The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Pearson Tests

Over the course of three consecutive days last week, students in grades 3-8 took Pearson’s New York State (NYS) Common Core English-language arts (ELA) tests.  As was the case in 2013, 2014 and 2015, the 2016 ELA tests were developmentally inappropriate, confusing and tricky.  Despite the New York State Education Department (NYSED)’s “adjustments” to the 2016 assessments, there was no improvement to the quality of the tests.

While I am barred from disclosing the reading passages and questions that appeared on the tests, in no way will I refrain from broadcasting to the world how outraged I continue to be – year after year – over New York’s oppressive testing regime.  Since 2013, when Pearson’s Common Core tests were first administered in New York state, I’ve been documenting this nightmare on my blog.

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On 4/3/16, Lauren Cohen and I demonstrated at NYC councilman Danny Dromm’s rally in Jackson Heights, Queens. Dromm was informing parents of their right to opt-out of the NYS Common Core tests. As a member of the MORE caucus of the UFT, Lauren is running for VP of Elementary Schools in the upcoming UFT election. She truly puts children first.

Here are my thoughts on the 2016 ELA test.  I have focused on third grade because these students – aged eight and nine – are our youngest NYS Common Core test-takers.

1.) The 2016 Common Core ELA test was as absurdly long as it was in 2013, 2014 and 2015 despite the fact that it was shortened by just one reading passage and by a handful of multiple choice questions.

2016 Grade 3 Common Core English Language Arts Test

  • Day One: 4 reading passages, 24 multiple-choice questions (Students darken the circles on Answer Sheet 1).
  • Day Two: 3 reading passages (same as 2015), 7 multiple-choice questions (Students darken the circles on Answer Sheet 2), 2 short-response questions (Students write answers directly in Book 2.) 1 extended-response question (Students write answer directly in Book 2).
  • Day Three: 3 reading passages (same as 2015), 5 short-response questions (Students write answers directly in Book 3) and 1 extended-response question (Students write answer directly in Book 3).

TOTALS: 10 reading passages, 31 multiple-choice questions, 7 short-response questions and 2 extended-response questions.

For the short-response questions, students typically write a paragraph-long response that must include at least two details from the passage. The extended-response question requires an essay-like written response: introduction, supporting evidence/details, conclusion. Where is the NYSED’s research that shows that this is an educationally sound testing program for a third grader? Seriously. Does anyone know how the NYSED justifies this? The length alone of these tests warrants our banging of pots and pans in city streets.

2.) Now let’s move on to content.  The reading passages were excerpts and articles from authentic texts (magazines and books).  Pearson, the NYSED or Questar did a poor job of selecting and contextualizing the excerpts in the student test booklets.  How many students actually read the one-to-two sentence summaries that appeared at the beginning of the stories? One excerpt in particular contained numerous characters and settings and no clear story focus.  The vocabulary in the non-fiction passages was very technical and specific to topics largely unfamiliar to the average third grader.  In other words, the passages were not meaningful. Many students could not connect the text-to-self nor could they tap into prior knowledge to facilitate comprehension.

3.) The questions were confusing.  They were so sophisticated that it appeared incongruous to me to watch a third grader wiggle her tooth while simultaneously struggle to answer high school-level questions. How does one paragraph relate to another?, for example. Unfortunately, I can’t disclose more.  The multiple-choice answer choices were tricky, too. Students had to figure out the best answer among four answer choices, one of which was perfectly reasonable but not the best answer.  Here’s what P.S. 321’s principal, Elizabeth Phillips, wrote about the 2014 Common Core tests.  Her op-ed We Need to Talk About the Test appeared in The New York Times on April 9, 2014.  These same issues were evident on the third grade 2016 ELA test.

“In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes.”

4.) The reading levels of the passages were above “grade” level, whatever “grade” level means these days.  One passage was an article recommended for students in grades 6-8. Has the NYSED done any research on early childhood education? Defending the Early Years cites a Gesell Institute of Child Development report that says,

“…the average age at which children learn to read independently is 6.5 years. Some begin as early as four years and some not until age seven or later – and all of this falls within the normal range.”

Yet for the NYS Common Core ELA test, the NYSED expects all third graders to be able to decode and comprehend texts that are typically used with fourth, fifth and sixth graders?

