Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pennsylvania Proposes Smaller Tests, Same High Stakes by Steven Singer

Originally posted at:

t’s not the size of the tests, it’s how you use them.

And that’s kind of the problem with Gov. Tom Wolf’s new proposal for Pennsylvania public schools.

Wolf wants to reduce the amount of time students are taking standardized tests, but he seems to have little problem using those tests to hold schools accountable for all kinds of things that are beyond their control.

The proposal released today applies only to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – those taken by students in grades 3-8. Keystone Exams taken by high school students are unaffected.

It would cut one of three reading sections and one of three math sections – two total. Wolf also wants to cut some questions from one of the science sections.

Such a move is estimated to eliminate 48 minutes from the math test, 45 minutes from the reading test and 22 minutes from the science test. However, judging from my own students, these times vary considerably depending on the individual taking the tests. I’ve had 8th grade students finish a PSSA section in as little as 5 minutes or as much as two hours.

Most schools give either a section a day or two in one day. Therefore, this proposal probably translates to 1 to 2 fewer days testing in most districts.

Um. Thanks?

Look I don’t want to seem ungrateful here, but these suggested modifications are little more than fiddling around the edges of a massive problem.

Yes, it will be helpful to reduce testing times, but this does very little to address the fundamental problems with test-based accountability in the Commonwealth.

At best, this proposal will allow students to spend two more days a year learning. Assuming most districts don’t use that extra time for test prep, that IS a good thing.

But tacitly committing students throughout the state to taking these tests almost guarantees that test prep is exactly how these additional days will be used.

The problem with standardized testing isn’t just the number of raw days it takes students to complete the tests. It is how the tests deform the entire year-long curriculum. Students don’t just learn anymore. They learn what’s on the test – and anything else is purely optional.

Regardless of the size of the assessments, they are still being used to sort and judge students, teachers and schools. Shortening their length does nothing to address the fundamental unfairness of the evaluations. Rich white kids still tend to have high scores and poor minority kids still tend to have low ones.

At best, they reveal structural funding disparities between poor and wealthy districts. At worst, the cultural bias inherent in the questions favor those from dominant, privileged ethnicities while punishing those who don’t fit the standard.

That’s what “standardized test” means after all – defining normal and punishing those who don’t fit the definition. Most questions don’t assess universals like the value of 2 and 2. They evaluate cultural and social norms required to understand the questions and easily find an answer that another “normal” student would choose. (Don’t believe me? Watch “Black Jeopardy” on Saturday Night Live.)

This is true whether the test takes one day or 100 days.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) contains provisions to circumvent them. States are supposed to be given leeway about testing. They may even be able to replace them with projects or other non-standardized assessments. THAT’S what Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Education should be exploring – not half measures.

To be fair, the state Department of Education is attempting reform based on the ESSA. This year, the department introduced Future Ready PA, a new way of using test scores and other measures to assess school success. To its credit, The Index does place additional emphasis on academic growth, evaluation of school climate, attendance, graduation rates, etc. However, for my money it still gives far too much importance to standardized testing and test prep.

Like reducing the size of the PSSAs, it’s a positive step but won’t do much to get us to our destination.

Neither measure will have much impact on the day-to-day operations of our public schools. Districts will still be pressured to emphasize test prep, test taking strategies, approaches to answering multiple choice questions, etc. Meanwhile, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity will still be pushed to the side.

Moreover, since schools and teachers will be assessed as successful or not based largely on these test scores, districts will be under tremendous pressure to give countless practice tests throughout the year to gauge how well students are prepared for the PSSAs. The state will still be providing and encouraging the optional Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) tests be taken several times in reading and math throughout the year. Trimming off two days from the PSSA will affect that not at all.

In addition, today’s proposal only applies to the PSSA. While that assessment is important, the Keystone Exams given to high school students are even more so. According to existing state law, passing the Keystones in Algebra I, Literature and Biology are required in order to qualify for a diploma. However, that condition has yet to go live. So far the legislature has continuously pushed back the date when passing scores become graduation requirements. The Governor and Department of Education should be proposing the elimination of this prerequisite before anything else. Other than education funding and perhaps charter school accountability, it is the most important education issue before Commonwealth lawmakers today.

