Battling the High-Stakes Testing Beast: from NPE to NYS

To borrow from the lexicon of my students, I’m MAD and sad at the same time, particularly with regards to the New York State Common Core tests that begin on April 1, 2014. At the same time, though, I’m energized and inspired thanks to the many thoughtful and dedicated public education advocates I met at the Network for Public Education’s (NPE) first annual conference, which was held in Austin, Texas on March 1 and 2, 2014.

The conference ended with a call to action; Diane Ravitch led a press conference requesting a Congressional hearing on high-stakes standardized testing.  Here are the details.

NPE

Ever since I administered the NYS Common Core tests last April, I have been a vocal opponent of the Common Core testing program, which is indeed harmful not only to students with disabilities, but also to English-language learners (ELLs). These tests also fail to inform instruction, which is the purpose of assessments, right? Of the 2013 tests, all I know is that my ELLs received a score of 1 or 2 – 1 is considered ‘failing’ – and that few (if any) are among the 3% of ELLs in NYS who “passed.” Where is the $75,000 Pearson technical report that was supposed to be released in December? How can the state’s ever changing cut scores be considered reliable? This post doesn’t even touch upon the inherent flaws of multiple choice testing, and the fact that these Common Core state tests are not teacher-created. Much has already been, and continues to be, written about this.

When I returned from Texas, I discovered that the New York State Education Department (NYSED) had released its School Administrator’s Manual for the 2014 Common Core Math and ELA tests for grades 3-8. It is a whopping 86-pages long, and its treatment of ELLs is  particularly draconian.  Here’s an excerpt.

page 9 – Testing English-language learners

  • Schools are permitted to exempt from the 2014 Common Core English Language Arts Tests only those English language learners (including those from Puerto Rico) who, on April 1, 2014, will have been attending school in the United States for the first time for less than one year.
  • Recently arrived English language learners may be eligible for one, and only one, exemption from the administration of the 2014 Grades 3–8 Common Core English Language Arts Tests.
  • Subject to this limitation, schools may administer the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT) in lieu of the 2014 Grades 3–8 Common Core English Language Arts Tests, for participation purposes only, to recently arrived English language learners who meet the criterion above. All other English language learners must participate in the 2014 Grades 3–8 Common Core English Language Arts Tests, as well as in the NYSESLAT.
  • The provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) do not permit any exemption of English language learners from the 2014 Grades 3–8 Common Core Mathematics Tests. These tests are available in Chinese (traditional), Haitian-Creole, Korean, Russian, and Spanish. The tests can be translated orally into other languages for those English language learners whose first language is one for which a written translation is not available from the Department.

That’s right niños, only ONE exemption is allowed from the ELA. After just 12 months in our school system, you will be subjected to the same horror show as the rest of the state’s public school students in grades 3-8. Don’t worry, the state has generously offered to give you extended time (time and a half) on the tests; instead of 90 minutes per day for six days (3 days for ELA, 3 days for math), 5th grade ELLs, for example, are entitled to 135 minutes each testing day. That’s a total of 13.5 hours! As for the Common Core math test, there’s no getting off the hook the first year you are here because state provides translation services! And after all that, in May we are going to assess your English-language proficiency level by giving you a lengthy, four-part test in speaking, listening, reading and writing. NYSED has been hard at work aligning the NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test) to the Common Core State Standards. It’s now more rigorous than ever before!

In 2011, I read a fascinating article by Clifford J. Levy, a New York Times foreign correspondent who relocated his family to Moscow for five years. Instead of sending his kids to an international school, he decided to ‘experiment in extreme schooling’ by enrolling them in a local school where they would – presumably – be classified as RLLs (Russian-language learners). Levy writes, “to throw our kids into a Russian school — that seemed like child abuse.” Child abuse? What would he call a mandate, if such a policy exists in Russia, of forcing newly arrived expat kids to take Russian high-stakes tests? My Brooklyn elementary school gets around 30 newcomers with no English every school year, and many come from countries that use a different alphabet. In the article, Levy describes his kids’ struggles in their first year, from bouts of insomnia and depression to despair. After a mere 12 months, were his three kids mandated to take a nearly seven-hour long Russian-language arts exam over the course of three days? If so, did they opt-out? Prior to moving to Moscow, Levy’s children attended P.S. 321, a well-regarded, progressive elementary school in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  Less than 2% of its student body is comprised of English-language learners, yet a significant number of its kids will likely refuse to take to 2014 NYS Common Core tests. UPDATEa P.S. 321 parent does not expect the opt-out numbers to be significant.  It is not certain at this time how many P.S. 321 students will refuse the tests this year. In contrast, my Title I school, with roughly 150 ELLs, will have no students opt-out.

I echo Fred Smith, NYS testing expert, who testified in December 2013 that New York State “… has acted in bad faith by administering a dishonest testing program for over a decade. This shows no signs of changing with the rush to make the flawed 2013 “core-aligned” exams the new baseline. Therefore, nothing short of a moratorium on these tests is acceptable.”

NYS should cancel this year’s state tests no transparency = no test and I hope that Congress will prioritize an investigation of this destructive assessment practice. Our kids are human beings, not exploitable ‘outputs.’  They deserve better.

-Katie Lapham, NYC public school teacher

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2 thoughts on “Battling the High-Stakes Testing Beast: from NPE to NYS

  1. I disagree with your approach.
    (1) The kids get some “free” practice at this sort of question, so that they’re better at it and there is less stress next year.
    (2) Trialing the questions is standard practice to ensure a good test next year. You want the tests in 2015 and the future to be good, right? Well those making the tests can do their best, but they can do better if they are allowed to trial some or all the questions. This is done on the SAT too.
    (3) For your ELL kids and others who get extended time, yes that makes the test very long. But the alternatives would be to (a) not give them the extended time they are entitled to, (b) give them a different test that would not be exactly comparable to the one everyone else took, or (c) make the whole test shorter for everyone for the sake of the kids who need extra time. I don’t think any one of those three choices is good.
    (4) Yes the tests are harder. This allows the best performers to distinguish themselves more accurately — the cut between “3” and “4” is more meaningful. Also it demands the best from the kids taking the test, and it may even teach something to the lower performers. Did they get to read Tolstoy before? Why should they not be exposed to this? Why should education just echo the stuff they see in a 10 mile radius of their homes, the stuff they already know is relevant? A real education will show that people who lived long ago, far away, have relevant things to say too, universal aspects of the human condition. It’s not too much to expect that most kids, not just the most adept, can get this..

    Yeah the kids were exhausted after the test. That’s called leaving it all on the field. It’s expected in athletics. It’s just as appropriate in education.

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