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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Linda Taylor, Charter Schools, Private Agencies and Race

When I retired several weeks ago, I said to myself that now I would have a lot of time to devote to my blog. I would now become a prolific writer. I would churn out one article after another. My pen would lambaste the reformers, privatization, VAM, charters, etc. However, instead of having the free time I dreamt, it turned out that I am just as busy as I was prior to retirement. I retired only to continue working in a summer job that I have had for the last eight years. I trek to Manhattan five days a week working for one of New York’s Committees on Special Education. My job is to hold IEP meetings and write over 100 individual educational programs for students who attend private or parochial schools. These students receive either Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS) or related special educational services that are paid for by the New York City Department of Education. In years past, the DOE had lists of independent providers that provided such services. Many of the SETSS (resource room) providers were either retired school teachers or teachers that wanted a flexible work schedule for various personal reasons. The same held true providers of OT, PT, Counseling and Speech. However, in recent years, these services are now mostly provided by teachers and providers hired through large private contract agencies that offer the DOE the best price for their services, i.e., lowest price—supposedly.

Earlier in the month, a colleague of mine who is doing the same job in another CSE began holding IEP Conferences for a parochial school in one of the five boroughs of New York City. She began to notice the progress reports of a particular SETSS teacher sent by an agency to the school. The school was composed of grades K to 8. Here was this one SETSS teacher servicing every disabled child in this school. And no matter what the grade, no matter what the problem, every progress report was exactly the same. Every child had major decoding problems, comprehension problems, as well as computational problems. In her progress report, each child was at least two to three years below level—even those in Kindergarten! Needless to say, all her draft IEP goals were exactly the same. For every disabled child in the school, her goals used the same strategies. When my colleague counted the number of students on the master list, it totaled over forty. Interestingly, many students had 10 periods of SETSS services a week. It was amazing how this particular provider was able to serve this many students in a 7 period day. I guess she took no lunch and worked every period. Yes, she must have done all her preparation at home in order to have created such fine differentiated lessons for such a diverse population. Interestingly, many of the parents of these disabled kids remarked to my colleague how their children made very little progress, that the teacher was harsh to them, and that each child was rarely picked up for services during the course of the year. I think we all might agree that we have some circumstantial evidence for possible fraud—especially when one realizes how little these contracted out providers are paid by many of these agencies. In the past, retired teachers who provided such services would complain that they were only paid DOE per session rate, which was about $40.00 an hour. I gather these contract-out providers get less than half that amount because the rest of the fee logically goes to the agency. Therefore, although wrong, it is understandable why some providers would pad their numbers. Where is the outcry for such embezzlement? This is our tax money?

Now let’s talk about a woman named Linda Taylor. A few months ago, I read an interesting article in Slate.com about this woman. Linda Taylor was Ronald Reagan’s infamous Welfare Queen. Yes, I hate to disappoint some of my liberal friends who believed all these years that the she was one of the Great Communicator’s made up stories. Unfortunately, this woman was real although the Great Communicator did embellish many facts of the case. However, this woman was not so much a Welfare Queen as possibly one of the greatest criminal minds of the 20th century. This woman not only embezzled money from just about every government program, but was possibly also a kidnapper and murderer. The amount she took from Aid for Families with Dependent Children was small change compared to the amount embezzled from social security disability, the Veterans Administration as well as a host of other government programs. At the time, obviously, the outcry was against those minorities on welfare who were living high on the hog while the rest of us had to work like dogs to scrap together a meager existence. Therefore, the Federal Government only prosecuted her for welfare fraud in which the sum total of her embezzlement was $8000. She was not prosecuted for the theft of over $100,000 from other Federal programs, possible kidnapping or possible murder.

I remember at the time many conservatives saying that this woman proved that we must get rid of welfare and food stamps. Even though she possibly stole more money from the VA for fraudulent disability payments, I never heard any of my conservative friends talk about doing away with that program. Even though she embezzled tens of thousands from social security, few demanded that we do away with social security disability insurance. To working class whites, she was the embodiment of the black woman who had multiple children from different men who dared to own three Cadillacs, three homes, beautiful clothes and fine jewelry at taxpayer expense. Interestingly, the article said that she possibly was not even black, but of mixed race and was really considered white for most of her life. It also did not matter to a big part of our working class population that census figures showed that most women who received AFDC in the 1970s had only between two and three children and were also white. Race trumped everything and this audacious black woman represented every black woman who was on welfare at the time. As a result, when Reagan was elected in 1980, he had willing supporters who applauded his draconian cuts in social programs because now these minorities had to be put in their place.

