A $109,600 Question for NYSUT Leaders


I am a staunch supporter of unions as a powerful force for the mobilization and protection of workers, and in the case of teachers’ unions, for the protection of public schools and the students they serve. I stand in awe of the bravery, solidarity, and sacrifice of the Chicago Teachers’ Union and other unions across the country who have stood up not only for their members, but for the communities, schools, and children they serve. And over the past few years I have been inspired and humbled by the work of the local unions across New York who have taken a strong stand against the harmful education laws and policies that threaten our public schools. So I hesitate to once again call attention the misdeeds of the current NYSUT leadership. But at the end of the day, solidarity does not and should not come at the cost of looking the other way.

As a NYSUT member, I was shocked and dismayed when I recently learned that in 2016 NYSUT contributed $109,600 to the NYS Senate Republican Committee, a huge increase from NYSUT’s 2015 contribution of  $24,500 and zero contribution in 2014. My first instinct was to contact our union leaders and seek an explanation, but I have yet to receive a response.


Funded by the individual contributions of thousands of New York teachers, VOTE COPE donations are ostensibly earmarked to support political campaigns and candidates who will enact legislation that supports educators. And as the war on public education and teachers has ramped up, educators in New York have been encouraged to increase their VOTE COPE contributions as a means of safeguarding the profession. Following this logic, one would infer that such a large contribution to the NYS Senate Republican Campaign Committee is reflective of the Committee’s support of NYS educators and public schools, right? Wrong.

While one can argue that there are heroes and villains on both sides of the aisle, Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader John Flanagan, have worked against the best interests of students, schools, and educators at every turn. Over the past few years the Republican-led Senate has:

  • Refused to fully fund foundation aid
  • Pushed for an Education Tax Credit which would further divest public schools of much needed  resources
  • Sponsored legislation expanding the charter school cap
  • Refused to reverse harmful APPR legislation
NYSUT has been a vocal opponent of the expansion of charter schools in New York State, citing their negative impact on traditional public schools, students, and educators. You can read NYSUT analysis here and here. This makes such a sizeable contribution to the NYS Senate Republican Campaign Committee even more perplexing.

It’s no secret that Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, along with many other Senate Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) Senators have received substantial political donations from wealthy charter school supporters and as a result, Senate republicans have served as staunch allies of those who would privatize public schools, deprofessionalize the teaching profession, and rob public schools of resources.

Examples of the cozy relationship enjoyed by charter supporters and NYS Senate Republicans are not hard to find. In June of this year, Senate Republicans introduced a provision that would allow charter schools to employ more non-certified teachers and provide SUNY with the authority to exempt charter schools from certain rules and regulations,- regulations that specifically adversely affect charter chain juggernaut, Success Academy. Read more about that here. 

Consider the Senate’s 2015 and 2016 Bullet Aid allocations. Bullet Aid distribution is based on politics rather than need or merit and legislators are not required to justify their allocations. Under the sponsorship of John Flanagan, the NYS Senate passed resolutions allocating millions of taxpayer dollars to reform groups while giving some of the most fiscally stressed schools in the state less than $20,000. The Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) is a nonprofit education organization based in New York City that provides services such as charter school design and development, restructuring of large schools into smaller learning communities, and turnaround support for low performing schools. In 2015, CEI received two bullet aid grants from Senate Republicans totaling $1,057,000 and in 2016 they received another grant of $1,566,000. Another organization with a vested interest in the privatization of public education, Agudath Israel, received $850,000 in both 2015 and 2016. I have written extensively about this here.

Both of these organizations are also members of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, a coalition of pro-privatization and “reform” groups responsible for an aggressive and expensive lobbying campaign in support of Governor Cuomo’s failed Invest in Education tax credit, which would have funneled millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools. It should be noted that Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan is also one of the Coalition’s top campaign donation recipients.

So the question remains, why did NYSUT contribute over $100,000 of teacher-funded VOTE COPE money to the NYS Senate Republican Campaign committee? How do an education tax credit, diminished regulation of charter schools, refusal to fully fund foundation aid, and support of a harmful teacher evaluation law benefit those who pay dues and contribute their hard earned money to VOTE COPE funds? Is this the cost of a seat at the table? If so, $109,600 is a large chunk of change to sit at a table where we are being served up.

If our union leaders cannot sufficiently answer these questions, or do not feel obliged to answer them, perhaps it is time to opt out of VOTE COPE. More importantly, perhaps it is time to demand new leadership that will respect the union’s mandate to stand up for its’ membership, engage in transparency, and restore the integrity of these important positions.


NYS Psychometric Hocus Pocus Explained


The Story of Jane and Johnny

 In 2015 Jane took the 6th grade NYS math test. Out of 72 possible raw points, she earned 45 points or 62% of the available raw points.

According to NYSED’s 2015 Raw Score to Scale Score Conversion Chart, Jane earned a scale score of 316.

NYSED’s Definitions of Performance Levels for the 2015 Grades 3-8 Mathematics Tests tells us that the range of scale scores for a proficient performance (level 3) on the 2015 6th grade math test is 318-339. A scale score of 318 is considered the “cut score” for a level 3 on the 2015 6th grade NYS Math test.

Jane almost made it! She earned 62% of the available raw points. Had Jane earned 46 of the available raw points, or 64%, her raw score would have been converted to a scale score of 318 and she would be considered proficient.

Eleven year old Jane has just been told that she is NOT on track to being career and college ready.

In 2016 Jane’s cousin Johnny took the 6th Grade NYS Math Test. Johnny earned 35 out of 67 possible raw points, or 52% of the available raw points.

According to NYSED’s 2016 Raw Score to Scale Score Conversion Chart, Johnny earned a scale score of 318.

As per NYSED’s Definitions of Performance Levels for the 2016 Grades 3-8 Mathematics Tests, the range of scale scores for a proficient performance (level 3) on the 2016 6th grade math test is 318-339. A scale score of 318 is considered the “cut score” for a level 3 on the 2015 6th grade NYS Math test.