Don’t get me wrong. The Democratic Governor is somewhat hamstrung by the Republican-controlled legislature. Partisan politics has stopped lawmakers from accepting Wolf’s more progressive education measures.

Though Wolf has gotten Republicans to increase education funding by hundreds of millions of dollars during his term, K-12 schools still receive less than they did before the previous GOP governor’s administration. Moreover, there have been absolutely zero inflationary increases to keep up with the rising cost of doing business. Pennsylvania schools receive less funding – whether you adjust for inflation or not – than they should, and that has a real world impact on our public schools. Moreover, how that money has been allocated by the legislature still – even with our new better funding formula in place – benefits wealthy districts more than poor ones.

If you want to talk about accountability, that’s where the majority of the issue belongs.

And primarily it’s out of Wolf’s hands. One can understand why he is proposing changes where he can and trying to do whatever good is possible given the political climate.

Shortening the PSSA tests would benefit our students. It is a step in a positive direction.

However, it is far from solving our many education problems.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Board Of Regents Does Right By Kids And Taxpayers In Rejecting Early Charter Renewals by Lisa Eggert Litvin

In a pointed response to NY's Board of Regents, the NY Post recently wrote that "you'd have to be nuts" not to fast-track renewals of a number of charter schools. Actually, the opposite is true.

As background, NY's byzantine charter school rules authorize the SUNY Charter Schools Committee, a group of four men (3 lawyers and a businessman), to decide whether to renew many of NY's charter schools. NY's highest education body, the Board of Regents (a 17-member diverse group, including many life-long educators), is relegated to merely reviewing the SUNY Committee's recommendations and giving feedback. Ultimately the SUNY Committee has final say.

Over the past months, the SUNY Committee recommended that a total of 19 schools be pushed ahead for early renewal. The Board of Regents responded that these requests were premature, and that to ensure full accountability, a school's renewal should be assessed in the year when its current term would expire, so that the most up-to-date data can be used.

The Board of Regents was right to advise against the rush. In fact, the data submitted by the SUNY Committee shows problems so deep running through these schools that the discussion should turn to whether the model used by these charter networks is even sustainable.

While the 19 schools are attaining high scores on the state's standardized English and math tests, far too many of these schools are experiencing financial losses, negative assets, high suspension rates, and under enrollment.

Specifically, over 40% of the fast-tracked schools are unable to cover their expenses, and are operating at a loss. In addition, over a quarter of the schools have been managed in a such a way that they report having negative net assets. Rather than pushing fast-track renewals of these financially stumbling schools, the SUNY Committee should be assessing whether these schools are financially viable and are worthy of taxpayer funding.

Further, despite the claim of extensive wait lists, every one of the 19 recommended schools has failed to meet its target enrollments for struggling children, i.e. children with disabilities, English Language Learners, and economically disadvantaged children. This dereliction should be challenged, not rewarded with early renewal.

Making matters even more profound, the suspension numbers are strikingly high, and against the trend in education to reduce suspensions and end the "suspension-to-prison" pipeline. The average suspension rate of these schools -- none of which includes high school students -- is a stunning 10%, with some schools as high as 20%, and even k-3 schools with rates of 12% and 14%.

Several of the schools on the list have made headlines, for all the wrong reasons. Success Academy Fort Greene is infamous for its "got-to-go" list of troublesome children. The situation at that school is so dire that the local Community Education Council asked that the school be reviewed and that its authorization be revoked if needed.

Success Academy Harlem 3's problems were brought into the spotlight via a NYC Comptroller's audit, which found a number of issues, including double payments to Success Academy's management corporation and billing for more special education services than it may have provided. Alarmingly, the audit also found that over 65% of the school personnel sampled at Harlem 3 hadn't had their criminal background checks completed before starting work.