What has this got to do with charters? Here we have these schools who are embezzling government money as recently reported in Diane Ravitch’s blog . In addition, we have reports of charters involved in criminal activities in Texas, Connecticut, California and Ohio. Here again is tax money being embezzled. Money that is supposed to serve children are lining the pockets of wealthy investors or those who administer these charters. But how come we do not hear, “Let’s get rid of those charters. These people are taking our money to live high on the hog.” The difference, I sadly have to say, is that these charter administrators and hedge fund investors are mostly wealth and white. These people live high on the hog anyway. Imagine, if you total the amount stolen by these charters, the amount is in the millions and not thousands. The American people should be rising up and screaming that we must account for every cent these charters get from localities, states and the Federal government. On the other hand, if tomorrow, some black woman parked her BMW in Wegman’s lot and proceeded to buy groceries with food stamps, it would be front page headlines in the New York Post.

Unfortunately, it appears to me that race is the key factor. Both Linda Taylor and the many charters are exactly the same. Both used the lack of government oversight, as was the case in the 1970s for Linda Taylor and today for the charters. Linda embezzled because we did not have yet the type of computer technology that allowed the sharing of information among different government agencies that we have today. On the other hand, there is a lack of oversight because the large pockets of those who invest in charters have bought lock, stock and barrow legislatures and governors who would pass and carry out such laws. Linda was a lone wolf who worked the system while those who do it today are being supported with a wink from many levels of government.

Now let’s put this all together. Here we have private contract agencies with what appears to be little oversight engaged in theft of services (from those disabled children who need such services desperately), charters stealing millions also because of lack of government oversight and depriving our public schools of the necessary funds and resources to succeed, and finally Linda Taylor who was convicted for stealing only $8000 in AFDC because race stereotypes blinded those in power to the true nature of her many criminal acts. To me, all three acts are heinous crimes against our civil society and each should not be tolerated. Unfortunately, about 40 years ago, a real criminal got a slap on the wrist while millions of impoverished Americans were severely punished for the crime of being poor while today millions of public school kids are being punished while the real perpetrators appear again to be having their wrists slapped.

Common Core and the Suspension of Child Development

It was 1977 and I was taking a child development course for my Master’s level program to become a special education teacher. The assignment was simple. Take two children of different ages and conduct some learning experiments on them. The objective was to see if Piaget’s theories were true. I needed two children, so I asked my cousin if I could borrow her two kids—David and Rachel (who still remember as adults the fun we had doing all this). David was eight-years-old at the time while Rachel just turned five. Of course, I did that famous conservation experiment of pouring water into a tall thin glass and the same amount of water into a wide narrow glass. Obviously, both thought that the tall narrow glass held more water even after both watched me pour the same amount of water into both glasses. What is the importance of this experiment? Well, young kids think very concretely and not abstractly. And how do you develop abstract thinking skills? Give them many of concrete experiences over a long period until their brains become mature enough to understand the abstract concept that no matter what the shape a container may be, if you pour the same amount of liquid into that container, it is still the same amount

This experience I had with my cousins came hauntingly back to me about a month ago when I tried to teach a bunch of fifth graders to estimate fractional sums using benchmarks. The concept appears simple. Take a number line, start at zero, make several benchmark points, such as ½ and 1, and then estimate whether a given fraction is close to these benchmarks. For example, if we add 7/8 and 3/8, we should estimate that our answer will be about 1 and ½. Obviously, 7/8 is close to one and 3/8 is close to ½. With our adult minds, this is a no brainer, but not to the fifth grade mind—especially a mind that may have a learning disability. My kids just did not get it. I used every special education, multisensory method on the books. I color coded, used fraction bars, as well as visual illustrations, etc., etc. Most just wanted to add the like denominators and did not want to estimate first using this method. I then decided to question them intently to understand why they were having such difficulty estimating. To my amazement I discovered the reason. All my concrete manipulatives and illustrations confused them even more. Each manipulative and drawing was a different size and they did not understand that no matter the size or type of fractional illustration presented that the fraction was really the same size. It was hard for these fifth graders to understand that if I cut a pizza in or a jelly bean in half, it was still a half. Therefore, I made a fatal teaching error that many new teachers make. I assumed knowledge or understanding that my students really did not have. To prove their lack of understanding, I took two jars of different sizes and poured a glass of water in each. I asked them to write on their personal white boards which cup had more water and most chose the tall, thin cup again. Piaget came hauntingly back and now I understood why these LD kids were having such difficulty with this common core concept. I realized that it was not that many wouldn’t learn it, but that many couldn’t learn it. They were just not ready.

