I wrote a post yesterday saying education activists were reporting more than 175,000 New York students had opted out of Common Core English Language Arts exams given last week — and many more districts were still unheard from.  New York is at the center of a growing movement among parents around the country to protest new standardized tests aligned to the Common Core (or similar state standards) that they think are unfair to students and teachers because the results are used for high-stakes decisions against the advice of assessment experts. The post also mentioned some complaints from teachers about the composition of the tests, which are aligned to the Core and were created for the state of New York by Pearson, the largest education company in the world.

Here’s a new piece, by Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York about educators’ concerns with questions on the Common Core tests and the meaning of the opt-out movement.

Burris, who has been principal since 2000 and just announced her early retirement, taught at  the middle and high school levels and earned a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation, which studied her district’s detracking reform in math, received the 2003 National Association of Secondary Schools’ Principals Middle Level Dissertation of the Year Award. She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and was tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She has also written several books, numerous articles and many posts on this blog about New York’s botched implementation of school reform.

By Carol Burris

Many New York parents are in rebellion. They are determined to see Pearson’s Common Core test machine grind to a halt. The state’s Grade 3- 8 opt-outs will likely exceed 200,000 and those who allowed their children to take the test are not happy campers. Parents and teachers are refusing to be bullied into silence about this year’s tests, exposing the well-above grade level reading passages, and tasks that are bringing young children to tears.

First, the numbers.

Parent Jeanette Deutermann, who started Long Island Opt Out, keeps meticulous account of the numbers of students by district who refuse the tests. She has developed a network of parents, teachers and administrators who accurately report refusals. She is presently reporting that on Long Island alone, there were 81,931 test refusals on the English Language Arts exam. You can find updated numbers here. Newsday has translated raw numbers into percentages, estimating that over 40 percent of all Long Island 3-8 students refused to take last week’s ELA Common Core state tests. Numbers in some districts reached well over 70 percent, with at least one district exceeding 80 percent. It appears that no more thanseven of the 124 districts on the island will meet the testing threshold of 95 percent. And that is before this week’s math tests, when opt-out numbers are expected to climb, as they did last year.

Although Long Island continues to have the highest regional numbers, the movement has spread to all parts of the state.  Loy Gross is the parent of two children in Batavia, New York.  She home-schools her two children because of her dislike of the Common Core State Standards initiative.  She keeps meticulous state records of Common Core test opt-outs, both last year and this. She is presently reporting 177, 249 test refusals across the state with data from only 64 percent of all districts. Last year, her estimate of 50,000 was close to the final state tally of 60,000.

It seems clear that the final 2015 tally will well exceed 200,000 students. New York State will likely not make the minimum 95 percent federal requirement for testing.

What will happen to New York schools then? If the New York State Superintendents’ organization (NYSCOSS) is correct, not much. Despite the attempts of some districts to gin up fear by threatening vague and ominous sanctions, there is little that the state or the federal government can do. Districts will not lose funding unless it can be proven that they did not give the tests or willfully promoted opt out. The federal government is equally unlikely to withhold funds—there are no guidelines as to what penalties, if any, could be imposed. You can read the NYSCOSS summary of opt out implications here.

And then there are the tests.

An elementary principal of a well-regarded elementary school in an affluent, “gold-coast” district wrote the following:

These three days of ELA have been torture – I had only 23 students opt out and I had at least 3 times that number in tears. If we were permitted to talk about the content, it would be over so fast. Folks would be horrified at the vocabulary, the reading levels and the ambiguity of the questions. I was unable to answer at least 25 percent of them.

After her students completed two days of English Language Arts testing, fourth-grade teacher, Jessica Whalen, of the Jennie E. Hewitt School in Rockville Centre, wrote me and said:

And all year they’ve [her students] been so proud of their academic growth, I’ve been congratulating them so much as of lately…they’ve blown me away. Now, they were in tears…and I heard… “I thought I was smart, I guess not” ” I’m stupid I can’t even take a test.” And more.

Jessica described the test as having readability levels far beyond what is appropriate, with questions that were “vague, wordy, designed for trickery–not accurately measuring if children understand the texts they are reading.” She described the tests as far too long for her students to complete. She concluded by writing:

I got into teaching because I adore children, I love changing their lives, creating beautiful people….I have been stripped of that. And I can’t imagine doing it, this way, another 20 years. It’s hard to rest my head on a pillow at night, and feel good about what we are doing to these kids.

 So, what is on the test?

Disgusted teachers and parents are defying the “gag order” and talking about the tests, anonymously, on blogs.  The sixth-grade test has consistently come under fire, especially during Day 3 when an article entitled, “Nimbus Clouds: Mysterious, Ephemeral, and Now Indoors” from the Smithsonian Magazine appeared on one version of the test.

Here is a passage from the article:

As a result, the location of the cloud is an important aspect, as it is the setting for his creation and part of the artwork.  In his favorite piece, Nimbus D’Aspremont, the architecture of the D’Aspremont-Lynden Castle in Rekem, Belgium, plays a significant role in the feel of the picture. “The contrast between the original castle and its former use as a military hospital and mental institution is still visible,” he writes. “You could say the spaces function as a plinth for the work.”

The genius at Pearson who put that article on the sixth-grade test should take his nimbi and his plinth and go contemplate his belly button in whatever corner of that Belgian castle he chooses. The members of the State Education Department who approved the article’s inclusion should go with him.

Other complaints include:

* requiring fourth graders to write about the architectural design of roller coasters and why cables are used instead of chains

* a sixth-grade passage from “That Spot” by Jack London, which included words and phrases such as “beaten curs,” “absconders of justice,” surmise, “savve our cabin,” and “let’s maroon him”

* a passage on the third-grade test from “Drag Racer” which has a grade level of 5.9 and an interest level of 9-12th grade.

The eighth-grade test required 13-year-olds to read articles on playground safety. Vocabulary included: bowdlerized, habituation techniques, counterintuitive, orthodoxy, circuitous, risk averse culture, and litigious. One of the articles, which was from The New York Times, can be found here. Here is an excerpt:

Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.

I am sure that 13-year old ESL students were delighted by that close read.

And who will be scoring this new generation of tests? If you have a bachelor’s degree, you can ‘soar to new heights’ working either the day or night shift with Pearson making $13 an hour. Or, if you would like to spend some quality time in Menands, New York, the temp agency, Kelly Services, will hire you for $11.50 an hour to score. No degree? No problem. The company’s last ad on Craig’s list for test scorers didn’t require one.

With these exams, the testing industry is enriching itself at the expense of taxpayers, all supported by politicians who self-righteously claim that being subjected to these Common Core tests is a “civil right.” Nonsense. It is clear that none of this will stop unless the American public puts an end to this. I have only two words left to say—opt out.

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