Sunday Dialogue: Improving Our Schools
Will a new set of standards and more tests help students?
To the Editor:
The common core standards movement seems to be common sense: Our schools should have similar standards, what students should know at each grade. The movement, however, is based on the false assumption that our schools are broken, that ineffective teaching is the problem and that rigorous standards and tests are necessary to improve things.
The mediocre performance of American students on international tests seems to show that our schools are doing poorly. But students from middle-class homes who attend well-funded schools rank among the best in the world on these tests, which means that teaching is not the problem. The problem is poverty. Our overall scores are unspectacular because so many American children live in poverty (23 percent, ranking us 34th out of 35 “economically advanced countries”).
Poverty means inadequate nutrition and health care, and little access to books, all associated with lower school achievement. Addressing those needs will increase achievement and better the lives of millions of children.
How can we pay for this? Reduce testing. The common core, adopted by 45 states, demands an astonishing increase in testing, far more than needed and far more than the already excessive amount required by No Child Left Behind.
No Child Left Behind requires tests in math and reading at the end of the school year in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school. The common core will test more subjects and more grade levels, and adds tests given during the year. There may also be pretests in the fall.
The cost will be enormous. New York City plans to spend over half a billion dollars on technology in schools, primarily so that students can take the electronically delivered national tests.
Research shows that increasing testing does not increase achievement. A better investment is protecting children from the effects of poverty, in feeding the animal, not just weighing it.
Los Angeles, July 16, 2012
The writer is professor emeritus at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.
The idea that reducing spending on educational testing could help alleviate poverty is naïve. Testing actually costs less, on a per-pupil basis, than a new textbook, a year’s worth of school supplies or almost any other educational expenditure, according to a 2010 report by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.
It’s been estimated that as little as 1 percent of total educational spending is spent on assessment. It is true that schools will likely have to spend more money on digital technology to accommodate new assessments to monitor students’ mastery of the new common core standards. But that technology will be used throughout the school day, not just for assessments.
Moreover, the return on the investment will be far greater than the cost. Assessments will be embedded in engaging digital environments that make it possible to measure not just what students know but how they apply what they know to solve problems and communicate their ideas.
That won’t happen unless policy makers are willing to spend more, not less, on high-quality tests that provide information that is much more valuable instructionally than the tests in use today.
RICHARD LEE COLVIN
Washington, July 18, 2012
The writer is a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
Another tremendous cost of the increased testing to students will be the increased loss of time for actual teaching and learning. With pretests in the fall, end-of-the-year tests in the spring and regular “formative” tests throughout the school year, students will lose weeks of instructional time.
Crawford, Colo., July 18, 2012
The writer is an English as a second language coordinator at the Bavarian International School.
Our blind adherence to the regimen of testing has yielded a cultural perspective that could fairly be termed pathological. Even our most test-successful children seem bent on improving their test scores by any means necessary, as witnessed recently by the testing scandal at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan (my alma mater), where more than 80 students are being investigated for cheating on tests that they knew would have no significant impact on their academic futures.
Further, many of these very same “gifted” and privileged children around the country are habitual abusers of prescription amphetamines to enhance their test performances.
Illegal cheating on this scale is dwarfed only by the legal cheating that supports the multibillion-dollar testing and test-prep industry, as families of means further distance themselves from the underprivileged by spending tens of thousands of dollars buying points on high-stakes tests for their children.
The real test is the test of life — where taking risks and failing gloriously is rewarded far more richly than meaningless numbers on a piece of paper. Let us re-evaluate the principles our education system currently embraces and focus again on the skills and values that have made our society profoundly successful.
New York, July 18, 2012
The writer is an educator and documentary filmmaker.
Poverty is indeed the root cause of student achievement gaps, but urban schools serving predominantly low-income students like mine show that you can overcome these gaps if you use testing data during the course of the year to match students with extra tutoring, literacy interventions and other supports. My colleagues and I can’t afford to wait until the end of the year to find out that our teaching methods are working for only some of our students.
Furthermore, schools like mine are increasingly shelling out huge amounts of money to companies that administer tests for our students during the year. The common core tests will be free, and the computer-based administration will allow for more rapid turnaround of data than ever for teachers.