Furthermore, I tutor several middle school students in math. I work with one learning disabled 8th grader who is, with a lot of extra help, passing within an integrated setting. Fortunately, his parents have the resources to purchase my services for three hours a week. In addition, not only does the student have a highly experienced special education co-teacher in his math class, but he also gets additional special education teacher support services three times a week within a very wealthy suburban school district on Long Island. To his benefit, the student although learning disabled has strong intellectual potential that enables him to easily learn the various strategies I and his teachers have developed to help him do the math. Yet, when tested on these concepts, he mostly gets grades in the low seventies on tests in which problems contain three or more steps and which requires him to describe using mathematical terms various math processes. One problem he got wrong had to do with the Pythagorean Theorem. Mathematically, he knows the formula and can apply it to solve problems presented algebraically. He understands that if we want to find the unknown length of one side of a right triangle, he can do so as long as he knows the length of a hypotenuse and an adjacent side. However, on a test in which a problem derived from a sample CCLS standard, he got completely lost. The problem had a right triangle containing adjacent squares for each side. The question asked what assumption the student can make about the area of the largest square. Furthermore, he was expected to explain his assumption in mathematical terms.

After looking at the problem, it appeared familiar to me. I then remembered where I saw a similar problem. I decided to take a trip to my attic and opened up an old box. Within the box, I found my high school review books. After a little skimming, I found a very similar model problem—within my 10th grade Amsco geometry review text. Then I remembered the difficulty I had with my first term of geometry in high school and all the extra help I needed to master and understand those theorems at the time. Now we expect a student to master concepts that used to be taught to 15-16 year old students thirty of so years ago. A 16 year old student is well into what Piaget calls the formal operational stage of development. Those are fancy words that mean that a student of that age can more easily understand very abstract concepts. Now we are supposed to expect a 13 year-old student to have the same capacity as a student that is very close to college age. Obviously, some 13 year-old students can understand such concepts, but most will have difficulty, again, because they may not be developmentally ready—especially if a disability is present. When I recently stated this at a meeting, I was told that I have low expectations for students. I replied that I do not have low expectations, but realistic expectations. And that these expectations are based on a good deal of scientific research.

The Common Core curriculum appears to be one that was developed by anecdote and not by research. I remember when my youngest son graduated from high school, the Valedictorian was an Asian young man who came to the United States two years previously without knowing a word of English. I recall the Principal saying to the audience that it was possible to accomplish so much when one perseveres and works hard. What he didn’t mention was that this student probably had an IQ that was through the roof! It would be unreasonable to expect other immigrant children to accomplish what this student did when research has shown it takes an older student five to seven years to learn enough academic vocabulary to perform well in an English language school. One should not build a curriculum that could only be easily mastered by above average and superior students that make up only 15% of the total population.

Interestingly, just yesterday I received an email from my school district which contained a list of math vocabulary terms students are expected to master at each grade level. When I looked at the kindergarten math vocabulary, there was the term “decompose” which means to break down complex numbers to get a better understanding of place value. To expect a kindergarten student to understand and use this concept is beyond ridiculous. When I was in Kindergarten, I am pretty sure I had no idea what this term meant and I am also sure my kindergarten teacher had no interest in teaching me its meaning when her greater concern was that I know how to write my name, address and phone number in case I got lost. I really don’t think there is any necessity for a five-year-old to use college level vocabulary to explain complex math terms when many still need to develop one-to-one correspondence. Of course, someone who supports common core would say that all they are doing is raising the bar. However, this is a bar that is twenty feet up and for a five year old impossible to master. By the way, yesterday I asked three kindergarten students to decompose the number 12 and they replied with blank stares. I have been involved with educational testing for nearly thirty years. A good part of my career involved administering diagnostic tests to determine if students had learning disabilities. I clearly remember when I was taking courses in diagnostic assessment, a professor saying to us that when most students fail a test, the problem is not with the student, but with the test. Therefore, if most students at a certain age will not be able to master these so-called common core standards, the problem is not with the kids, but with the standards. Standards that unfortunately violates every rule of child development.