Common Core: What if they gave a test and nobody came?

When public schools across Long Island gave this year's New York State English Language Arts assessment test to students in grades 3 to 8 this week, there were a lot of empty seats. A new survey by Newsday of most Long Island school districts found that more than 2 in 5 students declined to take the test.

That's a sign of how deep the parental opposition is to the school "reform" movement's emphasis on standardized testing as the chief solution to poor educational performance.

The school "reformers" -- that assemblage of bi-partisan political backers, foundation leaders, corporate executives, cheerleaders in the news media, think tank thinkers, etc. -- are very fond of using data to judge others' performance. So here are the numbers Newsday reported:

Nearly 65,000 students in Long Island elementary and middle schools refused to take the state English Language Arts test this week -- 43.6 percent of those in grades three through eight eligible for the exam, a Newsday survey of more than 80 percent of districts Islandwide found.

In 100 of the Island's 124 public school districts, 64,785 of 148,564 children opted out of the exam, according to figures the districts reported.

"Parents are speaking and are saying 'Enough is enough,' and they have had it with students spending this amount of time taking tests," the paper quotes the superintendent of a district where two-thirds of the students did not take the test.

What these numbers show is that the school reformers get an F when it comes to maintaining school relations with parents,  a critical element in the educational process.


Community control of schools has its problems, but these numbers demonstrate the failure of the top-down approach. With so many students avoiding the test, the results are of limited value for assessing teachers, schools or school districts. The tallies will skew based on which students took the test, and which ones opted out.

The school reform movement has brought some valuable insights to play, one of which is that politically powerful teachers' unions enjoyed too much influence over the educational process. But in their zeal to beat down the teachers' unions, the would-be reformers have not only destroyed the morale of teachers but also alienated large numbers of parents. Their solution to this parental revolt seems to be to apply even more top-down pressure: a threat to deny federal funds to districts where a large number of students opt out.

An honest look at the data will tell school reformers that it is time for the reform of their reform. It's over, whether they know it or not.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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