So was the Board of Regents "nuts" to say no to fast tracking these schools? No, the Board rightly looked out for the best interests of the children and the taxpayer and said hold off. Unfortunately, the SUNY Committee can still move forward with its ill-advised renewals, to the detriment of everyone else. Perhaps it is time to consider whether to remove renewal powers from the SUNY Committee and give full authorizing power over charters to the far more appropriate and qualified Board of Regents

Schools submitted for early renewal (submitted in March 2017),…/regents/files/417p12a5.pdf
1.Success Academy Bronx 1
2.Success Academy Bronx 2
3. Success Academy Crown Heights
4. Success Academy Fort Greene
5. Success Academy Harlem 2
6. Success Academy Harlem 3
7. Success Academy Harlem 4
8. Success Academy Harlem 5
9. Success Academy Prospect Heights
10. Success Academy Union Square
Schools submitted for early renewal (submitted in July 2017),…/regents/files/717p12a1.pdf
1.Bronx Charter School for Better Learning
2.Success Academy Bensonhurst
3.Success Academy Bergen Beach
4.Success Academy Bronx 3
5. Success Academy Bronx 4
6.Success Academy Hell’s Kitchen
7.Success Academy Rosedale
8.Success Academy Springfield Garden
9.Success Academy Washington Heights
Members of the NY Board of Regents:
Members of the SUNY Charter Schools Committee:
"Got to go" list:…/at-a-success-academy-charter-scho…
Local Community Education Council asking for a review and possible revocation of Success Academy Fort Greene:…/stop-success-academies-from-openi…
Audit of Success Academy / SA Harlem 3:…/audit-report-of-success-acad…/ (Executive Summary)…/uploa…/documents/FK15_092A.pdf (full Audit report -- see page 9 for duplicate payments to the Success Academy network. See page 20 for billing for special education services that the school may not have actually provided to the children. See page 36 for failure to complete criminal background checks.
Here's where the percentages come from. All info is based on the most recent year of data provided in the SUNY report for each school. And the specific numbers and data are listed in “Detailed Support” document:
Schools operating at a loss (8 out of 19 = 42%):
1.Bronx Charter School for Better Learning
2.Success Academy ("SA") Fort Greene
3.SA Harlem 2
4.SA Harlem 3
5.SA Harlem 4
6.SA Harlem 5
7.SA Union Square
8.SA Bronx 3
Schools with negative net assets (5 out of 19 = 26%)
1.SA Crown Heights
2.SA Fort Greene
3.SA Union Square
4.SA Hells Kitchen
5.SA Rosedale
Schools that have met enrollment targets for all categories of ED, ELL, SED:
Suspension numbers specifically cited:
SA Fort Greene (k-3): 14.8%
SA Bergen Beach (k-2): 12%
Additional suspension numbers are in the Detailed Support document

About the Author: 

Lisa Eggert Litvin, Esq.
Hastings-on-Hudson Board of Education President (my piece is written by me and doesn't represent my BOE)
Hastings-on-Hudson PTSA Emerita

I Live In A White World by Laura D. Brown

It has taken me 44 years to realize how limited my world view is — and how that impacts my teaching.
I went to Disney World this summer and stayed at the Boardwalk Inn — I saw a sea of white faces.

I went to Myrtle Beach, SC and frolicked on the beach with other white tourists.

I went to a national gymnastics competition in Savannah, GA and cheered on white kids in pretty unis.

I volunteered at the Auburn Great Race and counted how many non-white faces I saw run, bike, or paddled by — three.

I send my children to a school where they see 99% faces that are white, just like them.

I frequent an urban YMCA in Auburn, NY and see very few non-white participants.

I have one non-white uncle married to my aunt, and one non-white Godfather (a Mohawk).
I have no non-white close friends.

I have worked with only 3–4 non-white educators in my twenty-three-year teaching career.

I teach in a school that is 79% white.

