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Teacher: What third-graders are being asked to do on 2016 Common Core test

New York teachers Katie Lapham and Lauren Cohen (Photo used with permission)

Students across New York have been taking the 2016 state-mandated standardized Common Core tests — first in English Language Arts and later this week in math — and from the beginning of the administration of the exams, trouble has been reported. Wrongly printed test booklets, poorly constructed questions, etc.  In this post, one teacher does her best to explain the problems with the ELA test that third-grade students have taken — at least within the limits of what is legal for her to say. Teachers are not allowed to disclose the material on standardized tests — and in some places are at risk of losing their jobs and certification if they do.

The teacher who wrote the post is Katie Lapham, an elementary school English-as-a-Second-Language teacher, and this appeared on her Critical Classrooms, Critical Kids blog. Her comments about the third-grade English Language Arts tests are similar to those made by teachers in other grades, whose anonymous reactions to the ELA tests are appearing at different sites on the Internet, including here on a blog by educator Brian Wasson called “The 999ers: Something is not right.” One, for example, notes that the sixth-grade test included a poem from the 17th century that teachers read in college.

Common Core started out as a push by states to improve learning standards, but it has made education an even more contentious issue. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post, Photo: Jeremy Waltner/The Washington Post)

Here’s the piece by Lapham, who notes that the Common Core math tests in New York will be given April 13, 14 and 15. The full version of this post can be found here.

By Katie Lapham

Over the course of three consecutive days last week, students in Grades 3-8 took Pearson’s New York State Common Core English Language Arts tests.  As was the case in 2013, 2014 and 2015,  I felt that the the 2016 English Language Arts tests were developmentally inappropriate, confusing and tricky.  Despite the New York State Education Department (NYSED)’s “adjustments” to the 2016 assessments, there was no improvement to the quality of the tests.

While I am barred from disclosing the reading passages and questions that appeared on the tests, in no way will I refrain from broadcasting to the world how outraged I continue to be – year after year – over New York’stesting regime.  Since 2013, when Pearson’s Common Core tests were first administered in New York state, I’ve been documenting this on my blog.

Here are my thoughts on the 2016 English Language Arts test.  I have focused on third grade because these students – aged eight and nine – are our youngest New York State Common Core test-takers.

1.) The 2016 Common Core English Language Arts test was as unacceptably long as it was in 2013, 2014 and 2015 —  despite the fact that it was shortened by just one reading passage and by a handful of multiple choice questions.

2016 Grade 3 Common Core English Language Arts Test

  • Day One: Four reading passages, 24 multiple-choice questions (students darken the circles on Answer Sheet 1)
  • Day Two: Three reading passages (same as 2015), seven multiple-choice questions (students darken the circles on Answer Sheet 2), two short-response questions (students write answers directly in Book 2.) one extended-response question (students write answer directly in Book 2).
  • Day Three: Three reading passages (same as 2015), 5 short-response questions (students write answers directly in Book 3) and one extended-response question (students write answer directly in Book 3).

TOTALS: 10 reading passages, 31 multiple-choice questions, seven short-response questions and two extended-response questions.

For the short-response questions, students typically write a paragraph-long response that must include at least two details from the passage. The extended-response question requires an essay-like written response: introduction, supporting evidence/details, conclusion. Where is the NYSED’s research that shows that this is an educationally sound testing program for a third grader?

2.) Now let’s move on to content.  The reading passages were excerpts and articles from authentic texts (magazines and books). Whoever chose them did a poor job of selecting and contextualizing the excerpts in the student test booklets.  How many students actually read the one-to-two sentence summaries that appeared at the beginning of the stories? One excerpt in particular contained numerous characters and settings and no clear story focus.  The vocabulary in the non-fiction passages was very technical and specific to topics largely unfamiliar to the average third grader.  In other words, the passages were not meaningful. Many students could not connect the text-to-self nor could they tap into prior knowledge to facilitate comprehension.

3.) The questions were confusing.  They were so sophisticated that it appeared incongruous to me to watch a third-grader wiggle her tooth while simultaneously struggle to answer high school-level questions. How does one paragraph relate to another?  Unfortunately, I can’t disclose more.  The multiple-choice answer choices were tricky, too. Students had to figure out the best answer among four answer choices, one of which was perfectly reasonable but not the best answer.

Here’s what P.S. 321’s principal, Elizabeth Phillips, wrote about the 2014 Common Core tests.  Her op-ed, “We Need to Talk About the Test,” appeared in the New York Times on April 9, 2014.  These same issues were evident on the third-grade 2016 English/Language Arts test.

“In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes.”

4.) The reading levels of the passages were above “grade” level, whatever “grade” level means these days.  One passage was an article recommended for students in grades 6-8. Has the NYSED done any research on early childhood education? Defending the Early Years cites a Gesell Institute of Child Development report that says,

“…the average age at which children learn to read independently is 6.5 years. Some begin as early as four years and some not until age seven or later – and all of this falls within the normal range.”

Yet for the New York State Common Core English Language Arts test, the department expects all third graders to be able to decode and comprehend texts that are typically used with fourth, fifth and sixth graders?

5.) While in theory I prefer untimed tests to timed tests, the lack of a time limit is of little comfort to students who are subjected to developmentally inappropriate tests.  Read this heartbreaking account by a New York City teacher who blogs at Of a former student, this teacher writes:

“After 18 hours of testing over 3 days, she emerged from the classroom in a daze. I asked her if she was ok, and offered her a hug. She actually fell into my arms and burst into tears. I tried to cheer her up but my heart was breaking. She asked if she could read for a while in my room to calm down and then cried into her book for the next 15 minutes.”

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, noted in a post on her blog NYC Public School Parents that this “appears to violate the NY law passed in 2014 that limits state testing time to one percent of total instructional time.” Additionally, fellow Change the Stakes member, Rosalie Friend, pointed out that “without a set time limit, the tests no longer are standardized.  Therefore, one cannot draw ANY conclusions from the scores.” So this alone seems to invalidate these $44 million tests.

I’ve been sounding the alarm on these tests since 2013, and the vast majority of educators I know agree with me.  I’m beyond fed-up that I have to continue to administer these assessments to my students.  It is unconscionable to me that New York City Education Chancellor Carmen Fariña, in her 3/15/16 letter to parents, wrote that these tests are “incredibly important” and a “valuable experience for our students.” It’s been nearly a month since I read those words and my jaw is still on the floor.

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