Common Core Assessments and the New SAT—Remarketing Inequality

I have been tutoring students on a regular basis for almost 30 years. I started tutoring students for various standardized tests in order to earn some extra money. The main reason was my discovery in the mid-1980s that diapers, formula, baby clothes, and regular doctor visits cost a lot. I started tutoring for the verbal parts PSAT, SAT, ACT, SSAT, COOP and SHSAT at that time and soon discovered that every one of these tests require students mastering pretty much the same strategies. In addition, I also discovered early on that the students who do poorly on these tests have pretty much the same deficits. Either they have weaknesses in language and vocabulary or they have difficulty decoding written text.

Let us talk about language and vocabulary. Language problems are often due to a variety of factors. One factor may be that the student has a language-based learning disability which makes it difficult for such children to process written or spoken language. Many have trouble understanding vocabulary concepts as well as classifying or categorizing information. Often these students have difficulty with abstract concepts and often understand information very concretely. How this shows up on a high school level would be a student having to prove some concept using a literary quote. Recently, I tutored a student who was reading the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He had to find a quote related to “social status” issues and then come up with a discussion question related to the concept. The problem my student had is that he had no idea what was meant by “social status.” As a result, he could not find an appropriate quote or come up with a discussion question. Obviously, I had to teach him what was meant by social status—especially in regards to role expectations of women and blacks during the 1930s in the southern United States. Next, we have those students whose language problems stem from deficits in executive functioning. As states by the National Center for Learning Disabilities this problem makes

activities like planning, organizing, strategizing, remembering details and managing time and space difficult. Problems with executive function—a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action—can be seen at any age and often contribute to the challenges individuals with LD face in academic learning.

To put it more simply, it is the child whose brain is liked a turned-over filing cabinet. They are asked to retrieve and make sense of a piece of information, but they do not even know where to start to even find it. Often these children are very bright or have other conditions that impact the problem, such as ADHD.

Then we have the type of language issues related to ELL status. Imagine a student immigrating to America when they are just beginning high school age and now have to take the SAT. It is common knowledge that research shows it takes 5-7 years at that age to develop the type of rich academic English vocabulary to master any test that is vocabulary intensive. Even student who are born in the United States to parents that speak a second language—even professional parents—often have what I call language lags in English. In the last ten years, I have tutored American born children of Russian immigrants. Often these students have weaknesses in comprehension and written expression because there are gaps in their English vocabulary, grammar and spelling. Strikingly, these are students who have parents who have professional occupations, such as dentists, doctors, and engineers. The younger I start working with these students, the easier it is to get these students to achieve academically by the time they reach middle and high school age.

Next, there is the child who has difficulty decoding fluently complex text. These students have phonological deficits that interfere with their ability to break the code—especially when dealing with nonphonetic and multisyllable words. When I start working with high school students who takes a very long time reading text, I have them start to read aloud. Not surprisingly, they cannot decode 10 to 20 percent of the text. I recall one student who could not decode any words that contained silent vowel letters or digraphs. When I told the parents that he really could not decode much beyond the third grade level, they appeared surprised. Imagine this student trying to read an excerpt from some scientific text written on the college level.

Finally, we have the issue of poverty. Poverty is like placing a giant magnifying glass on all the above issues. Not only does it make each problem bigger, it creates a fire that destroys any hope of any of the above issues ever being solved. Conversely, if a student comes from a family that has means, many of the above problems I mentioned can be solved. For example, I started with one student when he was 7 years old. He had problems in language processing, pragmatic language, and executive functioning. Now he is a successful high school student who has a B+ average. Yes, he still needs some help, but he has overcome many of his problems. Another student was born with delayed speech and significant sensory integration problems. After early intervention services, he received speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and academic help from me. Two years of intensive tutoring enabled him to receive a decent score on the ACT and even receive a partial scholarship to a four year college. When a student comes from a family with money, most mild learning problems can be mitigated. The families I worked with were able to afford years private tutoring by an experienced professional in addition to any services provided by their schools. Furthermore, all these parents are sophisticated and were able to hire advocacy services to make sure that the schools gave their children all they were entitled to. By the way, these students either went to or go to suburban public schools that provide a rich education as well as interesting extra-curricular activities. Both their schools do not emphasize test prep or a narrowing of the curriculum for the sake of passing our state’s Common Core ELA and math assessments.