What do you know? The cut score is the same as 2015! Johnny, who only earned 52% of available raw points on his test in 2016 is considered proficient. He is on track to career and college readiness, whatever that means.

How can this be?

Jane earned 62% of the available raw points compared to Johnny’s 52%. You might be wondering if NYS made it easier for Johnny to pass the test than Jane. If you have read the newspaper, you know that the Commissioner of Education has assured us this is not true because the cut scores didn’t change. And they didn’t! (see above) Yet somehow, Johnny was deemed to be proficient while earning fewer raw points on the test than Jane. What gives?

Some people say that Jane and Johnny’s scores can be explained by something called equating.

The idea is that from year to year state tests can be a little different. One year a test might be slightly harder, the next year – slightly easier. The folks who (mis)use these scores want to be able to compare them from year to year. In order to account for these fluctuations in test difficulty, the number of raw points needed to get the same scale score is occasionally tweaked from one year to next. If the test is easier, maybe you need a point or two more to be considered proficient. If the test is harder, maybe you need a point or two fewer to earn the same scale score. Equating is the term used for making these adjustments.

If we look at the difference between the percentages of raw points needed to achieve a scale score of 318 (the cut score for proficiency) for the 6th grade math test in 2016 (52%) versus 2015 (64%), we can see that it dropped twelve percentage points. Is that a lot? Well, let’s go back and look at the raw score to scale score conversions going all the way back to 2013, when Common Core based state tests first began. The percentage of raw points needed to achieve a proficient performance (level 3) typically went up or down no more than 3 or 4 percentage points on any test up until 2016. So yes, a drop of 12 percentage points is unprecedented. And here’s the thing, we are only talking about one test. If we look at all of the 2016 NYS ELA and Math tests in grades 3-8, the percentage of raw points needed to achieve the cut score for proficiency dropped on all but one test.

Eleven out of twelve, or ninety-two percent of the 2016 tests were made easier to pass. Compare this to 2014 when fifty percent of the tests saw an increase in the percentage of raw points needed to earn a proficient performance and the other fifty percent saw a decrease. In 2015, the required percentage of raw points required to earn a proficient performance was lowered on only forty-two percent of the tests. Clearly there was a great deal of equating going on in 2016.

Lower Threshold.jpg

As I mentioned earlier, in order to justify equating the percentage of raw points needed to achieve a given performance level in a given year, there must be a marked change in the difficulty of the test from the year before. By that logic, one could infer that the State had to make it easier to pass the 2016 tests because they were significantly more difficult than the 2015 tests.

But there’s a problem with that argument. Commissioner Elia has made numerous, emphatic statements that the content of the 2015 and 2016 tests were comparable in difficulty (I refuse to use the “r” word). If the tests were comparable, what’s with the tinkering?

There is one definitive way that NYSED could prove that it was necessary to engage in significant equating of this year’s scores. After a test is given, each item on the test is assigned something called a p-value. Put simply, a test item’s p-value is its’ relative difficulty based on the number of students who answered it correctly and incorrectly. Ostensibly, any equating that takes place when a raw score is converted to a scale score is done based on these p-values. Therefore, one can assume that NYSED has the p-values from the 2016 tests. Typically these p-values are part of a technical report that is usually released about 10 months after the state tests are given. While NYSED may not have the technical report ready now, we know that the p-values for ALL test items have been calculated – the tests could not be scored without them. Why not release the p-values for ALL test items immediately and put all speculation to rest?

Sum of Change

At the very least, NYSED owes us an explanation, preferably one that makes sense. Given the high stakes attached to these test scores, it matters whether or not they are reliable and valid. Based on these scores schools can be closed, teachers fired, and children labeled as being on track for future failure.

The NYS Education Department has an admitted history of inflating and manipulating test scores. Knowing the facts, it would be naïve not to question the State’s testing data. Rather than lash out at the parents asking questions, NYSED should offer a well-reasoned explanation and release all relevant test data.




The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: NYSED’s Bungled Release of the 2016 Test Scores


The NYS Department of Education recently released this year’s state test scores with test refusal information on a Friday afternoon, timing typically reserved for when an organization wants to bury a news item.

Before opening the State’s press release and PowerPoint slides, many expected more of the same: minor increases touted as large improvements, a characterization of opt out as a movement for and by privileged parents with struggling students, and a tone deaf approach to the changes demanded by parents and educators.

On July 14th I participated in NYSED’s ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) “think tank” or “task force” meeting. The group was tasked with representing stakeholders (the State is only planning two regional public hearings) and guiding the creation of New York’s new accountability plan as required by the federal government to align with the regulations put forth in ESSA. During the Commissioner’s opening remarks, she asserted that the public thought the 2016 state test questions were “fair” and went so far as to say that that there was “very little criticism” of the tests. Commissioner Elia went on to state that she had received overwhelmingly positive feedback across the state regarding the new practice of untimed tests.

It should be noted that the NYS Department of Education did not require school districts to maintain any data or information regarding which students, let alone how many students took advantage of the additional time afforded under the Commissioner’s new untimed testing edict. Considering the State’s penchant for data collection, this was an unusual “oversight.” For a state department of education to implement a brand new, never-before-piloted testing protocol or practice, to essentially experiment on almost a million children, and maintain no data to measure its efficacy is negligent at best. To declare it a success without any formal survey or interviews of students, educators, or administrators is highly questionable.

Ironically, on July 22nd, 8 days after publicly citing overwhelming support of the practice, the Commissioner disseminated a survey of teachers regarding untimed testing.

Why does this matter?

As advocacy groups like NYSAPE have recently pointed out, two years ago, New York State passed a law placing a 1% cap on the amount of instructional hours that could be spent on mandated state testing. As a result of Commissioner Elia’s new untimed test directive, many students have spent more than four times the amount of time on state testing than New York State law allows.

We have no way of knowing whether this new, experimental, and potentially illegal practice disproportionately impacted poorer districts or districts under the threat of receivership, or whether or not districts coerced students to utilize the extra time. We cannot know if the extra time yielded better scores for individual students, or whether it made no difference. We have no qualitative data as to whether or not this new practice diminished test anxiety. This was sloppy at best, and when the well-being of children is at stake, when we are weighing whether or not is is appropriate to allow children as young as 8 years old to sit with an exam for 5 hours per day, 3 days in a row, such an “oversight” is unacceptable.

