Emily Talmage is an elementary school teacher in Lewiston, Maine who did some research on the new Common Core tests that her students are taking this spring. In Maine, students are taking the Maine Educational Assessments in math and English Language Arts, developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of the two multi-state consortia given a total of some $360 million in federal funds to develop new exams that align with the Core standards. In this post, Talmage reports on what she found. Talmage has seven years of teaching experience in New York City and Maine, as well as a masters degree in urban education from Mercy College and a masters degree in developmental psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.

By Emily Talmage

As a teacher of 20 vibrant, curious, and, yes, often challenging fourth graders at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine, I constantly search for ways to improve my students’ learning experiences and to understand what will best help them succeed.  So, like many teachers around the state, as I began hearing about the new Smarter Balanced Tests (or MEA) that we are required to give our students this spring, I wanted to know how it would help me with the daily task of getting twenty learners to grow their hearts and minds in meaningful ways.

Here is a brief summary of what I have discovered.

First, no matter what my students and I do, statistics have already shown that my students will more than likely fall below proficient on this test.  In the field test given a year ago, 91 percent of English Language Learners and nearly 80 percent of low-income students did not meet proficient.  My class is comprised of 40 percent English language learners and nearly 100 percent are low-income.  Because new state legislation (required by the federal government if we are to keep valuable sources of funding) has already passed that will link my students results to my professional evaluation, this does not bode well for me or for my colleagues.  School “grades” are suspended for one year because we do not yet have baseline data for these tests, but it does not take a statistician to predict that schools like mine, with high levels of poverty and English language learners, will not look particularly good to the public once results are released in 2016.

Second, “assessment experts” (which seem to be primarily business consultants) within major, for-profit corporations like McGraw-Hill, AIR, and ETS were at the forefront of developing these tests.  Throughout the process, some teachers were asked for “input” (I was not one of them and I don’t know any teachers who were), but I have found it impossible to discern in what way this input was actually applied.  Instead, a number of math and literacy experts have said publicly that many test items are far above grade level and are developmentally inappropriate.  It is unclear why their advice was not heeded. Meanwhile, billionaires like Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch have espoused the incredible potential these tests have to grow the education market. I am certain that they would pleased to know that in Lewiston, we have already clamored to purchase Common Core-aligned products designed by the same companies that have built these tests.

Third, many teachers – particularly those who have classes like mine with students spanning a wide range of ability levels – were encouraged to hear that Smarter Balanced is an adaptive test. With adaptive tests, questions move up and down a range of difficulty depending on how students perform. Many teachers, including myself, find such tests to be significantly more useful than those label students only according to their level of proficiency, because they offer a more specific measure of student ability and can show that even students who are well below grade level (as many of my students are due to reasons beyond my control) have made significant progress.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the Smarter Balanced test “adapts” only within a student’s grade level.  (This, of course, is itself confusing, as I was unaware that a continuum of achievement existed within each grade level standard.)  A self-commissioned report by Smarter Balanced admits that the tests will not measure the full continuum of achievement along which students actually fall, and that the test can only accurately describe the student’s knowledge of “grade level and near–grade level content.”  Given that my class, due to its demographic makeup, is likely to have only 10-20% performing on “grade level” (which, again, seems to mean something quite different to those who designed the test than to those who actually work with children), this means that it will be an accurate assessment of ability for only a small percentage of my class.  This is not at all comforting.

Finally, I will not be able to see the test as my students take it.  I will not be allowed to look at their scrap paper. I will not even be able to talk with my colleagues about the test – before, during, or after.  These are all provisions outlined in a lengthy security agreement that all teachers were required to sign prior to administering the test.

So, how will a test that by its design is likely show that my school, my students and I are all failing, that was developed by “assessment experts” rather than teachers, that will no doubt funnel a tremendous amount of taxpayer money to wealthy corporate shareholders and away from our classrooms, and that I won’t be able to see or discuss with my colleagues (let alone my students!) help me in my mission to improve the quality of education I offer my students each day?

It will not.  To the contrary, for at least 10 hours (likely more, as I am required to provide unlimited time for my students to complete the test, and I have heard from sixth-grade teachers that their students have spent so long on them that their laptops have died on them mid-test), it will prevent me from offering my students the valuable instruction and learning experiences they deserve. For a handful of students, it may even take us a few steps backward, as it takes work to regain some children’s confidence and sense of control of their own learning once they have taken disempowering tests like these.

A number of parents in our community and around the state have been fortunate enough to have the awareness and access to information about what is taking place in their children’s schools to opt their children out of this test.  Unfortunately, whether due to fear or lack of accurate information, our own district decided to withhold information about parent’s right to opt their children out, and so the majority of my students will tough it out because they must.

As soon as it’s over, however, you can be sure that we’ll get right back to doing the real, gritty, exhausting, and inspiring work that happens in public schools each day.

(Correction: The original section about adapative qualities of Smarter Balanced tests has been changed to make clear that the adaptiveness of the test is largely confined to questions within a single grade level. An earlier version had questioned whether the tests were adaptive throughout; a consortium spokesman said they are.)