5.) While in theory I prefer untimed tests to timed tests, the lack of a time limit is of little comfort to students who are subjected to developmentally inappropriate tests.  Read this heartbreaking account by a New York City teacher who blogs at pedagogyofthereformed.wordpress.com. Of a former student, this teacher writes,

“After 18 hours of testing over 3 days, she emerged from the classroom in a daze. I asked her if she was ok, and offered her a hug. She actually fell into my arms and burst into tears. I tried to cheer her up but my heart was breaking. She asked if she could read for a while in my room to calm down and then cried into her book for the next 15 minutes.”

Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters, noted in a post on her blog NYC Public School Parents that this “…appears to violate the NY law passed in 2014 that limits state testing time to one percent of total instructional time.” Additionally, fellow Change the Stakes member, Rosalie Friend, pointed out that “without a set time limit, the tests no longer are standardized.  Therefore, one cannot draw ANY conclusions from the scores.” So this alone seems to invalidate these $44 million tests.

Collectively, we must stop this insanity.  I’ve been sounding the alarm on these tests since 2013, and the vast majority of educators I know agree with me.  I’m beyond fed-up that I have to continue to administer these assessments to my students.  It is unconscionable to me that Chancellor Fariña, in her 3/15/16 letter to NYC parents, wrote that these tests are “incredibly important” and a “valuable experience for our students.” It’s been nearly a month since I read those words and my jaw is still on the floor.

Parents – if you haven’t already refused the tests, you still have time to opt-out of the Common Core math tests, which will be administered on April 13, 14 and 15 of this week.

Teachers and administrators – the Common Core testing climate in New York state is too dire for you to remain quiet.  Speak up and encourage parents to opt-out.  Boycotting these tests is the only way to change course.

May this video of these principled MORE teachers inspire you.

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From left to right: NYC teachers Lauren Cohen, Kristin Taylor and Jia Lee spoke critically of the NYS Common Core tests to NBC 4 New York. Screenshot courtesy of NYC teacher and UFT chapter leader Arthur Goldstein who blogs at nyceducator.com.

 

For more information, please visit:

NYC Opt Out

NYS Allies for Public Education

Defending the Early Years

Network for Public Education 

pedagogyofthereformed

 

 

 

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NYC Teachers: What do YOU think of Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests?

Oh wait – we aren’t supposed to say anything about Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests.

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As I reported in my last blog post, in her March 15, 2016 letter to NYC parents, NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña wrote that the NYS (New York State) Common Core math and ELA (English-language arts) tests are “…incredibly important for teachers and schools, who use the results to improve instruction and to provide individual support to all of our students.  They are a valuable experience for our students.”  

What do you think? Are Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests valuable and important?  Please leave a comment on this post (or send me an email: katielapham1@gmail.com).  I will respect your anonymity. I just ask that you include the following information: borough, NYC school district and school level (middle or elementary).

I am soliciting teacher feedback because I strongly disagree with Fariña’s remarks about the value of these tests and feel that it’s important for ALL parents – not just those in Brooklyn’s District 15 or Tribeca – to know the truth about these tests.  I applaud the brave teachers at Park Slope’s P.S. 321 and Tribeca’s P.S. 234 who have criticized the tests to parents.  Their eloquent testimonials are spot on.  Countless teachers bemoan Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests behind closed doors, but due to fear here in NYC, few teachers speak out against them.

As a mandated reporter and educator of English-language learners (ELLs), I refuse to remain quiet.  Since 2013, I have had to administer these horrendous Pearson Common Core tests to my students.  Each year I tell myself that I will follow the lead of NYC’s Teachers of Conscience by refusing to administer them. But I haven’t yet taken that step.  Instead, I have this blog.

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The 2016 NYS testing season begins on April 5, 2016. It includes Pearson’s NYS Common Core ELA and math tests (a total of six days), the NYSESLAT for English-language learners, the state science test for 4th gradersCommon Core field tests for select grades in select schools, the Chinese Reading Assessment for students in Chinese dual language/bilingual classes and the Spanish (ELE) Reading Assessment for students in Spanish dual language/bilingual classes. This means that out-of-classroom teachers, like myself, will have to suspend their teaching programs (mine is mandated) in order to test students.  Our kids who are most in need of support – both academic and emotional – will be deprived of their services during this time.  It also means that teachers will feel disingenuous as they encourage students to do their best on non-teacher created tests that insult our intelligence.  Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests have been widely discredited for being poorly constructed, developmentally inappropriate, and invalid.  The New York State Education Department (NYSED) manipulates cut scores in order to legitimize the false narrative that our schools are failing.  Not only are cut scores constantly changing but the NYSED sets them AFTER the tests have been scored. Thus, the NYSED’s claim that 70% of our students are failing is invalid.

