In Letter to State Education Commissioner, NYC Principals Blast Latest High-Stakes Test, Urge Transparency + Debate

In the wake of widespread anger over the latest high-stakes tests administered to children in grades 3 to 8, over a dozen New York City principals have coauthored a letter to John B. King, New York State’s Commissioner of Education, condemning both the tests and the lack of transparency in their development.

In their letter, the principals criticize both the length and content of the tests, saying they took an “intolerable toll” on young children. Their letter notes: “When groups of parents, teachers and principals recently shared students’ experiences in their schools, especially during the ELA exams, we learned that frustration, despondency, and even crying (yes, in middle schools) were common reactions among students.  The extremes were unprecedented:  vomiting, nosebleeds, suicidal ideation, and even hospitalization.  Is it necessary to subject children to an inhumane experience in order to assess their learning?”

While cautiously optimistic about the aims of the new Common Core State Standards, especially its efforts to foster “critical, flexible thinking”, the principals warn that the tests, which were developed by Pearson and administered in April, do not align with the common core. Too many of the questions were narrow and called for the sort of answers more associated with rote learning than creative thinking. But because everything from the placement of students in ongoing schools to teacher evaluations are likely to hinge on how well kids do on the tests, the principals warn that educators might build their curricula on the ill-founded test, instead of the common core.

Much of the criticism of the tests, so far, has centered on the fact that it included material that is not part of current school curricula and that students had not covered.

The letter and supporting materials from principals and education experts includes some of the following charges:

–The tests were “narrowly focused,” often calling for right or wrong answers where they do not exist.

–They were “inhumanely long, requiring more stamina for a 10-year-old special education student than of a high school student taking an SAT exam.”

–They were replete with more multiple-choice questions than ever before.

–They were unnecessarily confusing.

Here is the text of the letter:

Dear Commissioner King,

We New York City and Metropolitan Area principals, hold ourselves accountable to ensuring that all of our students make consistent and meaningful academic progress. Although we are skeptical of the ability of high stakes tests alone to accurately capture students’ growth, we understand a system’s need for efficiently measured milestones of learning. In general, believing that the NYS exams have been fair, we have kept the demands on preparation for, and the anxiety associated with, high-stakes tests in proper perspective.

However, this year’s NYS exams have taken an intolerable toll on every stakeholder in our education community, most important, on our children.   We fear that the credibility of the New York State Education Department, one of the most influential bodies in determining the direction of our children’s learning, has been sorely compromised.  We respectfully ask that you address these four primary concerns:

1. The length, time, and structure of the test.  Even if these tests were assessing students’ performance on tasks aligned with the Common Core Standards, the testing sessions—two weeks of three consecutive days of 90-minute (and longer for some) periods—were inhumanely long, requiring more stamina for a 10-year-old special education student than of a high school student taking an SAT exam. Yet, for some sections of the exams, the time was insufficient for the length of the test. There were more multiple-choice questions than ever before, a significant number of which, we understand, were embedded field-test questions that do not factor into a child’s score but do take time to answer and thus prevent students from spending adequate time on the more authentic sections like the writing assessment.   Further, the directions for at least one of the English Language Arts sessions were confusing and tended to misdirect students’ energies from the more authentic writing sections.

2. The lack of alignment with Common Core Learning Standards.  Not one among us takes issue with the state’s and city’s efforts to bring more rigor and coherence to teaching and learning.  In general, although we take exception to aspects of the Common Core Learning Standards, we have welcomed the opportunity to re-energize curriculum with greater emphasis on the kinds of critical, flexible thinking that our students must develop to meet the demands of their current and future lives.  Unfortunately, in both their technical and task design, these tests do not align with the Common Core.  The ELA test was narrowly focused, requiring students to analyze specific lines, words and structures of mostly informational text and their significance.  In contrast, the Common Core emphasizes reading across different texts, both fiction and non-fiction, in order to determine and differentiate between central themes—an authentic adult practice.  Answering granular questions about unrelated topics is not. Because schools haven’t had lot of time to unpack Common Core, we fear that too many educators will use these high stakes tests to guide their curricula, rather than the more meaningful Common Core Standards themselves.  And because the tests are missing Common Core’s essential values, we fear that students will experience curriculum that misses the point as well

3. Impact on children, teachers, and schools.  Granted, with all of the messaging about the difficulty of this year’s exams, our children came into the exam sessions with greater anxiety than ever before.  However, does this justify their reactions?  When groups of parents, teachers and principals recently shared students’ experiences in their schools, especially during the ELA exams, we learned that frustration, despondency, and even crying (yes, in middle schools) were common reactions among students.  The extremes were unprecedented:  vomiting, nosebleeds, suicidal ideation, and even hospitalization.  Is it necessary to subject children to an inhumane experience in order to assess their learning?

These exams determine student promotion.  They determine which schools individual students can apply to for middle and high school.  They are the basis on which the state and city make or break the reputations of teachers and even impact educators’ job security.  The exams determine whether a school might suffer disgrace after a poor grade on the draconian test-linked state and city progress reports or even risk being shut down.  These exams carry enormously high stakes yet we have so little information about them.

Which brings us to a final point:

4. The lack of transparency.  Common Core Standards for ELA and Literacy in History, Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects, Writing Standards 6-12, Standard 1 requires that students:  “Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence…using credible sources…”

Yes, we educators actually viewed the exams and were in classrooms with children as many struggled through them.  Parents heard and saw their children’s reactions when they came home from school after many grueling days.  We have anecdotal information, but how will the public—the taxpayers who have paid tens of millions of dollars for this contract with Pearson—be able to debate the efficacy of these exams when they are held highly secured and not released for more general scrutiny?  The Common Core Learning Standards have placed great emphasis on the craft of argument, a primary tenet of which is that one must find and bring solid evidence in order to make a credible claim.  We cannot give the New York State Education Department and Pearson a pass on this shameful hypocrisy:  you claim these tests are a valid measure of teaching and learning, and yet you fail to make public your evidence, the tests themselves.

How do we put the fate of so many in the education community in the hands of a company with a history of screw-ups, most recently with the mis-scoring of the NYC test for the gifted and talented program. (Thirteen percent of those 4 to 7 year olds who sat for the exam were affected by the errors; Pearson has a 3-year DOE contract for this test alone, worth $5.5 million.)  There are innumerable other examples of Pearson’s questionable reliability in the area of test design:  In Spring 2012 only 27% of 4th grade students passed a new Florida writing test.  Parents complained, the test was reevaluated, and the passing score was changed so that the percentage of students who passed climbed to 81%.  The Spring 2012 NYS ELA 8th grade test had to be reevaluated after complaints about meaningless reading passages about talking pineapples and misleading questions. (See Alan Singer, Huffington Post, 4/24/13; John Tierney, The Atlantic, 4/25/13.)

You cannot ask us educators and parents—we taxpayers—to abnegate our responsibility to children’s learning and allow the corporatization of America’s schools with no public oversight.  We respectfully request an open, public debate on the direction the NYS Education Department appears to be leading us.  If you are as committed as you claim to the development of our children into informed, critical thinkers, allow them to witness authentic  “argument” around testing.  And give us all access to the same evidence.

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