Sunday, April 10, 2016

So was the testing experience for kids so much better this year? The answer must be no.

Clearly there were many problems with this year's NY state ELA exams.  My three blog posts have received about 150 comments so far, and over 40,000 page views.  I urge you to take a look here, here, and here. Many teachers, administrators and parents wrote about their concerns with these exams elsewhere, pointing out faults that had plagued previous versions of the Pearson NYS ELA exams.

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.  


Unknown said...

How can this be possible if Commissioner Elia explained on her road tour that 22 teachers reviewed every single test question? When we asked who the teachers were, she wouldn't tell us. When will this nightmare end and they rid of us Common Core in its entirety?

Anonymous said...

Two points:

Third grade tests had the term "animal husbandry." It makes me think--children in NY state are truly diverse: they come from urban, suburban, and rural backgrounds. Some readings are about farming. Is there an overall balance on the ELA tests? Are there readings featuring urban and suburban settings, too?

NYC students did not have spring break yet. Other districts might have had their break. So those students would have an advantage during testing time. One teacher mentioned her NYC students are so tired and the whole school is ready for spring break!

Blog post to read:

cieri said...

I'm confused? I have a 3rd grader who just took the test. He didn't break out into a cold sweat, he slept fine and he took the test and did the best he could. It was a test to see what you knew and what you didn't know. So what you are saying is that the test didn't say your kid was a genius and didn't know everything so you're upset? you wanted to the test to only ask questions YOUR kid knew the answers to? What about the kid who knew what fastnesses was? He shouldn't get a better mark then your kid who didn't? Is your husband the holder of all knowledge and only what he knows can anyone know?

i liked the test it showed my kid that there was a whole lot of things he doesn't know so he better start studying and reading and learning.

alice said...

A Letter to the Chancellor (Feel free to copy and paste and send it as your own...)

Dear Chancellor Rosa,
I have high hopes that you will bring sanity to the scary situation classroom teachers are finding themselves in during this current testing season. After all the promises Commissioner Elia made, (I spoke to her in person when she visited White Plains High School a few weeks ago,) she has failed to demonstrate an honest and believable response to the serious concerns she claims she heard while on her "listening tour." This has to be the worst testing season to date. Students in New York State have been "choosing" to sit with a test for 3, 4, 5 hours and more. No normal, healthy child would make this decision. We are preying on the weaknesses of children with anxiety issues, OCD, a heightened need to please teachers and parents, or a host of other possible reasons to "choose" to take a test for so long. When I asked at school if we had an obligation to tell parents how long their children had been testing for, I was looked at like I was crazy.
I continue to be stunned by our complicity as a profession. How did we allow ourselves to be co-opted into becoming foot soldiers in a war on children?
This whole situation has created chaos, confusion, and a lot of crazy thinking. We are further today from returning sanity to public education than we were last year with John King.
I am tired of being forced into being complicit in the State Ed Department's illogical decisions and directives.
Have policy makers heard of the Milgram or Stanford Prison Experiments? They were both wildly successful studies of exactly what human adults are capable of doing in the name of blind obedience.
There is much that is wrong this year. This is not a reboot. This is a nightmare.
Un-timed tests are abusive to children. Improperly printed test booklets invalidate the scores.
Please, we need your help to stop this madness.

Rick Motz said...

Just read an article (blog?) from some teacher who teaches English as a second language. I felt it was misleading in that there were no facts presented. "The test was too long". Certainly the passages and questions were not to many. Were they only given an hour to answer each day? Multiple choice questions take 10 seconds each if you know the subject. As to writing a paragraph... I don't get her concern. She sounds like a teacher who is worried that she will lose her job. Maybe she should.

Rick Motz said...

One last point. All the posts above were written by teachers except mine and one from a mother. The others were all (ALL) critical of the test. Read between the lines!

Anonymous said...

As a parent, the tests were demanding and confusing to my child. He excels at school and reads 2 or 3 grades above level, however the written questions didn't connect well with the stories and he was confused as to what was being asked. The multiple choice questions also require a lot of time and rereading to choose the best answer. There are always other good answers, however only one is the best choice. Look at the samples available to parents from past tests before deciding that people only complain because they teach. These are not the simple tests most people think of when remembering tests we took in school. These are long demanding tests that require time and thinking and planning before questions can be answered.

Unitymustgo! said...

Nothing about the math tests? I proctored grade 4 today and have plenty to say.

Leonie Haimson said...

Unitymustgo - please check out our new blog post about the math and leave a comment there! Thanks

Anonymous said...

Rick, teachers who saw the tests cannot "present facts" about the tests. They'd get fired for giving details about the tests. Which is silly...the tests should be out there for all to see after they've been given., but that is not the way it is. said...

“In the heart of a child, one moment …. can last forever.”

About this testing …

There is no virtue in making children so brave that they might withstand the idiocy of adults. Nor is there any virtue in lying to children so as to protect adult ridiculousness. And when adults trip over their own commandments and reason away the subtle wounding of children … then they themselves have committed a great sin.

Childhood is an extraordinary moment. It has its own sanctity because it is the maker of first memories … and we make big deals of firsts in our lives. And first memories should never be ugly. Not ever.

But what has become of us? Why have we arrived at this moment when children become fair game in an adult controversy? Instinct tells us never to place children in the middle of a muddle. But here we are … hearing unbelieving tales of adult unfairness that seem such the antithesis of what is expected from the guardians of our children.

Life is a long frustration. The great beauty of maturity is that we learn to keep our cool and to react only to the most insistent frustrations. Adults learn to separate the important from the unimportant … and it prevents us from the nasty human inclination to settle on easy scapegoats … and then to punish the weakest and most vulnerable.

Scapegoats are born of frustrations adults cannot control … and we have loads of frustration surrounding this wretched reform. But frustration is never a green light to exercise a disturbing dominance over the smallest of the small. If that is the first impulse of an adult, then they are in a queer orbit.

Children cut off from pizza parties and ice cream treats because their parents exercised their right right of refusal? Little humans in little desks made to sit and stare for hours … in of all places … a school? Children confronted by some towering goliath … insisting that they revoke their parents’ own wishes? What the hell is going on here?

Where is the wisdom in gluing children to desks for hours as they squirm their way through some asinine educational gauntlet that has no real purpose other than to pay homage to some testing god? Who thought that a good idea?

This is a mess that cannot be unmessed. When will we start over … and get this straight?

Is this how children should ever be treated? Are there not school campaigns to disarm bullies … and to champion kindness? Have those champions vanished? Were those just paper heroics? Empty nonsense? I sense adult ugliness seeping through a holy firewall behind which childhood is protected. It seems too many are now comfortable liars … even with children. And worse, some have become hypocrites.

There is never an excuse to scar a child. And if you’re in the child business … that sort of action condemns you to a special sort of hell.

For children, school is a majestic cathedral. A near shrine where every minute should be crammed with as much wonder as a minute might hold. To disturb that atmosphere is to violate the inviolate,

A school has no place or space for anyone unable to plug into their memory bank for recollections of their own childhood. If one cannot stay linked with with the memories of their own past, perhaps they shouldn’t be in the memory-making business at all.

When one’s memory of childhood evaporates, so does one's empathy. And that is a signal to move on.

“Childhood is a short season.” Give it its due.

Denis Ian