Obama’s testing plan: A real change or more of the same?

On October 24, 2015, the U.S. Department of Education released their Testing Action Plan as a response to the increasing concern of parents, teachers, and students that standardized testing is, in their words, “unnecessary,” consumes “too much instructional time” and creates “undue stress for educators and students.” On first reading, Obama and Duncan seem to be saying that they want to decrease both the amount to time spent on testing and the high-stakes nature of tests in evaluating students, teachers, and schools. However, a closer reading suggests that they are only calling for the federal government to provide “clear assistance…for how to thoughtfully approach testing and assessment,” that is, more federal control. So, the actual goal is more of the same, implemented more carefully so as to blunt resistance.

The rest of the action plan’s goals are worded to suggest more than they deliver. For example, they assert that “no standardized test should be given solely for educator evaluation,” which makes it acceptable, as in New York, to use the Common Core exam to count as 50% of teachers’ evaluations and to determine whether a school is failing and should be placed in receivership.

It seems that the federal Testing Action Plan, like Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force, is not meant to respond to the concerns of parents that led to 220,000 students opting out of the Common Core exams in April 2015 but, rather, to convince the media that they are going to fine tune it to make it more palatable to the public. However, what is needed is not fine-tuning but a decrease in standardized testing. The Council of the Great City Schools reported earlier this month that students in their 66 membership districts take, from pre-K to grade 12, an average of 112 standardized tests, most of which are required under NCLB and Race to the Top.

In sum, the Obama administration, outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and incoming secretary John King — who single-handedly made high-stakes testing the single most important educational issue in New York — want to do more of the same, only sell it better.


The Department of Education press release:



Response by the NYS Allies for Public Education



A smart and snarky response from Peter Green, a teacher



Anthony Cody (co-founder of the Network for Public Education): Obama (Again) blasts all the tests his administration has sponsored



Council of the Great City Schools



Preserving Public Education: The Foundation of Our Democracy

This is my speech given at Preserving Public Education: The Foundation of Our Democracy, an event organized by teachers from several area school districts. Approximately 650 people were in attendance.
Spencerport, New York
March 19, 2015

We face a crisis in public education. But, not because the schools are failing. In fact, given the high childhood poverty rate in our cities and the extreme segregation in our schools, one might conclude that the schools are doing well. Rather, we face a crisis because education policy in New York is increasingly made not by school boards or educators but by the rich and powerful, most of whom are unelected and unaccountable.hursh1

We face a crisis because our education system is being taken over by wealthy philanthropists, such as Bill Gates, who uses his foundation to fund organizations to develop and implement the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core would not exist if Gates did not provide the initial $200 million to create it. Or the $2.3 billion he gave to 1,800 organizations to support the Common Core. Or the $3 million he secretly gave to help fund the Regents Fellows to work with former Commissioner King on implementing the Common Core. Or the profits Microsoft will earn as their tablets are used to deliver the Common Core curriculum and assessments.

We face a crisis because Pearson, the world’s largest education company, has received $32.1 million to create, administer, and grade the Common Core Exams in English Language Arts and Math. Pearson seems to create most of the world’s exams, including, in the United States, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Stanford Achievement Test, the Miller Analogy Test, and the Graduate Equivalency Test (GED). Pearson received $63 million to develop the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC exam. Pearson designs, administers, and grades the state’s teacher certification exams including the video and portfolio assessment of student teachers, for which students pay $300 per test. Pearson has the contract to design the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment or PISA exams. Pearson publishes most of the K-12 textbooks used in the United States under different imprints, including: Scott Foresman, Penguin, Longman, Wharton, Harcourt, Puffin, Prentice Hall, Allyn & Bacon, and Random House.

hursh2We face a crisis because politicians like Governor Cuomo has taken almost $5 million from hedge fund managers to push through legislation increasing the number of and funding for charter schools. Just last week in New York City, hedge fund managers held a private all day meeting called “Bonds and Blackboards” sponsored by the Walton and Gates Foundations to promote investing in charter schools, where, indeed, if you are wealthy, there is money to be made. Cuomo has proposed giving more money per student to charter schools plus additional funds for space. Further, the Governor wants to give a 75% tax credit for donations of up to $100,000 to charter, private, and parochial schools.

I have only touched the tip of the iceberg. In response, we need to demand transparency in how education policy is made. We need to spend money not on standardized tests but on developing assessments that provide meaningful information to the students, parents, teachers, and community. We need to demand that public funds go to public schools and not to line the pockets of charter school investors. We need to demand that educators are supported and not undermined in their professional responsibilities. We need to demand excellent schools for our children.



New York’s Working Families Party endorses Governor Cuomo for Re-election

On May 31st, the Working Families Party, after much debate, endorsed Governor Cuomo for re-election. See http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/nyregion/cuomo-secures-support-of-working-families-party.html?_r=0. However, Cuomo was severely criticized for favoring charter schools over public schools and taking campaign contributions from charter school CEOs and hedge fund managers. For a short analysis of Cuomo’s politics see my  article “A cautionary tale: Governor Cuomo and the effort to destroy public education in New York” to be published in The Australian Educators Union journal the Professional Voice later his month.

For more information on educational developments in Australia and their excellent professional journal, please visit their website for the current and past issues: http://www.aeuvic.asn.au/publications_index_13_53773280.html.

The Attack on Public Education in the US as a Cautionary Tale for New Zealand and Australia

Public education is under attack in the US and other countries around the world. I am just concluding a two-month trip to New Zealand and Australia speaking and meeting with the heads of national teachers’ unions in both countries, and speaking at four universities. This will be the first of several blogs.

The impetus for the trip began simply enough. I was invited to present a keynote speech to the primary school teachers’ and principals’ union (New Zealand Educational Institute- NZEI) conference in Wellington, New Zealand. New Zealand educators have a long proud tradition of professional independence in which curriculum and assessments are created at the local level. But with the recent election of the neoliberal National party, the government has turned to supporting charter schools, promoting the idea that teachers should be paid based on their students’ achievement, and other top-down reforms.

The union leaders were clear regarding their goals for the conference: to educate themselves about the high-stakes testing and privatization movement in other countries, remind themselves what good teaching encompasses, and organize to defend public schools and teachers. Other keynote speakers included: Martin Thrupp (University of Waikato, NZ) who recently completed a three-year study on the effect of the new standards on schools primary schools in New Zealand; Bob Lingard (University of Queensland, AU) who has studied globalization and education; David Berliner (University of Arizona) who has a new book 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools; Meg Maguire (Institute of Education, London) who has researched and written about urban schools and education policy; Barbara Comer (Queensland University of Technology, AU) who researches and writes about literacy education, social justice, teachers’ work, and practitioner education; and Margie Hohepa (University of Waikato, NZ), expert in Maori medium education.

For this and my subsequent major talks on the trip, I focused on the rise of high-stakes testing, the push to privatize public schooling through charter schools and handing over standards, curriculum development and assessment over to private corporations such as Pearson, and the shift in education decision making at the local level by school boards, administrators and teachers to unelected and unaccountable individuals and organizations at the state, national, and federal levels. I began by warning that we are in danger of losing public schools in many cities in the US noting, however, that schools will still be largely funded out of public taxes but schools and education policy will be privately controlled by individuals such as Bill Gates, corporations such as Pearson, and organizations such as Teach for America. I described the rise and misuse of standardized testing in the New York, as first students needed to pass five Regents exams to graduate from high school, then No Child Left Behind added testing requirements for grades 3-8, and finally Race to the Top added more tests plus requiring that test scores be used to evaluate individual teachers.

I closed my talk by describing the rising resistance in New York, as teachers, parents, administrators, students, and the public push back against the private takeover of the public schools. Commissioner King has met determined criticism during his “listening tour.” Teachers’ and administrators’ unions have called for a two-year moratorium on the Common Core curriculum and assessments. Perhaps thousands of students and families are planning to boycott the next round of tests. My closing comments urged the teachers and administrators to form an alliance with parents, students, and the public to resist the government’s efforts to implement high-stakes standardized testing and open more charter schools.

In my next blog I will describe some of the Ministry of Education plans in New Zealand and Australia (which was my next stop) and rising resistance from unions and universities.

My talk and those of the other NZEI keynoters are on the NZEI website at

Mine is also posted below and on youtube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hW4vZGsLiL4.