It is a truly soul-crushing time of the year for everyone involved, except – perhaps – for Carmen Fariña.  Will she be deprived of valuable instructional time to administer and to score meaningless tests? Will she have to watch students, as young as 8-years-old, shut down, cry, throw up, call themselves stupid? Will she go home at the end of a grueling testing day in tears? Will she have to to explain to a scared and confused newcomer ELL why he/she has to take the ELA test after just 12 months in the system followed by the NYSESLAT? Fariña is not in the trenches. We are, and – for the sake of our beloved students – our stories deserve to be told.  

NYC teachers – I implore you to use this blog post to share your views about Pearson’s Common Core tests.  We will not be silenced or disenfranchised. We want our students to thrive, and to be motivated to make the world a better place.  This testing program is a kick to the stomach.  Enough is enough.
 

 

 

NYC Parents: Here’s the TRUTH about the 2016 NYS Tests

New York City parents may be hearing that the New York State (NYS) Common Core math and ELA (English-language arts) tests will be better this year and are of value to educators and students.

This does not tell the whole story.  Here’s the truth about the 2016 NYS tests. 

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  • Pearson created the 2016 tests.  Questar Assessment Inc., which, in 2015, was awarded a $44 million, five-year contract by the New York State Education Department (NYSED), is in the process of developing test questions for future tests.  However, their tests won’t be used until 2018. According to a January 2016 NYSED memo,”Questar Assessment, Inc. has replaced Pearson and is responsible for the construction of this year’s test forms and guidance materials.” Questar did not create the actual 2016 tests and test questions. 
  • The shortening of the 2016 NYS Common Core tests is insignificant. Students will still spend a total of six days taking the math and ELA tests (three days each).  The tests are untimed this year so students could potentially sit for an even longer period of time to complete the assessments.  The below comparison charts show how minimal the changes to the tests are.  Also, shaving off a few questions does nothing to improve the quality of the test questions.  The tests are still bad.
  • Using NYSED’s online test archive, Kemala Karmen, a NYC parent and co-founder of NYCpublic.org, “calculated how many more test items a NYS student in 2016 will be required to answer than a NYS student in the same grade had to answer in 2010” (Karmen, 2016).  In an email, Karmen wrote, “A 5th grader this April will be faced with 117 questions (combined math and ELA).  2010’s 5th grader? 61.  That’s 56 more questions, or an increase of 92%.”
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In addition to illustrating the sharp increase of test questions since 2010, this graph, created by NYC parent Amy Gropp Forbes, shows how insignificant the shortening of the 2016 is. 

  • The NYS Common Core ELA and math tests are not the only assessments administered this spring.  NYSED recently released the 2016 field test assignments for NYS schools.  Please click on this NYSED link to see if your school has been signed up to field test future math, science or ELA test questions.  The June 2016 administration of the field tests is of no value to teachers or students, the latter of which are being used as guinea pigs.
  • Similarly, many NYC parents are unaware of the excessive and developmentally inappropriate testing our English-language learners (ELLs) are subjected to. After only 12 months in the system, all ELLs in NYS must take the ELA test (ELLs are not exempt from the math test in their first year because translated versions of the assessment are available).  During the recent parent-teacher conferences, it pained me to share with parents my goal for second graders who were at the expanding (advanced) English-proficiency level: to test proficient on this year’s NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test). Administered each spring, the NYSESLAT is a grueling four-part test, now aligned to the Common Core, which assesses ELLs’ speaking, listening, reading and writing proficiency levels in English. It is a content-based assessment, not a true language test, and, in my professional opinion, it is wholly inappropriate to administer to ELLs at any grade level. Sentence writing, for example, is expected of ELLs in kindergarten. Spending my precious minutes discussing this highly flawed standardized test was bad enough, but my rationale for getting students to test out (test proficient or pass) tightened the knot in my stomach. If my expanding (advanced) ELLs do not pass the NYSESLAT this school year, in third grade they will have to take it again right after the widely discredited NYS Common Core ELA and math tests.  I signed up to be a teacher, not a tester.  
  • I can’t think of a single working NYC teacher who finds the NYS Common Core tests to be a “valuable experience for our students” (as per New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) chancellor Carmen Fariña’s 3/15/16 letter to parents). Pearson’s NYS Common Core tests are not teacher-created, nor do they accurately reflect the contextualized skills and knowledge that students gain in the classroom. The tests are developmentally inappropriate, poorly constructed and contain ambiguous questions. In 2014, 557 New York State principals signed this letter denouncing the tests. Despite the so-called changes to the 2016 tests, the content and the skills that are tested remain the same.

