Unwrapping New York State’s latest common core tests

Once again I am in possession of a bit of educational contraband.

For the second year in a row, I have received a copy of the New York State English Language Arts tests for grades 6 to 8, which were administered in April. (Though, this year, my set appeared incomplete as it contained only books one and two for each grade–not the three books that were included last year and that I was told were given this year. So my analysis here is confined to only two booklets for each grade.)

Anyone who has followed the controversy around the introduction of the New York State’s “common-core aligned” tests, knows that there has been a growing backlash–and not necessarily against the common core itself. Rather, a great many educators object to the quality and the quantity of tests–in addition to six days of “common core” testing, New York kids are now finishing the Measurements of Student Learning (MOSL) tests, the sole purpose of which is to evaluate teachers, as well as field tests for next year’s “common core” tests. In the fall, students as young as kindergarteners endured base-line testing for the MOSL.

Most importantly, educators are outraged by the secrecy in which the tests are cloaked. Under its $32 million contract with Pearson, the publisher and educational-testing giant, the state is barred from making the Pearson-designed tests public;  New York educators are under a gag order prohibiting them from revealing anything about the test.

As of this writing, it is not clear to me why this gag order is not in violation of New York State’s Truth-in-Testing law, which requires disclosure of test questions. If anyone knows the answer, please write in!

Back to the tests themselves. In April, 557 principals across New York State  wrote an open letter to parents outlining their concerns about the latest round of testing.

A similar letter-writing followed the first round of common-core testing last spring.

Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of Public School 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and one of the signatories of this year’s letter, followed up with this critique of the tests in an April New York Times OpEd. It read in part:

“I want to be clear: We were not protesting testing; we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools. (Among other things, test scores help determine teacher and principal evaluations, and in New York City they also have an impact on middle and high school admissions to some schools.) We were protesting the fact that it is our word against the state’s, since we cannot reveal the content of the passages or the questions that were asked.”

Bill Heller, an expert on common core-aligned assessments who defends the common-core standards themselves, agrees that secrecy is a big problem. “It’s unconscionable that they no longer release the tests,” says Heller, a senior education consultant at Teaching Matter who argues that tests need to be linked to formative assessments. “When testing is something that is outside of the arc of student improvement, then it becomes an obstacle to learning and teaching and does more damage then good.”

Formative assessments provide a way to gather feedback “that can be used by the instructor and the students to guide improvements in the ongoing teaching and learning context,” according to Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. “The goal of formative assessment is to gather feedback.”

In other words, while today’s gotcha accountability regime seems as focused on evaluating teachers and highlighting the flaws in public education as on examining student learning, it almost completely ignores the potential for low-stakes assessments to actually improve teaching and learning.

Then there is the problem of Campbell’s Law, which essentially argues that  the higher the stakes for a measurement, the less accurate it is likely to be. Donald Campbell was an American social psychologist and noted researcher who did pioneering work on social-science methodology.

Also, secrecy prevents the most knowledgeable educators–classroom teachers–from critiquing test questions so that they too can be improved. It is the input from teachers and a continuous iterative improvement process that, according to leading educators in Massachusetts, made that state’s highly regarded curriculum and MCAS test the best in the nation. This is how Massachusetts described that process in 2009, just before the state decided to jettison both curriculum and MCAS in favor of the Common Core State Standards and related new tests:

“The MCAS test development process–from the selection of the learning standards that are included in each test to the development of test items (questions) to the production of test booklets–is designed to ensure that test results are valid and reliable. Items undergo extensive review and field testing before they become common items.

“The item development cycle, from the beginning of item development to the inclusion of an item as a common item on an MCAS test, generally takes two to three years.”

In New York State where the common core-aligned tests were administered for the first time last spring, well before any “common core” curriculum was made available for teachers, the process is not just secretive, but also haphazard. The most fundamental problem with last year’s tests was that they were administered before teachers had any meaningful training in the new standards, and before students had much exposure to them; schools, kids and educators, in short, were being set up for failure.

New York State is part of PARCC, a consortium that is developing a common core assessment. But it is one of the few states that rushed to implement a common-core based test before PARCC itself is ready to roll out its own assessment in the 2014/2015 school year.