Cut to today’s release of the 2016 testing data. There is little to celebrate. While the state tests are still labeling more than 60% of the children in NYS as failures, once again NYS and the pro-“reform”, pro-privatization groups are applauding minor gains in ELA and largely flat math scores. Among certain sub-groups, the increases, particularly in ELA scores, were inexplicably larger.

When describing and disaggregating the data from this year’s test questions, NYSED consistently compares this year’s data to last year’s data, highlighting the improvement in scores where they exist. Ironically, NYSED’s own press release states, “While the content of the 2016 tests and last year’s tests are comparable and similarly rigorous, it is not possible to make direct comparisons of the 2016 results to prior years’ results because of changes to the tests this year. The 2016 results are valid and reliable indicators of student proficiency in the tested grades and subjects.” The State’s PowerPoint presentation reiterates, “Given the numerous changes in the tests, we cannot pinpoint exactly why the test scores increased.”

To recap, according to NYSED, direct comparisons can not be made, but the state will make them anyway in order to give the illusion that their Common-Core-based testing program and test-based accountability system are working. And because of a lack of due diligence in keeping data on yet another large scale experiment on our children, NYSED cannot say whether or not untimed testing was successful. And while the state cannot pinpoint why test scores increased because they did not properly monitor the variables in this year’s test, and because this year’s tests cannot be compared to last year’s tests (although they are being compared), these tests are valid and reliable. Got that?

Despite the efforts to squash the opt out movement, test refusals increased this year. These efforts included the State’s  Assessment Toolkit designed to help parents “recognize the importance of state tests” and Commissioner Elia’s constant messaging that she is “listening” to parents and educators. Test refusal increased in many high need school districts as more and more parents gained access to factual information and 50% of test refusers refused for the first time this year. Clearly, the opt out movement is alive and well.

Despite her constant “I am listening” messaging, and despite the persistence of the opt out movement Commissioner Elia is clearly not listening. In a July 29th interview with Politico, the Commissioner insulted parents refusing the 2016 state tests in a remark reminiscent of Arne Duncan’s infamous soccer mom gaffe. The Commissioner states, ““I think what you’re seeing is many people who finally realized, ‘Well they are listening and they’re making changes,’ [and] they were willing to have their children test,” Elia said. “You have another group of parents who said ‘Geez, I think I’m not going to be happy with what’s going on and I don’t know about a lot of changes, and so therefore I’m going to have my child not test.’”

In the PowerPoint slides accompanying the release of 2016 testing data, the State enumerates the various “important” changes they have made. These are the changes that according to Commissioner Elia, test refusal parents “don’t know about”:

-Started with a new test vendor; even greater teacher involvement

While NYS has contracted with a new test vendor, Questar, all passages and questions on this year’s test (and next year’s test) were constructed from an already existing bank of Pearson text passages and questions. The 22 educators involved in test development could only accept or reject text and questions from the Pearson created pool.

-Reduced the number of questions on every grade 3-8 assessment

The New York State tests rival the SATs in length. Now with untimed testing, some students are testing for triple the amount of time required to take the SATs. Reducing a test that is grossly inappropriate in length by one reading passage or a handful of multiple choice questions is negligible. While Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force report recommended that NYS reduce testing by one full day, Commissioner Elia revealed in an April 2016  interview with the Poughkeepsie Journal that this may not happen, “We’re going to look to try to get it down from three days (of testing) to two, maybe we won’t be able to … we’re going to review it.”

-Allowed students working productively to complete their exams

This “change” was implemented without the backing of any research or evidence. The practice of giving young learners untimed tests which can last up to 5 or 6 hours for three consecutive days is highly inappropriate and in school districts under the threat of receivership, can lead to unethical testing situations.

-Released more test questions than ever before and earlier to support instruction

75% of test questions and student reports  were released on June 1st. With only three weeks remaining in the school year, it is doubtful that these reports could “support instruction.”

Here’s what those in the opt out movement know has not changed:

  • NYS tests are STILL based on inappropriate standards that lack a foundation in research or best practice
  • Teachers continue to have little meaningful input into the construction of state tests
  • State tests continue to be too long and continue to rob students of valuable learning time while diverting financial resources from school programming
  • State tests continue to lack instructional value
  • The misuse of test scores to evaluate teacher efficacy and to sort, label and punish schools persists
  • The focus on test scores continues to narrow the curriculum
  • Many children continue to be denied equitable, fairly funded public educations

Commissioner Elia has made some small but laudable adjustments, but when the experience of the individual child remains the same, it is disingenuous to tout these changes as significant.

During the ESSA think tank meeting, the work group I participated in was told that if most members in the group held a majority opinion about a particular aspect of the regulations and one person had a different idea, NYSED would choose that one person’s idea if it aligns with the Regent’s Agenda and that there is no democratic, majority rule in the “think tank.” In contrast to the theme of collaboration and public engagement, we were essentially told that our input holds little to no weight.

I wasn’t surprised.


What is the Center for Educational Innovation and Why Did They Get Over a Million Dollars of New York Taxpayer Money? (July 2016 Update)

*July 2016 Update: Bullet Aid for the 2016-2017 fiscal year ( As outlined in Senate Resolution R6507, sponsored by Senator John Flanagan) allots $1,566,000 to Center for Educational Innovation $850,000 to Agudath Israel.

bullet aid image

While many New York schools received an increase in school funding this year, the state’s formula for determining who gets what remains shrouded in mystery. Many schools, including some of the poorest in the state, will see little fiscal relief. Those districts often depend on “bullet aid” for an infusion of funding– funding that could save a teaching position, decrease class size, or restore an elective. The ability to give “bullet aid” is split between the Assembly and Senate, and each allocates its own set of grants.

