Why Common Core? The controversy over standardized tests

May 26, 2014

A major part of Common Core learning standards is a standardized testing system. A system that many have taken issue with.

“I’m all for setting the bar high, but you are setting the bar so high that you are going to defeat a group of people and they’re going to drop out of school,” said parent Lisa Arnone. “As a middle school teacher I already hear them talking. They say ‘they’ll never pass those tests and they’re done.’ And that will be a shame that they will be defeated by these tests.”

Arnone said the standardized tests based on Common Core are causing a lot of anxiety for students, parents and teachers. The controversy over Common Core in the state traces back to 2010, when lawmakers in Albany required districts to come up with a teacher evaluation system or else they’d withhold state aid.

How are teachers evaluated?

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore said part of the Annual Professional Performance Review process uses a tiered system.

“The ratings are like this,” Rumore said. “The highest rating is ‘highly effective,’ the next rating is ‘effective,’ then there is ‘developing,’ and then there is ‘ineffective.’ If they receive an ‘ineffective’ rating two consecutive times that can be used in a 3020A proceeding to terminate the teacher.”

The state also required that the evaluation system include a Teacher Improvement Plan or TIP for developing ‘ineffective’ teachers.

Regent’s Chancellor Emeritus Robert Bennett said educators get ratings on a 100 point scale.

A teacher evaluation sheet.
A teacher evaluation sheet.
Credit Vuorikari/Some Rights Reserved

“The first 60 points are by the local district on classroom observations, feedback,” Bennett said. “The next 20 [points] would be based on local assessments or portfolio review. The last 20 points are based on the new state assessments in 3 through 8, 2014 will be the first year for high school assessments based on the learning standards.”

Rumore said every point counts on the Annual Professional Performance Review. 

“They’ve made it very difficult for teacher to get in the ‘highly effective’ or ‘effective’ rating, that’s the problem,” Rumore said. “So, just the loss of even 10 points can drop you from ‘developing’ to ‘ineffective’ or from ‘effective’ to ‘developing.’”

Rumore said this process creates a ‘high stakes’ testing situation, where state tests can make or break a teacher’s rating. Parent Karen Champoux said the only way for teachers to prepare for the assessments is to use the modules provided by the New York State Education Department.

“The promise is that if teachers present the materials within the modules to their students and stick to the minute-by-minute schedule, their students will know everything needed to be successful on the test,” Champoux said. “But there are several problems with using the modules, including the loss of teacher creativity, riding pacing and incomplete resources – since all the modules are not available yet. The modules that do exist are riddled with errors.”

Parent and Teacher at Gowanda High School Shannon Styles in western New York said there have always been state tests. State testing has been around for close to 150 years.  The first Regents exam was given in 1866.  But Styles noted that now educators are scrambling to prepare for them, because they’re very different than they were in the past.

“But now because they’re Common Core aligned the teachers can’t see them until the morning of the test,” Styles said. “Then they’re not allowed to grade their own either, so they go to somebody else to grade. So you never get them back and you never know how your students do. So that’s a problem. It’s really not helping the teacher evaluate the student anyway. So all these tests are used for is evaluating the teacher.”

What do parents think?

West Seneca parent Molly Dana is one of many that take issue with the fact that state tests are tied to teacher evaluations.

“It’s just unfair.” Dana said. “It’s labeling our teachers it’s labeling our schools.”

Parent Crystal Haglund agrees.

“The amount of time and energy that is spent on tests that actually measure very little and are so skill-specific is preposterous,” said Haglund.

Lakeshore Elementary third grader Aiden Styles said the Common Core state tests have caused stress and confusion for him and his peers.

“It’s really hard, because we have to do more stuff than just figuring out the answers,” Styles said. “It’s a lot different than last year, because last year was easier than this year.”

Refusing to take the state assessments

Some parents are so enraged by the testing process they’ve refused to let their children take the state tests.  It won’t affect their child’s grades or hurt teacher evaluations.

Melisa Holden said her fourth grader was so anxious about taking the state assessments she decided not to allow her to take them. Holden warns that if a child makes even a mark on the test, it will be judged as if the child took the test and then it would negatively affect their teacher. 

Melisa Holden, with her family behind her, protests Common Core. She has refused to have her daughter take the standardized exams.
Melisa Holden, with her family behind her, protests Common Core. She has refused to have her daughter take the standardized exams.
Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO

If parents don’t send a child to school on the day of testing to boycott the exams, the child will then be forced to take a makeup test.  

Holden’s advice to parents who don’t want their children to take the assessments is to send them to school, but be ready to pick them up five minutes after the exam begins. The child won’t counted as absent.

“I’d rather have her sitting quietly and reading a book rather than taking those tests, because they don’t really mean anything,” said Holden.

New York State Education Commissioner John King maintains that state standardized tests are used to inform instruction.

“Defining students and educators simply by test scores, that’s not our position now and it never has been,” King said. “The Board of Regents and the department has always said that assessments and student performance on those assessments should be a factor in how we evaluate student performance along with a variety of other factors, and should be a factor in how we evaluate educators along with other factors.”

There are some that do find the Common Core learning standards and testing beneficial to students.

One parent from Jamestown who didn’t want to be identified said she’s happy that the standards are challenging her son.

“I also want to acknowledge that in the classroom I do see a lot of the frustration that teachers are discussing,” she said. “But I see some amazing thinking going on with young kids.”  

Rumore adds that the problem isn’t really with teacher evaluations. He says teachers don’t mind being evaluated, if it’s fair.

“I think the most important evaluation is how you do in a classroom when an administrator comes into the classroom and see how the kids are learning,” Rumore said. “For the state to give standardized tests, which many people think are developmentally inappropriate, put all sorts of pressure on kids, don’t measure creativity, critical thinking, and all the things we think are important. That’s what the problem is, the problem is the testing of our kids.”

This story is the fourth in an occasional series about the controversial Common Core learning standards.