On the other hand, those students in poverty cannot afford the extra help that these middle class students have gotten. They cannot buy my services or the services of any credentialed tutor. Interestingly, an educational director of a charter school said to me at an IEP meeting that I was selfish because I only helped students for money. I should give away my services for free to kids in poverty. I then said that I will do that when the head of charter he worked for, no longer take a salary and that all the school’s hedge fund investors put their profits back into the school for the sake of these poor children. Obviously, there was no answer. But I digress.

The central point I am trying to make is that the Common Core is nothing more than a smoke screen hiding the real issues—poverty and the lack of real supplementary education services.. Here we have a curriculum that is vocabulary intensive, requires students to decode above their grade or developmental levels, and focuses more on the structure of text than the ideas presented in literature or informational text. At the elementary and middle school levels, the focus is whether the author presents appropriate evidence to support an idea or argument with little focus on the ideas that a particular piece of writing conveys. It is built on every weakness a student with learning challenges or children of poverty have. Its cure for students who come from homes that offer no language stimulation, no books, and no sense of security is frustration and failure. Its reward is the defunding of schools that have impoverished, disabled and immigrant children. If such a school has a music, drama, art or sports program in which some of these children may shine for a few hours, it must be taken away in favor of hours of test prep using materials significantly above the ability level of these problematic students. Money must be spent on constant testing and Common Core test prep books that only enrich corporate publishing monopolies, but not these children.

Now here comes David Coleman once again with his new Common Core based SAT. During the last few days, I have been on the Collegeboard web site reading about this new test. I read articles about its construction, purpose and planned implementation. He talks about how the test was constructed with the input of educators. The same was said for the Common Core. Nowhere did I read which educators. The material went on to say that students that do well on this test will be successful in college and in their future careers. He based this on students who have supposedly volunteered to have taken sample tests. Obviously, the samples that have already been given for standardization had to have been given recently. Yet, the Collegeboard knows already that these students are college and career ready. To really determine the validity of this claim, one needs to have given the real new SAT, not a sample, and follow the population (one that is representative of America’s real student population controlled for economic status, ethnicity, race, disability, etc.) over the next five to ten years. If one gave a sample test, let’s say last year, how on earth do you now know they will graduate four years hence and acquire a professional career!

What is even more interesting is that when I read about its structure and sample questions. I realized that instead of inventing something new, the new SAT was just a watered down version of the ACT minus the science section. He spoke how his new test will now have vocabulary in context and words that high school and college students use every day and not those esoteric vocabulary words students had to memorize in the past. First, the old SAT did have vocabulary in context questions and two, I want to know how one determines if a word is esoteric? When judging some of the samples, students with impoverished vocabularies and language problems will have just as much problem on this test as the old SAT. One sample was again the Common Core treatment of the Gettysburg Address. Students had to identify the different uses and connotations of the word “dedicated” in the speech. If a student has no idea what the word dedicated even means or has no background knowledge about the speech and its purpose, his/her answers will still be wrong. Not losing a quarter point for every incorrect answers and having four instead of five choices for each question will not really help someone who has below level vocabulary concepts or little background information. In another passage, there was what I called paired questions. If they answered the first question wrong, the second question which built on the first would also be wrong. Many questions were evidenced-based. The question would ask whether particular details supported the author’s central idea. However, if the student was unable to even determine the main point of the passage because of issues of comprehension, decoding, etc., there was no way such a question could be answered.