In painting a broader picture of the impact of NYS’s Common Core testing program on public education, it’s important to highlight that everything revolves around the highly flawed NYS Common Core tests.  Despite the NYCDOE’s argument that multiple measures are used to determine a child’s promotion to the next grade, the testing program is the sun around which all other aspects of public education orbit.  Schools with low test scores – due to poverty, high numbers of English-language learners and/or students with disabilities – are particularly vulnerable to scrutiny, micromanagement and excessive testing.  These schools face state reviews and pressure to adopt Common Core test prep curricula (ReadyGEN, GO Math! and Expeditionary Learning, for example), all at the expense of offering students an authentic and inspiring education that truly meets their social, emotional and academic needs.

I have spent the past 10 years in Title I elementary schools in New York City.  Our students go on fewer field trips, are exposed to a narrower range of books, and participate less in the arts.   In Title I schools, beginning in kindergarten, there exists such a strong sense of urgency to prepare students for the skills they will need in order to do well on the state tests that not a moment is to be “wasted.” Cutting and pasting in first grade is wrongly viewed as lacking rigor.  As a result, it’s not uncommon to find a second grader struggling to use glue and scissors.  Folding paper, I’m discovering, is an undeveloped skill nowadays.

In schools with low test scores, there is no free play and, for the most part, recess only happens at lunchtime (weather permitting).  Any classroom “play” must reinforce academic skills.  School days can be suffocating for students and teachers alike.  Curriculum pacing guides must be followed faithfully, which has killed spontaneity and deprives students of opportunities to learn about topics outside of the curriculum. I’ve even had to sneak in Martin Luther King, Jr. and Chinese New Year.  My rich author study units highlighting the important works of Ezra Jack Keats and Leo Lionni, among others, are collecting dust.  I mourn this loss of freedom every day I go to work.  Forget about using students’ interests to shape instruction.  “Choice” is only offered to students within the confines of the Common Core-aligned curricula.

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Andy Yung, a talented pre-K teacher in Queens, presented this slide at last weekend’s Jackson Heights People for Public Schools event. 

What is of chief importance to “struggling” schools is the raising of scores on poor quality tests that do not reflect how each student has grown in his or her own way.  As part of their test preparation program this year, a Bronx elementary school has already administered two NYS ELA and math test simulations: one in December 2015 and the other in March 2016.  Each simulation lasted six days (3 periods each day) and was harder than the real tests, according to a teacher.  While this is an extreme case – and arguably abusive – test prep is still occurring citywide even at schools with high test scores.

The organized opt-out movement here in NYC is led by local parents and educators who spend an inordinate amount of time researching the NYS Common Core testing program and educating themselves on developmentally appropriate pedagogy.  Change the Stakes and NYC Opt Out, among others, report the truth through social media and through testing meetings that are being held all over NYC.  While some NYC parents may have initially gravitated to this movement in order to protect their own children from educational malpractice, a growing number of opponents of the state testing program are opting-out for justice.  Boycotting the tests and depriving the state of data is seen as the only way to effect change in our schools, and to curb the further privatization of public education (see what’s happening right now in the United Kingdom).

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These parents and educators envision a different educational experience for all children of New York State.  Bronx principal Jamaal Bowman  speaks out against the current NYS Common Core testing program.  As reported in this November 2015 Huffington Post article, “Jamaal Bowman knows his kids and with the research to back up his approach, he makes it clear that by empowering teachers and inspiring children toward their passions, in an atmosphere that embraces our diversity, we have the capacity to realize the goals that the current reforms are failing to produce.”  I also appreciate Brooklyn New School principal Anna Allanbrook’s weekly letters to parents , which showcase her school’s whole child approach and contrast sharply with NYS’s test-based education reform initiatives.  In Allanbrook’s March 7 letter, she links to a speech delivered by principal Bowman and writes, “Jamaal suggests that all parents exercise their right to opt out of high stakes testing, advising parents to demand more holistic assessment of their children. Jamaal’s words remind us of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” These are brave, ethical NYC school leaders whom I greatly admire.

