Federal Opinion

Jack Hassard: Test-Based Reform: Where is the Common Core Leading Us?

By Anthony Cody — February 18, 2012 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Guest post by Jack Hassard.

Part 1 of 2.

In my post of a week ago, I reported that Georgia’s Cobb County School System rejected the superintendent’s proposal to hire 50 Teacher for America teachers for schools located in South Cobb. Many of the South Cobb schools are underperforming schools. I suggested that this was a good decision, but also indicated that it was done by default. The default is, that the proposal never made it to agenda of the board and thus was withdrawn for the time being. Is this another avoidance tactic?

Today, we expand our thinking to explore the nature of the achievement data that is used to make decisions about student progress and teacher effectiveness. Our over-obsession with test data has led to the narrowing of curriculum, and led to the goal of education to single a outcome--the improvement of test scores. Period.

In the next post the challenge of teacher education is investigated, and the data is to show that high quality teaching results from teacher preparation programs that are clinically and experientially based. Recommendations are then made for how alternative teacher education programs (including Teach for America) can be improved.

The Simple Mindedness of Test-Based Reform
One of the serious issues plaguing education is that so many of us want a simplistic solutions to such a complex and diverse system. We’ve been convinced that test score is a valid measure of student achievement, so much so that we willing to use the test scores to reward or punish students, teachers and schools.

Does One Size Fits All?

Have we made producing workers as the purpose of schooling? Is schools performance the basic tasks of creating enough workers with “adequate” abilities and the right attitude to become an employee? (M. Peterson, 2009, extracted February 15, 2012).

Test and standards-based reform seems to mean that school improvement is only based on a minimum set of core standards.

Achieve, Inc.
, has already developed the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics and Reading/Language Arts, and now in the writing phase of creating the Next Generation of Science Standards. And right behind the common standards are the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a state consortium led again by Achieve, Inc. to develop the next generation K-12 assessments in English and math. Does this work? Does one size fit all?

This model is rooted in the myth that the United States is not competitive in the global market place because our students don’t perform at high enough levels on guess what: achievement tests. The truth is that the U.S. is very competitive, and has been for decades. With basing their thinking on test scores, politicians and think tank types have convinced the public that American schools are a failure, and the one kind of reform that will help us “race to the top” is driven by just one fact: we must raise test scores, and they must be raised every year. Get a grip.

Competitiveness of U.S. Citizens.
The United States is economically competitive as reported in the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 Global-Competitiveness report, and as reported by Iris Rotberg in her book Balancing Change and Tradition in Global Education Reform. According to the World Economic Forum report, the U.S. is one of only 35 countries in the world that are at the highest stage of development--the innovation-driven economy.

The United States now ranks fifth in the world in global competitiveness. This ranking has fallen one position, from a higher 4th to a lower 5th in the last year. At this time, the U.S. economy is the largest in the world. However, the World Economic Forum researchers have concluded that the U.S. economic competitiveness has weaknesses. The report reads that the weaknesses include the business communities’ criticism of the public and private institutions, that there is a great lack of trust in politicians, and a lack of a strong relationships between government and business. And the U.S. debt continues to grow. (World Economic Forum Report, 2011 - 2012.

According to the World Economic Forum, student test scores on international tests in reading, mathematics and science were not related to the weakening of the U.S.'s ability to compete. Period.

In Balancing Change and Tradition in Global Education Reform, Iris C. Rotberg, Research Professor of Education Policy at The George Washington University, concluded that continuing to use student test scores is not a valid argument to understand a nation’s competitiveness. According to Rotberg, a nation’s competitiveness is too complicated, and is impacted by other variables as identified in the World Economic Report. She puts it this way:

Other variables, such as outsourcing to gain access to lower-wage employees, the climate and incentives for innovation, tax rates, health-care and retirement costs, the extent of government subsidies or partnerships, protectionism, intellectual-property enforcement, natural resources, and exchange rates overwhelm mathematics and science scores in predicting economic competitiveness.

There is ample evidence that student test scores are not a barometer of U.S. economic growth, or depression. U.S. test scores did not cause or contribute to the Great Recession, any more than they caused the Economic Boom of the 1990s.

For example, I have included a graph below which shows the United States GDP growth rate from 1957 (the year of Sputnik) to 2012. If you scroll down to Table 2, which shows the NAEP trends in 13 year old math scores, you’ll note that student math scores rose during the last 39 years, while the GDP rose and fell during the same period of time. What caused the GDP fluctuations? Student test scores? I don’t think so.

Table 1. U.S. GDP 1957 - 2012.

Rising Test Scores. We’ve been raising test scores ever since the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) began administering low-stakes tests in 1969 to a nationally representative sample of American students at grades 4, 8, and 12 for main assessments, and ages 9, 13, and 17 for long term assessments. For example, the trend in mathematics scores for 13-year old students has shown an overall increase in scores since 1973, when testing began by NAEP. The data for 9 year-olds follows the same trend, while the for 17 year olds there is not a significant difference from 1973 - 2008, although it is higher now. Long term trends in reading slowly rose from 1971 - 2008, in the same manner as mathematics scores. The same can be said about science scores.

Table 2. Trend in 13 year old math scores 1973 - 20008. SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1973-2008 Long-Term Trend Mathematics Assessments.

Achievement Gaps. The achievement gap that exists between students by race/ethnicity is shown in Table 3 and by family income as shown in Table 4. The NAEP data shows that compared to 2004, there was no significant change in the average scores of White, Black, or Hispanic students at age 17. This is significant because this was the period during which the No Child Left Behind Act was implemented. One of the underlying premises of the act was to decrease the gap among white, Black and Hispanic students. The data shows that this did not happen.

Family income also has a powerful impact on achievement scores. As shown in Table 4, there are significant differences the achievement scores on NAEP tests from 203 - 2011 based on family income. Family income is determined by eligibility for free or reduced lunches. As shown in the graph, the differences are quite apparent. Abbott and Joireman have shown that family income level may contribute more to the disparity among students scores than race/ethnicity. Gerald Coles reports on this blog that the achievement gap between the rich and the poor has grown, especially in the last decade.

It isn’t enough to simply acknowledge the gap that exists among groups by race/ethnicity or family income. We must go deeper and ask why and how the present form of educational reform, which purported to help solve the problem, has actually contributed to preventing any progress.

Lisa Delpit, Eminent Scholar and Executive Director of the Center for Urban Education and Innovation at Florida International University, and author of Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, and the forthcoming book, Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, suggests that the “programmed, mechanistic strategies designed to achieve the programmed, mechanistic goal of raising test scores” strips away the humanity that should be the basis for education (Delpit, Other People’s Children, 2005). The present obsession with standards and test scores has driven us further away from realistic goals that she calls for. She puts it this way:

Nowhere is the result more glaring than in urban classrooms serving low-income children of color, where low test scores meet programmed, scripted teaching. The reductionism spawned has created settings in which teachers and students are treated as nonthinking objects to be manipulated and "managed."

Dr. Delpit explains that she is more concerned now with the development of the character of students than she was years before. The reductionist goals of the present reform movement are not serving most children in American schools. She speaks about Hyde Schools as an exemplar of schools that focus on the character of students, not on their test scores. In her first book, Other People’s Children she quotes the founder of the Hyde Schools, Joe Gauld explaining that the message to students is:

  • that they have an important purpose on this earth and the unique potential to fulfill it.
  • that their true worth is measured not by their social status, intellect, or talents, but by the strength of their character
  • that we admire their attitude and effort, and care less about their actual achievements, because these will come with time if they develop character traits like those emblazoned on the Hyde School shield: courage, integrity, concern, curiosity, and leadership.

Schools like the Hyde Schools base their work and curriculum of a set of goals that are very different than the narrow interpretation of our test- and standards-based school culture. As Hyde Schools director and founder Joseph A. Gauld explains:

Over the years, making academic proficiency the purpose of American education has shifted the benefits of learning away from students and families, onto schools, colleges, businesses, and the education industry itself.

In her new book, Dr. Delpit reminds us that there is no achievement gap at birth, and is concerned that the conversation about student’s education has become limited and restricted. She asks:

  • What happened to the societal desire to instill character?
  • To develop creativity?
  • To cultivate courage and kindness?
  • How can we look at a small bundle of profound potential and see only a number describing inadequacy?

Dr. Delpit believes that classrooms can be created that speak to “children’s strengths rather than hammering them with their weakness, and about building connections to cultures and communities.” (Delpit, 2012).

Dr. Coles suggests that family income or wealth can make significant differences in ending the achievement gap. Work that provides a family with a decent income, work with reasonable hours, health care for all citizens, housing, and college education--these would help children in ways that Dr. Delpit documents so well in her research.

Table 3. Trend in NAEP Mathematics Average Scores for 17-year-old students, by race/ethnicity. SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1973-2008 Long-Term Trend Mathematics Assessments.

Table 4. Average 2003 - 2011 Mathematics Scores for 8th Graders by Family Income as Determined by Eligibility for Free or Reduced Lunches.

What do you think about test- and standards-based reform? Should we continue using high-stakes tests?

Jack Hassard is Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. He is author of The Whole Cosmos Catalog of Science, Science Experiences, Adventures in Geology, The Art of Teaching Science (2009), Second Edition, Routledge, and most recently, Science As Inquiry (2011), 2nd Edition, Good Year Books. Specialities include science teaching & learning, global thinking & education, geology, web publishing, blogging, writing, and antiquing. His blog is The Art of Teaching Science.

All graphs used with permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.