shear more arts programs from their offerings—again, particularly in black and Latino schools. And in the furor over Common Core, educational progressives have dropped demands for culturally relevant curriculum and restorative justice.

The blathering class will continue to cast test scores as the be-all-end-all of schooling. It makes for good soundbites and quick headlines. Meanwhile, arts education and rich, creative curriculums are sacrificed at the altar of achievement.

That will continue as long as the media stays complicit, and as long as we lend credence to the political mechanism of test scores.

Owen Davis is a New York-based writer and former intern at The Nation magazine. He writes curriculum for the alternative children's magazine IndyKids. Davis blogs here and tweets @of_davis.

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