What about all the thoughtful and experienced NYC classroom teachers who find fault with these tests and don’t view them as a valuable teaching tool?  The teachers of the MORE caucus of the UFT (United Federation of Teachers) support opt-out and oppose Common Core, Danielson teacher evaluations and high-stakes testing. MORE candidates, such as Jia Lee, who testified against high-stakes testing in a U.S. senate hearing last year, are running in this year’s UFT election. Teachers of Conscience refuse to administer both state and local standardized assessments.  Teachers’ legitimate concerns, based on years of experience and knowledge of developmentally appropriate pedagogy, are absent from the official story that’s being told to NYC parents. In fact, NYC educators are being silenced and, as a result, are afraid to speak out.  This is an attack on our democracy and goes against the so-called critical thinking that the NYCDOE purports to be promoting through Common Core.

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This is just a glimpse of what’s really going on in NYC public schools.  There is, of course, more to the story.   Here is a link to view the March 2016 NYCDOE’s Student Participation in Grades 3-8 New York State Tests Parent Guide.  Regardless of your child’s performance level, it is a parent’s right to opt out.

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The NYCDOE 2016 guide states, if, after consulting with the principal, the parents still want to opt their child out of the exams, the principal should respect the parents’ decision and let them know that the school will work to the best of their ability to provide the child with an alternate educational activity (e.g., reading) during testing times.”  

For more information about opting out, please visit these sites:

Ten Reasons Why NO Child Should Take the NYS Common Core Tests

www.optoutnyc.com

changethestakes.wordpress.com

morecaucusnyc.org

NYS Allies for Public Education 

Long Island Opt-Out Info

unitedoptout.com

Defending the Early Years – deyproject.org

networkforpubliceducation.org

badassteacher.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carmen Fariña’s Visit to District 19: A Call to Boycott Pearson Field Testing

The evening of April 10, 2014, I attended the District 19 (East New York, Brooklyn) Community Education Council (CEC) meeting with Carmen Fariña, the new chancellor of the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE). Chancellor Fariña spoke for about 20 minutes before community members took turns voicing their concerns at the microphone.  Here are the parts of her speech that stood out to me:

1.) Chancellor Fariña acknowledged that she invited herself to District 19 after noticing that the district wasn’t included on her tour of NYC school districts.  She stressed the importance of visiting “underserved and underheard” communities such as East New York, Brooklyn.

2.) Right away, Fariña asked if there were any educators in the audience. She reiterated her pledge to bring back respect to NYC teachers and principals, and she encouraged us to speak up at the meeting. This put me at ease until I got no reaction from her after delivering my speech (posted below).

3.) Fariña assured us that the NYCDOE would rely less on outside consultants for curriculum and professional development. She sang the praises of the wonderful work already being done in our schools and called on schools to share ideas and best practices.  I believe she said that she’d reward schools for doing this.

4.) Fariña declared that she believed in the Common Core.  Her view is that “it’s not a curriculum; it’s a series of strategies.”  She said memorizing information won’t get our kids good jobs. This statement reminded me of last year’s NYCDOE pro-Common Core ad that tormented me on my daily subway commute.  The ad – posted below – implied that schools just taught basic skills in the pre-Common Core era. This is false and misleads the public.  Critical thinking and higher order thinking questions are not new concepts and have long been practiced in our schools. Did Fariña not see this happening in her schools? I don’t think so. It’s worth noting that, contrary to Fariña’s interpretation, last year’s NYCDOE ad referred to the Common Core as a curriculum.

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5.) Trailers are a big issue in District 19.  Fariña said that in five years, trailers would be gone from New York City public schools.

After addressing the remaining issues of chief concern to District 19, the public was invited to speak. I only got halfway through my speech because we were given just two minutes each to speak. My intention was to raise awareness of excessive standardized testing in NYC public schools and to inquire about the feasibility of a citywide opt-out of Pearson’s stand-alone field tests, which are to be administered in June. Here’s my speech:

My District 19 elementary school is my second family. My English-language learners are like my own kids; I’ve taught their siblings, I know their families and I help newcomers adjust to both a new language and to a new culture. I’m here tonight as an advocate for them, and also for my own daughter who starts kindergarten this fall in District 13.

The current Common Core testing program is unsustainable and developmentally inappropriate, and it must be stopped. The Common Core state tests are meaningless to me as a teacher. They are also unreliable measurements of student learning and achievement. They do not reflect my students’ knowledge and how they’ve progressed over the course of the school year.

