Painting With a Broad Brush

Dr. Teresa Thayer Snyder, Superintendent of Schools, Voorheesville, NY

As we sit half way between closing last year and opening next, I feel I must comment on the recently adopted implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the new testing patterns which were rolled out this past year.  I feel compelled to do so precisely because I am fortunate enough to be Superintendent of this high performing district.  Our most recently posted graduation rate is 97%--the highest in the region.  Contrary to recent commentary by the Chancellor of the Board of Regents and the Commissioner of Education, our students do not arrive on college campuses under-prepared for their coursework.  Indeed, our feedback is that a great many of our students moving to college—some of the finest colleges in the country—are more than adequately prepared, academically and socially for the challenges they confront. Because of our standing, I believe that it is incumbent upon me to bear the standard for my colleagues in challenging the broad brush strokes tarnishing the field I cherish so mightily.

The Spring rounds of tests to which our 9 to 14 year olds were subjected were tedious, frustrating, poorly paced examples of assessment. It is almost impossible for me to believe that the designers of these examinations knew very much about test design or child development.  I wish I could comment on the contents of the exams specifically—but I can’t because they are secret.  If I knew specifics and revealed them here, I would be risking my credentials.  When the results come back, I won’t be able to tell parents that their child had assets in inferential thinking, needs a little more help on crafting written responses; or that conceptually, their child might evidence assets in computation, but needs more work with rational numbers.  The teachers, administrators, and I cannot do so because we won’t have that information—because it is secret.  If a professional test designer knew anything about child development, he or she would certainly not expect nine year olds to manage two distinct test booklets on one day, with directions for each read at the beginning of the test—managing that much information, and pacing oneself through complex tasks are gargantuan feats for a child--No wonder many did not finish.  Oddly, a professional test designer who understood pacing would see that the test items were spread out—on the sixth day of testing, many students taking the last math exam were  finished hours early—the very same children who did not have enough time to finished day two of the ELA.  Finishing hours early is almost as painful as not finishing in time as the students, weary and restless from the gauntlet of testing, had to sit through the requisite minimum amount of time arranged for testing—finished or not.

These tests were attached to Common Core standards, which have been incompletely rolled out in New York.  The material covered large quantities of information that have not been taught, with texts well past grade level and concepts that require cognitive processing that is more typical of older students (Piaget would call it “Formal operational thinking”—the ability to think abstractly). From my point of view, after many years of studying teaching and learning-- and multiple years spent working in schools--these assessments are impure science.

I cannot justify impure science as a means of determining student learning or teacher effectiveness.

The Common Core Standards are being widely heralded as the best thing to happen in education—a message initiated by the author of the same standards.  Truthfully, we don’t know if they are better than what we have had, we won’t know for several years.  I would take considerably more comfort in this optimistic view if it were not rooted in the verbiage of their architect!  What has been accomplished here is a phenomenal marketing job—so much spin about so little substantive work, with no research base to support the claims.

There comes a time when we need to stand up and point out that there are too many holes here—this is not about educational reform, it is about degrading the work that we do in schools.  I find it significant that the graduation percentage rate across the nation—and State-- seems much more closely tied to the percentage rate of children living in poverty than to what we do in classrooms.

I write this still awaiting the results of this Spring’s “testathon”.   I am sure I will have more to say once these scores arrive.

Dr. Thayer-Snyder’s on-going blog is at: