New York prides itself on being a leader in educational reform – sponsoring massive overhauls, limiting teacher’s unions tenure-guarantee, and quantifying the knowledge students learn each year into scores. New York City is a leader in the testing movement – applying standards and ‘objective’ measures to weed out ineffective teachers and school administrators. Largely catalyzed by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the model NYC follows heavily emphasizes reading and math skills, limiting the instruction of other disciplines and punishing schools and teachers if scores do not improve. For example, at its inception in 2001, NCLB set a goal of 100% proficiency in reading and math by 2014 and promised penalties to be enacted against any school which did not meet this goal (This expectation is absolute, and includes students with special-needs, ESL students, and homeless or otherwise under-priveleged students). But New York City has taken a new turn – testing for testing’s sake. The city has begun imposing additional standardized tests which have no assessment value – they do not indicate proficiency levels – and are comprised strictly of guinea-pig questions.

Most standardized tests have experimental sections – questions or sections which don’t count towards the student’s score, but serve as these guinea-pig questions for future tests. It helps test-makers weed out questions that are too confusing, to obscure, or otherwise unclear. When these questions make up the entire test, those tests are called ‘field-tests’. Field tests have no effect on the student taking them at all – they are used only to measure questions for the benefit of the test-maker.  Field tests are usually spread out among many different schools, in many different cities, environments, levels, etc – so as to offer the most representative experimental sample and to avoid over-burdening schools and students with bureaucratic processes. The intent is to make sure that each question gives the student a fair and likely chance of answering correctly; the hope is that using field-tests will improve scores across the board by removing confounding factors.

However, NYC has initiated new field-tests city-wide – to be taken by every school, at every level throughout the city. Given that students already undergo multiple standardized tests throughout the year (not including practice tests teachers offer to make sure their students are on track, and their jobs are secure), it seems exorbitant to impose more testing – especially when the tests have zero relevance or value for the students taking them. So why would NYC impose something so unpopular? Why would it willingly and publicly incur the wrath of NYC parents and activist groups?

Interestingly, New York City has a $32 million contract with Pearson – a big-time testing company. Not quite a Princeton Review or Kaplan powerhouse, but nonetheless a formidable presence, especially in the K-12 standardized testing world. And it was only subsequent to this contract that the New York City Board of Education has imposed additional standardized tests – field tests – in order to help Pearson best develop tests for the New York City school system.

So, to summarize: For the last 10 years, NYC has offered rigorous, frequent standardized tests which measured student proficiency and achievement and held inept teachers and administrators accountable. The results have been disappointing, if not wholly negative – students perform about as well now as they did 10 years ago, though the achievement gap has widened, due to school closures in low-performing (read: minority and impoverished) districts. NYC has now entered into a multi-million dollar contract which is intended to make the test scores better – put another way: NYC is paying Pearson to make the city’s extensive and invasive school reforms look better.

NCLB’s aspiration to create educational accountability by imposing statewide standards has one very large flaw that NYC has illuminated: standards and accountability are only reliable if the standard is immutable. If you can change the standard to improve your results (i.e., hire a testing company to create better tests which will “help” students do better on standardized tests), then what are you measuring with that standard? The ability to quantify a student’s aptitude loses its credibility when one state quantifies it differently from another state.

In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch provides this example to underline how meaningless standards have become:

In Texas, which was the model for No Child Left Behind,[…] the passing rates on the ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh-grade tests steadily increased. But when eleventh-grade students were asked to write a short answer about a text they were given to read, half of them were stumped. Whether in low-performing districts or high-achieving ones, students were unable to write a thoughtful response to a question that asked them to present evidence from what they read. They had mastered the art of filling in the bubbles on multiple-choice tests, but they could not express themselves, particularly when a question required them to think about and explain what they had just read.

Which leads me to ask – what exactly are those tests testing?

All of the standardized tests given under the umbrella of NCLB are based on the new “Common Core” – a general standard which is supposed to determine what specific things children in public schools should know by various grade levels. According to the Common Core website, for example, students in the 6-12th grade should be able to

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

This statement implies that students will be doing an analysis, in which case the expectations laid out are perfectly reasonable, even if they are uselessly vague. However, the students are afforded no opportunity to analyze in a multiple choice exam – they are only offered other analyses and taught testing-tricks: how to identify ‘fake’ answers, how to tackle different ‘question stems’ and how to diagram paragraphs for easy reference. Which explains why, when asked to think and respond in writing, students in Texas were stumped.

In NYC (and most of the country, right now), there are only tests, and multiple choice tests, at that. This is an arguable method for calculation-based questions, but any fan of literature and the literary arts will advocate for essays or discussions in place of tests. They will ask, as I’m asking now, how can you measure a person’s understanding of language if you prevent them from using the language they have (supposedly) learned in order to explain their answers?

And yet, on the testing-advocates press – citing standards and accountability – to impose more tests, more penalties, and more privatization of the public education system. Now these advocates are going so far as to hire a large test-making company to design and implement tests in a thinly veiled attempt to save the testing-movement from the harsh reality of their results by changing the standards.  It’s no wonder Mayor Bloomberg faces some staunch opposition in the Mayoral race. And it’s no wonder that dozens of NYC school principals have decided to send back the field-test packets – unopened.