A close reading of this year’s tests reveals that while the 2014 ELA exams appear to be somewhat shorter than last year’s tests, which were criticized for being too long, both years’ tests are dominated  by a focus on non-fiction texts with little content that speaks to the urban experience. Some curriculum materials were available this school year, but schools reported receiving them late–as of December, 2013, many hard copies were still missing.

Among the three grades, this year’s eighth grade test is heavily weighted to science-related readings (5 of 9 texts,) including one about the iceberg that sank the Titanic. The remaining texts include one nonfiction text–an OpEd about the high cost of rescuing hiker–one poem and two fiction texts.

The seventh grade tests are the most evenly distributed among genres with three science-lated texts; three fiction, including an excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s Jo’s Boys; and two texts relating to history or current events–one of them a first-person travelogue about Tibet.

The sixth grade test is dominated by non-fiction. It includes three science-related and five other non-fiction texts with one poem serving as the sole example of a fiction piece.

The sixth grade nonfiction topics include an excerpt from a memoir about how a sewing machine and electrification changed the life of one American woman. Among the clothes she sewed, the article explains, were matching outfits for a granddaughter and her Barbie doll.

The reference to the Barbie doll, identified in the text as a trademark of the Mattel Corp., is among a few references to products and corporations that have drawn charges that Pearson is engaging in “product placement.” There is no evidence that Pearson has accepted or solicited funding for product placements; but given the high stakes and big-bucks at stake with these tests, educators are right to be wary.

Based on the first two booklets of the middle school tests, they appear to be shorter than last year’s test. For example, the first two booklets of the seventh grade test weighed in at 45 pages and contained nine passages of one-to-two pages each; three short-answer and one longer essay question; and 49 multiple-choice questions.

By contrast, last year’s seventh grade test included the following in three booklets: At 72 pages, it included 14 passages, the vast majority of which are one-to-two pages in length. There were also eight short-answer questions that require writing about one long paragraph each, as well as two essay questions, and over 100 multiple-choice questions.

On the assumption that greater knowledge of the tests, and greater debate about the tests, can only serve to improve them, here’s a recap of the items in Books 1 and 2 of the ELA tests for Grades 6, 7 and 8 along with a few sample questions.

The sample questions I’ve chosen to include here represent a range of different types of questions, including a few that I found excessively complicated. As one educator said to me: If you, with a master’s degree from a respected institution, need to think about a question, it’s probably too much to ask of a sixth grader.

Grade 6, Book One:

“Ring of Horses” by Cindy Seiffert–non-fiction article about carousels

SAMPLE question: Which phrase in the last paragraph of the article best supports the author’s claim that preserving carousels has value?

A “nearly disappeared” (line 44)

B “began to realize” (line 44 and 45)

C “keeping the music” (line 45)

D “back in service” (line 48)

(The questions and lines in parenthesis refer to the paragraph below. Every fifth line is numbered in the test; thus I have repeated the line breaks as they appear on the test so you can count up or down from #45 to find the correct line numbers; thus this paragraph represents 5 lines, from 44 to 48:

These beautiful machines had nearly disappeared when, in the

1970s,  people began to [end of line 44]

45      realize the importance of keeping the magic of the carousel alive

for  future generations.

Enthusiasts formed the National Carousel Association and the

American Carousel Society [end of line 46]

to raise money, restore, and preserve the wooden carousels.

Thanks to their efforts, today [end of line 47]

about 150 antique carousels are back in service [end of line 48]

“Terra-Cotta Soldiers” by Corinne Bobb-Somers–non-fiction…about the necropolis built by an ancient Chinese ruler

“Pick-Up Your Shovel; Grow A Better City” by Ron Finely–non-fiction…on urban gardening

“The Pit Ponies” by Leslie Norris–poem

SAMPLE question: Why are the ponies scared in line 3?

A They are unable to see where they are headed.

B They are unfamiliar with the world above ground.

C They are uncomfortable being around other ponies.

D They are unsure why they are no longer in the mine.

These questions refer to the first stanza of the poem:

They come like ghosts of horses, shyly,

To this summer field, this fresh green,

Which scares them.