Lawmakers use whatever criteria they want to decide which schools get money. “Bullet aid” distribution is not based on need or on the merit of a program. Rather, it is based on politics. This year’s budget allocated $42 million for the line item grants that make up bullet aid: $19 million for the Senate, and $23 million for the Assembly. The amount of money to be distributed is determined when the budget is passed and grantees are designated at a later date, according to Senate and Assembly resolutions.

Some school board members and school administrators noticed that their schools received little to no bullet aid from the Senate when it passed its “bullet aid” resolution on June 25th. So where did the aid go? Apparently quite a bit went not to schools, but to school “reformers”. The Center for Educational Innovation will receive two grants totaling a whopping $1,057,000. To put this amount into perspective, the highest grant awarded to a school district by the Senate this year was $150,000, with most school districts who received aid getting between $5 and $25,000. A grant in excess of a million dollars is startling. The only other group to receive such a generous windfall was Agudath Israel, which received “bullet aid” in the amount of $850,000. Indian River Central School District, the 2nd poorest district in NYS, received $29,000 in bullet aid, a paltry sum compared to the hundreds of thousands bestowed to the Center for Educational Innovation and Agudath Israel.

So who is the Center for Educational Innovation and how did they merit such a windfall? The Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) is a nonprofit education organization based in New York City. According to their website, CEI is “a recognized leader in advancing meaningful reforms in public education,” and provides services such as charter school design and development, restructuring of large schools into smaller learning communities, and turnaround support for low performing schools. CEI has a long history of receiving large, taxpayer funded grants. In 2007, CEI received a 10 million dollar grant from the United States Department of Education, and another in 2011 for 17.5 million dollars. Both grants were earmarked for establishing performance-based incentive programs for teachers, based on the very same tests that hundreds of thousands of New York Parents have rallied against.

Both CEI and Agudath Israel (along with many other reformer groups) have spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying the NYS legislature. According to CEI’s 2012 tax return, CEI “uses lobbying firms to meet on its behalf with NYS assembly and senate members to secure funding for special legislative grants.”

Each organization is also a member of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, a coalition of pro-privatization and “reform” groups responsible for an aggressive and expensive lobbying campaign in support of Governor Cuomo’s failed Invest in Education tax credit, which would have funneled millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools. David Zweib, executive vice president of Agudath Israel sits on the board of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, and during his tenure as a board member the organization has donated over $300,000 to individual members of the NYS Legislature. It should be noted that the Coalition’s largest donation in 2014 was to Senator Jeffrey Klein, followed by Senator Martin Golden and Senator John Flanagan, former chair of the senate education committee and now leader of the NYS senate.

Senator Klein, Senator Flanagan, and Senator Golden have also received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Coalition for Public Charter Schools NY and StudentsFirstNY. Perhaps it is not surprising then that the Senate “bullet aid” resolution sponsored by both Senator Flanagan and Senator Klein funneled almost 2 million taxpayer dollars away from public schools and towards pro-“reform” and pro-privatization groups.

Like members of the Senate, CEI maintains close ties to wealthy “reformers”. In November of 2013, CEI held a gala honoring James Simons, one of the top pro-privatization donors in the 2014 NYS elections, contributing approximately 3 million dollars to “reform”-friendly politicians including Senator Flanagan. NYS Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch was honored at the very same Gala.

Speaking of Chancellor Tisch, it would seem that education reform is a family affair. Ann Tisch, sister-in-law of Chancellor Tisch, sits on the board of million-dollar “bullet aid” recipient CEI while the Chancellor’s brother-in-law, Thomas Tisch, sits on the board of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education. Andrew Tisch, husband of CEI board member Ann Tisch, is a director of K12 Inc., a for-profit education company that sells curriculum and online learning software to state and local governments. According to their website, K12 Inc. considers itself a proud and active member of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Despite these connections, New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch is allowed to oversee the implementation of the testing program responsible for providing the data upon which all of these organizations feed. And in perhaps the most egregious example of privatization minded “reform”, Chancellor Tisch famously led the creation of the privately funded Regents Fellows, a think tank funded by wealthy donors that has been given tremendous power within the New York State Department of Education, with little to no public oversight.

Clearly, New York State is ground zero for the toxic combination of money, influence, questionable “charitable organizations,” and a Senate for sale.

The movement to privatize and corporatize public education is not driven by parents or those concerned with social justice (as many “reformers” would have us believe), but rather by a wealthy and connected network of education “reform” cronies with money to spend on lobbying and political donations. And while our public schools are starving, these privatization efforts are being fueled by taxpayer dollars. Hundreds of thousands of New York parents object to the high stakes test driven policies and “reform” efforts funded by the Senate and under these circumstances, the opt out movement will surely continue to grow.


Read the blog post that PARCC doesn’t want you to see — and then share it on your blogs!

Here is the critique of the 4th grade PARCC exam  by an anonymous teacher, as it originally appeared on Celia Oyler’s blog before she was threatened by PARCC and deleted key sections.  After people tweeted links to the blog, PARCC absurdly complained to Twitter that these tweets infringed on their copyright.

Via Leonie Haimson:

As an act of collective disobedience to the reigning testocracy, I urge all other fellow bloggers to paste the below critique and copy it into their blogs as well.

As the teacher points out below, “we can use these three PARCC prompts to glimpse how the high stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States. ”

No high-stakes test that is used to judge students, teachers and schools should be allowed to be kept secret to escape accountability for the test-makers — especially ones as flawed as these!

If you do repost this, please let me know by emailing me at leoniehaimson@gmail.com thanks!

The PARCC Test: Exposed

The author of this blog posting is a public school teacher who will remain anonymous.

I will not reveal my district or my role due to the intense legal ramifications for exercising my Constitutional First Amendment rights in a public forum. I was compelled to sign a security form that stated I would not be “Revealing or discussing passages or test items with anyone, including students and school staff, through verbal exchange, email, social media, or any other form of communication” as this would be considered a “Security Breach.” In response to this demand, I can only ask—whom are we protecting?

