I am very excited to see that Daniel Goleman has written a book called “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.” It is one I will order just as soon as I finish posting this article about the book on my blog. [To read this article at the NY Times Website, CLICK HERE.] Being able to focus is critical to a child’s ability to do well in school and beyond. You may remember that Daniel Goleman is the author of books about Emotional Intelligence or EQ, qualities that are also critical to a child’s success in school and life.
Exercising the Mind to Treat Attention Deficits
By DANIEL GOLEMAN MAY 12, 2014, 3:56 PM
Which will it be — the berries or the chocolate dessert? Homework or the Xbox? Finish that memo, or roam Facebook?
Such quotidian decisions test a mental ability called cognitive control, the capacity to maintain focus on an important choice while ignoring other impulses. Poor planning, wandering attention and trouble inhibiting impulses all signify lapses in cognitive control. Now a growing stream of research suggests that strengthening this mental muscle, usually with exercises in so-called mindfulness, may help children and adults cope with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and its adult equivalent, attention deficit disorder.
The studies come amid growing disenchantment with the first-line treatment for these conditions: drugs.
In 2007, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a study finding that the incidence of A.D.H.D. among teenagers in Finland, along with difficulties in cognitive functioning and related emotional disorders like depression, were virtually identical to rates among teenagers in the United States. The real difference? Most adolescents with A.D.H.D. in the United States were taking medication; most in Finland were not.
“It raises questions about using medication as a first line of treatment,” said Susan Smalley, a behavior geneticist at U.C.L.A. and the lead author.
In a large study published last year in The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers reported that while most young people with A.D.H.D. benefit from medications in the first year, these effects generally wane by the third year, if not sooner.
“There are no long-term, lasting benefits from taking A.D.H.D. medications,” said James M. Swanson, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, and an author of the study. “But mindfulness seems to be training the same areas of the brain that have reduced activity in A.D.H.D.”
“That’s why mindfulness might be so important,” he added. “It seems to get at the causes.”
Depending on which scientist is speaking, cognitive control may be defined as the delay of gratification, impulse management, emotional self-regulation or self-control, the suppression of irrelevant thoughts, and paying attention or learning readiness.
This singular mental ability, researchers have found, predicts success both in school and in work life.
Cognitive control increases from about 4 to 12 years old, then plateaus, said Betty J. Casey, director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Cornell Medical College. Teenagers find it difficult to suppress their impulses, as any parent knows.
But impulsivity peaks around age 16, Dr. Casey noted, and in their 20s most people achieve adult levels of cognitive control. Among healthy adults, it begins to wane noticeably in the 70s or 80s, often manifesting as an inability to remember names or words, because of distractions that the mind once would have suppressed.
Bolstering this mental ability, specialists are now suggesting, might be particularly helpful in treating A.D.H.D. and A.D.D.
To do so, researchers are testing mindfulness: teaching people to monitor their thoughts and feelings without judgments or other reactivity. Rather than simply being carried away from a chosen focus, they notice that their attention has wandered, and renew their concentration.
According to a recent report in Clinical Neurophysiology, adults with A.D.D. were shown to benefit from mindfulness training combined with cognitive therapy; their improvements in mental performance were comparable to those achieved by subjects taking medications.
The training led to a decline in impulsive errors, a problem typical of A.D.D., while the cognitive therapy helped them be less self-judgmental about mistakes or distractedness.
Mindfulness seems to flex the brain circuitry for sustaining attention, an indicator of cognitive control, according to research by Wendy Hasenkamp and Lawrence Barsalou at Emory University.
For a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, they imaged the brains of meditators while they went through four basic mental movements: focusing on a chosen target, noticing that their minds had wandered, bringing their minds back to the target, and sustaining their focus there.
Those movements appeared to strengthen the neural circuitry for keeping attention on a chosen point of focus.
Meditation is a cognitive control exercise that enhances “the ability to self-regulate your internal distractions,” said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.
His research seeks to duplicate these effects with video games that “selectively target the key circuits without the kind of side effects you get with drugs.”
With colleagues, he designed NeuroRacer, a game for older adults in which they respond to traffic signs that appear suddenly while driving on a winding road. The game enhanced cognitive control in subjects ranging from 60 to 85, according to a study published in Nature.
Stephen Hinshaw, a specialist in developmental psychopathology at the University of California, Berkeley, said the time was ripe to explore the utility of nondrug interventions like mindfulness.
Dr. Swanson agreed. “I was a skeptic until I saw the data,” he said, “and the findings are promising.”
I was so excited to read this article in the NY Times earlier this week. It shows how the world and school curriculums are beginning to change and keep up with today’s technology. We have added a program to teach young children coding on www.TestingMom.com – it’s called Tynker and kids just love it! You might want to go over to the site and check it out. Coding is becoming a more important than ever subject to learn about. My own son, who is in college now, is taking a coding course – something he never learned in school – because he feels he can’t go into the job market without a rudimentary understanding of what makes computer programs sing. Check it out! To read the article at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.
Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Lately, Coding
By MATT RICHTEL MAY 10, 2014
MILL VALLEY, Calif. — Seven-year-old Jordan Lisle, a second grader, joined his family at a packed after-hours school event last month aimed at inspiring a new interest: computer programming.
“I’m a little afraid he’s falling behind,” his mother, Wendy Lisle, said, explaining why they had signed up for the class at Strawberry Point Elementary School.
The event was part of a national educational movement in computer coding instruction that is growing at Internet speeds. Since December, 20,000 teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade have introduced coding lessons, according to Code.org, a group backed by the tech industry that offers free curriculums. In addition, some 30 school districts, including New York City and Chicago, have agreed to add coding classes in the fall, mainly in high schools but in lower grades, too. And policy makers in nine states have begun awarding the same credits for computer science classes that they do for basic math and science courses, rather than treating them as electives.
There are after-school events, too, like the one in Mill Valley, where 70 parents and 90 children, from kindergartners to fifth graders, huddled over computers solving animated puzzles to learn the basics of computer logic.
It is a stark change for computer science, which for decades was treated like a stepchild, equated with trade classes like wood shop. But smartphones and apps are ubiquitous now, and engineering careers are hot. To many parents — particularly ones here in the heart of the technology corridor — coding looks less like an extracurricular activity and more like a basic life skill, one that might someday lead to a great job or even instant riches.
The spread of coding instruction, while still nascent, is “unprecedented — there’s never been a move this fast in education,” said Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan. He sees it as very positive, potentially inspiring students to develop a new passion, perhaps the way that teaching frog dissection may inspire future surgeons and biologists.
But the momentum for early coding comes with caveats, too. It is not clear that teaching basic computer science in grade school will beget future jobs or foster broader creativity and logical thinking, as some champions of the movement are projecting. And particularly for younger children, Dr. Soloway said, the activity is more like a video game — better than simulated gunplay, but not likely to impart actual programming skills.
Some educators worry about the industry’s heavy role: Major tech companies and their founders, including Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have put up about $10 million for Code.org. The organization pays to train high school teachers to offer more advanced curriculums, and, for younger students, it has developed a coding curriculum that marries basic instruction with video games involving Angry Birds and hungry zombies.
The lessons do not involve traditional computer language. Rather, they use simple word commands — like “move forward” or “turn right” — that children can click on and move around to, say, direct an Angry Bird to capture a pig.
Across the country, districts are signing up piecemeal. Chicago’s public school system hopes to have computer science as a graduation requirement at all of its 187 high schools in five years, and to have the instruction in 25 percent of other schools. New York City public schools are training 60 teachers for classes this fall in 40 high schools, in part to prepare students for college.
“There’s a big demand for these skills in both the tech sector and across all sectors,” said Britt Neuhaus, the director of special projects at the office of innovation for New York City schools. The city plans to expand the training for 2015 and is considering moving it into middle schools.
The movement comes with no shortage of “we’re changing the world” marketing fervor from Silicon Valley. “This is strategically significant for the economy of the United States,” said John Pearce, a technology entrepreneur. He and another entrepreneur, Jeff Leane, have started a nonprofit, MV Gate, to bring youth and family coding courses developed by Code.org to Mill Valley, an affluent suburb across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.
Parents love the idea of giving children something to do with computers that they see as productive, Mr. Pearce said. “We have any number of parents who say, ‘I can’t take my kid playing one more hour of video games,’ ” he said. But if the children are exploring coding, the parents tell him, “ ‘I can live with that all night long.’ ”
The concept has caught on with James Meezan, a second grader. He attended one of the first “Hour of Code” events sponsored by MV Gate in December with his mother, Karen Meezan, the local PTA president and a former tech-industry executive who now runs a real estate company. She is among the enthusiastic supporters of the coding courses, along with several local principals.
Her son, she said, does well in school but had not quite found his special interest and was “not the fastest runner on the playground.” But he loves programming and spends at least an hour a week at CodeKids, after-school programs organized by MV Gate and held at three of Mill Valley’s five elementary schools.
James, 8, explained that programming is “getting the computer to do something by itself.” It is fun, he said, and, besides, if he gets good, he might be able to do stuff like get a computer to turn on when it has suddenly died. His mother said he had found his niche; when it comes to programming, “he is the fastest runner.”
Other youngsters seemed more bewildered, at least at first. “The Google guys might’ve been coders, and the Facebook guys — I don’t know,” said Sammy Smith, a vibrant 10-year-old girl, when she arrived at the coding event at Strawberry Point.
But well into the session, she and her fifth-grade friends were digging in, moving basic command blocks to get the Angry Bird to its prey, and then playing with slightly more complex commands like “repeat” and learning about “if-then” statements, an elemental coding concept. The crowd had plenty of high-tech parents, including Scott Wong, director of engineering at Twitter. His 7-year-old son, Taeden, seemed alternately transfixed and confused by the puzzles on the laptop, while his 5-year-old brother, Sai, sat next to him, fidgeting.
The use of these word-command blocks to simplify coding logic stems largely from the work of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, which introduced a visual programming language called Scratch in 2007. It claims a following of millions of users, but mostly outside the schools.
Then, in 2013, came Code.org, which borrowed basic Scratch ideas and aimed to spread the concept among schools and policy makers. Computer programming should be taught in every school, said Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org and a former executive at Microsoft. He called it as essential as “learning about gravity or molecules, electricity or photosynthesis.”
Among the 20,000 teachers who Code.org says have signed on is Alana Aaron, a fifth-grade math and science teacher in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. She heard about the idea late last year at a professional development meeting and, with her principal’s permission, swapped a two-month earth sciences lesson she was going to teach on land masses for the Code.org curriculum.