“The Sea Turtle’s Built-In Compass” by Sudipta Bardhan-non-fiction… Sea Turtles and how their unique GPS systems help them navigate

“Planes Saving Cranes” by Peg Lopata–non-fiction. On saving the endangered whooping crane…

SAMPLE Question: Read Lines 45 through 47

However, long-term survival could not be assured with only one flock of birds. another flock was introduced in Florida, but this group never learned to migrate.

What role do these sentences play in the article?

A They show why teaching the birds to migrate is necessary,

B They explain the limited vision of early conservation programs.

C They show how diminishing habitats affect the number of birds.

D They explain why the migration program has been so successful.

Grade 6, Book 2

“Stitches in Time” by Philip Gulley–non-fiction….A woman and her sewing machine

“Windblown” by Britt Norlander–non-fiction…on the increasing frequency of dust storms and their global impact

“The National Anthem” by Patricia Ryon Quiri–non-fiction…the anthem in context

SAMPLE Question: How does the article change the reader’s understanding of the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? Provide specific examples of the relationship between the article and the first stanza. Use details from both the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the article to support your response.

In your response, be sure to

–explain how the article changes the understanding of the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

–provide specific examples of the relationship between the article and the first stanza

–use details from both the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the article to support your sponse

(NOTE: Quiri’s article provides the historical context for the anthem, including the War of 1812, the burning of Washington, D.C. and the attack on Fort McHenry.

A number of inner-city teachers singled out this question as one with which their students would have difficulty. While acknowledging that kids had probably heard the anthem at some point, perhaps during the broadcast of a ball game, they were completely unfamiliar with the text and its complex 19th century language.)

Grade 7, Book 1

“Coyotes on the Move”–non-fiction…why coyotes are proliferating and moving into urban areas

SAMPLE Question: Read Line 57.

Do not tolerate coyotes that enter your yard.

Which definition best fits “tolerate” as it is used in this sentence?

A encourage by giving food to

B allow the continued presence of

C challenge the aggressive behavior of

D frighten with sudden movements toward

(Note: That sentence is immediately followed by: “Scare them away by yelling, waving your arms, or banging on pots and pans.” Two lines earlier the article says: “DO NOT feed coyotes. Keep all pet food and water inside at night, and secure your garbage cans.)

“The Girl Who Threw Butterflies” by Mick Cochrane–fiction

“Asteroids, Meteoroids, Comets” by Kenenth C. David–non-fiction

Excerpt from “The Car” by Gary Paulsen–fiction

“Jo’s Boys” by Louisa May Alcott–fiction

SAMPLE Question: Read Lines 48 and 49.

“But it’s so much nicer to sweep about in crowns and velvet trains than to wear every-day clothes, and just be myself, though its so easy.”

Which line best expresses how Miss Cameron would respond to Josie’s statement?

A “If you feel this, I can give you no better advice than to go on loving and studying our great master…” (Lines 12 and 13)

B “…a single talent makes a very imperfect character.” (Lines 29 and 30)

C “Now and then genius carries all before it, but not often.” (Lines 33and 34)

D “…mere beauty and rich costumes do not make an actress…” (Line 40)

“On the Roof of the World” by Benjamin Koch–nonfiction, travelogue about Tibet

Grade 7, Book 2

“Telling Plastic to ‘Bag It’” by Patricia Smith with reporting by

WilliamYardley of The New York Times

SAMPLE Question: In lines 52 through 58 of the article, the author explains events surrounding a citywide vote. Based on this information, readers can infer that

A Seattle voters were familiar with high fees

B Economic concerns overrode concerns for the environment

C Seattle city officials knew what the people really wanted

D leaders in the plastics industry were helpful in explaining a complex issue

“Vinnie Ream” by Phillip Hoose—non-fiction

“Our Expedition” by Shaun Tan—non-fiction

Grade 8, Book 1

“What Do Flies Think About?” From Discoveries & Ideas Magazine

SAMPLE Question: the author compares flies to fighter pilots in lines 10 and 11 to show that flies are

A Complicated

B forceful

C skillful

D mysterious

(Note: these are the two sentences that fall wholly or partially within lines 10 and 11– “For a long time, scientists believed the flies turn around in flight much like a fighter pilot performs loops. This would require them to first ‘visualize’ a mental rotation–in other words, to plan the loop beforehand.”)

