College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Common Core-Aligned Tests and the New Pearson GED: Failure By Design?

By Anthony Cody — June 30, 2014 6 min read
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Returning from protesting the Gates Foundation’s funding of corporate education reform, I have been wrestling with some questions about the goals for their project.

The Gates Foundation’s Vicki Phillips was interviewed the day of the protest, and had this to say about it:

At the Gates Foundation, the great thing about us, and about Bill and Melinda is that they believe that all lives have equal value, and in the US, the way to address many of these issues is through a much, much better education system. And that's a goal that we all share. What makes what's happening today really valuable is to make all the perspectives heard, and to have a rich, honest, candid, substantive conversation. Because we can be after the same ends, but differ perhaps on how you might get there.

I engaged in a rich, substantive dialogue with the Gates Foundation two years ago, but sadly, they seem to have taken very little away from the process.

In fact, I have been growing more and more skeptical regarding this benign notion that we are all after the same thing. I have noticed a disturbing pattern. In New York, the Common Core tests were intentionally engineered to yield a pass rate of only 30%. This was documented by Carol Burris last year, who explained:

...the New York State Education Department, with the help of Pearson, creates a test and then after it is taken and scored, decide what constitutes passing. By showing those chosen to participate in the cut-score setting process other measures that they claim indicate college readiness (such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, SAT scores, Regents exams), they are able to get the outcome they want.

Jersey Jazzman explained further:

Now, here's the critical point to understand in all this: it's not that these people sat in the Hilton and used their expertise to say, for example: "A 'proficient' 7th grader should be able to do this, this, and that." No, what Baldassarre-Hopkins makes clear is that the distribution of passing scores for each item on the tests would determine whether passing that item demonstrated proficiency. In other words: a test question was considered "hard" or "easy" not because it required a particular skill; its difficulty was determined based on how many students got it correct.

So the key is that those who design the tests are making an intentional decision regarding how many students pass or fail. A 30% pass rate on Common Core tests is not some objective statement regarding how many students are ready for career and college. It is a predetermined outcome, which has a whole set of assumptions in it regarding what “college and career ready” means. Jersey Jazzman explains exactly what those assumptions are based on - things like the loose correlations between test scores and college freshmen GPA and SAT scores.

Note that the end result is that 70% of the students taking these tests are rated as failures, not “ready for college and career.”

And Carol Burris and John Murphy have analyzed the tests that New York plans to use to decide who will receive a high school diploma, and discovered that only about 25% of the students will pass. Take a look at this New York Common Core English exam to see what is being demanded.

Now we come to a very strange and disturbing coincidence.

When I was in Seattle I learned that recent changes in the GED are having some drastic effects on students. The GED is used in lieu of a high school diploma, as a gateway to a college education. The new GED test has been taken over by Pearson, and is now aligned to the Common Core. The result is a test that is so difficult that there has been an 80% drop in the number of students passing it. This website, Restore GED Fairness, has more information.

So we have people designing tests that result in 70% to 80% of our students being labeled unprepared for college and career. And these labels have real world consequences - if a student cannot earn a GED, he cannot even get in a four year college, and is ineligible for financial aid. There has also been talk of using Common Core tests to replace the high school exit exam in California. Students who fail to pass high school exit exams are at increased risk for incarceration.

Note that SAT and ACT scores have actually been shown to be very weak as predictors of success in college.

One of the things I have realized after spending the past six years actively exploring the ways in which our schools are being transformed by powerful people is that few things happen by accident. If the pass rates on Common Core tests and the new Common Core-aligned GED plummet, it is because they were designed to do so. If there is an outcome that has been engineered, there must be a reason that outcome is desirable.

To be clear, the outcome we will be getting is that 70% of our students will be judged to be unready for college and career. Results in New York placed 95% of Special Ed students, and 93% of English learners in this category, along with about 88% of African American students. These numbers are likely to improve a bit if the whole system re-gears itself towards preparing students for these tests, but I believe there will still be a high number of students who will be unable to pass these tests. It is hard to predict exactly what that number will be, but many more students will be made to “fail.”

If we accept that this outcome has been brought about by design, as seems to be the case, we then must ask what are some possible reasons to engineer this result? I can think of two basic possibilities.

Hypothesis #1:

Corporations are unable to find an adequate supply of highly skilled and educated people, and if we make it harder to graduate high school or earn a GED we will get a larger number of people on track for these skilled jobs.

This is the basic reason stated by the Gates Foundation and other advocates of “higher standards.” This has been the rationale for the Common Core, along with the idea that we are somehow losing in an international race for higher test scores.

If this were the case, we should see employers experiencing some sort of shortage of skilled workers. Economists can find no evidence of such a shortage. This report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the top seven occupations with the largest projected numerical growth require at most a two-year Associates degree, and most require only short-term on-the-job training.

Hypothesis #2:

Employers actually need FEWER employees with college degrees, and perhaps even fewer workers overall, due to increases in efficiency that are coming through technology. This creates a challenge to the stability of the system - how can we justify leaving many people who are willing to work idle? Perhaps we need a system to label these people “unready for college and career.”

I do find some evidence to support this hypothesis. We are already in what has been termed a “jobless recovery,” which means that while corporate profits are sky-high, these profits are being made with fewer and fewer workers. A report in the MIT Technology Review suggests that in the next 20 years, 45% of American jobs could be eliminated as a result of computerization. [Here is the original report.]

Update, July 1, 8:30 am: In a March, 2014, interview at the American Enterprise Institute, Bill Gates himself had this to say:

Software substitution, whether it's for drivers or waiters or nurses ... it's progressing. ... Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. ... 20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don't think people have that in their mental model.

There is an idea, most recently expounded by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, that any student, including those with significant learning disabilities, can pass ever more difficult tests. If our entire education system is re-tooled to prepare for Common Core tests, teachers are evaluated based on test scores, and energetic innovators produce new devices and “learning systems,” ALL students will somehow rise to meet the challenge. Where have we heard this premise before? Oh yes. The mythical 100% proficiency rates of No Child Left Behind. We have abandoned one myth simply to embrace another. I think it is time to call an end to this charade.

Tests do not and cannot accurately measure who is “ready for college and career.” Used in this way, they can only serve to stigmatize, rank, sort, and justify the abandonment of an ever larger number of our students. The Gates Foundation’s Common Core project, in spite of Vicki Phillips’ reassurances, is NOT acting in the interests of our students when it labels large numbers of them as rejects. It is putting millions of them in grave danger. Fortunately, the Common Core tests are encountering serious trouble. The Pearson GED test ought to be rejected as well, and the sooner the better.

Our public education system has as its noble mission the elevation of all students to their highest potential. This is not defined by their future usefulness to employers. And if corporations find ways to make their billions while employing fewer and fewer of our graduates, that will not be a failure of our educational system, nor of our students themselves. Our economic system ought to be critically examined and re-thought, if, in fact, “all lives have equal value.” As advances in efficiency allow greater productivity, those gains should be shared widely, not hoarded by the .01%. Any testing system that results in massive failure is an assault on our students and should be fought by anyone who cares for their future.

Update, July 31, 2014: This article by Gary Stern reports in detail on the process by which Pearson, the largest testing corporation in America, manipulated the process by which cut scores were set in the state of New York.

What do you think? Are the drastic drops in the rates of students passing Common Core-aligned tests and the new Pearson Common Core-aligned GED test failure by design? How should we respond?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

Image credit: Restore GED Fairness, 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.