The new SAT invented by Mr. Coleman is nothing more than another paper and pencil bubble test that will be done either by hand or online. It is still a language intensive test that will be a challenge to poor minority, disabled and immigrant students. He talks about the fact that test prep will be unnecessary because the Khan Academy will offer free online help for all students. The Khan Academy’s support will end up being nothing more than free samples for the poor. Already the private test prep companies are beginning to prepare material for their small group classes and individual tutors. Because the New SAT is like the ACT, it is obviously that individual tutors will teach the same strategies. If students have very weak vocabularies, they will still need to learn the multiple meanings of words to be able to answer vocabulary in context questions. They will still have to learn how to utilize the context and grammar clues of surrounding sentences to figure out the appropriate meaning of a particular vocabulary word. Students will still have to learn how to identify different type of questions and the strategies one need to answer such questions. Students will still have to learn how to underline or highlight key or transitional words to identify changes in meaning and ideas in order to improve comprehension (something hard to do on an online test). Obviously, the best test prep remains human to human and not human to machine. Therefore, nothing will have changed. Students from middle class and wealthy families who come from better schools will be able to afford extra help and do better while impoverished students who come from schools with limited resources will continue to do poorly. And through its marketing the Collegeboard will convince more students to take its test which will mimic the ACT thus making a lot of profits for its investors.

Instead of sinking billions into this new test and its related test prep industry, we need to pull the curtain aside and toss out these charlatans. By the way, charlatan is a SAT word which for some reason most students have no idea as to its meaning (and it is not an esoteric word in my book). Instead, this money should be going to re-fund all public schools so they can give every student a rich education. Poverty is cured in only way—money. Only money can provide decent job with a living wage for the parents of these kids and the type of wrap around educational services that will provide health, counseling and additional tutoring services to compensate for years of neglect. Teachers who are powerless did not create the economic injustice that exists in our country. However, it is Coleman and his corporate supporters who refuse to acknowledge that they are the ones who contribute to economic inequality by their refusal to be taxed fairly in order to pay for the radical changes needed to begin to end poverty in this nation and really improve education. Therefore, I suggest that students should apply to schools that do not use the SAT or even the ACT in their application process. In addition, if they do apply to a school that requires a standardized test score, they should only take the ACT. Hopefully, if more people boycott that so-called assessment, it will die of its own accord. These tests—the Common Core and SAT—are cancers to education and the sooner we perform major surgery, the better will be our chance of survival.

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Reflection after Three Months into Retirement

I hate to be asked how I am enjoying retirement.   People who ask this question have created a fantasy world of what it means to be retired.   After listening to my friends, family, former colleagues as well as perfect strangers, I have synthesized all their dreams, hopes and aspirations by creating a make believe world they call Retirement Heaven.   In Retirement Heaven, you can wake up late every morning—no earlier than 11:00 AM.  You never ever set your alarm clock again.   Upon waking up, your spouse will deliver to you breakfast in bed that is no less than 2000 calories.  After breakfast, it is time for a relaxing shower.  After a shower, you put on shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers for either your daily run or your two hour workout at the gym.  By the way, in Retirement Heaven, it is always summer. At about 2:00 PM, you make your way home for lunch and a few hours of television.   You’ve recorded on your DVD only mindless television programs to watch for the next few hours.  Now it is time for dinner.  In retirement, you are not allowed to make dinner, but instead, every evening you go to a different restaurant to eat meals that have no fewer than three courses.  You return home, take out your trashy novel and read until you drift calmly to sleep at about one in the morning.

For someone like me, such a retirement heaven would be like that old Twilight Zone episode where a gangster dies and is given every one of his heart’s desires.   He is given wealth, beautiful women and the ability to successfully commit every crime known to man without consequence.   In the end, he is completely bored out of his wits and asks to go to the other place only to be told he is in the other place!

To me, retirement means having the freedom to choose the type of work that I want to do.  It is also the ability to focus on those endeavors that are really important. On the day that I retired from teaching, unfortunately all the problems that existed before my last day of work really did not disappear.  Several people said to me you shouldn’t care what happens to the world of education.  One person told me that if all the public schools blew up tomorrow, you will still be retired on your nice pension.  Would I?