There are layers of not-so-subtle issues that need to be aired as a result of national and state testing policies that are dominating children’s lives in America. As any well prepared educator knows, curriculum planning and teaching requires knowing how you will assess your students and planning backwards from that knowledge. If teachers are unable to examine and discuss the summative assessment for their students, how can they plan their instruction? Yet, that very question assumes that this test is something worth planning for. The fact is that schools that try to plan their curriculum exclusively to prepare students for this test are ignoring the body of educational research that tells us how children learn, and how to create developmentally appropriate activities to engage students in the act of learning. This article will attempt to provide evidence for these claims as a snapshot of what is happening as a result of current policies.

The PARCC test is developmentally inappropriate

In order to discuss the claim that the PARCC test is “developmentally inappropriate,” examine three of the most recent PARCC 4th grade items.

A book leveling system, designed by Fountas and Pinnell, was made “more rigorous” in order to match the Common Core State Standards. These newly updated benchmarks state that 4th Graders should be reading at a Level S by the end of the year in order to be considered reading “on grade level.” [Celia’s note: I do not endorse leveling books or readers, nor do I think it appropriate that all 9 year olds should be reading a Level S book to be thought of as making good progress.]

The PARCC, which is supposedly a test of the Common Core State Standards, appears to have taken liberties with regard to grade level texts. For example, on the Spring 2016 PARCC for 4th Graders, students were expected to read an excerpt from Shark Life: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea by Peter Benchley and Karen Wojtyla. According to Scholastic, this text is at an interest level for Grades 9-12, and at a 7th Grade reading level. The Lexile measure is 1020L, which is most often found in texts that are written for middle school, and according to Scholastic’s own conversion chart would be equivalent to a 6th grade benchmark around W, X, or Y (using the same Fountas and Pinnell scale).

Even by the reform movement’s own standards, according to MetaMetrics’ reference material on Text Complexity Grade Bands and Lexile Bands, the newly CCSS aligned “Stretch” lexile level of 1020 falls in the 6-8 grade range. This begs the question, what is the purpose of standardizing text complexity bands if testing companies do not have to adhere to them? Also, what is the purpose of a standardized test that surpasses agreed-upon lexile levels?

So, right out of the gate, 4th graders are being asked to read and respond to texts that are two grade levels above the recommended benchmark. After they struggle through difficult texts with advanced vocabulary and nuanced sentence structures, they then have to answer multiple choice questions that are, by design, intended to distract students with answers that appear to be correct except for some technicality.

Finally, students must synthesize two or three of these advanced texts and compose an original essay. The ELA portion of the PARCC takes three days, and each day includes a new essay prompt based on multiple texts. These are the prompts from the 2016 Spring PARCC exam for 4th Graders along with my analysis of why these prompts do not reflect the true intention of the Common Core State Standards.

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #1

Refer to the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” and the poem “Mountains.” Then answer question 7.

  1. Think about how the structural elements in the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” differ from the structural elements in the poem “Mountains.”

Write an essay that explains the differences in the structural elements between the passage and the poem. Be sure to include specific examples from both texts to support your response.

The above prompt probably attempts to assess the Common Core standard RL.4.5: “Explain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.”

However, the Common Core State Standards for writing do not require students to write essays comparing the text structures of different genres. The Grade 4 CCSS for writing about reading demand that students write about characters, settings, and events in literature, or that they write about how authors support their points in informational texts. Nowhere in the standards are students asked to write comparative essays on the structures of writing. The reading standards ask students to “explain” structural elements, but not in writing. There is a huge developmental leap between explaining something and writing an analytical essay about it. [Celia’s note: The entire enterprise of analyzing text structures in elementary school – a 1940’s and 50’s college English approach called “New Criticism” — is ridiculous for 9 year olds anyway.]

The PARCC does not assess what it attempts to assess

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #2

Refer to the passages from “Great White Shark” and Face the Sharks. Then answer question 20.

 Using details and images in the passages from “Great White Sharks” and Face to Face with Sharks, write an essay that describes the characteristics of white sharks.

It would be a stretch to say that this question assesses CCSS W.4.9.B: “Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.”

In fact, this prompt assesses a student’s ability to research a topic across sources and write a research-based essay that synthesizes facts from both articles. Even CCSS W.4.7, “Conduct research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic,” does not demand that students compile information from different sources to create an essay. The closest the standards come to demanding this sort of work is in the reading standards; CCSS RI.4.9 says: “Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.” Fine. One could argue that this PARCC prompt assesses CCSS RI.4.9.

However, the fact that the texts presented for students to “use” for the essay are at a middle school reading level automatically disqualifies this essay prompt from being able to assess what it attempts to assess. (It is like trying to assess children’s math computational skills by embedding them in a word problem with words that the child cannot read.)

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #3

  1. In “Sadako’s Secret,” the narrator reveals Sadako’s thoughts and feelings while telling the story. The narrator also includes dialogue and actions between Sadako and her family. Using these details, write a story about what happens next year when Sadako tries out for the junior high track team. Include not only Sadako’s actions and feelings but also her family’s reaction and feelings in your story.

Nowhere, and I mean nowhere in the Common Core State Standards is there a demand for students to read a narrative and then use the details from that text to write a new story based on a prompt. That is a new pseudo-genre called “Prose Constructed Response” by the PARCC creators, and it is 100% not aligned to the CCSS. Not to mention, why are 4th Graders being asked to write about trying out for the junior high track team? This demand defies their experiences and asks them to imagine a scenario that is well beyond their scope.

Clearly, these questions are poorly designed assessments of 4th graders CCSS learning. (We are setting aside the disagreements we have with those standards in the first place, and simply assessing the PARCC on its utility for measuring what it was intended to measure.)

Rather than debate the CCSS we instead want to expose the tragic reality of the countless public schools organizing their entire instruction around trying to raise students’ PARCC scores.

Without naming any names, I can tell you that schools are disregarding research-proven methods of literacy learning. The “wisdom” coming “down the pipeline” is that children need to be exposed to more complex texts because that is what PARCC demands of them. So children are being denied independent and guided reading time with texts of high interest and potential access and instead are handed texts that are much too hard (frustration level) all year long without ever being given the chance to grow as readers in their Zone of Proximal Development (pardon my reference to those pesky educational researchers like Vygotsky.)

