Common Core testing begins in NY — but are exams ready for prime time?

Students in various grades in New York schools will start taking high-stakes standardized tests on Tuesday that, for the first time, are supposedly aligned to the Common Core State Standards. School reformers say the tests will better assess how much students know than the old standardized tests did, though critics question that contention, and say that students may be tested on curriculum they have not yet learned. (Here’s a post on why the Common Core-aligned tests won’t be the “game changer” in assessment that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said they would be.) Parents at dozens of New York schools are choosing to opt their children out of taking the tests.

Following is a piece from a testing expert, Fred Smith, about why he thinks the new exams are not ready to be used in schools, despite what state officials think. Smith, a testing specialist and consultant, retired as an administrative analyst for the New York City public schools. He is a member of Change the Stakes, a parent advocacy group.

By Fred Smith

New York education officials just wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News called “Here Comes the Common Core,” and indeed, here it comes: Students across the state today are starting to take high-stakes standardized tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

“Here Comes the Common Core” — by Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, John King, state education commissioner, Dennis Walcott, chancellor of the New York City public school system and Shael Polakow-Suransky, city chief academic officer — is a clever caption that brings to mind the words ready or not… Unfortunately, schools throughout New York State clearly are not prepared for what the authors are calling a “dynamic transition” to the Core but realists more aptly describe as confusion.

The Common Core State Standards are a set of learning standards setting forth what students should learn and be able to do so that all of them are prepared for college and careers.  Critics contend the stringent standards and the “core-aligned” tests that are being given this week in grades 3–8, have been rolled out without building the bridge to connect them—a curriculum and professional development package for teachers.

As a testing specialist, my analysis leads me to a different kind of skepticism. The amount of time children have been given to complete test items this year is significantly less than last. This is a matter of test design, and the pressure caused by shorter time limits is sharply inconsistent with the grandiose claims about what the standards are supposed to mean for students.

For the English Language Arts (ELA) exams, there is an overall 7% decrease in time per item. It is fairly uniform from grade 3 through 8.  For math, the average time allocation drops by 13%, ranging up to a 26% decrease in grade 3!

Last year, third graders had three hours over two days to complete 58 math items. Next week they will have two hours and twenty minutes to answer 61 items—that somehow will be the vital first stage in projecting whether they will be ready for college and employment ten years from now.

Alice in Wonderland logic is leading the way.  Down is up.  Items will be more difficult and we’ll give children less time to read more complex material and solve more challenging math problems using, in testing jargon, “speeded” tests.  Things will be harder this year, kids will struggle, results will decline, but that’s a sure sign that we’re on the path tor improvement.

But don’t say things got worse; just say we raised the bar (again). This last happened in 2010.  Test results had become so spuriously high that Tisch pledged more rigorous and less predictable tests with higher cutoff scores that would yield sinking rates of proficiency. We were assured this would right the ship. Three years later we’re seeing a re-play on an elaborate scale.

In addition to the timing anomaly, the 2013 exams contain field test items that the  publisher, NCS Pearson, is trying out while the real test is being administered.  These experimental items don’t count in scoring the tests, and students can’t tell them apart from the operational items—the ones that count.

Yet all items require students to spend time and effort on the unrefined material.  The purpose is to find out which of the trial items works well enough to be selected for inclusion on next year’s operational tests.  That seems like a good idea, but there’s a catch.

The field test items can be embedded anywhere in the test booklet.  If they occur at the outset, children will struggle with tough items that don’t count.  Many will be frustrated, worn out, discouraged and defeated and may give up before reaching the items that count.

Take the 2013 Grade 3 ELA for example. Test Book 1 consist of five reading passages and 30 multiple-choice items, including the field test items—an average of six items per passage.  Let’s assume that one passage and six items are being tried out.  That would take up one-fifth of the allotted 70-minute testing time. So 14 minutes would be devoted to taking experimental items that will help test vendor Pearson develop next year’s exams.

The extra reading passage (500 – 600 words) and six multiple-choice items will put a strain on 8-year olds taking the test, and will penalize students who have the misfortune to be confronted by these items as soon as they open their test booklets.  This will adversely impact their chances of doing well on the rest of the test.

This is not merely an academic exercise on my part.  It raises legal and ethical questions about forcing children to serve as subjects for commercial research purposes without their parents’ knowledge and informed consent.  The State Education Department has cited no legal authority empowering it to do so.

My findings support growing numbers of parents who have decided to or are thinking about keeping their children from taking this week’s exams. They have seen the mass destruction of education caused by excessive high-stakes testing.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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