NY Senate Testimony on Assessment: The Missuse of Testing

Testimony for the New York State Senate Standing Committee on Education
Chair: Senator John L. Flanagan
Public Hearing: The Regents Reform Agenda: “Assessing” Our Progress
Buffalo, New York
October 16, 2013
David Hursh, Ph. D., Professor, Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York. dhursh@warner.rochester.edu

My message today is simple: You should not believe any test scores reported by the New York State Education Department. You should neither be dismayed when you learn that test scores have declined; nor should you celebrate when they improve.

Almost all of the educational statistics NYSED reports are misleading or erroneous. Therefore, you should question almost all their test results. I wish I could encourage you to ignore anything that comes out of Albany, but because test scores have real consequences, I can’t. Low-test scores are often used to argue that we need more control over teachers and students, more tests, and a narrower curriculum. High-test scores are used as confirmation that these same reforms are working. Either way, the test scores have disastrous consequences for teachers, students, public schools, and our communities.

Exhibit 1. New York schools recently implemented the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and students were tested on the standards last spring. The results were made public over the summer, and we were told that only 31% of the New York State students passed the tests, including only 5% of the students in the Rochester schools. Many people are dismayed by this result. Others, like Commissioner King, described the results as a “good thing,” because it provides us with a “baseline.”

Likewise, in New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg appoints the school board and controls the schools, he has, during each of his re-election campaigns, taken credit for test score increases. However, New York City students, like the rest of the state, performed poorly on the recent CCSS tests with only 26% passing the new state reading tests, and only 30% passing in math. Only 15% of black students and 19% of Hispanic students passed the math exam. Bloomberg, demonstrating that he can positively spin test scores whether they rise or fall, called the test results “very good news.”

What is going on here? Are 69% of New York’s students failures? Do test scores really tell us anything? Or is something else happening? I suggest the scores are manipulated so that education commissioners and others promoting standardized testing appear to achieve the results they desire.

Exhibit 2: Over the last two decades students’ scores on tests have been manipulated by the Commissioners to make it look like the Commissioners’ rigorous standards are improving education. For example, beginning in the last 1990s, students are required to pass five standardized exams to graduate from high school, including one science course, typically “living environments.” However, while the Regents and then Commissioner Mills wanted to look tough, they didn’t want to increase the dropout rate, so the cut score, the percentage of points you needed to pass, was set low at 39%, yielding a high passing rate.

But, the Commissioner was criticized for making it easy to pass the living environments test. Subsequently, when it came time to set the cut score for the physics exam, knowing that students would have already taken and passed the living environments exam and therefore did not need to pass the physics exam to graduate, the Commissioner set the cut score high so as to yield a low passing rate. Here’s how he did it: He first commanded the committee of eight people responsible for setting the cut score to set it high. When they didn’t set it high enough to yield a sufficiently low passing rate, he dismissed them and brought in four people and commanded them to set it higher. When they refused, he dismissed them and brought in one person and told them where to set the cut score.

As a result, only 39% of the students who took the physics exams passed, a lower percentage than the passing rate for the Advanced Placement physics exam that same year. However, the Commissioner seemed to have forgotten that the students who took physics were likely to apply for university, and while failing the exam would not keep them from graduating, a low score did not look good on their university applications. The students and parents protested and their pressure forced the Commissioner to change the cut score. Students’ tests were rescored and their results improved significantly.

Exhibit 3: Tests at the elementary level are similarly manipulated. In New York, the test scores for grades three though eight have continually improved, with Commissioners, Mayor Bloomberg, and some administrators taking credit for it. However, much of the improvement results from changing the cut score. Diane Ravitch, in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (2010), points out how much easier it is for elementary students to score in the top three of four levels on the standardized tests. She notes:

…on the sixth-grade reading test in 2006, students needed to earn 36.2% of the points to attain level 2; by 2009, students in that grade need only 17.9%. In seventh grade math, students needed to earn 36.2% of the points on the test to advance to level 2 in 2006, but by 2009, they needed to earn only 22%. The standards to advance from level 1 to level 2 dropped so low that many students could get enough correct answers to pass to level 2 by randomly guessing. (p. 79)

Exhibit 4: While the results on New York states tests are manipulated and misleading, there is one test that provides a valid indication of how students are doing: the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), a national exam in which representative samples of students are tested every two years in math and literacy. NAEP tests are constructed so that test scores can be reliably compared from year to year. Unfortunately, for New York, while the scores on the state exams have improved from year to year, the NAEP scores have held steady or declined. In 2003, 22% of New York City students were proficient on the eighth-grade reading test, which declined to 19% in 2005, and by 2009 the test results were the lowest in a decade. Statewide, by 2011, “New York was one of two states in the nation to post statistically significant declines on the National Assessment tests”

In response to the ongoing clamor over test score inflation, Merryl Tisch, the current chancellor of the Board of Regents, finally admitted that the state test scores were “ridiculously inflated,” and “should not be believed,” and test scores were rescaled so that, for example, the 68.8 percent English proficiency rates was immediately rescaled to 42.4 percent.

