New York City Principals Mount Campaign Against “Unfair” Tests, Target New High-Stakes “Common Core” Assessment

This is an update of a story posted yesterday.

In response to widespread anger among both parents and educators over the new high-stakes tests administered to kids in grades 3 to 8, a group of veteran New York City principals is mounting a grassroots campaign in opposition to what they say are “unfair” tests and the “intolerable toll” they are taking on children. The group is calling on fellow principals not to use the new assessments as part of their admissions criteria.

On Monday, the principals drafted a letter to John B. King, New York State Commissioner of Education, offering a scathing critique of the tests, and collected signatures from about 40 principals.

Last night, the group sent the critique along with a second letter addressed to elementary and middle-school constituents–including families, educators and “concerned citizens”–requesting signatures from middle school principals throughout the city. The letter explicitly states that the schools that sign onto the letter “will not use tests as part of the criteria for admissions.”

“The hope is that this will send a strong message against unfair testing,” wrote Mark Federman, a veteran principal at East Side Community High School on East 12th Street in Manhattan and one of the principals organizing the campaign, in a brief email circulating the two letters.

So far about a dozen principals have signed the second letter. Not all New York City schools have selective admissions.

The letter-writing campaign follows two weeks of high-stakes testing in April. The tests were developed by Pearson, which the principals note has “a history of screw-ups,” most recently on tests for New York City’s gifted and talented program.

The principals charge that the tests, which were designed to align to the Common Core State Standards, are, in fact, “the antithesis” of the common core’s original intent and are needlessly traumatizing kids. The letter to Commissioner King 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 common core, especially its efforts to foster “critical, flexible thinking”, the principals warn that the Pearson tests do not align with the common core. Too many of the questions were overly narrow; they also overemphasized nonfiction texts, including “authors’ choices around structure and craft in informational texts,” and gave short shrift to literature.

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 tests, 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 letters include 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.

The text of the two letters is below:

May 2013

Dear Elementary and Middle School Families, Students, Teachers, Parent Coordinators, Counselors and Principals; New York City and New York State Department of Education Officials; and Concerned Citizens:

We are writing to communicate with you a change of policy in our admissions criteria brought on by the great concern we have about the recent new “Common Core” state tests in grades 3-8. Historically, most of us have used test scores in one way or another as part of the criteria to enter our middle schools and high schools.  For the incoming 2014-2015 classes and beyond, we will no longer be using test scores as part of our criteria for selecting students.  Although we do believe that state test scores provide us with some information about children’s skills and capabilities, we have always known they were just one piece of a much more complex puzzle.   The introduction of the Common Core Learning Standards (although far from perfect) and news that the tests would be more aligned to the CCLS made some of us more hopeful about the role that testing might play in capturing student learning.  The Common Core Learning Standards themselves, PARCC’s information, and the NYC DOE’s information about the Common Core represent a deeper and more meaningful understanding of what students should learn, know and be able to do in order to be ready for college, career and citizenship.  Unfortunately, the new tests that are masquerading as assessments of Common Core are the antithesis of our understanding of the Common Core’s original intent.  We welcome rigor, high standards and accountability, but demand that these three crucial words and concepts not be thrown around loosely; and, even more importantly, we demand that they be implemented in a proper, respectful and effective way.   Therefore, we cannot grant these recent tests the value others claim they have until the following four concerns are addressed.

1.     The length, time and structure of the test:  Even if these tests were assessing the Common Core Standards and valuable information, the length, structure and timing caused many students to rush through the tests in an attempt to finish; get stuck on confusing questions; and not complete the test or even get to more authentic parts like the writing assessment.  Moreover, the inappropriate length and structure induced unnecessary anxiety, causing many students to second-guess themselves or randomly bubble in answers.  As a result, we fear that in many instances students’ scores will not represent their true abilities.  Indeed, the test will, in fact, penalize students who attempted to practice many of the Common Core skills we emphasized to our students, such as close reading, rereading, critical thinking, and crafting nuanced claims. In English, the standards themselves and everything we as pedagogues know to be true about reading and writing say that multiple interpretations of a text are not only possible but necessary when reading deeply.  However, for several multiple choice questions the distinction between the right answer and the next best right answer was petty at best.  The fact that teachers report disagreeing about which multiple-choice answer is correct in several places on the ELA exams indicates that this format is unfair to students.  The math tests contained 68 multiple-choice problems often repeatedly assessing the same skills.  The language of these math questions was often unnecessarily confusing.  These questions should not be assessing our students’ ability to decipher convoluted language.  Instead, they should be assessing deep understanding of core concepts.   Even in cases where students with IEPs had extended time, the mere length of the test made it very difficult for students to maintain the stamina for three hours.  We know very few competent, professional adults who can sustain focus and maintain quality work for three straight hours on extremely difficult tasks without proper breaks. Kids as young as 8 have to sit for longer than people taking the SAT, teacher certification tests, or the bar exam.  Testing kids for this amount of time is completely unnecessary, as their basic skill level should not change across days.  Kids without ridiculous stamina, however, will tend to do more poorly.  We recommend:

a)      Shorter, untimed tests

b)      Questions that are designed to test students’ critical reading and writing skills and not their ability to analyze inauthentic test questions.

c)      Fewer multiple choice math questions testing isolated skills and more open-ended problems that can be solved using various solution pathways. These open-ended problems should focus on the critical areas emphasized in the Common Core.

d)     For students with IEPs, we also recommend less rigid rules around students taking breaks and the possibility of schools breaking down or chunking the time students spend on the tests.