Sadly, standardized testing is far from over for the year. Here’s what’s coming up on the 2013-2014 NYC testing agenda:

1.) NYS Common Core Math assessment: Wednesday.  April 30 – Friday, May 2

2.) The four-part NYSESLAT assessment for English language learners (ELLs): speaking, listening, reading comprehension passages and multiple choice questions and writing, which is comprised of 2 essays: 1 fact-based and 1 picture description. April 9 – May 16.

3.) New York State Science Performance Test (grades 4 & 8). May 21 -30.

4.) New York State Science Written section (grades 4 & 8). June 2.   

5.) MOSL (local assessments) used for teacher ratings (at many, but not all, schools). Grades 3-5 students will complete a reading and writing performance assessment, and a math Scantron online Ed performance will also be administered. May 5 – 12. 

6.) Pearson field testing. June 2 -11. 

The New York City Council has already unanimously passed a resolution calling on the State Education Department to cease fielding testing. Chancellor Fariña, I call on the NYCDOE to opt-out of Pearson’s upcoming field tests. At the very least, can you please ensure that NYC parents are notified in advance that Pearson field tests will be administered. It would be helpful to send principals a form letter that notifies parents of the date, grade and subject area of the field test. It should also state that the field tests are not mandated, and it should ask parents whether or not they consent to having their children participate.

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Please read this field test fact sheet produced by Fred Smith of Change the Stakes. You can print out copies here. Please spread the word that this is happening!

Our students deserve authentic, teacher-created assessments that can be used for instructional and diagnostic purposes. These NYS Common Core tests don’t do that; rather they exploit children for political and economic gain.

Thank you,

Katie Lapham 

 

Dear New York Times: Why I Oppose the Common Core

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meme courtesy of Susan Dufresne, teachersletterstobillgates.com 

Here is my response to last week’s New York Times editorial on the Common Core

Re: The Common Core in New York, published by the New York Times Editorial Board on 2/14/14

I am an elementary ESL teacher in a Title I public school in East New York, Brooklyn. First and foremost, I am an advocate for English-language learners. I take my role as a mandated reporter very seriously. After administering the 2013 NYS Common Core state tests, which I feel constituted child abuse, I decided to start speaking out. Since then, I’ve immersed myself in all things Common Core and have connected with many thoughtful and experienced education activists from around the world. I am against the Common Core because it is an instrument (weapon?) of corporate education reform, and it does not put children first. Please read my recent letter to Carmen Fariña, NYC schools chancellor, in which I describe the problems in our schools that I feel are most pressing. I also offer recommendations.

I grew up in communities that were hostile towards unions. I had not been an active UFT member until now. My father would roll over in his grave if he knew I was a member of the steering committee of the MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators) caucus of the UFT. I joined MORE this summer because they are committed to the ideals of democracy and social justice, which are being threatened by the Common Core package.

Has the editorial board spent any time in our public schools? Do the members have school-aged children? I invite you to come visit my school.

-Katie Lapham, Brooklyn

Dear Carmen Fariña: NYC Schools Need Joy and Democracy

Dear Chancellor Fariña,

Welcome back! I am encouraged by your message of bringing back joy into the classrooms. But what about democracy? Here in New York City, curriculum and pedagogy are narrowing in order to prepare students for high-stakes tests that, in my professional opinion, are invalid. The Common Core (CCSS) state tests do not accurately measure what students know and how they have grown both academically and socially/emotionally. In my opinion, the corporate education reform agenda, together with its Common Core package of standards, curriculum and testing, is whittling down the purpose of public education to “college and career readiness,” with a focus on English-language arts and math instruction. At the NYS Senate’s January 23, 2014 Common Core hearing, NYSED Commissioner John King reiterated that the Common Core is needed for the US economy, arguing that it’s what US corporations want. However, any teacher will tell you that they are in this job to make a difference in the lives of children, to show students how to avoid the mistakes made by our predecessors in the hopes of improving the state of the world. We see the critical importance of helping students develop life skills, such as civic-mindedness, empathy and resilience, in addition to teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic.

I wish to draw your attention to the issues in our public schools that currently are most troubling to me. I am a push-in ESL teacher at a Title I elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn, however I started out, in 2006, as a bilingual classroom teacher.