So not only are students who are reading “on grade level” going to be frustrated by these so-called “complex texts,” but newcomers to the U.S. and English Language Learners and any student reading below the proficiency line will never learn the foundational skills they need, will never know the enjoyment of reading and writing from intrinsic motivation, and will, sadly, be denied the opportunity to become a critical reader and writer of media. Critical literacies are foundational for active participation in a democracy.

We can look carefully at one sample to examine the health of the entire system– such as testing a drop of water to assess the ocean. So too, we can use these three PARCC prompts to glimpse how the high stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States.

In this sample, the system is pathetically failing a generation of children who deserve better, and when they are adults, they may not have the skills needed to engage as citizens and problem-solvers. So it is up to us, those of us who remember a better way and can imagine a way out, to make the case for stopping standardized tests like PARCC from corrupting the educational opportunities of so many of our children.

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Failed Tests and New York’s Looming Graduation Crisis

Bianca Tanis, Founding Member, New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE);Michael Lillis, President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers; and Michael O’Donnell, Trustee, New Paltz Central School District Board of Education

(This article reflects the views of the authors and does not construe an official position of the New Paltz Central School District Board of Education.)


The New York State Common Core tests are almost upon us and promises of sweeping changes to NYS tests and standards are rampant. The NYS Education Department is urging parents to opt back in and the media has reported that education officials are “bending over backwards” to address the concerns of parents and educators.

While the State has made some minor changes to this year’s tests (and promises more in the future), the fact remains that young children will still be subjected to reading passages years above grade level, test questions with more than one plausible answer, tests that are too long, waste valuable resources, and worst of all, tests that engender feelings of frustration, failure, angst, and confusion in our youngest learners.

Manufactured Crisis

Claims that untimed tests will alleviate stress on children are unfounded and misleading to parents. Giving a child more time to struggle with an inappropriate test rather than just fixing the flawed system is misguided and will create a logistical nightmare for the schools forced to accommodate this band-aid solution. Teachers will be pulled from classrooms to monitor student conversations during lunch breaks to ensure that 8-, 9-, and 10-year old students are not talking about the tests. At a time when our schools are being starved of funding, this is a gross and needless misallocation of resources.

In fact, very little has changed for children, and these damaging tests continue to threaten our children now and into the future.  How much damage?  A quarter million students are being labeled, annually, as failures.  The transition to “college-ready” graduation requirements in 2022 will result in the loss of more than 100,000 graduates per year.  Use this calculator to assess the impact on your school district: http://tiny.cc/DistrictCCR.

Unless we demand an immediate paradigm shift, many students will not only be labeled failures at 8-, 9-, and 10-years old, they will not graduate. We are not just talking about struggling students and students with special needs facing a graduation crisis.

New York has touted its testing program in grades 3-8 as a means of predicting whether or not a child is on track to be ready for career and college. However, NYS’s attempts to align test scores with a college readiness benchmark have been rife with problems and volatility. Subsequently, the use of these flawed benchmarks to determine who is proficient and who is not and  who will and will not obtain the necessary “college ready” test scores to earn a diploma jeopardizes the future of hundreds of thousands of students in NYS. Despite promises of sweeping change, the Governor’s Common Core Task Force completely ignored these deeply flawed college and career benchmarks, which must be met by all students to graduate starting in 2022.

Why are we here?

The most compelling justification for the State’s implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards and CC tests aligned to a state benchmark for college readiness has been data indicating the numbers of students that enter 2- and 4-year colleges and subsequently require remedial coursework.  From the Common Core Task Force Report, “According to The State University of New York, each year about 50 percent of first-year students at two-year colleges and 20 percent of those entering four-year universities require basic developmental courses before they can begin credit-bearing coursework”.  

This is a  significant point and clearly more needs to be done to help these students both before and after entering college to help guarantee their success.  But using these data to assert claims of a public education crisis and to justify the current state testing regime has several major problems.

  • The majority of the two year schools are community colleges, which are non-competitive in their admissions.  Many of these students are already identified during K-12 instruction as needing remediation, and schools should be given resources to continue these efforts. Many educators have argued that a focus on testing and test-driven instruction makes it more difficult to meet the needs of struggling learners and may actually result in more students requiring remediation post high school.
  • There are no standard assessments or criteria used to determine which require remediation upon entering college.  Several studies have found placement exams to be poor indicators of college readiness.
  • There is a financial incentive for colleges in placing students in remediation and financial incentives for the corporations that create the placement exams.
  • The SUNY system only represents 42% of New York’s college population.
  • These figures ignore Independent Universities which make up one third of the collegiate population and have a very low remediation rate of 5.6%.

In addition to claiming that large numbers of students are leaving high school unprepared for college, New York State has made the claim that CC aligned grades 3-8 Common Core assessments are valid indicators of college and career readiness. Considering the sweeping judgements and policy decisions that are made based on these test scores, it is critical that this claim is scrutinized.


In 2013 New York contracted with the College Board, producers of the SAT, to develop a metric that could be used to identify student readiness for college.  This number would set the thresholds for proficiency on all Math and ELA tests down through third grade.  The College Board, based on SED’s guidance, determined a student would need the following scores on their SAT in order to be considered “college ready.”

Critical Reading 560
Writing 530
Math 540
Total 1630

A score of a 1630 on the SAT is in the 66th percentile, which means that only 34% of test takers attain this score or higher.  The College Board uses a score of 1550 for its own benchmark, a score in the 57th percentile.  

This process should have raised concerns, as it reduces something as complex as whether or not a student is ready for college down to a single test score.  Were it this easy, no school would have an admissions office – a computer could make admissions decisions.  

Using a single benchmark aligned with the SAT for all students presents a significant problem. All but the most severely handicapped students take the NY state tests, but only students that have self-identified as going to competitive colleges take the SAT.  If you plan on going to a community college, no SAT is required. So New York expects all but its most severely handicapped students to be doing as well as the top 34% of college bound students nationally.  In fact, the graduation requirements for the class of 2022 (current 6th graders) will deny a diploma to any student not meeting this benchmark, or, in other words, doing as well as the top 34% of college bound students nationally.  

