Rotten to the (Common) Core: An Interview with Bianca Tanis

BIANCA TANIS is an elementary special education teacher, public school parent, and co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, which is allied with over 50 parent and education organizations across New York State. As a special education teacher and a parent of a child with special needs, Bianca has been an outspoken critic of both high stakes testing and the Common Core Learning Standards and has worked to raise awareness of the devastating effects that these reforms have had on all children, but in particular, students with disabilities and English language learners. Her work has been featured in American Educator (here and here) and the Washington Post (here and here), and she has been interviewed on the radio program Capitol Pressroom and the TV show Capital Tonight, among other outlets.

She’s also, in the interest of full disclosure, a friend of mine, and thus my go-to source for information about how and why to refuse the tests. I asked her to answer some (non-standardized) questions about the often-misunderstood Common Core State Standards.

Bianca Tanis. Photo from her blog.

Bianca Tanis. Photo from her blog.

(GO): A quick Google search of your name reveals that you are quite the gadfly to the Common Core testing people. This is, if my count is accurate, your 5,386th interview about it. So this is obviously a subject that’s near and dear to your heart.

My question is, why? So the federal government tweaks its standardized testing system. So what? We took standardized tests, back in the day. I liked taking the CATs. It was fun to fill the circles in completely with my #2 pencil. Is this really sooooo much worse?

(BT): The truth is, I rocked the bubble tests when I was kid. I rocked my teacher certification tests, my GREs (at least the verbal part)…I’m a pretty good test taker. I’m also an adult who chose to spend hours and hours of my time taking those tests. But if the bubble tests I took as kid took up 12 hours of class time and if all we learned about was how to be good test takers, I probably would have snapped my pencil in half.

As a special education teacher and a parent of a child with a disability my gripe with the CC and testing started with a very personal connection. It’s pretty obvious why students with developmental or severe learning disabilities should not be forced into a one-size-fits-all-model, so I’m not going to get into that. While that is a discussion near and dear to my heart, what gets lost in the telling is the fact that the current system is screwing ALL kids, not just the ones who struggle, or get stomachaches from test anxiety. It makes it too easy for folks to shrug off the issue of excessive testing off as something that only impacts “those” kids.

(GO): But Bianca, if we abandon that model, the good people at the Pearson corporation won’t make such an obscene amount of money. Do you have something against Pearson? Are you some sort of Communist? What gives?

(BT): Look, Pearson is a for profit company doing what they do best, making money. In the beginning, Pearson was a an easy target but it didn’t take long for parents to realize that the real issue is states (New York among them) handing over the reigns of public education to corporations and billionaire armchair educators looking for a place to park their money. So for the record, while I don’t have warm fuzzy feelings for Pearson, I don’t see Pearson as public enemy number one. I reserve that status for the assholes that pay them millions of taxpayer dollars to produce crappy tests.

When you start to look at what is happening in education, it’s like falling down a rabbit hole. But the one simple truth is that you can’t use a test score to evaluate the quality of a child’s education. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top’s accountability measures, testing has morphed from something rational to a national fetish that drives a billion dollar industry and punishes teachers, students, and schools using a bogus instrument.

(GO): Ah, No Child Left Behind. I remember that, from the halcyon days, when George W. Bush was supposed to be the “education president.” His larger mistakes—presiding over 9/11, invading Iraq for no good reason, and coming this close to having the entire global economy collapse—are so impossibly large, we tend to forget that he fucked up education, too.

(BT): When George Bush reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and renamed it No Child Left Behind (NCLB), he took that provided federal funds  to schools with large numbers of poor children and morphed it into a test and punish mandate. Bush erroneously asserted that a focus on test scores would improve graduation rates and close the achievement gap. NCLB required that every school in the nation demonstrate 100% passing rates on state tests by 2014. Yup, you read that right, 100% (right about now is where I want to start banging my head against a wall). It’s no surprise that every school in the nation is now considered to be failing according to NCLB, the achievement gap persists and schools continue to struggle with profound poverty and lack of resources. In other words, NCLB has been an epic failure. Way to go George!

(GO): I’ve heard apologists of Common Core say that the underlying concept is good, but the tests themselves need to be tweaked, because they’re still very new. When I’ve read the questions, they sound like they were written by some brainiac from Yale who hasn’t been around an actual child since grade school. But there must be some kids who are fine with this, right?