“Computer science is big right now — in our country, the world,” she said. “If my kids aren’t exposed to things like that, they could miss out on potential opportunities and careers.”
Correction: May 10, 2014
An earlier version of this article used the wrong pronoun in referring to the founder of Code.org, Hadi Partovi.
This is one of the better discussions of Common Core I have read of late. David Brooks makes a great point. There is such a circus of misinformation surrounding the introduction of Common Core that what they’re about, why they were put in place, and how they might help our kids graduate with better skills has been lost. To read this at the NY Times website CLICK HERE. I recommend you read the piece there in order to see the responses, many of which I agree with, some I don’t. But it is good to read a more rational, thoughtful discussion about these standards, as opposed to the hysteria and hyperbole that appears most often.
When the Circus Descends, by David Brooks
We are pretty familiar with this story: A perfectly sensible if slightly boring idea is walking down the street. Suddenly, the ideological circus descends, burying the sensible idea in hysterical claims and fevered accusations. The idea’s political backers beat a craven retreat. The idea dies.
This is what seems to be happening to the Common Core education standards, which are being attacked on the right because they are common and on the left because they are core.
About seven years ago, it was widely acknowledged that state education standards were a complete mess. Huge numbers of students were graduating from high school unprepared either for college work or modern employment. A student who was rated “proficient” in one state would be rated “below basic” in another. About 14 states had pretty good standards, according to studies at the time, but the rest had standards that were verbose, lax or wildly confusing.
The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers set out to draft clearer, consistent and more rigorous standards. Remember, school standards are not curricula. They do not determine what students read or how teachers should teach. They are the goals for what students should know at the end of each grade.
This was a state-led effort, supported by employers and financed by private foundations. This was not a federal effort, though the Obama administration did encourage states to embrace the new standards.
These Common Core standards are at least partially in place in 45 states. As is usual, the initial implementation has been a bit bumpy. It’s going to take a few years before there are textbooks and tests that are truly aligned with the new standards.
But the new initiative is clearly superior to the old mess. The math standards are more in line with the standards found in the top performing math nations. The English standards encourage reading comprehension. Whereas the old standards frequently encouraged students to read a book and then go off and write a response to it, the new standards encourage them to go back to the text and pick out specific passages for study and as evidence.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has been evaluating state standards for more than 15 years, concluded that the Common Core standards are “clearly superior” to the old standards in 37 states and are “too close to call” in 11 more.
But this makes no difference when the circus comes to town.
On the right, the market-share-obsessed talk-radio crowd claims that the Common Core standards represent a federal takeover of the schools. This is clearly false. This was a state-led effort, and localities preserve their control over what exactly is taught and how it is taught. Glenn Beck claims that Common Core represents “leftist indoctrination” of the young. On Fox, Elisabeth Hasselbeck cited a curriculum item that supposedly taught students that Abraham Lincoln’s religion was “liberal.” But, as the education analyst Michael J. Petrilli quickly demonstrated, this was some locally generated curriculum that was one of hundreds on a lesson-sharing website and it was promulgated a year before the Common Core standards even existed.
As it’s being attacked by the talk-radio right, the Common Core is being attacked by the interest group left. The general critique from progressives, and increasingly from teachers’ unions, is that the standards are too difficult, that implementation is shambolic and teachers are being forced into some top-down straitjacket that they detest.
It is true that the new standards are more rigorous than the old, and that in some cases students have to perform certain math skills a year earlier than they formerly had to learn them. But that is a feature, not a bug. The point is to get students competitive with their international peers.
The idea that the Common Core is unpopular is also false. Teachers and local authorities still have control of what they teach and how they teach it. A large survey in Kentucky revealed that 77 percent of teachers are enthusiastic about the challenge of implementing the standards in their classrooms. In another survey, a majority of teachers in Tennessee believe that implementation of the standards has begun positively. Al Baker of The Times interviewed a range of teachers in New York and reported, “most said their students were doing higher-quality work than they had ever seen, and were talking aloud more often.”
The new standards won’t revolutionize education. It’s not enough to set goals; you have to figure out how to meet them. But they are a step forward. Yet now states from New York to Oklahoma are thinking of rolling them back. This has less to do with substance and more to do with talk-radio bombast and interest group resistance to change.
The circus has come to town.
According to the New York Times, obscure vocabulary words will not be present in the new SAT Test. I know this test seems far away to you now, but believe me, it will be upon you (and your child) before you know it. What I find interesting is that the test seems to be a continuation of Common Core in so many ways. This means, if your child is going to public school and learning how to take Common Core tests from 3rd grade on, he or she will have an advantage when it’s time to take the SAT. Although, who knows if the SAT will be required by that time! To read this article at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.
Revised SAT Won’t Include Obscure Vocabulary Words, by Tamar Lewis
The College Board on Wednesday will release many details of its revised SAT, including sample questions and explanations of the research, goals and specifications behind them.
“We are committed to a clear and open SAT, and today is the first step in that commitment,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, the College Board’s chief of assessment, in a conference call on Monday, previewing the changes to be introduced in the spring of 2016.
She said the 211-page test specifications and supporting materials being shared publicly include “everything a student needs to know to walk into that test and not be surprised.”
One big change is in the vocabulary questions, which will no longer include obscure words. Instead, the focus will be on what the College Board calls “high utility” words that appear in many contexts, in many disciplines — often with shifting meanings — and they will be tested in context. For example, a question based on a passage about an artist who “vacated” from a tradition of landscape painting, asks whether it would be better to substitute the word “evacuated,” “departed” or “retired,” or to leave the sentence unchanged. (The right answer is “departed.”)
The test will last three hours, with another 50 minutes for an optional essay in which students will be asked to analyze a text and how the author builds an argument. The essays will be scored for reading, analysis and writing, and those scores will be reported separately from the other sections of the SAT. The current test includes a required 25-minute essay in which students are asked to take a position on an issue and which is graded without regard to factual accuracy.
The new test will have a 65-minute critical reading section with 52 questions, a 35-minute written language test with 44 questions, and an 80-minute math section with 57 questions. The language and math sections will each be scored from 200 to 800, and the top composite score will be 1,600. While the current test allows calculator use, the new one will have some sections that do not. Also, instead of five multiple-choice answers, the new test will have four.
Interpreting graphs will be an important part of the test, not just in math, but in analyzing science and social science texts.
Many of the college admissions officers who will be using the test results praised the effort to align the test with what students should be learning in high school, and what they will need to know to do well in college, but cautioned that it would be years before there was any evidence that the new SAT does a better job of predicting college performance than the current one.
“I like the desire on the part of the exam to assess students’ analytic skills, and the direction they’re taking with the changes in the essay,” said Christoph Guttentag, Duke University’s admissions director. “But we’ll still have to examine the evidence to see if there’s any change in the predictive validity within our context.”
David Coleman, who is president and chief executive of the College Board, and spearheaded the process of revising the test, was a key architect of the Common Core state curriculum standards for schools, a set of guidelines being introduced — and often stirring controversy — in classrooms throughout the nation. And to some extent, the College Board’s vision of the new SAT continues that alignment.
William Dingledine, an educational consultant in Greenville, S.C., said, “It’s a positive step that they’re trying to align the test with what students should be learning in school, and what they need for college, since the current SAT doesn’t do that very well, but it’s going to be interesting to see the SAT align with the Common Core standards while there are lots of states now trying to get rid of the Common Core.”
Many college admissions officers expressed skepticism about the College Board’s claim that the new SAT would narrow the gap between rich and poor students’ scores, and eliminate the edge gained through test preparation courses. Nor do they expect that the new test will hold any less stress for students.
Even if everyone becomes familiar with the format, said Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon, “there’s still going to be a lot of anxiety, since it’s still a high-stakes test.”
So what will be the effects of the new SAT?
“It’s like that SAT response: ‘cannot be determined with the information given,’ ” he said.
The Redesigned SAT
Sample questions from the new SAT to be introduced in spring 2016
If you live in NYC and you have a bilingual child and your child will be taking the G&T tests next year, be sure to build up the English you are speaking to your child over the next year. Those are the recommendations after seeing scores drop for bilingual kids after the DOE changed the weighting of the two tests it uses to determine qualification for gifted programs. To read this article at the DNAInfo website, CLICK HERE.
QUEENS — Tim Wang wishes he’d spent more time speaking English to his son at home.
Wang’s 4-year-old recently scored in the 97th percentile on the city’s gifted and talented exam — a very high score, but likely not high enough to earn him a spot in the city’s most elite G&T programs, like the Upper West Side’s Anderson School and the Lower East Side’s NEST+m.
Wang’s son, who learned English as his first language, but now primarily speaks Mandarin at home, did better on the nonverbal section of the exam, which asks kids to identify patterns and shapes and draw logical conclusions, than he did on the verbal section, in which an adult reads a question out loud to a child once and then asks for an answer.
That wouldn’t have mattered as much last year, when the nonverbal section held more weight in determining a child’s overall score — but this year the Department of Education changed the scoring to give the two sections equal weight.
Scores fell sharply across the city, and test prep experts and families said children who speak more than one language had a tougher time achieving top scores this year.
“I was very proud of my son, especially what he did in the verbal,” said Wang, a 41-year-old software engineer who moved from Taiwan to Flushing in 2000.
But if Wang had known about the grading changes, he said, “I may [have] spent a little bit more time to read English stories for my son.”
The score drop in immigrant communities was most apparent in three school districts in Queens — a borough where nearly half of residents are foreign-born, according to city data — where scores of children trying to test into kindergarten G&T programs plummeted more than anywhere else in the city.
District 30, which encompasses Astoria, Long Island City, Jackson Heights and Woodside, saw the number of top scorers drop by 58 percent compared to last year. In District 25 — Wang’s district — which includes Flushing, the number of top scorers dropped by 54 percent.
And District 26, which covers Bayside, Fresh Meadows and Jamaica Estates, saw the number of top scorers fall by 52 percent. Because of the district’s strong schools, many immigrant families from South Korea, China, India and Japan have moved to the area, according to Insideschools.
The drops are even more striking considering that hundreds more children across the city took the G&T qualifying test this year compared to last year, records show.
Deb Alexander, who sits on District 30’s Community Education Council and is a parent of a G&T student, said families in her neighborhood complained the new test is “disadvantageous” to English learners.
“Our district has an incredibly high number of homes where English is not the first language,” she said. “The child may be a native English speaker, but it’s what they’re used to listening to.”
