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Teacher: Common Core tests set kids up to fail

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Jennifer Rickert is a sixth-grade teacher who has worked for 22 years in the Ichabod Crane Central School District in New York State. She just gave a powerful, detailed speech to her Board of Education about her objections to the state’s English Language Arts Common Core test and her decision not to administer it this spring.

New York is part of a multi-state consortium known as the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, which is auditioning its newly designed Common Core tests this school year. But New York education officials were so eager to start testing students on the Common Core State Standards that it didn’t wait for the consortium to finish its work but paid millions of dollars to Pearson to design Core-aligned tests, which were first given to students in 2013. Problems with the content and administration of the exam led thousands of parents to opt their children out of the test in 2014.

Now teachers, at the risk of losing their jobs, are speaking up, saying why they have decided not to administer it.

This week, Rickert gave some detailed testimony about problems with the test being given to 11- and 12-year-olds, and concluded it by saying:

“I have the greatest job.  I am a teacher.  I, today, am standing up for my students.  Finally.”

Here is the video (done by Mert Melfa) and beneath that is the text of her speech:

Here is Jennifer Rickert’s testimony:

​I have the greatest job on earth. I’m a teacher.  This year, I began my 22nd year at the Ichabod Crane Central School District, where I have taught Grades 2, 5, and 6.  I love my students and I am very passionate about teaching.  I also stay involved with educational shifts and new strategies.  I try to exemplify this in the leadership roles I assume as Grade Level Chair, English/Language Arts Liaison, and Middle School Student Mentoring Coordinator.  I have always thought of myself as somewhat “old-school” because I respect the chain of command, respect my elders, and consider myself patriotic.  I am a rule follower.
For these reasons, I have complied enthusiastically with the implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards and all of the instructional shifts, professional development, and student testing required due to the adoption of the CCLS.  Instrumental in our school district’s adoption of a CCLS aligned English/Language Arts program, I have stayed the course, attempting to reach the lofty goals set forth for our students.  I have facilitated professional development and department meetings, reassuring my department that “it will all work out if we keep moving forward.”  I have told parent upon parent that “the testing is only one measure of your child’s success,” and “we are seeing some gaps, but let’s keep trying.”
Over the last few years, I have seen many parents cry about their child’s New York State test scores, and I have seen students cry because they can’t complete the tests.  I began to question the validity of the assessments as they became more and more daunting for my students, but I believed that if I continued to incorporate the Common Core Learning Standards and provide the highest quality instruction, my students would be evaluated fairly.  During this period, I kept the faith in our great state of New York and our educational leaders, hoping that there would be a fair resolution for the children.
Optimistically, I thought that if I remained professional, continuing to comply with the mandates, eventually things would change.  So, I remained quiet.
​Today, I am a broken woman.
I read the “New York State Testing Program’s Educator Guide to the 2015 Grade 6 Common Core English Language Arts Test,” and I sobbed.  I am so disturbed by the descriptions of the test in this guide that I find myself in deep moral conflict regarding the administration of the 2015 Common Core English Language Arts Test to my students.
My students are 11- and 12-years-old.  They are at the cognitive level that Jean Piaget, revered cognitive theorist, characterized as “concrete-operational,” meaning they can think logically about concrete events but have difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical situations.  Yet in the guide, it states that students will “evaluate intricate arguments.”
In addition, “students will need to make hard choices between fully correct and plausible, but incorrect answers that are designed specifically to determine whether students have comprehended the entire passage.”  This is not developmentally appropriate for my students, and I find it cruel and harmful to suggest that it is.  I do not believe in knowingly setting my students up for failure.  I cannot remain silent for one more day without speaking up for my students.
​The reading passages on the 2015 Common Core test will be “authentic passages.”  Well, that sounds great until you consider  11-year-old reading passages from texts like “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” which include “controversial ideas and language some may find provocative.”  This is not okay with me.  The students I work with every day are still children.  It is not my business to subject them to “provocative language” in sixth grade.   In addition, 11-year-old children do not have the capacity to understand these themes.  They do not have a context for these time periods in history until they have had more exposure to New York State and United States history.  The majority of students do not receive this exposure until they are in Grades 7 and 8.
The guide also indicates that students will be reading difficulty levels, or Lexiles, as high as 1185, which is the level eleventh-grade students are required to understand.  When children read, if the difficulty level significantly exceeds their instructional level, the lack of fluency causes a dramatic breakdown in comprehension.
Clearly, this is a set-up for the kids to fail.  As students learn, they make sense out of new information through schema.  Schemata are cognitive frameworks to which they can add to, or modify, as they learn new information.  One could compare the requirement for children to understand these passages to expecting them to master algebra before establishing number sense; there is no foundation to build knowledge upon.
If a student has no context, they are not likely to comprehend the text at the deep level required to distinguish fully correct answers from plausible, but incorrect answers.  In addition to these inappropriate, unfamiliar concepts and time periods, students will be expected to sift through authors’ use of “intentionally incorrect grammar and/or spelling” and “passages drawn from works commonly taught in higher grades.”  Finally, in the guide it states that “Students will be required to negotiate plausible, text-based distractors.  A distractor is an incorrect response that may appear plausible.”
In summary, we are going to ask 11-year-olds to read and comprehend passages that are taken from higher grades, some at 5 years above their level, with controversial and provocative language, based on abstract literature and historical documents that the students have not learned about yet, and choose an answer from several plausible choices?  We are going to have our students spend nine hours of seat time, allowing extra time for our Special Education students, on these inappropriate tests? (Add another nine hours for math.)
And after all is said and done, we will reduce each child to a number: 4, 3, 2, or 1, based on their performance, providing the teachers and parents with little to no information about what they can and cannot do?
No.  No, I cannot.
With all due respect to my students, their parents, my administration, and Board of Education, I must go on record as strongly objecting to this test.  I respectfully request reassignment on the dates of the 2015 Common Core ELA Assessment.
As I said, I have the greatest job.  I am a teacher.  I, today, am standing up for my students.  Finally.
Jennifer Rickert

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