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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 04/16/2012

10-year-old: ‘I want to know why after vacation I have to take test after test after test’

This was written by Carol Corbett Burris, principal of South Side High School in New York. She was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.

By Carol Corbett Burris

My 10-year-old neighbor stopped by for a visit. She likes to talk school with the “school lady’ whose dogs she loves to pet. From the look on her face I could tell that this was not going to be the usual school story.  She looked far too glum for that.

 “I want to know why after vacation I have to take test after test after test,” she asked. “I know what math I’m good at. My teacher knows the words I can’t spell. My mom knows I’m a fast reader…. So what’s the point?”

 I punted and answered a question with a question: “Why do you think the tests are important?”

 “No idea,” she said, “but my teacher says that we need to do good on them. She’s nervous about us taking the tests. Now here’s what I think. I am supposed to learn in school, right? But either you are test-taking or you are learning—can’t be doing both at the same time.”

 My 10-year-old friend, of course, is right. When she returns from spring break she will not be learning. Instead, she will be subjected to six days of New York State exams. Her teacher must allot 90 minutes for six days — a total of nine hours — not counting 60 minutes of “prep time” to pass out materials. The New York State Education Department estimates that each test book will take 60 minutes to complete for a total of 6 hours of testing of students from Grades 3 to 8. For students with a learning disability who get extra time, it can be as much as 12 hours of testing. Let’s put those into perspective.

 ·        The LSAT for Law School admissions takes 2.9 hours plus a 35 minute writing sample.

·        The NYPD Officer Written Exam designed to measure the cognitive ability, observational skills, and mental acuity of applicants to the NYPD takes one hour and 30 minutes to complete.

·        The NCLEX (National Council Licensure EXamination) is an examination for the licensing of registered nurses. Nurses are permitted up to six hours to complete it.

·        The Series 7 exam, which licenses stockbrokers, is a six hour test, too.

·        Only the American Board of Dermatology certification exam exceeds the NY State test time for third graders. It is eight hours long. But that does include breaks.

Why are our 9 year olds subjected to state exams that last as long or are longer than entrance and certifying exams for adult professionals who make life and death decisions?  Why are the 75-minute third-grade state exams of 2005 no longer enough?

 The honest answer is that testing is now hardly about students at all.

 Every one of the adult tests that I listed above is designed for a single purpose — to grant a license or to qualify for a program. This is not true of the new standardized state (and soon to be national) testing systems for children.

When my 10-year-old neighbor picks up her pencil on April 17, she will determine, in part, the evaluation of her teacher, principal, school and perhaps even the school of education that her teacher attended, as suggested by a recent New York proposal for testing. As a matter of measurement, this is nonsense. And it applies awful pressure on teachers and schools to become test-prep factories. But it’s also an unfair and unnecessary burden to put on the shoulders of a child.

 It is also the reason that the tests now have to last six hours. No longer are they designed to determine if the student is achieving at grade level or needs extra help. The new tests now include below-grade-level, above-grade-level and field-test questions. If the state is going to use the student tests to evaluate teachers, those tests must be able to show yearly student growth for students who are below- or above-grade-level in skills. The tests must also be able to evaluate the validity and reliability of future questions because if the state is going to mandate the dismissal of teachers and principals based on student test results, or ruin their reputation by posting their scores in the newspaper, then it must also require that the tests be designed to stand up in court (whether or not they ultimate do stand up is still an open question). The needs of the lawyer, not the child, are now front and center.

 So students as young as 9 years of age will need to sit for longer hours and complete extra questions for all the political purposes designed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and other test-obsessed lawmakers and so-called reformers.

Instead of learning, students will answer question after question – designed by measurement experts, not their teachers. They will stare at the ceiling if they finish early, and wait to hear the words, “pencils down.” They will lose more than a week of their education so that their teacher can be ranked and sorted on a bell curve and assigned a number.

And after all that effort and wasted time, the best we can say about that number is that it can distinguish the very best from the very worst teacher — replicating information that their principals already know.

Yet, here in New York at least, it gets worse.

Because of APPR, the NYS educator-evaluation system, the test obsession does not end with the state exam. Districts across the state are buying additional tests for students to take in order to create data for the part of the teacher evaluation designated the local assessment (20% of the total). Districts are purchasing tests such as the NWEA to measure student growth again, to again use to evaluate teachers. New York City’s Department of Education has put out bids for what will surely be millions of dollars in local assessments that will be used to not only measure learning to evaluate teachers, but to close schools . Many of these tests take place over multiple sittings, robbing students of precious instructional time and resources. The assessments associated with the Common Core, developed by the PARC Consortium, are a nine-exam series for Grade 3-11. And those are only the exams in math and English Language Arts.

 Who is it, then, that benefits from testing obsession? Financial benefits, at least, are pretty easy to identify. Certainly those who make the tests, score the tests, and build the data systems benefit. The Pearson corporation, which reported a 72% increase in profits , was awarded a $33 million contract by the New York State Education Department in 2010 for testing. Pearson sells the tools to grade the tests, the software to analyze the tests, and the textbooks that teach to the test. In 2011, Pearson Education spent over a million dollars on lobbying. Even the Pearson Foundation is under investigation for possible lobbying violations.  

Rupert Murdoch benefits. Murdoch said that public education is a $500 billion market waiting desperately to be transformed — right before he bought Wireless Corporation. Wireless was awarded a no-bid $27 million contract to track student performance throughout New York state, which was pulled back after the News Corp phone hacking scandal. Despite the scandal, New York state and 10 other states have agreed to give confidential teacher and student data for free to a shared learning collaborative funded by Bill Gates and run by Murdoch’s Wireless Corp. Wireless received $44 million for the project  

Former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein benefits. He is expected to make as much as $4.5 million this year working for Murdoch and Wireless Corp — even as he takes his pension for working eight years as chancellor. He continues to try to influence New York education policy and practices with the newly formed StudentsFirstNY .

The culture of testing has created an enormous opportunity for profit for those connected with the testing and data industry as well as well-paid professional consultants. In the war on public schools, commonly referred to as ‘school reform,’ the weapon of choice is the test. Those tests are the basis for battering public school teachers. They are the basis for closing schools. They are the rock on which the whole corporate school reform industry stands. Without test scores as the bottom line, that industry would collapse.

 To tell the truth to my young friend, I would have had to explain that all of that is the point of her wasted six days without learning. But I did not have the heart. So I said, “Just do your best, my dear, and know that no matter what score you get, you are as smart as smart can be. School will be better when the testing is done.”

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