The DOE declined to comment on the impact of the testing changes this year on kids who speak English as a second language. A spokesman released a statement saying, “The tweak in the weights was designed to improve the psychometric balance across the two tests based on the data from the previous year, when the DOE first introduced this particular test combination.”
The Department of Education does provide translators for English language learners on the verbal and nonverbal portions of the test in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Urdu.
But many families said the quality of translation services varies. In addition, they say, the verbal part of the G&T exam wasn’t designed for non-English-speaking children — leaving nuances to get lost even with a translator, said Michael McCurdy, co-founder of test preparation website Testing Mom.
“For example, even in the Department of Education gifted and talented handbook they have questions that use traditional American boy names and foods that are American, like pizza,” McCurdy said. “If a child is growing up in a household that only speaks Mandarin, for example, and has never eaten or seen pizza, they would be at a disadvantage.”
Bige Doruk, founder of test prep company Bright Kids NYC, analyzed data from her students’ scores after the changed G&T test this year. Though the scores were still high overall, she said, “Our ELL [English language learner] kids definitely scored much lower this year.”
Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center education professor David Bloomfield said the results highlight the “mutability” of test scores.
“You switch to this 50/50 arrangement [equally weighting the verbal and nonverbal sections], and you change who’s considered gifted or not,” he said. “It just seems to me one more example of how the almost arbitrary changing of metrics creates huge differences in the lives of children.”
Here is why New Yorkers and are protesting the Common Core tests. To read the opinion at the NY Times Website, CLICK HERE. I recommend that you take a look at the article on the site just to see the reader comments.
We Need to Talk About the Test
A Problem With the Common Core
I’D like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t. Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.
This lack of transparency was one of the driving forces that led the teachers at my school to call for a protest rally the day after the test, a rally that attracted hundreds of supporters. More than 30 other New York City schools have scheduled their own demonstrations.
I want to be clear: We were not protesting testing; we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools. (Among other things, test scores help determine teacher and principal evaluations, and in New York City they also have an impact on middle and high school admissions to some schools.) We were protesting the fact that it is our word against the state’s, since we cannot reveal the content of the passages or the questions that were asked.
In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes.
Teachers and administrators at my school have spoken out against the overemphasis on testing for years, but our stance is not one of “sour grapes.” Last year we were one of the 25 top-scoring schools in New York State. We have implemented the Common Core standards with enthusiasm, and we have always supported the idea that great teaching is the best test preparation. But this year’s English Language Arts exam has made a mockery of that position.
It is frightening to think what “teaching to the test” would mean, given the nature of the test. We won’t do it, but some schools will, or at least will try, despite a new state law that mandates that schools limit test prep to 2 percent of instructional time. How does one even begin to monitor or enforce such a mandate?
Over the past few years, as higher stakes have been attached to the tests, we have seen schools devote more time to test prep, leaving less time and fewer resources for instruction in music, the arts, social studies and physical education. This is especially true for schools with a high proportion of low-income students, who tend to do worse on the test, and whose teachers and principals have to worry more about the scores.
At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.
For two years, I have suggested that the commissioner of education and the members of the Board of Regents actually take the tests — I’d recommend Days 1 and 3 of the third-grade test for starters. Afterward, I would like to hear whether they still believed that these tests gave schools and parents valuable information about a child’s reading or writing ability.
We do not want to become cynics, but until these flawed exams are released to the public and there is true transparency, it will be difficult for teachers and principals to maintain the optimism that is such an essential element of educating children.
Elizabeth Phillips has been the principal of Public School 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for 15 years.
This article makes a critical point about what it will take to make Common Core succeed in NY and, frankly, every state in this country. Teachers need to be trained. To read this article at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.
The panel convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to review New York’s troubled rollout of the Common Core learning standards will present its recommendations this spring. Among its most important tasks is to offer ways to remedy the most serious weakness in the state’s Common Core effort — the shortage of high-quality programs that are supposed to train teachers to carry out new Common Core-based curriculums.
The Common Core standards, which have been adopted by all but a handful of states, are new goals for what children should learn from one grade to the next. They are intended to move schools away from passive learning and fill-in-the-bubble tests and toward a writing-intensive curriculum that cultivates reasoning skills earlier than is now common. In practice, this means teaching fifth graders to write essays in which they introduce, support and defend arguments, using specific facts and details.
New York, which adopted the standards in 2010, is one of the first states to create extensive Common Core-based curriculum materials and training kits. The problem is that many teachers in New York have not been given the time or the help they need to develop an understanding of the Common Core idea or to master the skills needed to teach it. This failure stems partly from the financial struggles of many districts. Some were actually cutting staff and reducing services to students as the Common Core was being rolled out; they had no money to devote to professional development. Even if the money had been available, professional development programs vary widely in quality from one district to another.
The goal should be to end old-fashioned training sessions where teachers attend conferences at which they listen to lectures for a few days a year and move toward continuous instruction by master educators who observe teachers at work, providing help and feedback.
The Common Core initiative cannot succeed unless these problems are solved. That point was hammered home at the panel’s first public hearing last week. An expert speaking at the hearing, Carmel Martin, a former assistant secretary of education in the Obama administration, noted that other states had invested heavily in teacher development as part of their preparation in rolling out the Common Core. These programs give teachers the time to learn new instructional techniques either during the summer, after school, or by reducing teachers’ course loads during the school year.
California allocated $1.25 billion in the current school year for carrying out the new standards. The Tennessee Department of Education trained more than 40,000 teachers — roughly two-thirds of the state teacher corps — during 2012 and 2013. The training sessions were led by top teachers who were selected through a competition. And Delaware has created a project called Common Ground for the Common Core that helps schools and districts bring the new standards into classrooms.
New York can help local districts by providing money and laying out rigorous guidelines for how it can be used. The state Board of Regents, which oversees education policy, clearly had that in mind when it advised the Legislature to increase school aid by $1.3 billion in the 2014-15 school year. About half of that — $719 million — would go toward helping districts that are still reeling from state funding cuts related to the recession and a state-imposed tax cap that limited their ability to raise money. And $125 million would go to an instructional development fund that would be available to districts that committed to extensive, high-quality professional development. The money would be allocated based on need.
The Legislature would do well to follow the Regents’ recommendations. If New York wants to install the Common Core and improve the quality of education it will need to put its money where its mouth is.
The second article below appeared on November 24, 2013 in NY Magazine. I meant to post it on my blog then, but forgot. Now I see that the top scoring district in NYC will be protesting the ELA Tests in NY this week, so that jogged my memory to put the second article up for you. Opting out of Common Core and protests over the test is not just a NY phenomenon. Parents all over the country are unhappy with the Common Core. We have added plenty of preparation for the Common Core on our www.TestingMom.com website and, in doing so, I can see how much harder this test is than previous achievement tests. Parents are right to be concerned. It will take years for teachers and students to be up to speed on how to do well on this test. From what principals are saying below, it may take years for the test developers to get the test right. The protesting parents in NYC feel the test is not well aligned with the standards and that teachers aren’t getting enough information about questions on past tests to use that information to help students prepare. The first article appears on Dianeravitch.net – CLICK HERE to read it at that website. The second article comes from NY Magazine.
Top-Scoring NYC District Will Protest ELA Tests This Friday
District 2 in New York City–one of the city’s highest scoring districts–plans protests this Friday against the poor quality of the ELA tests given last week. State officials tried to dismiss concerns from other districts, specifically from Liz Phillips, a respected Brooklyn principal who wrote a letter to all the parents in her school saying the tests were.”terrible.” More than 500 parents and teachers at her school joined to protest the ELA tests last Friday. The Néw York Times ignored Phillips’ informed judgment and accepted the assurances of state officials (and pupils–how large was their sample?) that the test was “easier” than last year.
District 2 principals agreed with Phillips.
Here is their statement:
Join Us in Speaking Out Regarding the NYS English Language Arts Exam
Friday, April 11th, at District 2 Schools
Dear District 2 Families,
Community School District 2 represents a richly diverse group of school communities and it is not often these days that we have an opportunity to join in a shared effort. Last week, and for several weeks prior, every one of our upper grade classrooms devoted hours of instructional time, vast human resources, and a tremendous amount of thoughtful effort to preparing students to do well on the NYS ELA exams and, ultimately, to administering them. Only a handful of District 2 families even considered opting out, and we are not advocating families do so, specifically because we believe our students are well prepared for the rigor and high expectations of the Common Core and our schools have worked hard for several years to adjust our curriculum and teaching to support students in meeting those expectations. We had high hopes for what this year’s tests would bring and assured families that they would reflect the feedback test makers and state officials had received from educators and families regarding the design of the test following last year’s administration. Our students worked extremely hard and did their very best. As school leaders, we supported teachers in ensuring that students and families kept the tests in perspective – they were important, but by no means the ultimate measure of who they are as readers, students, or human beings. We encouraged them to be optimistic, and did our best to do the same. Frankly, many of us were disappointed by the design and quality of the tests and stood by helplessly while kids struggled to determine best answers, distorting much of what we’d taught them about effective reading skills and strategies and forgoing deep comprehension for something quite different.
Last Friday morning, Liz Phillips, the principal of PS321 in Brooklyn, led her staff and her parent community in a demonstration objecting, not to testing or accountability or high expectations for kids, but to these tests in particular and, importantly, to their high stakes nature for teachers and students, and the policy of refusing to release other than a small percentage of the questions. 500 staff and parents participated.
By Friday evening some officials were dismissing the importance of their statement, claiming that Liz and her community represented only a tiny percentage of those affected, implying that the rest of us were satisfied. Given the terribly high stakes of these tests, for schools, for teachers and for kids, and the enormous amount of human, intellectual and financial resources that have been devoted to them, test makers should be prepared to stand by them and to allow them to undergo close scrutiny.
Many District 2 schools will be holding demonstrations this week, making sure our thoughts on this are loud and clear and making it more difficult to dismiss the efforts of one school. On Friday morning, April 11th, at 8:00am, we invite our families and staff to join District 2 schools in speaking out, expressing our deep dissatisfaction with the 2014 NYS English Language Arts LA exams and the lack of transparency surrounding them. Among the concerns shared by many schools are the following: The tests seem not to be particularly well-aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards; the questions are poorly constructed and often ambiguous; the tests themselves are embargoed and only a handful of select questions will be released next year; teachers are not permitted to use (or even discuss) the questions or the results to inform their teaching; students and families receive little or no specific feedback; this year, there were product placements (i.e., Nike, Barbie) woven through some exams. We are inviting you and your family to join together as a school community in this action, helping to ensure that officials are not left to wonder whether our silence implied approval.