First of all, if public education ended tomorrow and was completely privatized, it would make it all the more easier for those in power to end pubic pensions.   Public education and my pension, which I earned through hours of hard work as a teacher, both represent a social contract. It is a social contract between the government and the people it represents.  If you end one, you can easily end the other.   The philosophical basis of public education derives from those Enlightenment thinkers who believed  that power derive from the governed.  The governed allows power to be given to a government so that it can establish policies that will benefit the collective.  The 18th century Philosophes believed that public education’s purpose was to create a sophisticated citizenry who would be able to immediately spot tyranny and remove it from power—either through constitutional democratic means or by force if necessary.   The concept of public pensions also has its basis in the 18th century idea of a social contract.   Public servants will serve society for a number of years at a lower rate of compensation so that the state can benefit from their skills.  In return, the public servant will receive a pension paid at the end of their public service so they can live the rest of their life in dignity.   But the purpose of a pension also is based on sound economic and social principles.   Instead of the retired worker being a drain on society, the retired worker will have enough income to continue to purchase goods and services (providing employment to others) and still be able to contribute to society (and the economy) in other ways, such as through volunteering or part-time employment.

Therefore, in retirement, I now have taken on a new job—saving public education.  One way is by working part time in the school where a spent the last third of my career.   For the majority of my 36 year career, I had a job that came into existence because New York City grossly violated the rights of disabled students back in the late 1970s.  Federal law mandates that disabled students need to be evaluated every three years and if there has to be a change in services, any reevaluation must be done in a timely manner.   Thus, in the late 70s, the city was sued because it had a backlog of close to 30,000 reevaluations. It resulted in the court ordering the creation of a team of professionals in each school whose job it was to make sure assessments and subsequent IEP conferences were held in a timely manner.  My job was as case manager and Educational Evaluator.   I became highly skill in conducting norm-referenced, criterion referenced and curriculum-based assessments.  The purpose of these assessments was not to punish teachers but to diagnose the educational needs of disabled students so as to help teachers meet their IEP goals. (Yes, this is the real purpose of testing.) A quarter of a century later the city was in relative compliance.   Because most city schools have relatively large populations, the team needed a psychologist to conduct intelligence and projective tests, an educator who was a skilled diagnostician and a social worker.  This ended in 2003 when Mr. Bloomberg embarked on reforming special education in New York City, which really meant he was trying to find a way to save money.   He made my job disappear overnight and gave the case management piece and educational piece to the school psychologists that now are so overworked, they are forced to cut corners in order to remain in compliance.   As for me, because Bloomberg violated so many of the contractual rights of Educational Evaluators (who were teachers), he was ordered by an arbitrator to create the job of IEP teacher.  I held this job for the final eleven years of my career. When the job was created by  the arbitrator, it was undefined. It was up to a building principal to define what IEP teachers would do. Bloomberg hoped that most principals would make the lives of these new IEP teachers so miserable that many would leave the system.   The opposite happened.   Most of us ended up doing many different albeit necessary educational tasks within our schools.  As for me, I became in charge of compliance, testing, data, and academic intervention services.

When I retired, the new principal would ask who did this and who did that.  My name was mentioned each time and before I knew it, I was back in the school a couple of days a week.  However, I am doing what I loved doing the most—working with kids.   Unfortunately, the city schools have a simple philosophy—the minimum is the maximum.  Because the union contract stated that IEP Teachers would only be funded for those who were former Educational Evaluators like me, once I retired, the money dried up and the position disappeared.   It disappeared even though the school would now have no one to provide state mandated academic intervention services for those students who received level 1 on those wonderful Common Core State Assessments in ELA and Math.  As for all my other jobs, I am helping to train three other professionals to do different pieces of my job.   When I started as an IEP Teacher in 2003, testing was just a little piece of my job, but as we all know, it turned into a monster with three head and twenty arms.  It took up so much of my time that I often could not work with students.   Now I am trying to give students the skills to do better on these assessments (notice that I did not say pass).   For example, it is not enough to say to a level one student that they need to use context clues.   What I do is to try to give them four or five strategies to help them try to figure out the meanings of so many unknown words on passages that are always above their grade level.  Yes, I hate the test, but I have to do something.  Many of these students are former English Language Learners who supposedly reached proficiency in English on a state assessment measuring second language ability.  By the way, I am in one of the few middle class school districts within the city.   However, we have many immigrant families.  The parents of these children work two, sometimes three jobs so they can live in a nice area.   However, because our scores  are a little better than the state average and we have fewer students on public assistance, we get less money than other schools around the city.   And knowing this, the city cut funds to hire just one academic intervention services teacher.