(BT): First of all, the concept of national standards really have to be viewed separately from the copyrighted Common Core Learning Standards that we are currently saddled with. Many people make the mistake of conflating the two which can make it very difficult to understand what all of the “fuss” is about. And let’s say we scrap the current CCLS and develop a new set of developmentally appropriate, kick-ass standards that are vetted and piloted by experienced educators. As long as we tie those standards to high stakes testing, any benefit conferred by the standards will be lost. At the end of the day, the tests become the driving force of instruction dictating when, where, and how the standards are taught. In other words, instruction is no longer driven by the needs or interests of the students. If the best private schools in the country would never adopt such a craptacular way of educating kids, why should our public schools?

(GO): Craptacular is a great word. I’m pretty sure that one was on the “antonyms” section when I took the SAT.

(BT): Anyway, back to your question.

(GO): Right: are there some kids who are fine with the new testing?

(BT): Although less and less frequently, I hear parents say, “Well, MY kid is fine with the tests, SHE likes them, SHE does well on them” (insert eye roll here). I bet that little Susie also likes Mountain Dew and pop rocks, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for her. What many parents don’t understand is that the new Common Core-aligned tests require a type of response from young children that can only be elicited through rote, drill-and-kill test prep.

(GO): That sounds like something they do in the Marines. That’s, like, very American Sniper.

(BT): What that parent is really saying is that their child excels at being told how to think, being compliant, and producing an answer based on a two- or three-point rubric, and worst of all, learning that there is only one right answer.

(GO): It’s indicative of the larger societal problem of binary thinking. We seem to have lost our capacity for nuance, as this election cycle demonstrates.

(BT): Let’s be real, an eight-year-old does not produce a written response to a work of literature citing text-based evidence without a whole lot of instruction in test taking strategies and formulas. Couple these test scores to teacher evaluations and the pressure on children to perform like trained seals is enormous. And one of the unintended consequences of this type of incentivized, test-driven education is a kid who is afraid to think outside of the box and take academic risks. The most free-thinking and academically gifted kids often have the most difficult time fitting their thinking into the narrow parameters of what the tests deem “proficient” and often their reluctance to follow “the formula” results in a lowered score.

These days, if you give  your typical fourth grader a creative writing assignment, the first question you are likely to hear will be, “How many sentences?” followed by “Where is the rubric?” Or even worse, the first thing they will do is write TTQA on the top of their paper which stands for “Turn the Question Around” because as any good 4th grader knows, this gets you one point on the constructed response section of the NYS ELA test.

(GO): I have no idea what a “rubric” is.

(BT): A rubric is a very detailed set of grading criteria that outlines exactly what a student must do or demonstrate in order to achieve a particular score or grade. Rubrics are supposed to ensure interrater reliability and students’ clear expectations for an assignment. On the surface, this seems pretty reasonable. But when students are handed a rubric, they write to the rubric, ensuring that they have met all criteria to achieve the highest number of possible points. Sometimes students become more focused on how well they are conforming to the rubric and less engaged in the content or substance of a task.

(GO): It sounds like a game. Mario driving his kart around trying to pick up star coins or something.

(BT): David Coleman, co-author of the Common Core, famously justified his “close-reading” strategy (a hallmark of the CC) by saying, “As you grow up in this world you realize that people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.” This mentality is the jumping off point for all of the bad science, developmentally inappropriate expectations, and disregard for sound pedagogical practice behind the Common Core.

(GO): Sounds to me like this Coleman guy is trying to compensate for something, wink wink, nudge nudge.

(BT): In what world does it make sense to prescribe what percentage of fiction versus nonfiction texts young children can read in school? Only someone with a bad case of “nobody loves me” could get down with that.

(GO): As I said before, my sense is that these people have never spent time with actual children, or in actual classrooms. It seems almost entirely theoretical. Sort of like the Pope giving sex advice to married couples.

(BT): Perfect comparison. The dirty little secret about the Common Core is that there were no elementary school teachers, no early childhood experts involved in writing the standards. The majority of the writers were employed by the testing industry.