District 2 Principals
Adele Schroeter, PS59; Lisa Ripperger, PS234; Robert Bender, PS11; Tara Napoleoni, PS183; Jane Hsu, PS116; Sharon Hill, PS290; Amy Hom, PS1; Lauren Fontana, PS6; Jennifer Bonnet, PS150; Nicole Ziccardi Yerk, PS281; Susan Felder, PS40; Alice Hom, PS124; Nancy Harris, PS397; Kelly Shannon, PS41; Nancy Sing-Bok, PS51; Lisa Siegman, PS3; Irma Medina, PS111; Terry Ruyter, PS276; Medea McEvoy, PS267; Darryl Alhadeff, PS158; Samantha Kaplan, PS151; David Bowell, PS347; Lily Woo, PS130; Jacqui Getz, PS126; Kelly McGuire, Lower Manhattan Community MS
The Opt-Outers, by Robert Kolker
What happens if enough NY parents say they don’t want their kids to take the test?
More than a year before 7-year-old Oscar Mata was scheduled to take his first major standardized test, his parents received word from his school that he was failing. The Department of Education calls it a Promotion in Doubt letter—a well-intentioned, if blunt, method used to get families to take notice of gaps in a student’s skills.
The letter arrived in 2011, around the time of Oscar’s second-grade winter break. Before then, he had been happy at the Twenty-First Century Academy for Community Leadership in West Harlem. His parents, Andrea and Juan, had been drawn to the dual-language school, where English and Spanish learners took field trips together for innovative social-studies projects. They say that Oscar is great at math and loved science, music, and art. He loved reading, too, until he started to get tested on it.
“There was this transformation of the whole culture—and curriculum,” Andrea says. “I could see it mostly through the homework. It really looked like test prep. There were even bubble sheets.” Oscar had more than a year before the third-grade test, when students start taking the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) and math tests—but the thinking goes that the sooner they learn how to take big standardized tests and the sooner any skill shortfalls can be dealt with, the better they’ll do in the long run. Oscar, however, had a paradoxical reaction. “His interest in school,” says Andrea, “took this immediate plummet.”
She felt as if her son had been caught in a vortex: The school starts teaching Oscar differently, he loses whatever spark of curiosity inspired him to want to learn, and the school punishes him for it. He made it to third grade, but by then, test prep had come to dominate his classroom. Grand plans for science experiments and hands-on interactive projects, Andrea says, “would just kind of fizzle out and disappear because there wasn’t time to do them.”
One underlying problem, she learned, was that his school had received a grade of C from the DOE’s school-evaluation system, and student test scores accounted for 85 percent of that grade. The principal was under extreme pressure to raise the school’s performance level, because a low grade could persuade families to pull students out of that school. By spring, with the third-grade state tests imminent, Andrea started to think seriously about having Oscar opt out of the ELA entirely. The potential ramifications were a mystery to her, but in a way, she thought, the worst had already happened. Her son just didn’t like school anymore.
We’re well into the second decade of the accountability era of public education, during which federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have prodded state school systems to raise standards. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has spent a dozen years bringing data analysis and standardization to what once was a decentralized system. Adding an extra layer of assessments to those mandated by No Child Left Behind, the system now tests kids year round instead of at the start and end of school years.
The new data introduced a degree of transparency and precision that never existed systemwide. For the first time, the DOE could make almost real-time comparisons among the skill levels of kids in different schools and neighborhoods and with different socioeconomic backgrounds. In theory, the tests ensure that kids are being taught to the same standard all over the city and keep low-performing students from falling through the cracks. The tests also offered Bloomberg a benchmark by which to justify the closing of several schools—he’s phased out or shuttered 164 in his nearly twelve years in office—with his letter-grade evaluation system.
But the shift to a data-centric system has led to an interesting new moment for everyone involved in the public schools. At the same time that the state and federal governments have embraced data as much as Bloomberg has, Bill de Blasio stands to inherit a system where a backlash has begun—and he, at least partly, was elected because he aligned himself with that backlash. “I would put the standardized-testing machine in reverse,” the mayor-to-be said during the campaign. “It is poisoning our system.”
From the third through eighth grade, two major state tests loom large every spring—the ELA and math. Formal preparation takes weeks, and informal preparation, as Oscar learned, begins as early as the second grade. For kids just trying to stay at grade level, New York City is unique in how it ties promotion to those state scores. Anything less than a “proficient” rating of two on a scale of one to four, and you’re held back. For children hoping to excel, the fourth-grade ELA and math tests have become a sort of SAT—a do-or-die score that many of the selective, application-only middle schools use to screen kids.
The harshest critics of testing have argued that students learn best from a well-rounded curriculum, and that the pressure to get the correct answer on a high-stakes test leads to cheating and alienation. Every year brings new examples as proof: This fall, kindergartners at some city schools were taught to bubble in answers; in Montclair, New Jersey, new tests were canceled after the answers were posted online. “If you have a child with high anxiety, you’re just adding to their stress level,” says Kate O’Hagan, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 97 in Brooklyn, who argues that the specter of low test scores on a student’s permanent record leads to more pressure at home as well as at school. “Teachers aren’t initiating the conversation about testing. Parents are.”
No real anti-testing resistance movement ever gained traction until last spring, when the state introduced revamped ELA and math tests that were so much harder than what came before that a vast majority of students failed. The tests were meant to align with a new national set of standards called the Common Core, which until recently has been celebrated by both political parties as a way of bringing critical thinking and academic rigor into schools across the country. The problem was that the state changed the test without changing the curriculum first. And the results reflected that: Fewer than one third of all third- through eighth-graders across the state passed. According to the DOE, about one out of every twenty kids citywide wasn’t able to finish day two of the tests.
“There were a lot of tears,” says John O’Reilly, principal of the Academy of Arts & Letters, a K-8 school in Brooklyn. “People have already talked about how they upped the text level, and there were multiple answers to some questions. But the tests were also really long, and kids didn’t finish. And I wondered if this is what we are deciding academic rigor is.”
As anxiety about the new tests mounted, the city’s school chancellor, Dennis Walcott, tried tough love, saying, “It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be challenging.” State officials did the same. “The world has changed, the economy has changed, and what our students need to know has changed,” said Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the State Board of Regents. “It’s better to have our students challenged now—when teachers and parents are there to help—than frustrated later when they start college or try to find a job and discover they are unprepared.”
The test triggered the most widespread criticism of high-stakes testing in more than a decade. At the front lines of the movement are children like Oscar Mata, who, last spring, chose not to take the ELA at all.
Andrea Mata had been so worried about the testing issue that in August 2011, she started showing up at a monthly meeting at the CUNY Graduate Center that called itself the Grassroots Education Movement—a support group made up of public-school teachers and some parents reaching out to talk about policy problems that seemed too big to handle on their own. Mata was there to join a subcommittee focused on testing called Change the Stakes. Later on, she met a mother with a similar story, Diana Zavala, whose son Jackson also went to a Harlem elementary school. “We were always told he could express himself well, but in third grade he suddenly hated school,” Zavala says.
Other groups around the country like FairTest and United Opt Out National had been encouraging boycotts over the years, and, locally, Time Out From Testing had scored some small but significant victories. But as of spring 2012—still a full year before the state would revise the ELA and math tests—no local group was boycotting those exams. “We didn’t feel there was a handle for parents to understand why they were boycotting,” says Jane Hirschmann, a leader of Time Out From Testing.
Mata, Zavala, and several other parents, however, did feel that way. By early 2012, the Change the Stakes subcommittee shook off the larger entity and became its own group. But even up until March, it wasn’t clear that its members would opt out at all. “In the back of my mind I was thinking, Maybe we shouldn’t take the test,” says Mata. “But it wouldn’t make sense if I was just by myself.” She and other parents made some calls to see what would happen if they did in fact have their children opt out. “We all heard different things,” she says, which made the parents feel as if the test had become so powerful that no one had ever considered accommodating anyone with a legitimate complaint against them. “That just fueled us more.”
In the spring of 2012, 113 students in New York City, including Oscar, opted out of one or both of the state tests. What most parents didn’t know is that the DOE did have a process in place for kids who failed the tests—and this same process became the recourse for kids who refused to take the test. Any child who scored a one on the state ELA or math test (as well as all opt-outers) could submit to an alternative evaluation system called a “portfolio assessment,” which includes the score of another test called a “Blackline master,” or BLM, that takes a little less time than the state tests (the portfolio may also include examples of the student’s classwork, though that’s not required). The overall portfolio is reviewed by the teacher and the principal, then by the superintendent, who determines whether the student moves to the next grade. It wasn’t a perfect solution—students were opting out of a test by taking a different one—but it at least meant the students could avoid the big standardized tests and the parents, as a group, could lodge a protest they hoped would register down the line.
The principal at Oscar’s school, Evelyn Linares, as Mata recalls, had never heard of a student opting out. “She said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” (The DOE would not make Linares available to comment for this story.) Other principals did their best to dissuade parents from opting out and went out of their way not to help those who did. Last year, Peter Nuñez—father to Pharez, an 8-year-old third-grader at P.S. 173, populated largely by children learning English as a second language—says his son’s school made the appeals process as difficult for him as possible.
Pharez had been earning threes, making him an average student. Then, as April approached, he started crying each morning, sometimes for twenty minutes or more. He wouldn’t say why. Nuñez has taught in the city schools for more than fifteen years. When he visited P.S. 173, he learned that it had surrendered its schedule solely to test prep; teachers spent the entire day teaching almost nothing but material related to the ELA and math exams.
By then, Pharez was having trouble sleeping. He lost his appetite. “He was complaining about pains in his back and his head. If it was happening to a college student, I might accept this. But for a child, it was not acceptable, not at all. And so I opted him out.”
Nuñez wrote a letter and had it notarized and brought it to the principal, Dawn Boursiquot (who also did not comment). That’s when the administration reacted, he says. Nuñez got phone calls at home from the principal’s secretary, the PTA president, and the assistant principal, all asking him why Pharez opted out and trying to persuade him to change his mind. “After a few calls, I said, ‘You know, I think you ought to respect our decision.’ ”
From April through June, Nuñez says he asked repeatedly to help the school prepare a portfolio for Pharez, only to be ignored. In June, three days before school ended, he was called in for a meeting with Boursiquot. “We got there, and she told us they [gave Pharez the BLM] that same day during the school day,” Nuñez says. “And she informed us that he had failed.”