1.) Over-testing – English-language learners (ELLs) in grades 3-8 are particularly encumbered with standardized testing. The NYSESLAT (NYS English as a Second Language Achievement Test) is administered to ELLs right after the grueling Common Core ELA and math state assessments. The NYSESLAT is a lengthy, four-part assessment that tests students’ proficiency levels in the speaking, reading, writing and listening of English. Contrary to what the NYS Board of Regents says, students in grades K-2 are indeed taking standardized tests. For the listening, reading and writing sections of the NYSESLAT, ELLs in grades K-2 are required to answer multiple choice questions by bubbling their answers directly into student test booklets. As an out-of-classroom ESL teacher, my instructional program is, for the most part, cancelled for two months in the spring. From April to June, my days are spent preparing, administering and scoring state assessments.

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In addition to April’s Common Core ELA and math high-stakes tests, NYC students are currently taking ELA and math baseline assessments that resemble the content and format of the actual CCSS state tests. Two weeks ago, my 5th grade English-language learners (ELLs) used over four class periods to complete the math baseline. One boy shut down in the middle of the assessment and a girl broke down in tears and ended up in the nurse’s office. While change must occur at both the federal and state levels, you and Bill de Blasio have the power to lower the stakes of these burdensome tests in New York City. A recent Teachers Talk Testing petition asked the mayor to:

1. End promotion tied to test scores.
2. End middle and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores.
3. End school report cards based primarily on student test scores.

In fact, on December 10, 2013, the City Council unanimously passed Resolution 1394, which calls upon the state of New York to replace high-stakes testing with multiple forms of assessment. Fred Smith, a statistician who worked for the NYC Board of Education as an administrative staff analyst until 2001, is a wealth of knowledge on NYS’s flawed standardized testing program. In a letter to Diane Ravitch, Smith called the 2013 NYS Common Core assessments “…failed, unreliable instruments incapable of serving as a baseline or foundation.” Smith currently advises Change the Stakes, a local group that opposes high-stakes testing, and is an excellent resource.

2.) Undemocratic learning climate – Our freedom to teach is eroding. Teachers had little (if any) meaningful participation in the development and review of the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core package was imposed on us in top-down fashion, and in many NYC public schools, particularly those receiving Title I funding, there’s little wiggle room in applying the standards to learning. In other words, we cannot simply use the standards as we see fit. They are tied to an accountability system (testing) and scripted curricula that ostensibly address the so-called instructional shifts. Teachers increasingly lament that they feel they aren’t giving students what they really need and deserve.

Similarly, many NYC teachers feel they had little input in selecting the new Common Core-aligned curriculum. Pearson’s ReadyGEN ELA Core Curriculum program is particularly unpopular, not because of its disastrous rollout, but because it’s an uninspiring and developmentally inappropriate test prep program. While I mostly like the 5th grade anchor texts – the only part of the program my 5th grade co-teacher and I currently use – I had no say in choosing the books. When will my co-teacher and I squeeze in Rickshaw Girl, a culturally relevant chapter book we read every year that explores the struggles of a young girl in Bangladesh? Also, the ReadyGEN-selected texts are challenging for my ESL students, and from what I can tell the program offers no differentiation in terms of materials. Pearson instructs teachers to expose all students, regardless of reading level and English-language proficiency, to the same rigorous text.

Here’s a sample page from Coming to America: The Story of Immigration, a text that’s being used in the ReadyGEN ELA first grade program.

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First grade close reading – ReadyGEN

Will a first grader find joy in closely reading this text and in answering questions in ReadyGEN’s bland Reader’s and Writer’s Journal which, to me, is nothing more than a test prep workbook? What about my special needs ELL who still doesn’t know all of his sounds and letters but is expected to follow along in the text while the teacher reads it aloud? The ReadyGEN first grade journal asks students to write sentences using vocabulary such as gazes, barrier, blended and unique. It also instructs students to explain in writing why America is called a “melting pot” and to rewrite sentences from the text in order to replace proper nouns and nouns with pronouns. In a reading analysis lesson, the written response directions in the first grade journal are worded as follows: What is the central message of A Picnic in October? and Retell three details that teach the central message.