At the end of the day, there is absolutely no research to support these standards; they are a giant corporate experiment, and our kids are the guinea pigs. When I go toe to toe with supporters of the Common Core, this is usually about when they start to sputter and chirp, “Appendix A, Appendix A!” Appendix A is a summary of the “research” that has been used to justify the standards and is the mantra of CC supporters desperate to “prove” that a set of standards they do not understand has value. But they are completely misguided because while this Appendix boasts an impressive (if length impresses you) list of citations, most are not actual research but “white papers” commissioned by the testing industry. I find it ironic that the people who support “close reading” tend to be the biggest idiots when it comes to taking an objective look at what they are espousing.

(GO): We’re already established that size matters to Mr. Coleman. And the people most impressed by length have the smallest, um, #2 pencils. We could probably render that as an SAT analogy question.

(BT): For the record, I agree that “close reading” is an important skill, but to force it on eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds is ridiculous. Have you ever watched an eight-year-old try to read Peter Pan using annotation and text-based evidence to support their claims? I have, and you can bet that those kids will not remember reading Peter Pan with any fondness.

So the tests are too long, they are based on flawed standards (which for the record are copyrighted and carry a liability waiver), and they drive a kind of test driven instruction that kills creativity and innovation.

(GO): Wait—what does that mean, “liability waiver?” That sounds ominous.

(BT):  It should sound ominous, or at least curious. The Common Core Learning Standards, the supposed cure for all that ails our nation’s public schools, carry a good old fashioned “we take no responsibility if we screw up your kids” liability waiver.

Here is the waiver, straight from the horse’s mouth:

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHALL NGA CENTER OR CCSSO, INDIVIDUALLY OR JOINTLY, BE LIABLE FOR ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, SPECIAL, EXEMPLARY, CONSEQUENTIAL, OR PUNITIVE DAMAGES HOWEVER CAUSED AND ON ANY LEGAL THEORY OF LIABILITY, WHETHER FOR CONTRACT, TORT, STRICT LIABILITY, OR A COMBINATION THEREOF (INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE OR OTHERWISE) ARISING IN ANY WAY OUT OF THE USE OF THE COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS, EVEN IF ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH RISK AND POTENTIAL DAMAGE.

Seriously?

(GO): You know who uses all capital letters like that? Serial killers.

(BT): The other things that makes me crazy are the assertions that the Common Core and high stakes testing are necessary to a) ensure that our kids are able to “compete in the global economy,” b) predict a third grader’s success as an adult, and c) address poverty, inequitable access to quality education, and every other social ill. Because pardon my French, but these arguments are bullshit and mask the real issues at a play—the issues that policymakers and politicians don’t want to deal with because this would be at odd with the needs of their wealthy donors.

(GO): Let’s talk about poverty for a minute. You spoke on a panel recently where this was discussed. Tell me about the relationship between these new testing standards and poverty.

(BT): There has always been an achievement gap between white, economically advantaged students, students living in poverty, and students of color. Reformers would argue that annual testing and the CCLS are necessary to close the achievement gap. But we have known for sometime that the testing mandates of NCLB failed to accomplish this goal. Despite the failure of NCLB, President Obama continued to push these tactics and take them even further with Race to the Top, tying the CCLS to test scores and tying test scores to teacher evaluations with penalties for schools and teachers that fail to measure up.

New York State was one of the first states to sign onto Race to the Top and since the implementation of the CCLS and test based accountability, the achievement gap widened.

There is ample evidence to support this….I’m not a numbers person, but in this case, the numbers are very important.

(GO): Do tell.

(BT): In 2012, 20% of economically disadvantaged students scored a 1 (the lowest possible score) on the grades 3-8 ELA tests. In 2013, this number ballooned to 43%. In the course of one year, we doubled the number of students living in poverty who were deemed “Below Standard.”

Between 2011 and 2014, the number of black students who scored a level 1 on the third grade ELA test rose from 20% to 49%. For Hispanic students, this number grew from 19% to 48%, while the percentage of white students scoring a 1 only rose from 8 to 27%.  Across the board, scores dropped for all students but it is incredibly disturbing that the achievement gap between the number of  students living in poverty, and students of color and the number of white students who “failed” the tests grew disproportionately.  The fact that this gap did not remain constant with the introduction of the CCLS and CCLS aligned tests raises some serious questions about socioeconomic and racial bias. And what really gets me is that all of the information cited above is a matter of public record, yet the mainstream media continues to turn a blind eye to these finding and the national leadership of major civil rights groups (many of whom receive funding from the Gates Foundation) continue to support these reforms.