In his last face-to-face meeting with Boursiquot, Nuñez recalls, the principal told him in front of everyone in the office, “You know what? You decided this for your son.”
The Common Core standards that triggered last spring’s change in the state tests are the Obama administration’s way of sealing in the quality-control demands of No Child Left Behind, which rewarded high test scores without ever really saying what should be on those tests. One of the Common Core’s chief authors, David Coleman (now president of the College Board), is an educational consultant who worked out a set of standards based on an elegant, seemingly unimpeachable methodology: to reverse-engineer the test results of high-performing college students by raising primary-school standards to be more in line with what prepares them for college-level work. For example, the Common Core’s elementary-school math standards focus tightly on the building blocks of algebra—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. Traditional curricula are more varied and, in Coleman’s view, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” clogged with superfluous drills about patterns and combinations. “Imagine you have an assessment system where you can pass a fourth- or fifth-grade math test without knowing fractions ’cause you’re covering so many topics?” Coleman said at a Harvard conference last spring. “If you pass that test, are you on your way to success?”
With reading and writing, the Common Core digs deeper. Where a lot of class time in the early grades has, until now, been spent encouraging students to express themselves and use their interests as a starting point for learning new skills, the Common Core is designed to have students think critically, gathering evidence to make arguments, skills they’ll eventually need in college. (The standards, for example, push nonfiction texts over fiction, reasoning that there isn’t nearly enough nonfiction reading in the lower grades to prepare students for college-level work.)
“It can change the quality of teaching,” says Shael Polakow-Suransky, the DOE’s chief academic officer, who has marshaled the curriculum’s transition. He argues that if implemented correctly, the Common Core will eventually help student scores on standardized tests improve without the need to overload class time with test prep. “Here’s a chance to actually push how rigorous the assignments are that we’re giving kids every single day. How much are kids actually thinking? How much are we seeing kids defend their ideas? What kinds of teacher behaviors do you have to create so the planning goes into a lesson?”
The early challenge of any new curriculum, however, is how it’s absorbed by the people who have to teach it and the kids who have to learn it. Changing standards takes time, and in the schools, that process can take years. Massachusetts went through a similar transition a generation ago, flushing additional money into the system in exchange for higher testing standards. It took several years, and there was a lot of pushback at first, but now around 90 percent of Massachusetts students meet those standards—and the state’s students rank at the top of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the commonly recognized yardstick all school systems use to compare themselves to one another.
After the shock of last spring’s new state tests, the Common Core was formally rolled out in New York State classrooms this fall. There were the expected bureaucratic snafus: new textbooks arriving late to classrooms and teachers not getting enough training. Then came complaints that the curriculum is developmentally inappropriate. Carol Burris, a high-school principal in Rockville Centre, has noted how it expects first-graders to know the meaning of words beyond their reading level, like cuneiform, sarcophagus, and ziggurat. Standards like that, critics say, will lead to the exact drill-and-kill problem the Common Core is trying to avoid.
Established educators complained that the standards weren’t created with enough of their input—not one of the 135 people on the Common Core panels was a K-3 classroom teacher or early-childhood professional. The unions turned on it, too: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten recently quipped, “You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.”
At forums across the state, parents and teachers have blasted Andrew Cuomo’s education commissioner, John King, about the Common Core. One teacher even claimed that children are being “diagnosed by psychologists with a syndrome directly related to work that they do in the classroom. If that is not child abuse, I don’t know what is.”
In response to the growing criticism, Arne Duncan, the White House’s Education secretary, this month said it was “fascinating” that some of the Common Core’s detractors are “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” There was an uproar among parents and administrators. “Did he really say that?” wrote Long Island superintendent Joseph Rella in an open letter. Duncan later “regretted” his phrasing, but what was most telling about his comment was that it seemed to acknowledge that support for the Common Core is being derailed in part by how it plays into the culture of anxiety often associated with high-stakes testing.
Oscar’s parents held tight as they waited for the superintendent to review his BLM and make a final determination. It took until late August—just days before the start of the new school year—for Oscar to be promoted to the fourth grade. But the process proved illuminating: Oscar’s mother realized that, aside from the wait, there were no immediate consequences to Oscar’s opting out. So last spring, when it came time to take the ELA again in the fourth grade, Andrea and Oscar decided he would opt out for a second time. And he had more company.
According to the DOE, New York City had 320 opt-outers in 2013, nearly triple the number of the previous year—and all because of the city’s decision to roll out a test that was way too hard for most students. Locally, Time Out From Testing and Change the Stakes worked together to show families how to opt out. Across the state, the movement was even bigger. Buffalo, Rochester, and Long Island all boasted support for their opt-out movements. Jeanette Deutermann, alarmed by her child’s panicked reaction to the tests, started a Facebook page called Long Island Opt-Out Info that now has nearly 13,000 members. “People got onboard so quickly,” Deutermann says. “Even if their kid got fours”—the highest scores—“every parent had a story about how the test had negatively affected them.” One mother in Levittown told the group that she and others were making shirts for their kids to wear: On the front, I AM NOT JUST A TEST SCORE; on the back, NO MORE COMMON CORE.
A group of principals from prominent middle and high schools wrote a letter pledging they “will no longer be using test scores as part of our criteria for selecting students.” The City Council passed a nonbinding resolution opposing the use of certain “field tests” to try out sample exams on kids already inundated by test prep. This fall, Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights canceled new standardized multiple-choice tests when more than 80 percent of parents had pulled their children from testing. “My feeling about testing kids as young as 4 is it’s inhumane,” PTA co-chairwoman Dao Tran told a reporter. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, has called New York City “the test-prep capital of the United States” and started a petition to ban the use of standardized tests for pre-K through the second grade.
The De Blasio era may seem promising to the resistance, but it’s unclear how much he can do in the short term. For the moment, he’s promised to scrap the A-through-F grading system for schools, putting less weight on test scores and more on “curriculum, quality neighborhood schools, arts, and physical education.” While he hasn’t said as much, he could also detach those tests from promotion, meaning no one would flunk a grade because of poor performance on the tests, but even that won’t mean the end of the tests themselves, or of the Common Core.
If anything, test pressure stands to increase this year before De Blasio has the chance to make his mark. A newly negotiated rule in the teachers’ contract in New York means that for the first time in the city’s history, all teacher evaluations are tied to students’ performance on these tests. Quite suddenly, teachers have been asked to instruct to a specific set of standards or watch their own ratings fall. “They’ve set up a situation where people are terrified to do anything but teach to the test,” says Jane Maisel, a City College instructor and former teacher in the city schools who is also a member of Change the Stakes. “And then they say that teachers shouldn’t just teach to the test!”
“They’ve provided it to us on the fly and said ‘Make it work,’ ” says Kate O’Hagan of P.S. 97. “I’m being handed a curriculum ten minutes before I teach it, and so I’m expected to adapt it. And then later on at my teacher training—and I’m glad I’m at least getting training—they tell me it’ll be better next year. But it’s just truly not ready. What do I say to my students who I have for the next ten months?”
Should the movement continue to grow, there are a number of tangible (and chaotic) repercussions that De Blasio would have to face. A growing opt-out movement could hurt teachers, if refusals to take the tests bring down the overall average of the scores being used in teacher evaluations. A critical mass of opt-outers could even arguably work toward disqualifying a school from receiving federal funding (the money from No Child Left Behind is contingent upon 95 percent of a school’s students taking the annual standardized tests). And while super-selective schools like Stuyvesant have their own entrance exams, there’s no guarantee that students won’t be penalized down the line, should they find themselves applying to a middle or high school that wants to see those scores.
“If a parent’s concern is that they don’t want their child’s education to swirl around a standardized-testing moment, we agree a hundred percent,” says Ken Wagner, the New York State deputy education commissioner who is supervising the rollout of the Common Core. “But we’d also caution parents that if they remove their child from the assessment program, there’s an impact. We really believe that these tests are not only important but irreplaceable. A parent who opts out of that is giving up the opportunity to get a critical piece of information.” Others, like Bloomberg, have argued that the sooner kids get used to taking the tests, the better prepared they’ll be for later challenges—like the SAT or ACT, which few choose not to take.
For the resistance, of course, all these arguments miss the mark. It’s not just about these tests; it’s about test culture’s dominance in the school system. “The majority of the people opting out—not everyone but the majority—are asserting their political will,” says Maisel. “We wanted to emphasize that the system is broken.”
Last summer, for the second year in a row, Oscar Mata was administered the BLM in June as part of his portfolio assessment. The school said he met the standard, but the superintendent disagreed. So he was not promoted in June. Andrea again decided to just let the process unfold, refusing to go along with anything that smacked of a test or evaluation. “We didn’t go to summer school when the summer-school-recommendation letter came in June. We didn’t retest in August, which is what most people do after going to summer school. And then the same portfolio was submitted in August.”
On August 26, Oscar was promoted. Andrea celebrated, then decided to part ways with the school. While he’ll finish out the fifth grade there, she’ll move Oscar’s little sister somewhere new—a school that she believes has built up a stronger resistance to test-prep culture.
The Nuñez family had gone directly to Polakow-Suransky of the DOE to override the principal’s decision to fail Pharez. Like the Matas, they waited all summer for word; Peter was ready to uproot the whole family and move to the Dominican Republic for a year if Pharez was held back, but they heard he would be promoted the same week as Oscar, with just days before the start of the school year. And like Oscar’s family, they decided to move Pharez and both his sisters to a new school. Of course, there’s no guarantee that he won’t run into the same pressure he encountered last year. “I’m going to be contacting the principal and seeing how they roll out test prep and looking at the environment,” Peter says. “I don’t think it’s going to be a symbolic act.”
He’s joined Change the Stakes, too. He thinks what happened last year to his son can’t be allowed to happen again. “They rushed into a lot of the things, and they weren’t well prepared. There was no system of support. And a lot of the kids failed.”
This article appeared in the NY Times Magazine on March 9, 2014. If you want to know where the SAT is headed, read on. To read this article (and reader comments) at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE. What strikes me is that the SAT is beginning to look like a continuation of the Common Core tests that David Coleman also oversaw. Students in public school who learn to do well on Common Core will have a distinct advantage over private school students who don’t follow Common Core standards and testing when it comes to taking the SAT in the future! That’s a first.
