Common Core Brings a New Chapter of High-Stakes Test Horrors

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, November 2013

The arrival of Common Core standards-based tests, marketed as more “rigorous” and consistent than existing state exams, is yielding a new generation of testing nightmares, for students, teachers, parents and administrators. In states that have yet to begin Common Core testing, horror stories based on existing testing misuses and abuses continue. A Federal requirement that every state receiving a waiver from No Child Left Behind must make student scores a “significant part” of teacher evaluations compounds the problem, leading to a huge escalation in testing.

Here are some representative examples from around the nation:

  • Laela Gray, an eight-year-old Florida girl,  became a poster child for high-stakes testing trauma after she was told she could not advance to fourth grade because she scored 181 instead of 182 on the state third grade state reading test. Laela’s overall strong academic record was not enough to overcome the test barrier. She retook the exam after tutoring. Her score jumped significantly, more than enough to advance into fourth grade four weeks after school started. Orlando School Board member Rick Roach, famous for taking and failing Florida state exams, provided Laela with a tutor to help her get ready for the retest. He seeks legislation to overturn the use of state tests for grade promotion. He said of Laela’s case, “Honestly, how much longer can we ignore this travesty to our children?”
  • Many teachers say pressure to prepare students for more rigorous Common Core tests means the youngest children are now required to do work that is wildly age-inappropriate. Examples include reading passages and questions that until now would be assigned to much older students, as well as confusing, overly difficult math problems. The tests and test prep, say parents and teachers, are crushing morale and self-confidence, while generating hatred of school. One New York teacher described the impact of Common Core test prep on her own son: “It is turning him off of school and if this trend continues, he will be far from college- and career-ready because he will want nothing to do with college.”
  • Common Core tests are meant to be harder to pass. In New York State, scores from the first administration of Common Core-based exams dropped dramatically from the previous year’s test results. Drops were particularly enormous in districts serving large numbers of English language learners and students with special needs. For example, in North Rockland, Port Chester, Ossining and Peekskill, 82 to 92 percent of students in some grades failed to meet targets in math and English. Kentucky also saw a sharp decline in results from its Common Core tests, compared to previous exam results. U.S. Education Commissioner Arne Duncan praised the bad results. “Too many school systems lied to children, families and communities,” he said. “Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable as educators.” Suburban parents whose children have been academically successful by many measures, including college, found Duncan’s analysis dubious, fueling the resistance to high-stakes testing (see article, this issue).
  • Even kindergarten is no longer a refuge from the test preparation craze. New York kindergartners are bubbling in standardized exams based on Common Core math standards so there is test data to use for their teachers’ evaluations. Their teachers report that many of these young children don’t even know how to hold pencils yet and don’t understand how to fill in bubbles on test answer sheets. A Bronx kindergarten teacher said, “They don’t know letters, and you have answers that say A, B, C or D and you’re asking them to bubble in . . . They break down; they cry.” Meanwhile, seven-year-olds in Arizona, New Jersey and elsewhere are stretching their small fingers across computer keyboards to prepare to take Common Core tests on computers. Child development expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige observed, “The absurd requirement that young kids who should be engaged in meaningful projects and activities are spending time learning how to use keyboards and computer screens for testing is one more example of why these standards and tests are wrong and should be abolished.”
  • New York’s teacher evaluations are producing irrational results, feeding more fuel to the resistance fire. For example, test results say there are no “highly effective” elementary or middle-school teachers in Syracuse, NY. Every evaluated teacher at Syracuse’s Henniger High School received a “zero” on the 20-point portion of their evaluation based on student scores. Despite the devastating results, which placed the teachers at risk of termination if they did not improve their status within a year, district officials said the evaluations followed state and district guidelines and would remain in place. In Somerville, Massachusetts, when most teachers were placed in the low “needs improvement” category, a teacher and community uproar forced the superintendent to redo the evaluations. However, to the dismay of many parents, some highly respected teachers decided to leave the district. Use of student scores to evaluate teachers is required of all states that obtain federal waivers from No Child Left Behind.