In addition to working part time in my school, I am also tutoring and I am collaborating with someone in writing a review text to help students try to pass these horrible state assessments.  Some might say that I am hypocritical trying to help students pass these assessments when they should be done away with.   For years, I have tutored students to pass the SAT even though I hate everything these assessments stand for.   However, by not helping these students, their low grades stand as a barrier preventing them from getting their foot in the door to enter the world of higher education.   As long as these institutional barriers exist—common core, SAT, etc., I will help student acquire the skills to work the system while at the same time advocate for change.

What I found most interesting these last several months was watching the types of teaching jobs posted by various online employment services.    Last June, I rewrote my resume and posted it on an employment site.   Now my email is inundated with lists containing scores of teaching jobs.   The first thing I noticed that most jobs posted today are for charter schools.   In the New York area, the one charter that comes up all the time is our favorite—The Success Academy.   Interestingly, one of Eva’s charter schools has been looking for a SETSS teacher since June.  I have a simple theory.  No one wants this position.   Who would want to work for a school where you are on-call 24 hours a day, paid low wages, and then spit out after two years.  Sometimes I think about applying as a lark.   I am sure once they realized my age and the fact that I had a 36 year public school career, my resume would end up in the circular file.  Interestingly, a well-known tutoring company saw my resume and wanted to interview me.  I asked what their pay was.  I   laughed when they said $15.00 an hour.  I told them that when I first started SAT tutoring in 1987, I worked for a college preparation tutoring service and was paid $20 an hour.   I added,  “When you have a high turnover rate, you end up getting what you pay for.”

I would never work for a charter or such a tutoring agency because they violate our society’s social contract.    I believe in and will fight for public education because every cent of public money must go to the child.  And yes, paying public school teachers decent wages benefit children.   A well paid professional feels invested in the system and will work hard for those under their tutelage. A well paid professional wants to dedicate their lives to public service.   The social contract is broken when education is privatized.   The privateers view teachers and students as human capital whose purpose is to create profit.  I call these privatizers education pimps.   Students cannot benefit when your purpose is greed and not the creation of a well-rounded individual who is able to think and make sound life decisions.   The purpose of these corrupt and greedy charter operators is to throw a few crumbs to their school’s students and teachers while they hoard our public dollars.  I want my tax money to be invested honestly and completely into each public school.  Charter operators will be quick to say that they are capitalists taking risks.  Yes, when one invests private capital, risks are taken, but what is being invested is our public money.   It is public money that is being given to them by elected officials who are in their corrupt little pockets.   These officials are also pimping our dollars for private gain and must be ousted.  Our elected officials have forgotten that they serve us and derive their power from us.

Getting back to that retirement fantasy world I mentioned at the beginning, I ended up doing one thing that I rarely did during my work years.  I have watched a lot more television.   One thing I ended up watching was Ken Burns’ documentary on the Roosevelts.   It reminded me that our society is again in a Gilded Age where a few wealthy men have taken control of our government and its institutions.   Ken Burns thinks that it was the power of these singular individuals that changed America in the first half of the twentieth century.   What he does not understand is that these great individuals could not have done anything if people did not organize and petition first on the local level and then nationally for change.  We have to regain control of all levels of government to make it again, as FDR believed, a force to create a just and fair society in which everyone has some share in the economic wealth of this great nation.   I know we have a hard fight ahead of us, but we are making headway.  There is an old adage:  The Ocean started as single drops of water.