We must also ask the question, is the SAT good enough at predicting success in college that New York should use it, exclusively, to benchmark its tests?   A 2014 study looked at 33 colleges that had SAT- and ACT-optional admissions policies.This study looked at 123,000 students and found that there is no meaningful difference in these two populations in terms of college graduation rates and grade point average. Those who did not submit SAT scores were more likely to be the first in their family to attend college, female, a Pell grant recipient, or a person of color. These individuals represent some of our most vulnerable student populations – they are the least likely to overcome the damage of being labeled unprepared for college based on a test score. Yet these students are just as likely to be successful in college when we consider other, more valid and predictive indicators of post high school success.

We also know that SAT scores are very closely tied to income.  A student who scores a 1630 on the SATs likely comes from a home with an income upwards of $160,000. We also know that SAT scores are a relatively weak indicator of student success in college – high school grades and success in higher level math courses are much better predictors of college performance. But despite the evidence, NYS has chosen to hang its hat on a weak indicator that is known to favor students who come from affluent, college-educated families. By correlating success with a measure that favors privileged students, are we reinforcing the existing class structure and promoting a biased instrument that does more harm than good?

Proficiency vs Home Value

Aligning the NYS college-readiness benchmark with a norm-referenced test like the SAT also ensures that many New York State students will be labeled failures. Norm-referenced tests compare test-takers to other test-takers and rank them by performance. On a norm-referenced test there must be test takers whose performance is considered below average, average, and above average – even when all test takers have demonstrated mastery on a given skill. These tests are intended to stratify students along a predetermined distribution and will always yield below-average scores for a substantial population of test-takers.

Criterion-referenced tests are tests that measure a student’s performance in terms of a specific set of skills or content. The Common Core State Standards are descriptions of specific skills, and, therefore, it would have made more sense for the state to have chosen a criterion based system of 3-8 Math and ELA assessments.  All students should have the ability to demonstrate proficiency independent of the performance of others in their cohort. The use of a norm-referenced test is highly questionable.

The Achievement Gap

While the SAT-based college-readiness benchmark created by New York does not correlate with the actual experience of New York’s students, it does appear to have a disproportionately negative impact on our non-white students.  Rather than helping to close the achievement gap, it is making the gap larger.

Proficiency vs Ethnicity and Economics

In 2012, 13% of economically disadvantaged students scored a 1 on the grades 3-8 assessments. In 2013, this number ballooned to 44% with the introduction of the CC aligned assessments and NYS college-readiness proficiency benchmarks . In the course of one year, we more than tripled the number of students living in poverty who were deemed “Below Standard.”

Vulnerable Populations below Standard

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of non-white students who scored a level 1 on the 3-8 assessments rose from 12% to 41%. The number of white students who scored a 1 grew from 5% to 23%.  From 2010-12 white students in the richest districts had partial proficiency (score: 2+) rates 22 percentage points higher than non-white students in the poorest districts.  With the advent of the new Common Core assessments that gap has more than doubled to 54 percentage points.  It is disturbing that rather than remaining constant over time, the rate of failure for students of color grew disproportionately larger than white students.

Income vs Below Standard

Rhetoric vs. Reality

We know that NYS CC tests aligned with this benchmark yield data that do not correlate with what we know about the post-secondary success of NYS students and even more importantly, disproportionately labels vulnerable students as failures. To date there has been no evidence to indicate that these assessments actually hold any predictive value yet they continue to be used to make graduation determinations and to judge the efficacy of our schools and teachers.

When we compare the actual readiness data – 51.6% based on non-remediated college enrollment – with the results of the state assessments, we find that NY is falsely labeling 240,000 students annually.  The parents of these students will receive a letter from State Ed explaining how their son or daughter is not on track to be ready for a college or a career, when if compared to historic trends, we know they are.  The prospect of incorrectly labeling a child (or 240,000 children) not college- and career-ready from third grade through twelfth, then denying them a diploma, has very serious implications.  To see the effect on your district, click here: http://tiny.cc/DistrictCCR.

False Picture of Readiness

These contradictory data are not simply academic; there is real damage being done to children as a result.  The Class of 2022 (current 6th grade) will need to pass Regents exams at these new, artificially elevated thresholds that align with the NYS definition of college readiness.  Graduation rates will plummet from 78% to approx. 26%, resulting in the loss of 110,000 high school graduates, 50,000 of which were fully prepared for college success.


It is telling that the Governor’s Common Core Task Force completely skirted the issue of the test benchmarks.  The Governor and Commissioner of Education have made much of their efforts to improve the State’s tests, but in reality, the 21 recommendations cannot meaningfully address the manufactured proficiency crisis New York students face.  In standardized testing, the benchmarking process is the key to all outcomes.  None of the Task Force’s 21 recommendations require State Ed to develop a new college and career readiness benchmark, so we can be sure the future tests will be producing the same flawed results.  Whether the tests are Questar or Pearson, created by teachers or non-teachers, shorter or longer, they will ultimately produce the same results for our students.

The outlook created by the CC aligned tests in grades 3-8 assessments is bleak. But it is important to remember that other measures for college readiness, including non-remediation, 2nd year persistence, non-remediation and persistence in combination, college graduation rates, the NAEP, and SAT and ACT benchmarks for college-readiness – all paint a better picture.

Until New York State revises its flawed college readiness benchmarks, there is no escape from pending graduation requirements that will deny thousands of students a diploma. 21% of proficient children, statewide, are being falsely told they are not at “grade level” and will not be ready for college. Will your child fall into the pool of children? Can you wait to find out? Refusing the NYS tests in grades 3-8 remains the most effective tool for demanding change and ensuring that ALL children have the opportunity to graduate and experience success.

If we acquiesce to these fundamentally flawed tests, our children will pay the price now and they will pay the price later.