Thus, while we should always ask if we are testing our students too much, the common core’s use of a few optional interim tests over the course of the year will play a crucial role in closing student achievement gaps.
Cambridge, Mass., July 18, 2012
The writer is a humanities teacher at Community Charter School of Cambridge.
Last year my son was in the third grade. By all accounts he had one of the best third-grade teachers that our award-winning suburban school district had to offer. And he was having a spectacular year. He looked forward to going to school every day. He was excited about learning, and he was performing extraordinarily well. That is, until about the middle of May, when preparations began in earnest for administration of his very first state standardized test.
In the week leading up to the test, my son was constantly complaining of physical ailments. His normal enthusiasm for school waned, replaced by fear and dread. This same malady had apparently stricken many of the other children in the third to eighth grades.
It was as if all of the children had contracted some strange testing flu.
I am not suggesting that all testing is unwarranted or problematic. However, for a tool so detrimental to the well-being of our children, we should determine the threshold at which we maximize the benefit while minimizing the harm.
Elkins Park, Pa., July 18, 2012
Mr. Krashen is dead right that poverty is one of the main causes of academic underachievement. But he needs to remember that without testing, we would never know about the achievement gaps in education. The knowledge that we derive from test scores allows us to make the kind of analysis that he has done. Throwing out the tests to save money is not the answer to the problem.
STEPHEN T. SCHREIBER
Princeton, N.J., July 18, 2012
The writer worked for the companies that administered the GMAT and LSAT exams for admission to graduate and law schools.
Mr. Krashen is correct about an excess of testing in American schools, but not about the assumptions behind the common core standards. The standards are not meant to fix broken schools, and they certainly do not make it “necessary” to administer more tests. Standards make it possible for teachers to understand both what their students have learned before and what they will learn afterward. These are enormously valuable benefits. When crafted properly, standards can be effective and creative tools for teachers.
But the common core standards are currently being hijacked by politicians and administrators who see them as way to collect huge amounts of new data to evaluate everything from districts to teachers. It is the common core assessments, not the standards, that will cost us dearly, and Mr. Krashen is right that this money could be better spent.
Making higher test scores the goal of education is our problem, not the standards.
Fight poverty by all means, but let’s also fight to set intellectually sound educational goals.
President, Math for America
New York, July 18, 2012
Mr. Krashen is right. Poverty is the problem that most affects education in America. I work at a school in which a large percentage of the students live at or near the poverty level. Some live in cars, and some get their only meals of the day at school. These children need far greater levels of support than their middle-class peers.
Not only do they lack books, but they also frequently lack study skills and computers. Often their parents don’t have the time to check homework; they are too busy trying to earn enough money to survive.
If we want children from poverty to succeed, we need to reduce class sizes to no more than 20 students. We need to provide after-school study halls staffed by teachers or college students who can help these children study and check their homework.
If this sounds expensive, look at the cost of poverty. What do food stamps, free school meals, medical care provided by emergency rooms and time spent in jail cost us as a society?
San Diego, July 18, 2012
The Writer Responds
I agree with Mr. Schreiber: There is a role for standardized tests. But there are far too many of them. One function of such tests is to compare groups and investigate factors related to high achievement, which works if tests are valid and are low-stakes and thus do not encourage cheating. But we don’t have to test every child in every grade every year.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard of American tests, is enough. The test is given every four years to small samples of students, and the results are extrapolated to larger groups. When you go to doctors, they don’t take all your blood; they take only a sample.
The Pioneer Institute estimates that the start-up cost for the new technology for common core assessments will be $2.8 billion. Mr. Colvin suggests that this is a good investment, because the technology may be useful in other ways. Maybe it will; maybe it won’t. What is nearly certain is that the new technology will be obsolete soon after it is installed.
Ms. Hawkins and Ms. Skelton make points my letter should have included: the negative psychological impact overtesting has on children and the time taken from teaching and learning.
I wish Mr. Seton were right. I wish that the common core testing program amounted only to a few optional interim tests.
Los Angeles, July 19, 2012
Stephen Krashen and others
New York Times
July 22, 2012
Index of Common Core [sic] Standards