In July 2012, a few months before he was to officially take over as president of the College Board, David Coleman invited Les Perelman, then a director of writing at M.I.T., to come meet with him in Lower Manhattan. Of the many things the College Board does — take part in research, develop education policy, create curriculums — it is perhaps most recognized as the organization that administers the SAT, and Perelman was one of the exam’s harshest and most relentless critics. Since 2005, when the College Board added an essay to the SAT (raising the total possible score from 1,600 to 2,400), Perelman had been conducting research that highlighted what he believed were the inherent absurdities in how the essay questions were formulated and scored. His earliest findings showed that length, more than any other factor, correlated with a high score on the essay. More recently, Perelman coached 16 students who were retaking the test after having received mediocre scores on the essay section. He told them that details mattered but factual accuracy didn’t. “You can tell them the War of 1812 began in 1945,” he said. He encouraged them to sprinkle in little-used but fancy words like “plethora” or “myriad” and to use two or three preselected quotes from prominent figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, regardless of whether they were relevant to the question asked. Fifteen of his pupils scored higher than the 90th percentile on the essay when they retook the exam, he said.
Right around the time Coleman was appointed as the board’s next president, he read an article about Perelman’s research in The New York Times and decided to reach out to him. “Somebody takes a whack at the SAT, so what?” Coleman said when I met him in his office at the College Board headquarters near Lincoln Center last month. “They get some media coverage, it’s not that interesting. But this was a guy who devoted his lifetime to work you care about” — teaching students how to write — “and then looks at an instrument meant to celebrate writing and — ” Coleman’s words trailed off. “I wanted to go beyond the news presentation of his claim,” he finally added, “to the depth of his claim.”
Over the course of their two-hour conversation, Perelman told Coleman that he wasn’t opposed to an essay portion of the test, per se; he thought it was a good idea, if done well. But “when is there a situation in either college or life when you’re asked to write on demand about something you’ve never once thought about?” he asked. “I’ve never gotten an email from a boss saying: ‘Is failure necessary for success? Get back to me in 25 minutes?’ But that’s what the SAT does.” Perelman said that tutors commonly taught their students to create and memorize an all-purpose essay that contained the necessary elements for a top score — “a personal anecdote, a few historical references; Florence Nightingale seems a strangely popular reference.” When test day comes, they regurgitate what they’ve committed to memory, slightly reshaping depending on the question asked. But no one is actually learning anything about writing.
Perelman was surprised, he told me, by the productive nature of their conversation, but ultimately he couldn’t imagine that much would come of it. The College Board was a huge nonprofit organization, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue (in part from the nearly three million SAT tests it administers to high-school students each year), and despite intense criticism in the past, it had done little, in Perelman’s estimation, to bring about meaningful change. “His heart is in the right place,” Perelman recalled thinking at the time. “David Coleman actually believes in education.” But trying to change the way the College Board does business, Perelman said, is “like trying to turn around the Titanic.” There was no way an institution as notoriously slow and defensive as Coleman’s was going to do that, no matter who was at the helm.
By the time he took over in October 2012, Coleman was well versed not just in Perelman’s critiques but also in a much wider array of complaints coming from all of the College Board’s constituencies: Teachers, students, parents, university presidents, college-admissions officers, high-school counselors. They all were unhappy with the test, and they all had valid reasons.
Students despised the SAT not just because of the intense anxiety it caused — it was one of the biggest barriers to entry to the colleges they dreamed of attending — but also because they didn’t know what to expect from the exam and felt that it played clever tricks, asking the kinds of questions they rarely encountered in their high-school courses. Students were docked one-quarter point for every multiple-choice question they got wrong, requiring a time-consuming risk analysis to determine which questions to answer and which to leave blank. Teachers, too, felt the test wasn’t based on what they were doing in class, and yet the mean SAT scores of many high schools were published by state education departments, which meant that blame for poor performances was often directed at them.
An even more serious charge leveled at the test was that it put students whose families had money at a distinct advantage, because their parents could afford expensive test-prep classes and tutors. Several years ago, an exasperated Mitch Kapor, a founder of Lotus Software, co-wrote an op-ed in The San Francisco Chronicle suggesting colleges should require mandatory disclosure by students and parents of “each and every form of purchased help,” as a way to level the playing field.
When the Scholastic Aptitude Test was created in 1926, it was promoted as a tool to create a classless, Jeffersonian-style meritocracy. The exam, which purported to measure innate intelligence, was originally adapted from the World War I Army I.Q. test and served as a scholarship screening device for about a dozen selective colleges throughout the 1930s. It was assumed that there was no way to effectively prep for a test geared to inborn intelligence, but as early as 1938, Stanley Kaplan began offering classes that promised higher scores. Today the company Kaplan founded and its main competitor, the Princeton Review, are joined by innumerable boutique firms (not to mention high-priced private tutors), all part of a $4.5-billion-a-year industry that caters largely to the worried wealthy in America who feel that the test can be gamed and that their children need to pay to learn the strategies.
Coleman conducted a “listening thing” with his organization’s various frustrated constituencies. For the College Board to be a great institution, he thought at the time, it had to own up to its vulnerabilities. “Unequal test-prep access is a problem,” he said. “It is a problem that it’s opaque to students what’s on the exam. It is a problem that the scoring is too complex. I knew some of the science behind the SAT and actually admired a lot of it. On the other hand, I felt that something really had to happen, because what had grown up around it” — the way in which the test evolved from a vehicle to encourage meritocracy to a reinforcement of privilege in American education — “threatened everything.”
It was clear, Coleman said, that no parents, whatever their socioeconomic status, were satisfied. The achievements of children from affluent families were tainted because they “bought” a score; those in the middle class cried foul because they couldn’t get the “good stuff” or were overextended trying to; and the poor, often minority students, were shut out completely. A paper prepared in 2009 by Derek Briggs, the chairman of the Research and Evaluation Methodology program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, emphasized another cost to test prep beyond the $1,000-plus classes and the personal tutors: He called it an opportunity cost, meaning that time spent in the narrow pursuit of beating the test meant time away from schoolwork and extracurricular activities that are actually designed to prepare students to succeed in college.
In addition to these educational (and moral) quandaries, Coleman had to grapple with what it meant for the College Board as a business to have the credibility of the SAT called into question. A growing number of colleges and universities, frustrated by the minimal change to the SAT when it was revised in 2005 and motivated by a report issued in 2008 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (Nacac), began to eliminate the SAT and its competitor, the A.C.T., as admission requirements, following the lead of several small, liberal-arts colleges that did so years before. The authors of the Nacac report cited a University of California study, which characterized the SAT as a “relatively poor predictor of student performance” and questioned the tendency of colleges to rely on the SAT as “one of the most important admission tools.” (Many of the schools that dropped test requirements saw spikes in their applications, at least in the first year.)
Around the time the report came out — and following the publication of “The Power of Privilege,” by the Wake Forest University sociology professor Joseph A. Soares, an account of the way standardized tests contributed to discriminatory admissions policies at Yale — Wake Forest became the first Top 30 national university in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings to announce a test-optional admissions policy. Follow-up studies at Wake Forest showed that the average high-school G.P.A. of incoming freshmen increased after the school stopped using standardized-test scores as a factor. Seventy-nine percent of its 2012 incoming class was in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes. Before going test-optional, that figure was in the low 60s. In addition, the school became less homogeneous. “The test highly correlates with family income,” says Soares, who also edited a book that, in part, examines the weak predictive validity of the SAT at the University of Georgia, Johns Hopkins University and Wake Forest. “High-school grades do not.” He continued, “We have a lot more social, racial and lifestyle diversity. You see it on campus. Wake Forest was a little too much like a J. Crew catalog before we went test-optional.”
A report released last month by William C. Hiss, a former dean of admissions at Bates College, and Valerie W. Franks, a former Bates assistant dean of admissions, supports Wake Forest’s experience. They reviewed 33 colleges and universities that did not require SAT or A.C.T. scores and found no significant difference in college G.P.A. or graduation rates between those who had submitted tests and those who had not. Specifically, they saw that students with good high-school grades did well in college, even if they had weak SAT scores. But students with weaker high-school grades — even with strong SATs — did less well in college. Those who didn’t submit SATs were more likely to be minority students, women, Pell grant recipients or the first in their families to go to college.
While more colleges are choosing to opt out of standardized testing, an estimated 80 percent of four-year colleges still require either SAT or A.C.T. scores, according to David Hawkins at Nacac, and admissions officers report feeling bound to the tests as a way to filter the overwhelming numbers of applicants. Robert Sternberg, a celebrated author and Cornell professor, told “Frontline” that when he was at Yale and reviewed admissions applications, the scores were hard to ignore. “I know that when I’m reading applications and as the night goes on and I’m reading more and more, it gets more and more tempting to count the SATs,” he said. “It’s easier than reading these long essays and teacher recommendations. It’s human nature.” On top of the pressures to winnow the applicants, the Nacac report cited the problems resulting from the use of SAT and A.C.T. scores by U.S. News & World Report to create its rankings, stating that the scores “were not a valid measure of institutional quality.” In addition, it criticized the use of the SAT and A.C.T. by bond-rating companies to help assess the financial health of a school as creating “undue pressure on admission offices to pursue increasingly high test scores.”
Coleman said that many of the admissions officers he spoke with made it clear that they were uncomfortable being beholden to the test, at least to this test, but there was no consensus about what an exam that was fair and acceptable to all would look like.
Hard questions have always interested Coleman. In 1994, after earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Yale, a bachelor’s in English literature at Oxford (where he was a Rhodes scholar) and a master’s in ancient philosophy at Cambridge (“three degrees that entitled you to zero jobs”), Coleman intended to come home to New York City and work as a public-school teacher. But when he realized he wouldn’t find a job teaching high-school English, he ended up instead as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, where for five years he became increasingly obsessed with evidence-based solutions. During that time, he did pro bono work for school districts trying to improve performance, and in 1999, he left McKinsey and helped create a company called the Grow Network, which focused on assisting students and parents, including non-English-speaking families, in navigating an educational system that was increasingly dictated by standardized tests. His immersion in the world of standardized testing — talking to educators as well as students — convinced him that the standards those tests were supposedly measuring had to change. They were too vast and vague, and they produced textbooks that suffered from the same lack of purpose.
“When you cover too many topics,” Coleman said, “the assessments designed to measure those standards are inevitably superficial.” He pointed to research showing that more students entering college weren’t prepared and were forced into “remediation programs from which they never escape.” In math, for example, if you examined data from top-performing countries, you found an approach that emphasized “far fewer topics, far deeper,” the opposite of the curriculums he found in the United States, which he described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
In 2008, Coleman helped start a nonprofit organization called Student Achievement Partners, which was dedicated to “acting on evidence” when making decisions about education policy. While at Partners, Coleman was integral in helping shape the Common Core, a set of academic standards that has subsequently been implemented in more than 40 states. While not without its critics — many parents and educators believe it deeply roots schools and teachers in a problematic “teach to the test” mind-set — Coleman talks about it not just as a bulwark against the declining standards of American public education but as a rare bipartisan success. At the Strategic Data Project conference last May in Boston, he challenged those in the audience to cite a “significant domestic policy area where Republicans and Democrats have gotten together and gotten something done.” The Common Core, he said, was a galvanizing idea that “swept the country during a period when all ideas seemed to stop.”