“Edgar, The Falconer’s Son” by Laura Amy Schlitz—poem

“A Bigfoot by Any Other Name” by Kelly Milner Halls, Rick Spears, and Roxanne Young—non-fiction

SAMPLE Question: How do lines 1 through 3 help to develop a key concept of the article?

A It emphasizes that many different creatures have been confused with Bigfoot

B It illustrates that people all over the world have believed Bigfoot exists

C It shows that Bigfoot has travelled all over the world.

D It confirms that Bigfoot has remained unidentified.

Lines 1 through 3: Bigfoot. Sasquatch. Yeti. Yeren. Yowie. The names and the details may differ from place to place, but from North America to China to New Zealand, one thing is certain: Something is out there.

“Paying a Stiff Tab to Rescue Hikers” by Karin Klein—non-fiction

“Cleaning Up” by Mark David Whitehead–fiction

“Soccer…For Robots?” By Marcia Abidon Lust—non-fiction

Grade 8, Book 2

“Cowgirl Morning” by Bryn Fleming–fiction“A Planet Without Apes?” By John C. Mitani–non-fiction

“The Calf That Sank the Ship” by Sonja M. Oetzel—non-fiction

SAMPLE Question: The author of this article provides a unique perspective on the “greatest sea disaster of all time.” explain how the unique perspective contributes to the understanding of the events surrounding the disaster. Use details from the article to support your response.


In your response be sure to

–explain the unique perspective in the article

–explain how this unique perspective contributes to the understanding of the events surrounding the disaster

–use details from the article to support your response

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10 Responses to Unwrapping New York State’s latest common core tests

  1. Reblogged this on Schools of Thought Hudson Valley, NY and commented:
    Blogger Andrea Gabor “is once again in possession of a bit of educational contraband.” She has a copy of the NYS ELA test for grades 6 to 8 which were administered in April 2014. Reblogged on SOTHVNY to spread awareness. WHY are employees forced to smuggle top secret tests out of NYSED particularly given the legislative intent behind Truth in Testing policies (recent legislation also pending).
    If you haven’t done so already, PLEASE take a few moments to email and call Albany to Release the Tests. Our voices are being heard as over 40,000 emails have been sent to Albany. As the legislative session comes to a close, let’s have one more BIG push!!! Parents and Educators are calling for complete transparency that OUR children deserve!



  2. Monty Neill says:

    The truth in testing law explicitly pertains only to university (undergrad and grad) admissions tests. A bill by Sen Lavalle (who sponsored TinT back when) would require partial disclosure each year of various tests used in public schools. file:///C:/Users/montyneill/Documents/MONTY/state%20materials/NY-S5540-2013%20-%20NY%20Senate%20Open%20Legislation%20-%20Relates%20to%20truth%20in%20testing%20for%20the%20common%20core%20-%20New%20York%20State%20Senate.htm The bill says:

    The bill also covers a lot of what Flanagan’s bill does – but Flanagan does not include item release.

  3. Pingback: Andrea Gabor: An Inspection of New York State’s Secret ELA Tests | Diane Ravitch's blog

  4. opal says:

    Mattel’s 2013 Proxy Statement includes Christopher Sinclair, former CEO of PepsiCo and Trevor Edwards, exec VP of Nike on its Board of Directors. Along with Mattel’s Barbie, PepsiCo’s Mug root beer soda and Nike’s “just do it slogan” were also embedded in the 6-8 NYSELA test. Three product placements from three companies that sit around the same Board of Directors table is not a coincidence. It will take a bit more digging to add Lego, IBM, and Lifesavers the list and uncover the interconnectedness to Pearson, but it will be found!

  5. leea66 says:

    Reblogged this on NYtechprepper and commented:
    Thank you, Andrea Gabor, for writing this informative piece.

  6. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

  7. Reblogged this on STRIVE with Heather and commented:
    This is an interesting reflection of and insight to the NYS Common Core Tests & the overall testing regime. Parents: this is going to be one of your best insights into your child’s recent testing experience.

  8. Pingback: Lessons for Education Reformers from W. Edwards Deming, America’s Leading Management Thinker | Andrea Gabor

  9. Pingback: Shakespeare Teacher » Blog Archive » Grant Wiggins: A Look Backwards

  10. Pingback: New Endorsements for Success Academy; And Why We Should Be “Terrified” | Andrea Gabor

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