A school bus passes a sign encouraging parents to refuse that their children take state tests on Monday, April 13, 2015, in Rotterdam, N.Y. With standardized English tests set to begin Tuesday in New York schools, some parents are again planning to have their children sit out the exams. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Spring standardized testing has begun. Millions of students around the country will take standardized tests, with many of the exams carrying high-stakes consequences for students, educators and/or schools. And hundreds of thousands of students are expected to opt out of the exams as a protest against the importance of standardized testing in schools today, and the use of test scores to evaluate students, teachers and schools.

The center of the opt-out movement has been in New York State, where 1.2 million students are taking Common Core standardized tests. For the past few years, more than 20 percent of students in New York state have refused to take the tests, which ostensibly assess how well students have learned in public schools with curriculum designed to meet the Common Core State Standards. State education officials have tried this year to blunt the opt-out movement (see more below), but supporters are encouraging students not to take the exams, and the state’s teachers union are sending the message on billboards and other platforms.

The start of testing in New York included a mistake in which, as Newsday reported, 64 third-graders were given computer-based English Language Arts testing meant for fourth graders. Meanwhile, a blog set up by some New York parents and public school activists already has some posts from teachers and others about the start of testing. For example, one post says in part:

Anonymous said…
Four passages that are well above grade level with 6 multiple choice questions most of which require that a student go back into the text and the answer is still difficult to figure out is ridiculous. Kids were twitching. Two of mine cried. I administered to 7 children with reading disabilities. They didn’t stand a chance. It makes me angry. I spent all year inspiring them to feel excited about learning and confident and in 10 minutes NYS made them feel like idiots….

In the following post, Fred Smith, a testing specialist and consultant, explains how the state is attempting to persuade parents not to opt-out, and what students face when they sit down to take the exams. Smith is retired as a senior analyst for the New York City public schools and a member of Change the Stakes, a parent advocacy group.

By Fred Smith

Last year, the parents and guardians of 220,000 children in New York State opted out of the English Language Arts (ELA) and math exams.  They are given to 1.2 million children annually in Grades 3 through 8, as required by federal law.  Their administration becomes the center of attention for six school days. They began this week.

The New York State Education Department has been campaigning to dissuade more parents from abandoning the annual testing program, which state officials said are important federal accountability purposes and to help teachers and schools guide their instruction, lesson planning and evaluation of student progress. Critics say the tests can’t do any of those objectives.

Seeking to turn back the opt-out movement, authorities are promoting a few scripted points to convey the idea that the testing program has been improved for 2017: The number of questions on the exams has been reduced, more teachers have been involved in developing them, and the tests are untimed.

On the surface these seem attractive. But fewer items make less reliable tests. The teachers who were involved reviewed but didn’t write the questions on the tests, which were created by Questar Assessment (which is being purchased by the Educational Testing Service, or ETS). And the removal of time limits means the tests are no longer being conducted under standard conditions, thereby nullifying attempts to measure growth.

Effectively, the results of the 2017 exams cannot be used to make meaningful comparisons over time, though the Education Department says the tests aren’t being changed enough so that comparisons will be valid.

Another selling point the state makes is that while the tests will continue to be given, no teachers or principals will be affected by the results as in the past, when test scores were factored into their evaluations. The state has declared a moratorium on directly linking student test scores to teacher evaluations. This may lull people concerned about the misuse of the tests into accepting their administration because negative consequences have diminished for teachers and principals, but the results can still affect schools, and the scores can be used as an “advisory” evaluation measure for individual educators.

In announcing the improvements, a department spokesperson said, “It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests and we want them to have all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

Really? There is no information on opting out — or about the field testing of questions, which allows publishers to develop future exams for free by trying out test questions on children — on the one-page document posted on SED’s Engageny , titled “2017 Grades 3-8 New York State Assessments: What Parents Need to Know.”  Evidently, they must know the tests are untimed, shortened, reflective of teacher involvement and will be given in some districts by computer.

Here are some more facts about  field testing on the 2017 exams that parents aren’t being told:

There are two approaches publishers follow to develop questions and determine which should be kept for subsequent exams.  The preferred way is to embed try-out material (reading passages and associated questions) in the test booklets that students are striving to complete.  In theory, students can’t tell which questions are experimental and do not count in scoring their tests from the operational ones that count.  Thus, they should be motivated to do well on the trial items.

This year, 22 percent of the English Language Arts multiple-choice items that appear in Test Book 1 (March 28) are being field tested.  In Grade 3, 25 percent of the items are being tried out.  That is, one reading passage and six out of the 24 items are developmental.  They don’t count, but they require time and energy to complete and their inclusion on the tests can have an impact on the results.

In math, embedded items will make up 14 percent of the tests, interspersed among the operational items.  They are contained in Test Books 1 and 2 (May 2 and 3).  Statewide, 1.2 million children have been volunteered to participate though parents haven’t been asked for their consent.

The less preferred way to try out items, known as stand-alone field testing, has also been taken by the New York State Education Department because embedding has not yielded enough items to build new tests.  So, separate field tests are used to generate sufficient material for the next round.

Here too, parents are not told about these tests. The state has targeted 3,073 schools for English Language Arts or math stand-alone field testing on one grade level any day between May 22 and June 9, and 937 of them are being tapped to participate in computer-based testing.

What makes stand-alone field testing weak is that students are not motivated to do well on tests that are given late in the year consisting entirely of questions they know don’t count.  Therefore, the information obtained about how the try-out items functioned is tenuous when publishers must choose which ones will become operational.