When Coleman attended Stuyvesant High in Manhattan, he was a member of the championship debate team, and the urge to overpower with evidence — and his unwillingness to suffer fools — is right there on the surface when you talk with him. (Debate, he said, is one of the few activities in which you can be “needlessly argumentative and it advances you.”) He offended an audience of teachers and administrators while promoting the Common Core at a conference organized by the New York State Education Department in April 2011: Bemoaning the emphasis on personal-narrative writing in high school, he said about the reality of adulthood, “People really don’t give a [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” After the video of that moment went viral, he apologized and explained that he was trying to advocate on behalf of analytical, evidence-based writing, an indisputably useful skill in college and career. His words, though, cemented his reputation among some as both insensitive and radical, the sort of self-righteous know-it-all who claimed to see something no one else did.
Coleman obliquely referenced the episode — and his habit for candor and colorful language — at the annual meeting of the College Board in October 2012 in Miami, joking that there were people in the crowd from the board who “are terrified.”
The lessons he brought with him from thinking about the Common Core were evident — that American education needed to be more focused and less superficial, and that it should be possible to test the success of the newly defined standards through an exam that reflected the material being taught in the classroom. This was exactly how the College Board’s Advanced Placement program worked (80 percent of teachers surveyed in a study by the Fordham Institute said that the A.P. exam was a good indication of their and their students’ work). It was also one of the main suggestions in Nacac’s 2008 report, that a college admission exam should be redesigned as an achievement-style test — like the A.P. exams — that would send a “message to students that studying their course material in high school, not taking extracurricular test-prep courses that tend to focus on test-taking skills, is the way to do well on admission tests and succeed in a rigorous college curriculum.”
The question for Coleman was how to create an exam that served as an accurate measure of student achievement and college preparedness and that moved in the direction of the meritocratic goals it was originally intended to accomplish, rather than thwarting them.
More than a year ago, Coleman and a team of College Board staff members and consultants began to try to do just that. Cyndie Schmeiser, the board’s chief of assessments, told me that their first order of business was to determine what the test should measure. Starting in late 2012 and continuing through the spring of 2013, she and her team had extensive conversations with students, teachers, parents, counselors, admissions officers and college instructors, asking each group to tell them in detail what they wanted from the test. What they arrived at above all was that a test should reflect the most important skills that were imparted by the best teachers. Schmeiser explained that, for example, a good instructor would teach Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech by encouraging a conversation that involved analyzing the text and identifying the evidence, both factual and rhetorical, that makes it persuasive. “The opposite of what we’d want is a classroom where a teacher might ask only: ‘What was the year the speech was given? Where was it given?’ ”
The team then set about trying to create test questions that lent themselves to this more meaningful engagement. Schmeiser said that in the past, assembling the SAT focused on making sure the questions performed on technical grounds, meaning: Were they appropriately easy or difficult among a wide range of students, and were they free of bias when tested across ethnic, racial and religious subgroups? The goal was “maximizing differentiation” among kids, which meant finding items that were answered correctly by those students who were expected to get them right and incorrectly by the weaker students. A simple way of achieving this, Coleman said, was to test the kind of obscure vocabulary words for which the SAT was famous (or infamous). The answer pattern was statistically strong, he said — a small percentage of the kids knew them, most did not — but it didn’t adequately reflect the educational values Coleman believed in. In redesigning the test, the College Board shifted its emphasis. It prioritized content, measuring each question against a set of specifications that reflect the kind of reading and math that students would encounter in college and their work lives. Schmeiser and others then spent much of early last year watching students as they answered a set of 20 or so problems, discussing the questions with the students afterward. “The predictive validity is going to come out the same,” she said of the redesigned test. “But in the new test, we have much more control over the content and skills that are being measured.”
When I met with Coleman in his office last month to talk about the remaking of the SAT, he periodically leapt from his chair when he became excited about an idea. At one point he jumped up and drew a dividing line down the middle of his whiteboard (he’s a very enthusiastic user of the whiteboard), then scrawled, “Evidence-based reading and writing” on one side and “Math” on the other. He was unveiling, at least in broad strokes, the results of those many months of rethinking and testing.
Starting in spring 2016, students will take a new SAT — a three-hour exam scored on the old 1,600-point system, with an optional essay scored separately. Evidence-based reading and writing, he said, will replace the current sections on reading and writing. It will use as its source materials pieces of writing — from science articles to historical documents to literature excerpts — which research suggests are important for educated Americans to know and understand deeply. “The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers,” Coleman said, “have managed to inspire an enduring great conversation about freedom, justice, human dignity in this country and the world” — therefore every SAT will contain a passage from either a founding document or from a text (like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) that is part of the “great global conversation” the founding documents inspired.
Coleman gave me what he said was a simplistic example of the kind of question that might be on this part of the exam. Students would read an excerpt from a 1974 speech by Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas, in which she said the impeachment of Nixon would divide people into two parties. Students would then answer a question like: “What does Jordan mean by the word ‘party’?” and would select from several possible choices. This sort of vocabulary question would replace the more esoteric version on the current SAT. The idea is that the test will emphasize words students should be encountering, like “synthesis,” which can have several meanings depending on their context. Instead of encouraging students to memorize flashcards, the test should promote the idea that they must read widely throughout their high-school years.
The Barbara Jordan vocabulary question would have a follow-up — “How do you know your answer is correct?” — to which students would respond by identifying lines in the passage that supported their answer. (By 2016, there will be a computerized version of the SAT, and students may someday search the text and highlight the lines on the screen.) Students will also be asked to examine both text and data, including identifying and correcting inconsistencies between the two.
“Whenever a question really matters in college or career, it is not enough just to give an answer,” Coleman said. “The crucial next step is to support your answer with evidence,” which allows insight into what the student actually knows. “And this change means a lot for the work students do to prepare for the exam. No longer will it be good enough to focus on tricks and trying to eliminate answer choices. We are not interested in students just picking an answer, but justifying their answers.”
To that end, the question for the essay portion of the test will also be reformulated so that it will always be the same, some version of: “As you read the passage in front of you, consider how the author uses evidence such as facts or examples; reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence; and stylistic or persuasive elements to add power to the ideas expressed. Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience.” The passage will change from test to test, but the analytical and evidentiary skills tested will always be the same. “Students will be asked to do something we do in work and in college every day,” Coleman said, “analyze source materials and understand the claims and supporting evidence.”
The math section, too, will be predicated on research that shows that there are “a few areas of math that are a prerequisite for a wide range of college courses” and careers. Coleman conceded that some might treat the news that they were shifting away from more obscure math problems to these fewer fundamental skills as a dumbing-down the test, but he was adamant that this was not the case. He explained that there will be three areas of focus: problem solving and data analysis, which will include ratios and percentages and other mathematical reasoning used to solve problems in the real world; the “heart of algebra,” which will test how well students can work with linear equations (“a powerful set of tools that echo throughout many fields of study”); and what will be called the “passport to advanced math,” which will focus on the student’s familiarity with complex equations and their applications in science and social science.
Last June, Coleman spoke at the Harvard Summer Institute’s multiday seminar for college-admissions and counseling professionals. Before the talk, he met with William Fitzsimmons, the longtime dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard and the primary author of the 2008 Nacac commission report. Coleman brought along an outline of the SAT redesign to get Fitzsimmons’s impressions.
Fitzsimmons told me he was stunned by what he saw, the ways in which the exam read like a direct response to his commission’s most serious recommendations. “Like any other truly significant change, there will be debate,” he added. But then he went on: “Sometimes in the past, there’s been a feeling that tests were measuring some sort of ineffable entity such as intelligence, whatever that might mean. Or ability, whatever that might mean. What this is is a clear message that good hard work is going to pay off and achievement is going to pay off. This is one of the most significant developments that I have seen in the 40-plus years that I’ve been working in admissions in higher education.”
But changing the test didn’t solve all the problems that preoccupied Coleman. He was still troubled by the inequalities in education opportunity and believed that the College Board should play a role in ameliorating them. For some time, the College Board had been aware of the work of Caroline Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford, and Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy and management at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who had been studying what is sometimes called undermatching — the tendency of poor students to pick a school that is closer to home and less rigorous, in spite of evidence that they could succeed elsewhere. Hoxby first became aware of the problem in 2004, when she was on the faculty at Harvard and the university announced to great fanfare that it would recruit top-performing, financially challenged kids by offering free tuition if their parents made less than $40,000. Yet despite the offer, enrollment numbers for those students remained stubbornly low. When Hoxby began to research the issue, she hypothesized that there was a large population of high-achieving, low-income students yet to be identified. She and Avery began working with the College Board and the A.C.T. to develop new techniques to find out how many students were in this low-income, top-performing pool and where they lived. By piecing together data from census reports, I.R.S. income data broken down by ZIP code, real estate valuations and other sources, they pinpointed some 35,000 students whose grades were in the top-10 percent nationally and whose family income was in the bottom quarter of families with a 12th-grader.
When they tracked where those kids applied to school, they found a number that would later shock Coleman. Fifty-six percent didn’t apply to a single selective college or university.
The researchers surmised this was a problem of communication, more than anything else; the information wasn’t reaching the students and families it needed to reach, and in the cases when it did, it wasn’t as clear and useful as it could be. Hoxby and Sarah Turner, an economics professor at the University of Virginia, tested whether they could change enrollment patterns. From 2010 to 2012, Hoxby’s team sent out personalized, detailed packets encouraging the high-achieving, low-income students to apply to several schools and providing application-fee waivers and financial-aid information about scholarships. In many cases these students would be able to see that they could get a better deal financially at more highly selective schools that wanted to attract them. The intervention resulted in those students’ applying to more colleges and closing “part of the college behavior ‘gap’ between low-income and high-income students with the same level of achievement,” Hoxby and Turner wrote.