I am educated and hold very democratic egalitarian views, but I do not know what the hell I am even talking about because I live in a white world. Membership in this white world makes my life drastically different than 21% of the student body that I teach. Is it no wonder that the Tatianas and the DeShawns have challenged me over the years? I have no concept of how my non-white students adapt, learn, strive, struggle or exist in my white world. When I teach them about civil rights do they see me as a fraud? Do they see me as another well-meaning white female teacher telling them fairy-tales of democracy, freedom, and justice? Do my non-white students gather together at lunch tables during the refuge of their only free period where they choose to sit with whom they are most comfortable chatting about how their white teachers don’t “get” them? Or, are my non-white students silent because the racism is subtle? Do they accept the reality of the world they live in or does their anger simmer?

When my non-white students see images of Charlottesville, VA does it confirm or surprise? Do they wonder if their teachers hold such beliefs?

When I Googled “white teachers,” the search revealed:

The search results demonstrate the disconnect between white teachers and students of color. I feel the need to educate myself further. My teacher training and professional development have never discussed the racial and cultural divide that is growing in classrooms across our nation. I am sure my lack of training in this topic is due to many factors, including the predominance of white teachers, the systemic racism, de facto segregation of neighborhoods, and the naive belief of white teachers that we have no bias.

I wish I could finish this post with some nice conclusion, but the truth is that my colleagues and I have a lot of work to do. We have been ignorant and removed from the pain of discrimination based on race. We have comfortably lived in our white world far too long.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why Won’t Republicans Repeal Common Core? by Steven Singer

Originally posted at:

It was a constant refrain from Donald Trump on the stump.

He was going to repeal Common Core. How did we know? He kept repeating it over-and-over.

“We’re cutting Common Core. We’re getting rid of Common Core,” he said during a debate in Detroit.

“Common Core is a total disaster. We can’t let it continue,” he said in a campaign ad.

But then, he did a complete 180:

“We are going to do some things special. Okay. Are you ready? Common Core we’re going to keep.”


It didn’t go down so well with his supporters. He was literally booed. So he took to Twitter with the following:

“I was referring to the fact that Jeb Bush wants to keep common core.”

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 11.41.06 PM
Uh, okay?

So what’s his position now? Someone asked him about it in New Hampshire. His response:

“I didn’t know Common Core was so complicated. Isn’t this ridiculous?”

On that we can agree.

But it really doesn’t matter.


Whether Trump supports Common Core or not, he’s actually kind of powerless to do anything about it.

Republicans have been arguing for years that the federal government can’t tell the states what they should be teaching. That’s the crux of opposition, and the newly reauthorized federal law governing K-12 schools, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), underlines it.

The power is unequivocally in the hands of governors and state legislatures.

The states control which academic standards their public schools are supposed to subscribe to or not. And since the beginning of 2017, the states are overwhelmingly in Republican control.

There are 98 partisan state legislative chambers in the United States. Republicans dominate 67 of them. In fact, the GOP controls both legislative chambers in 32 states – the most it has in the party’s history! And in 24 of those states, Republicans also run the show in the Governor’s mansion – the trifecta!

In short, despite any limits on Presidential power, the GOP has never been in a better position to get rid of Common Core.

If Republicans truly wanted to repeal it, they could do so tomorrow, and there’s zero Democrats could do about it in almost half of the country.

Yet, Republicans don’t.

They haven’t.

And they don’t seem in any rush to put it on their agenda in the future.

Which brings me to a serious question any critic of Common Core has to answer: WHY!?

Republicans say they hate Common Core.

They have the power to get rid of it.

Why don’t they do it?


Despite any comments to the contrary, any blathering talking head nonsense from media pundits, the facts remain the same.

Common Core is still the law of the land in 36 states and the District of Columbia.
Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 11.46.51 PM
Sure, some legislatures have changed the name and made nominal revisions (Hello, Pennsylvania!) but they’re still essentially the same standards applied in the same way. The Common Core’s own Website doesn’t distinguish between states that have the standards outright and those where they have been slightly revised or renamed.

Specifically, nine states have announced plans to rewrite or replace the standards, but in the majority of these cases, they have resulted merely in slight revisions. Only Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee appear to have created significantly different standards, according to Education Week.

So what’s the hold up?


Full disclosure: I am not a Republican. I am the farthest thing you could find to a Republican. But on this one issue we agree.

