Burris: Test scores usher in 'Hard Times' for New York's kids
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The release of the New York Common Core test scores brings to mind the opening of Charles Dickens' "Hard Times":
"With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature and tell you what it comes to," is the phrase that sets the stage for Chapter 2, titled "Murdering the Innocents." School Master Gradgrind, obsessed with data and facts, humiliates "Girl number 20" who cannot "define a horse." The humiliated girl is quickly measured and done, deemed to be "possessed of no facts."
In Gradgrind's class, each child is a numbered vessel into which knowledge must be poured -- faster and more efficiently from the pitcher of fear. The chapter is a chilling and uncanny allegory for the data-driven, test-obsessed reforms that are now overwhelming our schools. Last week, New York's "hard times" measures were made public.
While the fingers point and blame is assigned, "The Innocents" are forgotten. New York students labored through days of testing so that the ignorance of the "number 20s" could be exposed for all to see. The question to be asked is, to what end?
Their failure was preordained. This drop was predicted by Commissioner John King, who declared that scores would "likely drop by 30 points" before the tests were completed. If a teacher in my school told me that he designed a test that was so hard that the passing rate would drop by 30 points, I would walk him to the door.
There are consequences for children based on these hard times. Young students who are developing as they should might be placed in remedial services, forgoing enrichment in the arts because they are below the new proficiency level. Parents will needlessly worry for their children's future. The optimism teachers first felt about the Common Core is fading as the standards and their tests roll into classrooms.
What is equally disconcerting is that there is no evidence to support that these cut scores -- the test point values used to sort student performance into categories 1, 2, 3 or 4 -- are predictors of students successfully completing college. New York's cut scores are an attempt to benchmark state scores to National Assessment of Educational Progress and Regents scores. But the connections between NAEP scores and college performance are so spurious that researchers have yet to claim that NAEP scores have any predictive value at all when it comes to college and career readiness. The state's College Readiness Index is derived from a correlation between New York City students' scores on the English and Math A exams and grades at the City University of New York, nothing more. The new "standard" is built on sand.
My advice to parents is this: These tests are hardly a measure of your child's value or promise as a student. Your conversations with your child's teacher or principal can give you far better insights into her academic, and just as important, her social and emotional growth.
There will be tremendous pressure to further narrow the curriculum and cut out all of the enrichment to raise test scores. Don't allow your schools to become the places that are "in all things regulated and governed by fact" and where teachers are obliged to "discard the word Fancy altogether" as the government officer in "Hard Times" directed Gradgrind and his students to do.
We who are inside schools have been sounding the alarm, although perhaps not as loudly as we should. In the end, it will be parents, speaking with each other and with their local school boards and legislators, who will insist that reason prevail and local control and reason be restored. It will be parents who insist that school not be a place of the continual measurement of deficits, but a place that seeks to allow students to show what they know beyond a standardized test. When parents tire of data-driven instruction, then the Hard Times for These Times will finally end.
Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, was named 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York. This is adapted from a blog for The Washington Post.