Wednesday, April 22, 2015


I have very mixed feelings on the round of Common Core testing that my kids took last week, and will continue to take tomorrow. We came very close to opting out.

Really close.

But we didn't. A few nights ago there was a segment on the testing on a show called "All In with Chris Hayes." The segment featured Diane Ravitch (an educator and very well spoken critic of these tests) and Merryl Tisch (the head of the NYS Board of Regents and I suppose an educator too). When given the opportunity to speak, Ravitch was basically shredding the tests, and Tisch was rambling and calling the tests a "diagnostic tool" comparing them to height and weight percentiles during a pediatric visit. This defense of the tests makes no sense to me because do you really care what height and weight percentiles your kid is in?  Do you honestly give a shit if your baby's head circumference is in the 74th or 88th percentile? I just need the doctor to say, "Everything looks good." Tisch closed by saying the kids being opted out were caught in a labor dispute. There's a little truth to that, but does she really think that the head of the teacher's union has enough pull to get this kind of reaction? I don't.

I think most people chose to opt out because they believe it is in the best interest of their kids to skip the test for a variety of reasons. Mainly, a basic disagreement in education philosophy. Ever hear two kids discuss a correct constructed response?  No topic, just the proper form of a response. I have, and it's a little disturbing. Add in these tests are unproven to produce meaningful results, the tests appear to be generally flawed, there are many examples of questions not suited for the targeted grade level, unnecessary stress...the list could easily continue before you get down to labor dispute.

One common complaint about these tests is that may questions are not age appropriate. I don't have a background in education, so I'm not a good judge of what words a 5th grader should or shouldn't know. The internet is filled with so much stuff, it's hard to tell what's true. Especially in an issue like this where emotions are running pretty high. I saw a link to a blog highlighting a number of reasons why these tests are useless, all from anonymous sources which is sadly necessary because no one is allowed to talk about the content of the test. This quote is from the middle of the post:

"As far as developmentally inappropriate goes, besides the actual length of the test, the word "acrid" was in one passage, and one of the multiple choice questions required students to choose a definition for it. How many adults know what "acrid" means, even with context clues?"

I asked my 5th grade daughter.  This is true. This was on the test. She didn't know what acrid meant. She didn't remember much about the context or which answer she put down. I asked the next two adults I saw if they knew the definition of acrid. They didn't.

So do you know what acrid means?
Would you expect a 10 year old to know?

How about these examples (taken from a Washington Post article)? I don't have 8th or 6th grade kids so I can't confirm them, but I bet they are accurate.

A reading passage from the 8th grade test included this from a New York Times article:
"Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology."

I hate it when I'm harmed by mostly harmless injuries. My psychopathology levels go through the roof. Paradoxically speaking, of course.

One from the 6th grade test:
As a result, the location of the cloud is an important aspect, as it is the setting for his creation and part of the artwork.  In his favorite piece, Nimbus D’Aspremont, the architecture of the D’Aspremont-Lynden Castle in Rekem, Belgium, plays a significant role in the feel of the picture. “The contrast between the original castle and its former use as a military hospital and mental institution is still visible,” he writes. “You could say the spaces function as a plinth for the work.” 

No one should have to read that, not even the author's mother. But I suppose all 6th graders would agree that the spaces obviously are quite an excellent plinth, if they had access to a computer and could Google "plinth definition." I just did...but I didn't have to look up acrid. So I can pass 5th grade, but not 6th.

Yes, these may be extreme examples. But someone was supposed to spend a lot of time developing a good test. Not most of the test. All of the test. After seeing these examples, how can I or any other parent have confidence in these test developers? Did any one at the Board of Regents preview this? Were they allowed to see it and comment? Am I an idiot for not knowing what "plinth" means?

Politicians and the Board of Regents are kidding themselves if they think children don't feel the stress of these Common Core tests. There is definitely pressure. And that pressure looks to be self imposed to me. Think I'm full of it? Then I wish you were at our house last Saturday night at bedtime while my 9 year old 3rd grader was sobbing out of fear that she wasn't going to do well and her teacher (that she adores) was going to get fired. I know for a fact she isn't the only kid with that fear, including kids in other districts.

Here's an actual conversation from a car ride earlier today. I was driving a handful of Girl Scouts to a troop event.

My Wife: How's it going, girls?
5th Grader: Terrible.
My Wife: What's terrible?
5th Grader: The testing starts again tomorrow.
Other 5th Grader: At least it's math. Math will be better than the English.

The only positive takeaway from this is that some 5th grade girls appear to like math - the subject, not the common core test. And I hope the math test is better. I'm not sure it will be. If the English section is a preview, there may be some alternate interior angle geometry questions on the 3rd grade test.