No, I don’t think Common Core will make your child gay or indoctrinate kids into a far left worldview or any of a number of bizarre, crackpot criticisms you might hear from mentally ill pundits being exploited by far right media conglomerates. Nor am I opposed simply to undo any signature legislative achievements of our first black President.

But I do think there are several rational reasons to be against Common Core. The standards were written almost exclusively by representatives of the standardized testing industry with input from very few practicing classroom teachers and zero child psychologists. They have never been tested and proven effective. In many cases, they are developmentally inappropriate. They were adopted non-democratically. And – perhaps worst of all – they commit schools to the failed educational management technique of test-and-punish.

THAT’S why I’m against Common Core.

But it really doesn’t matter.

Even if people like Glenn Beck and I disagree on the reasons why, we both agree on the course of action – repeal Common Core.

Yet the incumbent batch of GOP lawmakers across the country are letting us both down.

If one has to be beaten by Republicans, at least let them accomplish the things that have bipartisan support. That includes repealing Common Core.

Though the media likes to characterize this as a conservative issue, it’s not just Republicans who want to get rid of the Core. Regardless of politics, most people dislike the standards. They aren’t popular with adults. They aren’t popular with children. And most tellingly, they aren’t popular with classroom teachers.

According to the most recent Education Next poll, less than half of all Americans, 49%, favor the policy. In partisan terms, that’s 37% of Republicans and 57% of Democrats. And that support has been steadily dropping every year – by 20 points for Republicans and seven for Democrats since 2013.

And among teachers, the drop is even more dramatic. Only 40% now favor the Core. That’s a drop of 36 points among those who know the standards best!


So let’s get rid of them.

For once I’m with Trump.

But the legislatures just won’t do it.

In some ways, this shares parallels with the healthcare debate.

Before going forward, let me just say that I am NOT in favor of repealing Obamacare and going back to the previous system. Nor am I in favor of repealing without a replacement or any of the so-called “skinny” plans put forth by the GOP.

But be that as it may. The debate offers us a similar example from the federal level.

Republicans say they hate Obamacare yet despite the fact that Democrats can do nothing to stop them, they refuse to repeal it.

In this case, the reason is obvious – they have nothing with which to replace it.

After all these years, they can’t come up with a plan that will improve upon the one already in place.

But this isn’t the case at the state level when it comes to Common Core.

Each and every state had a set of academic standards before Common Core. In most cases, these standards were actually far superior.

All the legislatures would have to do is reinstate them.

Pennsylvania’s standards were particularly reasonable, flexible yet grade appropriate and comprehensive.

We could go back to them tomorrow.

But we don’t.


It’s that same question again.

What is holding us back?


Here’s my theory: it’s the testing.

One of the most frustrating things for Common Core critics is when apologists say they hate standardized testing but love Common Core.

The two are inextricably interlinked. You can’t have Common Core without the testing. That is the whole point of the standards – to tell districts what to focus on because those things will be on the federally mandated high stakes standardized tests.

If states repeal Common Core, what happens to these tests?

Before adopting the Core, each state had a test aligned to its own specific standards. Even where some states had the same tests, their standards were significantly similar to allow this. In any case, most states that have adopted the Core have had to buy new, more difficult tests.

Sure, we could all go back to the tests we used to give, but this would present certain problems.

First, many states were taking tests that were already being aligned with Common Core before they officially adopted it. If they got rid of the standards, they couldn’t go back to the old tests because they’re already Common Core specific.

In theory, they could ask to reinstate older versions of the test that aren’t Common Core aligned. However, in practice for some states, this might necessitate the creation of yet another batch of new tests.

However, in many states like Pennsylvania, this wouldn’t be an issue. Before the Core, they had their own tests based on state specific standards. There’s really no reason why they couldn’t dust off these old tests and put them back into circulation.

The problem is that this would require politicians to justify the millions of dollars (at least $7 billion nationally) they wasted on the new tests, new workbooks, new textbooks, etc.

Lawmakers would have to own their mistakes.

They’d have to say, “My bad!”

And most of them aren’t about to do that.