However, even though the chancellor realizes the test scores should not be believed, state officials continue to do so. The test scores play a central role in determining whether teachers are found to be “effective” or “developing” or “ineffective” as part of teachers’ Annual Professional Performance Review. Because test scores are closely related to family income, approximately 37% (of 2500) teachers in the Rochester City School Districts were rated as developing or ineffective while the ten surrounding suburban districts had NO teachers rated as developing or ineffective, and the most any one district has is eleven.

New York’s Governor Cuomo over reacted to the Common Core test results by proclaiming that low scoring districts might suffer the “death penalty,” where NYSED would take over the district.

So how should we respond? Before the push for standardized tests, the NAEP scores were increasing and the achievement gap between white students and students of color was decreasing. Now, after two decades of high-stakes standardized testing, NAEP increases have leveled off and the achievement gap is widening. Unfortunately, teachers rather than an out-of-control testing regime continue to be blamed for our current state of education.

Setting policy based on the test results endangers teachers, students, and our public schools. Instead, we need to develop schools where teachers, parents, and students work together to develop curriculum and assessments that promote critical, in depth, interdisciplinary learning. Fortunately, examples exist in the United States and other countries of schools where teaching and learning flourishes. In New York, students at the Performance Consortium Schools demonstrate their proficiency in various subjects through projects that are presented to groups of teachers, community members, and students. In Finland, where the only standardized tests are similar to our NAEP and the SAT, teachers collaboratively develop curriculum based on the country’s curriculum standards. My recent teaching has been in schools in New York and in sub-Saharan Africa where I have taught students about local history or environmental health risks, such as air and water pollution— a major cause of disease and death in developing countries. Rather than endless test prep, schools can be places in which students and teachers engage in the joy of learning and contribute to the welfare of their families and communities.

1. News and Notes from Commissioner King (2013, August 19). NYSED website.
2. Hernández, J. C. & Gebeloff, R. (2013, August 8). Test Scores Sink as New York Adopts Tougher Benchmarks. New York Times, A. 1.
3. Winerip, M. (2003, March 12). Passing grade defies laws of physics, The New York Times: A22 & B7. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/12/nyregion/on-education-when-a-passing-grade-defies-laws-of-physics.html?src=pm
4. Winerip. M. 2011, December 19. 10 years of assessing students with scientific exactitude. The New York Times: A-24.
5. Ibid.
6. Personal communication with the Rochester Teachers Association.
7 Prohaska, T. (2013, August 29). Cuomo sees ‘death penalty’ to deal with failing schools The Buffalo News, http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/buffalo-public-schools/coumo-urges-death-penalty-for-failing-schools-20130829
8 Ravitch, D. (2013, September 3). Common core tests in NY widen achievement gap. National Education Policy Center.

A Closer Look at School Choice

By David Hursh, Warner School Professor and William Cala, past interim Rochester City School District Superintendent

Dean Zupan, in his guest essay in the Democrat and Chronicle, compares the RCSD with a local parochial school, McQuaid, and the 22-school network of Cristo Rey Jesuit Schools, claiming that private schools are more successful and cost-effective in educating students. Further, he states that Cristo Rey schools do not “skim the cream” from the public schools, that is, only enroll the above average students from the city. Therefore, he concludes, city school students should be given “credits”— usually called vouchers— to enroll in private schools.

A full response would include providing evidence that such market models have not been successful in improving schools as a whole and that similar models, such as charter schools, have, on average, not performed better than public schools. However, I will focus on Dean Zupan’s claim that Cristo Rey schools enroll a student population comparable to the urban districts in which they are located. Common sense tells us this is unlikely to be the case.

