The Two-Straw Grasp

by Martin Harris

If you’ve become despairing of evidence that the public-education establishment is at all amenable to public evaluation, even though it seems to have grown so entrenched as to shrug off such user- and payer-critique, you might take heart from a pair of straws seen floating in the informational winds recently. One comes, remarkably, from a politically-blue city (the “Big Apple” ) in a blue State (New York) and involves the latest trendy-thing in a now-near-collapse but once taken-for-granted basic objective –student Proficiency– ; and the other comes from a politically-red city (Knoxville) in a red State (Tennessee) and involves one of the earliest trendy-things invented a half-century ago to fix even-then-visible K-12 ills –by going into pre-K–; and both are now getting a bit of deserved oversight. In NYC, students have just taken, and mostly failed, the Proficiency tests required under the new Common Core State Standards ; in Knoxville, a local pol has just read through the latest academic study of pre-K productivity and has openly declared that there isn’t any. What will happen next –whether these two current events will be treated as dismissively as their very similar predecessors were, we shall see. The historical odds are that they will, but that’s what straw-grasping was invented to change.

Maybe the odds have already begun to shift, which would explain why the Grey Lady of 43rd Street chose to editorialize in favor of the now-widely-adopted Common Core curriculum design, even though these first test results have been quite negative compared, by New York Times editorial writers, to earlier results “when State tests were easier”. Frequent earlier columns in this space have attempted to publicize the “easier-tests” phenomenon, which erupted not in the late 60’s when nationwide Federal achievement tests were first put in place, but after 2001, and the adoption of No Child Left Behind, when, for the first time, the National Assessment of Educational Progress test results were widely publicized. The response from the public education establishment then was to purchase, use, and publicize the results from newly-bought single-State (exception: three of the six New England States have bought into the “New England Comprehensive Assessment Program) tests which not only produced seemingly higher test scores from the same students who had mostly flunked NAEP, but also made State-by-State and State-to-national comparisons impossible. If the NYT op-ed page is any leading indicator, New York schools won’t, this time, simply avoid publicizing the Common Core tests (which, interestingly, produce about the same non-Proficient percentages, in the 60% range, for Reading and Math as the NAEP’s have been producing, un-noticed, for the decades since 1969) and buy for positive-publicity purposes an easier set of tests from some eager-to-please vendor like McGraw-Hill or Harcourt. They’ll (more precisely, the New York State Education Department will) be faced with a more politically-difficult trio of choices: bring the grade-schoolers up to achievement levels, just as was typically done with huge waves of impoverished-immigrant children in the early 20th century; or, find some other reason to discredit the Common Core so as to discredit the poor student-achievement levels its tests expose; or restore the once-prevalent literacy-numeracy focus of the typical classroom, together with restoring classroom discipline and ending social promotion, a painful process which would doubtless take a decade to construct. Attempts to discredit Common Core have already begun in other States: consider Vermont, where teacher and occasional ed-critic Peter Berger has written pejoratively about test-grader subjectivity in Common Core scoring.

If Common Core (and its revelatory testing) survive, these first NYC tests may eventually produce, in instructional-productivity gains; that’s exactly, what the NAEP’s failed, because of systemic negative response from all 50 State Ed Departments and, indeed, almost the entire public-ed bureaucracy, to bring about. That would be a positive straw-in-the-wind, rather like the negative one seemingly suggested by the latest in a series of studies of productivity in the now-half-century-old “Head Start” pre-K initiative of the Johnson “Great Society” Administration, in which the public school system would make up for, with “Essential Early Education” for 3- to 5-year-olds, the preparation-for-school once (but no longer, in some demographics) the usually-accomplished parental responsibility. The negative report from Vanderbilt University on its long-range study of pre-K –no measurable achievement difference between pre-K enrollees and similar socio-economic-status non-enrollees by Grade 3– contains no findings different from those of a host of earlier studies, some described in these column-inches; but the positive straw-in-the wind may be that, for the first time, a State legislator has openly cited the study in his call for further studies of, and curriculum-design alternatives for, the State’s pre-K program before it’s once again given its substantial budget ($86 million and growing). The legislator is William Dunn, and it’s indicative that he has spoken up on a subject so fraught with political risk that even the in-State conservative think-tank, the Beacon Center, has maintained a careful avoidance distance; as have Guv William Haslam, Ed Comm Kevin Huffmann, and other major figures in the Nashville governocracy.

Whether any such evaluation of Head Start will make a difference, we shall see; whether testing and scoring for Common Core will go as deceptively (by design) as it did for No Child Left Behind, with the widespread adoption of easier State tests (like NSRE and the NECAP in Vermont, and TCAP in Tennessee) we don’t yet know, but the warning signs are there: Common Core States can score with any mix of “Smarter Balance” and any preferred State test, and in addition, can use something called PARCC: “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.” With that mix, just as before, any level of “excellence” can be found and any indicator of State-to-State productivity comparisons can’t. Clever.