Of course, there is a third option: they could undo the high stakes testing altogether. They could characterize this not as a misstep but a reform.

According to the ESSA, all states have to give federally mandated standardized tests from grades 3-8 and once in high school.

But what exactly those tests look like is debatable.

The federal government is supposed to give them leeway in this matter. What better way for the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos to demonstrate their commitment to local control than by approving accountability plans that don’t include standardized testing?

States could substitute student projects, classroom grades, internships, even community service for this mandate.

I’m sure if lawmakers were really serious about getting rid of Common Core, they could figure out a way to make this work. It would just require a commitment to patching up the massive hole in our school funding system where the standardized testing industry has been sucking away tax dollars that could be better used elsewhere – like in the actual act of teaching students!


Which brings me to perhaps the most cynical interpretation of the data.

Republicans may be avoiding the Common Core issue because their opposition up to now was simply disingenuous partisan infighting. They could be craven servants to the testing industry. Or – and this is the worst case scenario – they could have another endgame in mind entirely.

Whenever the issue is brought up these days – whenever ANY educational issue is brought up – the Trump administration almost always pivots to school choice.

For instance, here’s Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway during an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “will get on with the business of executing on the president’s vision for education,” Conway said. “He’s made very clear all throughout the campaign and as president he wants to repeal Common Core, he doesn’t think that federal standards are better than local and parental control…And that children should not be restricted in terms of education opportunities just by their ZIP code, just by where they live. We’ve got to look at homeschooling, and charter schools, and school choice and other alternatives for certain students.”

It’s possible that today’s Republicans at both the state and federal level aren’t concerned with repealing Common Core because it’s irrelevant to their ultimate goal – repealing the very notion of public education.

If every school or almost every school was a charter, voucher or homeschool, Common Core would be a moot point.

After all, choice schools don’t have to follow most regulations. That could include using the Core.

This is especially true at voucher schools and homeschools. They can do pretty much whatever they please in most states. If they don’t want to use Common Core, the states have little power (as yet) to force them to do so. Of course accepting tax-payer funding does open them up to being regulated in the future if the political winds change.

On the other hand, charter schools often allegedly do use Common Core, but regulations are so lax with so few measures to hold them accountable for anything in most states that whether they’re actually using the standards and to what extent is anyone’s guess. Unscrupulous charter operators could conceivably forgo the standards regardless of state mandates with little fear of being found out or contradicted.

This may be the ultimate selling point for school choice. Almost anything goes. It could certainly allow schools to circumvent Common Core, just as it allows them to circumvent civil rights protections, fiscal responsibility, democratic local control – really any kind of protections to ensure taxpayer money is being spent responsibly and kids are actually being educated.

In short, it hammers a nail with a bazooka. Yet conservative lawmakers may only be concerned with who’s selling the bazooka and not who gets hit by the shrapnel.

For a long time now, education policy has been about where the money is, and that is unequivocally behind school choice. What these policies lack in public support they make up for in sugar daddiesBillionaires on both sides of the aisle have been pouring cash into these efforts for years.

Just imagine! Anyone with the backing can start a school and pocket as much of the tax dollars originally meant to educate kids but now transformed into sweet, sweet profit!

In fact, the point behind high stakes testing was primarily to undercut support for public schools. It was to “prove” our schools were failing and needed to be replaced with charter and voucher schools. But once we’ve gotten rid of public schools, the testing won’t be as necessary.

It will become just another revenue stream in a multitudinous school system where education only has meaning in how much it can profitize students and enrich investors.

That may be the true endgame for policymakers.

Common Core is just one of a number of schemes they’re pushing to take advantage of the country’s fastest growing revenue stream: our children.


THIS is why lawmakers – both Republican and Democrat – won’t get rid of Common Core.

They are bought and sold employees of Wall Street and Corporate America.

Too many people are making a fortune off the backs of our children – charter and voucher school investors, book publishers, software companies, test manufacturers, private prison corporations! They aren’t about to let their profits take a nosedive by allowing their paid agents in the legislature to turn off the gravy train.

THAT’S why Republicans haven’t ended Common Core.

That’s why they never will.