2.     The tests were NOT “Common Core” tests.  New York State, New York City and the media continue to refer to the recent tests as “Common Core” tests.  The simple but most important fact that must be stated is that these tests may have been more rigorous and challenging in some ways, but were in no way Common Core assessments.  The ELA tests assessed and covered a very narrow interpretation of the Common Core.  If one was to look closely at the Common Core Learning Standards (www.corestandards.org) and compare them to the tests, it is evident that the tests focused mostly on analyzing specific lines, words and structures of information text and their significance rather than the wide array of standards. As a result, many students spent much of their time reading, rereading and interpreting difficult and confusing questions about authors’ choices around structure and craft in informational texts, a Common Core skill that is valuable, but far from worthy of the time and effort.  We read informational texts for research and background knowledge from which to craft our perspective on important issues.  We spend far less time analyzing specific lines of non-fiction as we do poems or literature; rather we analyze non-fiction for central ideas and specific evidence for claims.  Spending so much time on these questions was at the expense of many of the other deep and rich common core skills and literacy shifts that the state and city emphasized.  Common Core emphasizes reading across different texts in order to determine and differentiate between central themes.  This is an authentic adult practice.  Answering granular questions about unrelated topics is not.  It is difficult to imagine how the recent ELA tests that our students took will be an indicator of how ready they will be for middle school or high school, let alone how they assess a student’s progress on a trajectory toward college, career and citizenship, unless of course it is a college, career or society that values tricky, difficult multiple choice questions being answered with little time to process or think.   We demand that if the Common Core Learning Standards are what we are expected to teach and value in our schools, that the highest stake assessments for students, teachers and schools actually and authentically assess the Common Core Learning Standards, not undermine them.

3.     This leads us to our third point: transparency.  Unfortunately, most families, students, educators, journalists, politicians, and policy makers will not be able to have any meaningful reflection, analysis, discussions or debates around the issues mentioned because the tests—although paid for by the public and used to make high stakes decisions about public school students and public employees—are highly secured and not released to the public.  The number one skill that the Common Core Standards seem to value—looking closely at evidence in order to make claims—is not able to be practiced here because the most important evidence, the tests themselves, are under lock and key.  We are all for holding students, teachers and schools accountable, but there seems to be very little accountability on the part of Pearson, the testing company taking millions of dollars of public money, or the state officials approving and administering these tests.  We demand that the tests be made public immediately so that meaningful, evidence-based discussions can take place and the testing company and decision makers are held accountable as well.

4.     Inauthentic tests and test prep are taking away time for quality instruction and authentic learning and testing.  We fear that even the schools and teachers with the best intentions will continue to move away from authentic forms of reading, writing, speaking, listening, problem solving, thinking—and ironically away from the Common Core—after seeing these recent tests.  If these tests remain at the heart of student, teacher and school “accountability” and masquerade as “rigor,” teaching and learning will suffer and students will lose out.  We demand that students, teachers and schools be held accountable in a way that promotes real learning and increases authentic rigor, not undermines it.

When these arguments and demands are addressed and met, we will consider using state test scores as valuable criteria for admission. Until then we must truly put children first—ahead of testing.

Sincerely,

Principals and schools will be listed here.

Mark Federman, Principal of East Side Community School

Rex Bobbish, Principal of The Cinema School

Sonhando Estwick, Principal of Tompkins Square Middle School

Rosemarie Gaetani, Principal of MS 104

Stacy Goldstein, Principal of School of the Future Middle School

Ramon Gonzalez, Principal of MS223

Peter Karp, Principal of Institute for Collaborative Education (ICE)

Kelly McGuire, Principal of Lower Manhattan Middle School

George Morgan, Principal of Technology, Arts and Science Studio (TASS)s Middle School

Lisa Nelson, Principal of Isaac Newton Middle School

John O’Reilly, Principal of Arts & Letters

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.
  1. 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 have not had a 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
  1. 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:

  1. 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 childrens’ learning and allow the privatization of America’s schools without more 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.

Respectfully,

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6 Responses to New York City Principals Mount Campaign Against “Unfair” Tests, Target New High-Stakes “Common Core” Assessment

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