I'm not sure what we will do next year opting out-wise. As a parent of school aged children, I don't approve of the direction the Governor and Board of Regents are going. While I think these Common Core tests actually started with good intentions, I believe they have devolved into a money grab. I think the State is paying $39 million to Pearson for this round of tests. Next year, give me $20 million, skip the testing completely and I'll supply the Board of Regents with a shit-ton of meaningless numbers. Hell, I'll even throw in a really nice plinth.


  1. Given all this I am wondering why you did not opt out.

  2. I guess I'm also wondering why you didn't opt out. Perhaps there's more at play here :

    ...what do the students do when not test-taking? ...would there be social blow-back from other kids / teachers if your kid opts out? many other kids opt out? any avenue for discussion amongst local PTA? ...etc

    Can you elaborate on why you chose to "opt in"?

  3. That’s a really good question, and one we have asked ourselves several times since the testing began.

    Before making the decision, we reached out to a lot of other parents we know and respect for their thoughts on the testing. The majority was planning to have their kids take the test and it was becoming pretty clear that there weren’t going to West Seneca Falls opting out numbers (70% opt out rate) in our two classrooms. It would have been a protest vote, but not a very significant one that anyone in the position to do anything would have heard nor would it impact the teacher evaluations.

    My older daughter had taken and passed the test already. She wasn’t really concerned about the test, the results or any consequences for her teachers. The test is a nuisance to her. She was confident (and we’re confident in her too) that she was going to do well on the test.

    If my younger daughter had already taken the test, the chances of us opting out would have been better. It kind of turned into a confidence building/face your fear head on/just do your best kind of thing. After the first day of testing, she knew she could do it. She came home quite pleased that she finished, checked everything over again and still had time to spare. Day 2 she had less time leftover, but still finished and Day 3 was like Day 1. The test has become just a nuisance to her too.

    We really like the elementary school our kids attend. About 18 months ago we moved. The search radius for a house was pretty small. It had to be within the boundaries of this particular elementary school. The only thing the move impacted in terms of schooling was the bus route. Part of our opting decision actually did turn out to be labor dispute, but the opposite of what Tisch was arguing. NYSUT has nothing to do with it. We are very confident that both of our kids are going to pass this test or beat the average or be on the high end of some scale that has yet to be determined. So we opted-in to help their teachers and the school we love score well. I don’t think those scores will prove anything about the high quality of our teachers. If someone in State Ed needs a number that says these teachers are good, we’re confident our kids can help supply that number.

    The other part of the decision was a life lesson. You can’t always take your ball and go home. There are always going to be tests. There are always going to be hoops to jump through. Sometimes you’ve got to suck it up. Doing well on the SATs doesn’t mean you’re going to do well in college. It just means you know how to take the SATs - which I would argue is another stupid test. We tried to help avoid this situation completely with our votes. I urged people to vote for Teachout in the primary. I will always remind people that Cuomo was too big of a chicken to debate her - although I understand his reluctance, since she would have embarrassed him in a debate. I voted against the governor (which was the first time I ever pulled a Republican lever for a big elected position). I’ll vote against people that support these education policies in the future. If I write my Assemblyman or State Senator, it would be to thank them because they both voted No on the budget. We didn’t win. So here we are.

    The only gain we saw in opting out would have been sparing my kids some nonsense. Nonsense they are going to have to deal with throughout their lives. They’re done with Day 1 of the Math now. Just a few more hours of testing to go. Then on Saturday we’re going to go on a soft serve ice cream tour and eat pizza.

  4. I see other gains besides sparing your kids. The testing regime is ill-conceived and poorly executed--a house of cards. Though the tests may be minimally stressful for your academically capable children, and they will get ice cream and pizza, there is more to the story than the effect on individual children. the tests are inappropriate for the purposes they are being used for; poorly designed and carelessly crafted; insufficiently validated; and psychometrically questionable. The only weapon available to parents is to opt out so the structure will not be viable.

  5. Anonymous- I agree with most of what you say. As of today, the test scores are going to be used to evaluate teachers in areas without large enough opt-out numbers to impact the results. I am in one of those areas.

    In my older daughter's 5th grade class, no children opted out. In my younger daughter's 3rd grade class, 1 child opted out. In the eyes of the powers that be, that level of opting out - even if my kids were added - is statistically unimportant. These test scores - which I agree "are inappropriate for the purposes they are being used for; poorly designed and carelessly crafted; insufficiently validated; and psychometrically questionable" - will matter to our teachers.

    I don't know what the future holds. I don't know if will opt out my kids next year. I don't know if the tests will even be given next year. But as I sit here typing right now, I think we made the right decision.