The ReadyGEN ELA program has yielded so few moments of joy in our first grade ESL class that my co-teacher and I have decided to take a break from it during our literacy block. We are currently teaching an ELA unit on monsters, and the classroom has come alive. We selected a variety of engaging monster books, and each day students complete a writing and/or art activity. Why are the monsters called Wild Things? What does it mean to be ‘wild’? Describe the setting of the book. Describe the nightmare in your closet. What makes it scary? How does the mouse trick the forest animals in The Gruffalo? Are all monsters bad? What are the different names (synonyms) for monsters in the books we’ve read? Create your own monster and use adjectives to describe its features. From this, I envision a social emotional learning unit in which we discuss our fears and students describe a time when they were brave. I’m doing something similar with my 5th grade newcomer ELLs who are currently studying the Underground Railroad.

3.) Misuse of funds and inequity– While we are using what we can of ReadyGEN, the student journals are largely being unused. How much money did the NYCDOE spend on this program? NYC Title I public schools, in particular, feel they have no choice but to adopt the subsidized NYCDOE Core Curriculum programs and “free” NYSED engageny.org lessons. Doing so spares them from having to use their limited funds to create and/or to justify the use of alternative Common Core-aligned programs. Also, schools with low test scores find comfort in reasoning that the content and tasks in these programs might appear on the actual CCSS tests. It should be noted that Pearson is the publisher of both ReadyGEN and the NYS ELA CCSS assessment.

Harris Lirtzman recently penned an eye-opening opinion piece on NYCDOE spending for WNYC’s SchoolBook. He called the DOE under Michael Bloomberg “a sinkhole of wasted money.” My understanding of the NYCDOE’s budget is not as deep as Lirtzman’s, but I can think of so many other ways to use the funds. Class sizes are rising, AIS services are being cut and after school test prep sessions have replaced enrichment programs. Wraparound services are also in demand. We need more initiatives to genuinely fight poverty and to provide students who are hurting with counseling. So many of our kids don’t have a safety net and look to school for emotional support. With the emphasis currently on addressing  “instructional shifts” and on preparing students for high-stakes testing, the needs of at-risk students are not being met.

4.) Lack of meaningful professional development (PD)Why is Pearson telling us how to teach? Teachers report that the ReadyGEN PD sessions they regularly attend are ineffective. In addition, teachers are being asked to analyze tests that they themselves didn’t create, and collaborative planning time is being sacrificed so that teachers in grades 3-5 can score the above-mentioned baseline assessments using a non-teacher created rubric. I have lost count of the number of PD sessions I’ve attended on Danielson’s Framework and on the Common Core State Standards.

Teachers would rather spend time working together to create lessons, gather materials and share resources. We learn best from one another. Outside of my school, I look at Boston’s Mission Hill School, which was founded by Deborah Meier in 1997, for alternative techniques to the ones imposed on us. After watching the inspirational video series A Year at Mission Hill, I started writing a column on teachersletterstobillgates.com in which I showcase the school’s rich project-based, collaborative curriculum and inclusive community-building practices. I call my project Freedom to Teach, Freedom to Learn: A Year at Mission Hill.

Here in New York City, I recently attended the More than a Score: Talk back to Testing forum that was organized by Change the Stakes and the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) of the UFT. I left feeling inspired and hopeful. Participants feeling demoralized by high-stakes testing found the day to be soul-cleansing; one even declared that we should “…walk out of here and start a new school system.” Jia Lee, a teacher/parent at Manhattan’s Earth School, shared with us the 4th/5th grade immigrant study curriculum that she and her colleagues designed. I learned from Jia that through socially and culturally relevant pedagogy, her school, which is part of the Children First Network 102, creates their own project-based curricula and portfolio-based assessments. The Earth School has also effectively eliminated the ranking and sorting of kids by using written narrative reports to convey student performance rather than traditional report cards.

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Those of us saddled with test prep curriculum, like ReadyGEN, and the NYC Performance Assessments, which exist solely to satisfy the Measures of Student Learning (MOSL) component of the new teacher evaluation system, do not have sufficient space in which to collaborate in authentic, meaningful ways. We have fewer opportunities to put our own stamp on the learning taking place in our classrooms. It breaks my heart that students in my district are not getting the same kinds of educational experiences that have existed long before the reign of the Common Core era at the Earth School and at other CFN 102 schools like the Brooklyn New School (P.S. 146) and Park Slope’s P.S. 321.  Many NYC educators are unaware of the autonomy that these NYC public elementary schools enjoy.  In designing quality curriculum and assessments that address the whole child, we should reject what corporate education reform is peddling and instead draw from our most valuable resource: our schools.

Kind regards,

Katie Lapham, NYC public school teacher