Principals slam 2014 NY Common Core tests as badly designed

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Students in New York have been taking state-mandated Common Core-aligned standard tests in English Language Arts in recent days and, for the second year in a row, educators are saying the tests — designed by the giant education company Pearson — were badly designed for the second straight year.

Last year, the tests sparked controversy over  product placements within test questions (such as Mug™ Root Beer) as well as over poorly drawn questions — including one about a talking pineapple that seemed to have no good answer to choose from — and a cut score that  resulted in a 30 percent drop in the number of students scoring “proficient” from the year before. Curiously, state officials had predicted that the test scores would drop exactly 30 percent.

This year marks the second administration of the new Common Core-aligned tests and many educators say things haven’t gotten much better in regard to test construction. Liz Phillips, a well-respected principal, wrote a letter to parents of children at her school, PS321, that said in part:

PS 321 PARENTS–Our 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders have just completed three days of the New York State English Language Arts Exam. Your children were wonderful and worked incredibly hard. On the whole, we think that we were able to protect them from the worst stresses of the test, and most seemed fine during most of the exam. However, the teachers and administration are truly devastated by what a terrible test it was and how little it will tell us about our students.

Because we are bound by test security, we cannot reveal details but we can tell you that we have never seen an ELA exam that does a worse job of testing reading comprehension. There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages. Our teachers and administrators feel that this test is an insult to the profession of teaching and that students’ scores on it will not correlate with their reading ability.

 

Phillips called a protest at her school last Friday and hundreds of parents and teachers turned out. Now other principals in her New York City’s District 2 — which covers a large part of Manhattan — are taking a stand in support of Phillips.  Here’s an open letter that they issued and published on the NYC Public School Parents blog:

Dear District 2 Families,

Community School District 2 represents a richly diverse group of school communities and it is not often these days that we have an opportunity to join in a shared effort. Last week, and for several weeks prior, every one of our upper grade classrooms devoted hours of instructional time, vast human resources, and a tremendous amount of thoughtful effort to preparing students to do well on the NYS ELA [New York State English Language] exams and, ultimately, to administering them. Only a handful of District 2 families even considered opting out, and we are not advocating families do so, specifically because we believe our students are well prepared for the rigor and high expectations of the Common Core and our schools have worked hard for several years to adjust our curriculum and teaching to support students in meeting those expectations.

We had high hopes for what this year’s tests would bring and assured families that they would reflect the feedback test makers and state officials had received from educators and families regarding the design of the test following last year’s administration. Our students worked extremely hard and did their very best. As school leaders, we supported teachers in ensuring that students and families kept the tests in perspective – they were important, but by no means the ultimate measure of who they are as readers, students, or human beings. We encouraged them to be optimistic, and did our best to do the same. Frankly, many of us were disappointed by the design and quality of the tests and stood by helplessly while kids struggled to determine best answers, distorting much of what we’d taught them about effective reading skills and strategies and forgoing deep comprehension for something quite different.

Last Friday morning, Liz Phillips, the principal of PS321 in Brooklyn, led her staff and her parent community in a demonstration objecting, not to testing or accountability or high expectations for kids, but to these tests in particular and, importantly, to their high-stakes nature for teachers and students, and the policy of refusing to release other than a small percentage of the questions. 500 staff and parents participated.

By Friday evening some officials were dismissing the importance of their statement, claiming that Liz and her community represented only a tiny percentage of those affected, implying that the rest of us were satisfied. Given the terribly high stakes of these tests, for schools, for teachers and for kids, and the enormous amount of human, intellectual and financial resources that have been devoted to them, test makers should be prepared to stand by them and to allow them to undergo close scrutiny.

Many District 2 schools will be holding demonstrations this week, making sure our thoughts on this are loud and clear and making it more difficult to dismiss the efforts of one school. On Friday morning, April 11th, at 8:00am, we invite our families and staff to join District 2 schools in speaking out, expressing our deep dissatisfaction with the 2014 NYS English Language Arts  exams and the lack of transparency surrounding them.

Among the concerns shared by many schools are the following: The tests seem not to be particularly well-aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards; the questions are poorly constructed and often ambiguous; the tests themselves are embargoed and only a handful of select questions will be released next year; teachers are not permitted to use (or even discuss) the questions or the results to inform their teaching; students and families receive little or no specific feedback; this year, there were product placements (i.e., Nike, Barbie) woven through some exams. We are inviting you and your family to join together as a school community in this action, helping to ensure that officials are not left to wonder whether our silence implied approval.

Yours truly, District 2 Principals

Adele Schroeter, PS59; Lisa Ripperger, PS234; Robert Bender, PS11; Tara Napoleoni, PS183; Jane Hsu, PS116; Sharon Hill, PS290; Amy Hom, PS1; Lauren Fontana, PS6; Jennifer Bonnet, PS150; Nicole Ziccardi Yerk, PS281; Susan Felder, PS40; Alice Hom, PS124; Nancy Harris, PS397; Kelly Shannon, PS41; Nancy Sing-Bok, PS51; Lisa Siegman, PS3; Irma Medina, PS111; Terry Ruyter, PS276; Medea McEvoy, PS267; Darryl Alhadeff, PS158; Samantha Kaplan, PS151; David Bowell, PS347; Lily Woo, PS130; Jacqui Getz, PS126; Kelly McGuire, Lower Manhattan Community MS

From March through June, millions of students around the country are field-testing new Common Core tests being designed by two multi-state consortia, but New York decided it couldn’t wait and had Pearson create exams supposedly aligned to the new standards being implemented in the state. The field testing in various states has run into a number of big problems, including computer systems that crashed during the test. Stay tuned for more on how the field testing is going — or, rather, isn’t.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · April 8, 2014

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