State tests ignore kids’ various learning levels within each grade

Notably, on the back page of the Sept. 12 edition of the Plattsburgh Press-Republican was a brief Associated Press release in two parts: “New York tweaks, renames Common Core Standards” and “NY approves education plan to submit for federal approval.” While little information was contained in the statement about the education plan for federal approval, one would assume it must be related to what’s planned for Common Core.

Written standards, formally known as Common Core, are now to be known as the “Next Generation Learning Standards for English and math.” This change is claimed to be a response to criticisms over the way they (Common Core standards) were written and implemented.

According to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, full implementation of the Next Generation Standards will be the 2020-21 school year, giving teachers time to adjust before the new standards become the basis for statewide testing. Apparently the Regents believe the state’s rapid switch to Common Core-based assessments led to the widespread boycotts of annual tests. Perhaps it was more complicated; what do you think?

There is no indication from a name change that the outline of skills students are required to meet at each grade level are not still in place, in spite of known differences in the developmental characteristics of individual learners. It’s common knowledge among developmental scholars that multiple levels of intellectual capabilities can and do exist at each grade level, and these differences are reflected in test scores. For instance, if a youngster is pre-logical, developmentally speaking, he or she will not perform well on standardized tests that require logical thinking. Those who can think logically about matters they have experienced firsthand will not do well with the abstract language of test items. Those who are capable of hypothetical deduction and abstract reasoning will be able to relate to abstract test questions and succeed, provided they have acquired the necessary experiences to understand the questions. Drill and guessing will have a roll.

Piaget’s schematic that describes the development of logical thinking is called genetic epistemology. Epistemology, according to Webster, investigates the origins of human knowledge, the nature of human knowledge, the methods of acquiring knowledge and the limits of human knowledge. Piaget found that individuals develop the ability to deal with logical knowledge along a natural and predictable sequence (unrelated to age or grade level designation), unless blocked or driven off course by inappropriate experiences or some unfortunate malady. He referred to the stages in the sequence as motor-sensory, pre-logical or pre-operations, concrete operations involving logic based on direct experience and formal operations that involves understanding the logic behind hypothetical and abstract information. He found that individuals naturally acquire and perceive their worlds differently at each of these stages. A summary of research that was conducted in 1980 by Joyce Epstein, Ph.D., among others, indicates the following:

¯ Third-graders — 25 percent are found to be pre-logical. 55 percent are only beginning to be logical involving firsthand experiences. Only 20 percent are capable of logical reasoning about concrete experience. None can insightfully deal with abstract or hypothetical information.

¯ Fourth-graders — 15 percent are pre-logical. 55 percent are just beginning to be logical about concrete experiences. 30 percent are fully logical about concrete experiences. None can deal insightfully with abstract and hypothetical information.

¯ Fifth-graders — 12 percent are pre-logical. 52 percent are beginning to be logical about concrete experiences. 35 percent can deal with concrete experience with logic. Only 1 percent are beginning to deal insightfully with abstract and hypothetical information.

¯ Sixth-graders — 6 percent are still pre-logical. 49 percent were found to use beginning logic about concrete experiences. 40 percent can be fully logical when dealing with concrete experiences. 5 percent have reached the stage where they are beginning to understand abstract and hypothetical information.

¯ Seventh-graders — 5 percent are still at the pre-logical stage, 32 percent at the onset of concrete logic, 51 percent at a mature level of logic regarding concrete experience, 12 percent at the onset of formal logic.

¯ Eighth-graders — 2 percent at the pre-logical level, 34 percent at the onset of concrete logic, 44 percent at a mature level of concrete logic, 14 percent at the onset of formal logic and 6 percent at a mature level of formal logic.

After testing nearly 1,500 students at grade levels kindergarten through the sixth grade, the findings of Dr. Epstein were corroborated by this author. Anyone can do the same by administering Piaget’s conservation exercises.

Do you suppose the Board of Regents is unaware of these findings? If so, it might explain why administering the same tests to all members of each grade is considered legitimate. Additionally, it would not be difficult to rationalize instructional procedures that employ worksheets of abstract and hypothetical information, would it not?

I suspect that the Board of Regents, like other educators, are suffering from a fatal disease, hardening of the categories, otherwise known as tradition. When presented with this developmental evidence, the Regents will likely attack the messenger rather than seriously consider the message.

As a superintendent of schools recently asserted his belief, it is the schools’ responsibility to accelerate these levels of development by starting earlier in the grade levels. When asked if he thought puberty could and should be accelerated, he responded that it is already happening. I wonder where that bit of fake evidence came from.

There is one thing for certain: Changing the name of the Common Core will not solve the problem of lack of success in meeting the standards or of parental boycotting of tests. The statements of standards are not the problem. It’s a commitment to grade levels instead of developmental characteristics, instruction that is organized around formalized lesson plans that subordinate the needs of individual learners, standardized tests that do not reflect developmental differences, expectations for retention of isolated facts that are not part of a learned pattern of relationships, and students expected to be dutiful consumers of others’ conclusions offered to them in departmental settings, rather than engaged creators of knowledge using the tools of inquiry and communication found in the disciplines of the general education program.

Curiosity might be rewarded if you would check out these two websites: and

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.