These included overly long, dense and grade-inappropriate reading passages with numerous typos, abstruse vocabulary and confusing questions; many of which teachers themselves said they couldn't discern the right answers. On the third grade exam, for example, an excerpt from a book called “Eating the plate” was actually fifth grade level and sixth to eighth grade interest level. There were many reading passages with Lexile levels two or three grades above the grades of students being asked to comprehend and respond to these texts.
"In 6th grade there was a poem from the 17th century that the teachers in our building read in COLLEGE. 11th grade level.”
On the eighth grade exam, one reading passage featured obscure words like "crag" and "fastnesses". As one teacher wrote, "What are fastnesses?...I asked eight of my fellow colleagues to define this word. 1 of 8 knew the answer. Unless you a geology major, how is this word a part of our everyday language, let alone the reading capacity of an average 8th grader? And our ESL students?"
I even asked my husband, a professor in the Geosciences department; he didn't know what "fastnesses" meant either.
There were several passages that included commercial product placements as in years past, this time featuring the helmet manufacturer Riddell, Skittles candy, Stonyfield yogurt, and Doritos. (Riddell is being sued by a thousand NFL players for deceptive claims that their helmets protected against concussions.)
One notable reading passage described herding sheep from the perspective of the dog, without making that clear in the text. Another section asked what the phrase "impossibly improbable" meant, within the context of an article promoting the efficacy of the controversial weed-killer called Round Up. The article didn't mention that the herbicide has been called a "probable carcinogen" by the World Health Organization, and banned in several countries. (In this case, however, the author used its chemical name glysophate, and not its more well-known commercial name.) There were even upsetting passages about kids who had lost parents through death or separation.
One teacher disclosed that a passage on the exam had been in Pearson i-ready test prep reading material that she had assigned to her class a few weeks before.
Two new problems emerged. One was the omission from many of the test booklets of blank pages that were supposed to be used by students to plan their essays, or the titles of the pages were left out. Instructions to deal with these problems came from the state only after many children were in the midst of writing their essays or after they had completed the exams. In these cases, teachers pointed out, this represented an unfair disadvantage to their students, who were forced to either use the limited space at the front of the booklet to plan their essays or didn't plan them at all.
But perhaps the most heartbreaking was an unforeseen but brutal consequence of the untimed nature of these exams, the major innovation made by Commissioner Elia that was supposed to reduce the stress levels of kids. Instead, many students labored for many hours, taking three to five hours per day to complete them, and sometimes more. Here's one comment from Facebook:
"This afternoon I saw one of my former students still working on her ELA test at 2:45 PM. Her face was pained and she looked exhausted. She had worked on her test until dismissal time for the first two days of testing as well. 18 hours. She's 9."
This is a travesty; no child should be subjected to such a punishing regime. It also appears to violate the NY law passed in 2014 that limits state testing time to one percent of total instructional time.
In any case, it appears that the parents who chose to opt their children out of the exams were wise to have done so. All in all, the number of opt outs seem to have held steady from last year's 240,000, or even perhaps increased, with even higher rates of test refusals in Rockland County, NYC, and Long Island, which surpassed its record rates last year, with more than 97,000 students opting out, or about 50% of eligible kids compared to about 47% last year.
And all this, despite the efforts to suppress the movement from Commissioner Elia , Chancellor Farina, as well as six-figure ad buys from Gates-funded Astroturf groups like High Achievement NY, all with the message that the tests would be so much "better" this year.
It goes without saying that even more parents should consider opting their kids out of next week's math exams. Instructions from NYSAPE including a sample letter to give to your principal is here; here’s one from Change the Stakes.