First, private schools are not required to accept students with disabilities. In comparison, public schools must educate all students, regardless of ability. The RCSD, partly as a consequence of poverty, has an increasing number of students with disabilities, now near 20%. Placements within schools can cost well over $30,000. RCSD also has a large number of students in restrictive environments such as residential placements that can cost over $100,000 a year. Prior to the 1970s, public schools were not required to educate all students. However, with that requirement, which we should all favor, the per pupil cost has increased significantly. Such calculations seem not to be included in Dean Zupan’s analysis. It’s easy to reduce your per pupil cost if you do not enroll students who need more services!

Furthermore, Dean Zupan observes that the RCSD has one of the highest per pupil spending rates of US cities. He omits that Monroe County is highly segregated and unequal with the poor and people of color living in the city. Rochester has eleventh highest poverty rates in the US. One of the consequences of poverty is a high number of children with disabilities, and family and youth violence. Typically, 400 Rochester adolescents are either in detention centers or jail, all of whom, by law, must be provided with an education and services.

Moreover, the RCSD has a large number of English Language Learners who have either entered the United States as immigrants or, at about 2,000 families per year, arrive as refugees. This requires that the district hire additional educators who have expertise in working with beginning English learners.

Second, Christo Rey schools require that students work in job placements developed by the school and that the students’ earnings be given to the school to help pay for tuition. In Rochester, many urban students work so that they can contribute to their family income. Only more middle-class families are able to forego additional income.

Third, Christo Rey, like many private and charter schools, has a “no tolerance” policy. While “no tolerance” may sound good to the public, it means that the school can throw out any student who poses a problem. Private and charter schools can often boast of a high graduation rate for seniors because students who might not graduate have been expelled and returned to their urban districts.

Therefore, the likely consequence of Dean Zupan’s proposal is a widening gap between the private and the public, as private schools cream off the more advantaged urban students, and urban schools educate the rest. Ultimately, a market solution is no solution.

The Chicago Teachers’ Strike: Its National Significance

As I write this on September 12th, the Chicago teachers are on strike for a third day. In listening to different media reports, many of them focus on salary and class size, issues that do not immediately appear relevant to other districts across the nation. However, there are several issues in which how they are resolved will impact the future of education. The strike represents the most significant resistance to the corporate reform agenda of privatization and high-stakes testing that have dominated educational reform in the United States over the last two decades. Here, I will focus on the testing agenda.

A central concern of teachers in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere is the increasing emphasis on using students’ scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers, as required under the Race to the Top program. As pointed out in a letter from the Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (signed by 88 professors of education from Chicago area universities), there are major problems with using students’ test scores to assess teachers. These include:

1. That using what are called Value-Added Models of evaluation (comparing students’ scores over time) does “not produce stable ratings of teachers” (p. 2). That is, the results for each teacher are likely to vary significantly from class to class, and year to year.
2. “There is no evidence that evaluation systems that incorporate student test scores produce gains in student achievement” (p. 3).

Furthermore, the focus on test results is likely to further narrow the curriculum, promote more skill-and-drill teaching, and incentivize teachers “to avoid students with health issues, students who are English language learners, or students suffering from emotional issues” (p. 3).

We have begun to see the consequences of such an evaluation system in New York (the Annual Professional Performance Review), where not only are students’ scores on standardized tests the primary determinant in teachers’ evaluations but the majority of teachers must be found to be “ineffective” or “developing” rather than “effective” or “very effective.”

In New York, teachers are required to be rated on a bell curve, but the weighting of the different criteria is such that teachers whose students score below the test average MUST be found to be failing. Furthermore, while there is a bell curve, teachers must score 75 out of 100 points to be effective. Consequently, most teachers will be found to be in need of remediation, and in New York City, if teachers are found to be “ineffective overall” for two consecutive years, the district can begin the process of removing the teachers. Such an approach assumes that teachers are to blame for education’s problems and that if we just got rid of the “ineffective” teachers, schools would miraculously improve. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed firing all the teachers whose students score below average and doubling class size. (My article, “Raising the Stakes: High Stakes Testing and the Attack on Public Education in New York will be published in the Journal of Education Policy in early 2013.)

The outcome of the Chicago teachers strike will significantly determine whether corporate dominated reform focusing on high-stakes testing will continue unabated or whether teachers, parents, students, and community members will be included in the process.

The letter is available on the CREATE website at: http://createchicago.blogspot.com/2012_03_01_archive.html