When Coleman became College Board president, he was briefed on the supporting role the board had played to date. He agreed with those who saw an opportunity and decided, he says, to “take it from a small experiment to implement it nationwide.” He called for additional research to find low-income students whom the board refers to as “college-ready,” meaning they scored 1,550 or above on the SAT (the top 43 percent of U.S. test-takers). Ultimately the board mailed out nearly 100,000 packets to top-performing and college-ready students. The packets included four or more application waivers to allow students to apply immediately to any of the more than 2,000 schools that agreed to participate in the program. One requirement of those colleges, Coleman said, was that they agreed to rely on the financial determination made by the College Board and didn’t make the students requalify for aid or special tuition dispensation. Instead, the waiver was designed to look like a ticket — “Here’s your ticket, go!” Coleman said — simplifying the process and encouraging the students to jump at the opportunity. Research on the initial effects of the program won’t be released until next month, but the speed with which the deployment happened fulfilled Coleman’s promise to accelerate the agenda.
In January 2013, at a College Board-sponsored conference in Florida, Coleman met Daniel Porterfield, the president of Franklin & Marshall College, whose surprisingly effective work in bringing high-achieving, low-income students to his small liberal-arts school in Lancaster, Pa., gained national attention. Porterfield agreed with Hoxby’s team’s conclusions that the problem wasn’t that the students weren’t out there; the problem was that colleges weren’t looking hard enough to find them, and that this commitment was a big part of Franklin & Marshall’s success. Porterfield, who is now a board member of the College Board, told me he saw Coleman as uniquely “using the College Board to serve society as opposed to the College Board serving its own position.” He also said that when the two of them first talked, Coleman promised that the College Board could help F&M find talented, high-striving, high-achieving students and that he has “exactly delivered on that promise.”
What Coleman found exciting about the intervention was its use of the standardized tests as a way to reach students who would otherwise not apply to the kinds of colleges that they might assume were out of reach. It transformed an exam that most thought of as a burden — and many low-income students opted not to take at all — into an opportunity. Coleman explained that the moment when students get their test results is a rare instance in which you have their full attention — that’s the moment you have to seize on, connecting the score they’re holding in their hand to the future that they could possibly attain. “When have you ever gotten anything for taking the SAT?” he said, imagining the reaction of students opening up their test results and holding the application waivers in their hands.
For all the good intentions and all the evidence-based ideas brought to bear by Coleman and his colleagues over the past year and a half, there is still a chasm between the educational experiences of children at good schools in wealthier districts and those in lower-income areas. The fact that you could never fully level the playing field — that good, focused instruction and meaningful preparation would still be unavailable to the students they were most focused on lifting up — nagged at Coleman and his staff as they continued redesigning the test.
They began to consider how they might provide teachers in sixth through 12th grade, particularly in low-performing schools, with broader access to content and resources to help prepare students for the test. Then last July, on a bus to dinner at a staff retreat in upstate New York, two of Coleman’s senior team members, Cyndie Schmeiser and Jeff Olson, threw out an idea: What if the College Board worked with Khan Academy, the free online tutoring service, visited by 10 million students each month, to offer SAT prep classes to anyone who wanted them? At Khan Academy, students logged on to the site and then worked over weeks or months at their own pace answering questions in different subject areas and following their progress. If they needed help, they could watch one of the thousands of casual but engaging videos created by the founder, Sal Khan. Khan holds multiple degrees from Harvard and M.I.T. and serves as the site’s ubiquitous guide, his voice explaining how to do various problems while text and numbers appeared on a digital chalkboard.
Khan started the site in modest fashion, tutoring his young niece over the Internet. When her relatives and friends wanted to be taught by him, too, he began posting videos to YouTube. As the site grew, he worked through all sorts of problems, including some that he took from past SAT exams, which he says now he probably didn’t have permission to use.
Coleman and his team were aware of what was happening at Khan Academy and were intrigued by the idea of a partnership, but they were also wary. “You kind of say, ‘O.K.,’ ” Coleman said. “ ‘But is it good enough?’ ” This kind of partnership had never been done by the College Board and he worried about what it might mean for the brand.
Throughout last fall his staff spent many hours on the Khan Academy website. The idea of creating a transparent test and then providing a free website that any student could use — not to learn gimmicks but to get a better grounding and additional practice in the core knowledge that would be tested — was appealing to Coleman.
He thought about athletics as the corollary for what they were trying to do. In sports, you practiced all the time to prepare for games. But while the stakes were high on game days, they didn’t result in the “suffering” and counterproductive anxiety that was a common reaction to the SAT. The difference, he said, was that in sports there was no mystery as to what would be required of you in a game. The rules were clear and didn’t change. On the SAT, the rules were unclear. “Half the anxiety is about what’s going to happen on ‘game day,’ ” Coleman said. “It’s not really fair. High stakes should not be placed on something that didn’t matter before that suddenly matters now. The stakes should emerge because the work is important and your demonstration of that is significant.”
The long, deliberate practice required for that type of performance was consistent with the Khan Academy method. In theory, anyway, the partnership made perfect sense.
In January, Coleman met with Wade Henderson, the president and C.E.O. of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who spoke with him about the ill will that had been built up in the minority community over the SAT, how the test has long been viewed not as a launching pad to something better but as an obstacle to hard-working, conscientious students who couldn’t prepare for it in the way more affluent students could. Coleman acknowledged “the extent to which the exam recapitulates income inequality.” Henderson also expressed concern, Coleman said, that poor SAT scores could block access to jobs. After the hourlong conversation, which Coleman characterized as deeply moving, he decided to add one more element to the redesign. Test information sent to an institution would include a “safe use” warning in red ink: “This data should only be used in combination with other relevant information to make responsible decisions about students.”
A couple of weeks after his talk with Henderson, Coleman flew to Silicon Valley to discuss a partnership with Sal Khan. There was no discussion of financial terms, just an agreement in principle that they would join forces. (The College Board won’t pay Khan Academy.) They talked about a hypothetical test-prep experience in which students would log on to a personal dashboard, indicate that they wanted to prepare for the SAT and then work through a series of preliminary questions to demonstrate their initial skill level and identify the gaps in their knowledge. Khan said he could foresee a way to estimate the amount of time it would take to achieve certain benchmarks. “It might go something like, ‘O.K., we think you’ll be able to get to this level within the next month and this level within the next two months if you put in 30 minutes a day,’ ” he said. And he saw no reason the site couldn’t predict for anyone, anywhere the score he or she might hope to achieve with a commitment to a prescribed amount of work.
Coleman told Khan that the College Board would invest in an outreach campaign through organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs and Big Brothers Big Sisters groups to reach as many students as possible, especially low-income students who aren’t the website’s primary users now. He also gave Khan access to actual test questions, and Khan is in the process of creating material for students who will be taking the old exam. (He says that it will be available early this month.) Coleman told me that his confidence in the partnership crystallized when Khan told him they were constantly revising their material based on what was most effectively helping students on the site. Coleman was particularly inspired by Khan’s belief that it was possible for any student to achieve better skills with the proper instruction. Khan asked if Coleman was aware that five centuries ago, there was an analogous misperception. Coleman explained, “He said, ‘David, do you realize it used to be believed that most human beings couldn’t read?’ ”
At various times in our discussions, Coleman referred to some test-prep providers as predators who prey on the anxieties of parents and children and provide no real educational benefit. (Though there’s a debate about how helpful test prep is, much research shows increases of an average of only 30 points.) “This is a bad day for them,” he said about the new test and his Khan Academy partnership.
Still, Coleman concedes that the redesigned SAT won’t quiet everyone’s complaints, and he doesn’t expect there to be a universal celebration of what they’ve done. You can imagine there will be substantial questions, for instance, about whether any standardized test can be fair across all groups, and whether the College Board is not ultimately creating a new test that somehow, some way, will be gamed as much as the old one.
Coleman’s response to those concerns is to say that the new, more transparent test will be tied to what’s being taught in high school and will be evidence-based. But his previous work on the Common Core has raised some educators’ concerns. “Dave Coleman is not an educator by training,” says Lucy Calkins, the founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College and an author of “Pathways to the Common Core.” Calkins has been a strong defender of the Common Core but thinks Coleman has been too insistent on his own particular method for implementing its standards. She cites a video that Coleman helped create of a “model lesson” for teaching the Gettysburg Address, where he would have students spending several classes “parsing the meaning of each word in each paragraph,” she said. She doesn’t feel there’s evidence that this method works.
With a redesigned SAT, Calkins thinks that too much of the nation’s education curriculum and assessment may rest in one person’s hands. “The issue is: Are we in a place to let Dave Coleman control the entire K-to-12 curriculum?”
William Fitzsimmons, the Nacac chairman and head of admissions at Harvard, for his part, was impressed with the quickness with which Coleman has been able to make these changes. “In the world of education,” Fitzsimmons told me, “this is lightninglike speed.” And Coleman rejects the worries that he might be making changes that are too radical without waiting to see what works. He says that he believes that if you’ve been diligent in gathering the supporting facts, which he has been, then that is your defense against hubris and wrong thinking. In reality, he said, the decisions he has made aren’t all that bold, because they’re all completely supported by research. This is where he and critics like Lucy Calkins disagree, of course, but like any good debater, Coleman seems to know when to marshal hard evidence and when to wrap it in persuasive rhetoric. And what’s at stake, he often makes clear, is not just the fairness and usefulness of an exam but our nation’s ability to deliver opportunity for all, which, really, is about the soul of the country. The rest of us will have to wait for the proof that he has found the answer.
Correction: March 30, 2014
An article on March 9 about changes in the SAT referred incorrectly to two universities’ policies on the SAT. The test is not optional at the University of Georgia or at Johns Hopkins. The same article erroneously attributed a distinction to Wake Forest University. It was the first Top 30 national university in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings to announce a test-optional admissions policy; it was not the first educational institution to do so. (Several institutions adopted a test-optional policy before Wake Forest.)
Todd Balf is the author of several books, including “Major,” an account of Marshall Taylor, one of the first African-American athletes to become an international superstar.
Editor: Ilena Silverman
Here’s what we know so far about the scores on the G&T test in NYC for 2013-2104. Scores did go down in general because the NYC DOE added more weight to the OLSAT verbal test, which puts kids who speak multiple languages at a disadvantage. We are currently surveying www.Testingmom.com members and results so far tell us that our members did significantly better than students who didn’t use our preparation materials. After more responses come in, details will follow. Note: click on the images and they’ll get bigger.
TestingMom.com is holding a tele seminar tomorrow night, Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 9 p.m. EST to talk about NYC results and next steps for parents whose kids qualified for G&T and parents whose kids did not qualify for G&T. Feel free to enroll by CLICKING HERE.