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Answer Sheet
Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 05/08/2012

Teacher on flawed tests: ‘We can ill-afford to be silent while our very jobs are at stake’

I received the following email from a New York State math teacher. The message reveals a previously unreported problem with the New York State 7th Grade Math exam recently given to students, this on top of the now famous English Language Arts test questions about a talking pineapple and other problems with these tests that have been cited by principals and others.

But this teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, writes about something bigger than a simple test question: The proper role of teachers, and standardized tests, in public education. In the email the teacher asks a question that I can’t answer about whether any states have an appeals process about a question on a standardized test that is ambiguous, not part of the curriculum or just plain wrong. If anybody knows a state with such a process, please speak up.

Here’s the email:

Dear Valerie,

I am a daily reader of “The Answer Sheet” and a math teacher in a suburban New York school district.  I am privileged to work for a supportive Board of Education and administration.  More importantly, I work with wonderful students.  Many teachers would be jealous of my situation, but I am becoming ever more dissatisfied with my job.           

By now, everyone has heard about “The Pineapple” story on the NYS ELA [New York State English Language Arts] exam.  The large amount of media attention came as no surprise since students easily recall such a silly story.  Math problems, on the other hand, are a different animal.  Math test questions are often abstract and they do not lend themselves to discussion by students the way a fruit and animal foot race will (does a pineapple have a foot?). 

  As I have read countless stories about “The Pineapple,” there are very few quotes from teachers.  Teachers are hesitant to speak out and I can only assume that this is due to the “secure” nature of the exams.  Some teachers discuss testing issues on public chat forums in a careful way, but when do we just go to the press?  Do we wait until the educational system is totally privatized before we start to fight back (with or without the consent of our local, state and national unions)?  We can ill-afford to be silent while our very jobs are at stake.

The most recent NYS Grade 7 Math exam demonstrates how dangerous these exams can be for our students, teachers and schools.   A few points in either direction can mean the difference between a student moving onto the next grade, a teacher being rated ineffective, a teacher being publicly humiliated in the newspaper, a teacher being fired or a school closing.  This means just one question (particularly on the free-response section of the test) can be the difference. 

Up to this point, the state has thrown out a number of ELA and Math questions based upon receiving a number of complaints from schools and bad press.  This is hardly an objective way of assessing the validity of the test with such high stakes.  These exams should be close to flawless considering the fact that thousands of teachers create and administer exams to students every day in this country that have no typo’s and are age appropriate.

So what’s my gripe with this current 7th grade test?  One particular question asked students to use a geometric property that is traditionally taught in the high school Geometry course in New York State (for most students this means 10th grade) to solve a 7th grade problem.  Pearson, although they are the creator (one might say recycler) of the exam, refers concerned teachers to the NYS Education Department for clarification via a phone hotline.  The state cited a 5th grade and 7th grade standard as justification for such a question.  One might say case closed, but there is so much more to this.   

As you may have read, the ELA and math tests contained embedded field test questions (the aforementioned question was NOT a field test question).  We have heard over and over again from New York State how these questions do not count.  The problem is they do.  EVERY teacher knows that overly difficult test questions (e.g., embedded field tests questions) can, did and will continue to send NYS students into a tailspin.  Now add into the mix a question that does not belong in the curriculum and you have the cards stacked against the students and teachers.  How is any of this fair?  

What happens when teachers do not agree with the State’s decision regarding a standard? What if my years of experience in the classroom, and not in an office, tells me that I am right?  What if I believe 7th graders should not be learning 10th grade math and did not include it in my lessons for that year?  What if I know that the embedded field test questions sabotaged the exam for my students and consequently me? 

Teachers must interpret standards and make judgments on just how much that standard is asking the students to do.  In other words, teachers need to determine what is considered to be educationally appropriate for the students that they teach. 

For example, one NYS Grade 7 curriculum standard says, “Calculate the radius or diameter, given the circumference or area of a circle.” By NYS ED logic, I could then take that state standard and merge it with a topic from 11th grade and still have a valid 7th grade question.  Just recently we witnessed this inexcusable lack of knowledge of the NYS math standards and classroom experience on the 5th grade exam where students were supposed to know the Pythagorean Theorem (something that was definitely not part of the curriculum).  It seems reasonable then to believe that the 7th grade math exam has a flawed question too.

So Valerie, you report on educational issues throughout the country.  Do you know of any states that have an appeals process in place other than speaking to a “state ed” phone representative (what are their qualifications anyway?) who act as judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to tests that they don’t develop?  These phone operators hold the fate of so many in their hands.

New York State Education has long since stopped listening to those on the front lines of education (case in point, Governor Cuomo’s new education “reform” — no teachers allowed — committee), so what else can we do to have our voices heard?  Our state and national unions speak for us, but politics get in the way.  How do we appeal a decision by some no name bureaucrat on the other end of the phone line when so much is at stake?  How do we speak out when we are concerned about keeping the tests “secure” and not getting ourselves into hot water?         

Since educational “reformists” and private interests push educational policies that are based on free market principles, maybe I can offer this analogy.

  The current state of education reminds me of the failings of the U.S. automobile industry.  Japanese automakers realized that the way to make a quality product was to listen to the workers on the assembly line (part of “The Kaizen Philosophy”).  If something was wrong with the wheel, the assembly line stopped, and the wheel people were consulted.   As we all know, the U.S. automakers fell behind Japanese automakers for a long time, needed a government bail-out and are just starting to get back on their feet.  What will happen to education if states continue down this path of listening to the private-for-profit interests?  What happens when our concerns about the very tests that evaluate teachers fall on deaf ears because state education departments would rather create a Ford Pinto instead of a Honda Accord? 

I am going to ask that my name be withheld from publication since I am unsure if NYS will develop some new regulation that will not permit me to speak about “stated ed’s” response to teacher questions regarding secure exams.  Since NYS is well-known for building the airplane while it is in mid-flight, my decision to remain anonymous seems prudent.  Any advice you could offer us here in NY would be welcomed.

 

Dejected,

New York State Math Teacher

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