The NYS Common Core Task Force Report Taken to Task


Some have made the case that Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force Report conveys sweeping recommendations, and that once these recommendations are  implemented by the Board of Regents we will see substantial change in New York’s public education system. This is a pipe dream. A sample of quotes from the Common Core Task Force Report reveal just how far off the mark the report is in addressing the concerns of parents and educators. It creates more smoke and mirrors than change.

“By giving great weight to the foundational skills required in today’s job market, education advocates believe that the Standards have the potential to begin to close the performance gaps that exist largely based on socio-economic differences.”

The Task Force Report does nothing to address the difficulties faced by under-resourced schools that have been labeled “failures” (based on flawed and socio-economically biased test scores). There is no evidence that high standards alone can close the achievement gap, or that arbitrarily more difficult standards without equitable school funding will have any positive effect. It is time to examine the impact of poverty on student learning rather than push experimental standards as a cure-all.

“The Kindergarten Standards could be revised……to provide pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers with the flexibility to differentiate instruction for students whose brains are rapidly developing.”

Standards are a progression. Each grade level set of standards is built on the ones from the grade before. While is it laudable that that the Task Force Report recommends revising the grossly inappropriate Common Core kindergarten reading standards, this will require a shift in every subsequent grade level reading benchmark as well.

“We know that students develop at different rates, and we want to ensure that teachers can differentiate and individualize instruction given to our youngest [kindergarten] students that is developmentally appropriate for each individual child— not linked solely to the child’s age.”

At what age is it appropriate to disregard the fact that all children develop at different rates? At what age is it OK to deny children developmentally appropriate instruction? Recommending changes to meet the needs of some children and not others conveys an unwillingness to create meaningful change, as well as a disregard for a research-based approach to elementary education.

“New York State was recently highlighted by the United States Department of Education as being a leader and model for other States in reducing the amount of time spent on testing, including the administration of local assessments.”  

By boasting of New York’s past performance in reducing time spent on testing, the Task Force Report reveals that Task Force members have completely missed the point.

A 2015 study conducted by KT Tobin and Robin Jacobowitz of The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz found that:

“The time for 3-8 testing in NYS, including the test itself and the fixed costs consume approximately 2 percent of the “required annual instructional hours.” This exceeds and is already double the 1 percent standard that was passed by the legislature.”

New York state’s 2014 ban on standardized testing for students in grades K-2 is a similar farce. These banned tests (including NWEA, Aimsweb, Star, and any multiple choice test) are actually permissible if they are for “diagnostic or formative purposes.” Since ANY assessment used for teacher evaluations can also be claimed as diagnostic and/or formative, there really is no ban on subjecting 5,6, and 7 year olds to inappropriate testing. In fact, NYSED lists several K-2 standardized tests as approved assessments for use in teacher evaluations.

Bubble tests

“The new standards must help prepare students for a future that requires workplace and analytic skills, reading non-fiction, and new learning in technology applications. However, the standards must guide curriculum to fulfill these needs while still allowing for other texts that focus on creativity and cultural competency.”

Despite an overwhelming outcry against the prescribed ratio of nonfiction to fiction found in the Common Core, the Task Force Report doubles down on the practice of foisting informational texts on young children with the notion that they will need to read similar texts as adults. Any parent or educator would argue that developing a love of reading and a love of learning trumps all, and furthermore that this is developed by allowing children to select texts based on their interests. Creativity and cultural competency should not merely be “allowed” for young learners; it should be the focus of instruction.

It should be noted here that the Task Force Report fails to address any of the significant parents and educator concerns regarding the appropriateness of the Common Core math standards. Here is an example from Engage NY of an expected response on a 2nd grade Common Core math assessment.

math explanation


“(the problem with) Kindergarten Standards is that they fail to include all of the domains of the Pre-Kindergarten Standards such as social and emotional development or approaches to learning….As part of its review, the State should work to incorporate these components into the Kindergarten Standards to encourage curiosity and creativity in our youngest students.”

Teachers do not need standards to encourage curiosity and creativity in their students. A focus on social and emotional development is just as important in 4th grade as it is in kindergarten. At what age is it appropriate to stop educating the whole child? Never. If we do not emphasize social and emotional competencies at every grade level, our children will emerge from school lacking the empathy, self-esteem, and collaborative abilities that they will need to be successful in life.

“Parents repeatedly raised concern over the third grade test being longer than the Regents exams.”

“The annual 3-8 ELA and Mathematics exams are too long….in some elementary-level schools students take between 360 and 540 minutes of tests whereas the SAT is only 225 minutes.”

“New York should follow the pattern set by these states (Texas, New Mexico, North Carolina) and shorten both the number of days and duration of testing sessions for all students in grades 3-8. The State should also formally study whether to further reduce the number of test days and duration of testing sessions for students in grades 3-5.”

North Carolina, Texas, and New Mexico are hardly positive role models for reduction in testing. In North Carolina, testing has been “reduced” to a 1 day, 3-4 hour exam. In Texas, testing has been capped so that the average student sits for 120 minutes of testing with no administration lasting more than 8 hours. And in New Mexico, testing has been reduced by a paltry 15%. In New York, that would reduce 9 hours of testing for 10 year olds to 7.5 hours. For a 5th grade student with special needs, a testing reduction from 18 hours to 15 hours is hardly a relief. The recommendation for yet another  formal study to determine if it is appropriate for children to take tests that rival the SATs in length is ridiculous, and will only delay a significant reduction in testing.

“The State must draft new standards that recognize the balance between encouraging the development of the whole child while maximizing instructional time in school.”

The Task Force Report does an excellent job providing significant evidence that the past three years have been spent focused on harmful and flawed assessments at the expense of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, their recommendations will only lead to superficial change.

How many children will be able to recapture the joy of learning? After three years of ignoring the needs of the child, New York State must focus on restoring the health and wellbeing of our children and our schools, with no “balance” required.

In short, there are no recommendations contained within the task force report that will change the experience of children asked to sit for inappropriate, flawed tests this spring, or that of their teachers, who will continue to be evaluated by test scores (albeit different tests). Without real change, test prep will remain the norm, the curriculum will continue to narrow, schools and students will be labeled failures, and our children will be denied the education they deserve.