(GO): The mainstream media also turns a blind eye when Carson or Trump spew outright lies. There are a lot of really great journalists out there, but as a system, the MSM sucks.

(BT): This is not the only example of socioeconomic bias in New York State education policy. According to the New York State Department of Education (NYSED), whether or not our children will be successful post high school boils down to a number, 1630. The theory goes, if our children are not on track from the age of five to achieve a 1630 on their SATs, they will not be career and college ready. Where that number comes from, no one knows, especially since the College Board itself cites a score of 1550 as “college and career ready.”

(GO): We should add here that the top score for the SAT is now 2400, not 1600 like when my coevals were in school.

(BT): We know that SAT scores are very closely tied to income. A student who scores a 1630 on the SATs likely comes from a home with an income upwards of $160,000. We also know that SAT scores are a relatively weak indicator of student success in college. High schools grades and success in higher-level math courses are much better predictors of college performance, and a recent study of students in colleges that do not require SAT scores demonstrated little difference in academic performance between those who submitted SAT scores and those who did not. Those who did not submit SAT scores were more likely to be the first in their family to attend college, female, or a person of color.

And keep in mind that that over the past 10 years, the number of students considered economically disadvantaged has grown from 41% to 53%.

Despite all of this evidence, the State of New York is still hanging its hat on a weak indicator that is known to favor students who come from affluent, college-educated families. I would argue that by correlating success with a measure that favors privileged students, the state is reinforcing the existing class structure and promoting a biased instrument that does more harm than good.

New York State has now back mapped and correlated success at every level to this bizarre metric, and as a result, a high school diploma will soon be out of reach for many students. This is especially true as New York has now tied every single diploma option to a high stakes test. At a time where the school-to-prison pipeline persists and many are struggling to find long term employment, these reforms will likely widen the achievement gap and lead to less opportunity.

(GO): Yikes.

(BT): And it gets worse. Last year, Governor Cuomo used his State of the State address to unveil his new plan to address  schools labeled as failing based on test scores and graduation rates. The schools on this list are among the poorest and most racially segregated schools in the state, and many have disproportionately high numbers of English language learners and students with disabilities.

Shortly after Cuomo released his “naughty list,” education professor Bruce Baker took a look at the list, crunched the numbers, and found that these schools have the largest state aid shortfalls in the state.

Through a process called “receivership,” failing (or as they are now called, “persistently struggling” ) schools have been given the unrealistic time frame of one year to improve test scores and graduation rates. If they are not successful, these schools may be taken over by a “receiver” who can then convert the school into a privately-run charter school.

(GO): In what I hope is a related story, Andrew Cuomo is going to be indicted in a few weeks. He’s such an oleaginous fuck.

(BT): Over 200,000 parents refused Common Core state tests last year. Whether or not you support the opt out movement, I’m going to assume that everyone will agree that all parents in New York State should have equal rights when it comes to making these kinds of decisions for their children. But this is not the case.

In order for one of these “failing” schools  to avoid being placed in receivership and subsequently taken over by a private entity, 95% of its students must take the state tests.  In other words, parents in failing schools (schools that largely serve poor students and student of color) must make a terrible choice — protect their child or protect their school. Imagine you are the parent of a developmentally disabled child who will not be able to read the test but nonetheless will be compelled to sit with these indecipherable texts for hours. Now imagine that because of your zip code, the color of the skin or the balance of your bank account, you can only refuse these tests by risking the loss of your school. That is all kinds of fucked up.

One of the biggest on influences on student achievement is poverty, yet our competition- and rank-obsessed country is one of the only developed nations where affluent public schools receive more education resources and more public money than poor ones. Given this backwards system, perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked that New York’s answer to poverty and inequitable school funding is to create an arbitrarily high bar and to tell students, clear the bar or fail.

Design by Bianca Tanis and Matt Maley.

Design by Bianca Tanis and Matt Maley.

About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
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