Day 2 – NYS/Pearson Common Core ELA Exam

3rd grade ELA example

reading passage sample courtesy of @ The Chalk Face and engageny.org 

Today I administered DAY TWO of the 2014 NYS/Pearson Common Core ELA exam to 5th grade English-language learners (ELLs) and former ELLs who are entitled to extended time (time and a half) on state tests. Like yesterday, they sat in the testing room for 135 minutes (2 hours and 15 minutes).

Today’s ELA booklet (there are 3 in total) was comprised of three unrelated reading passages, seven multiple choice questions, three short response questions and one extended response question.  As is the nature of these standardized tests, the students were not necessarily emotionally invested in the subject matter of the reading passages.  The students may or may not have had prior knowledge of the topics, and there may not have been opportunities for them to make text-to-self connections.  This is NOT the style in which I teach.  My teacher-created assessments relate directly to the teacher/student-selected material and topics covered in class, which students find more engaging and inspiring than scripted test-driven curriculum.

Here are some student and teacher reactions to the DAY TWO ELA test:

1.) The constant rustling of test booklet pages was a distraction.  For nearly every multiple choice question, students were instructed to refer back to specific paragraphs of the text in order to answer text-based and inference questions.  This technique is called close reading, a hallmark of the Common Core.  It can be a tedious exercise, especially for test prep and standardized test-taking purposes.  The Common Core calls this “critical thinking.” I find it formulaic and lacking in creativity and big-picture, open-ended thinking.

2.) Some 5th graders found one passage in particular to be confusing.  They struggled to write the extended response because they felt they did not have a good understanding of the story.

3.) The vocabulary was not grade appropriate.  Some words were archaic and stumped students; this tactic felt deliberate on the part of the test makers, as if they were purposely trying to select the most challenging passage(s) they could get away with.

4.) The special education students particularly struggled despite being entitled to double time (three hours for a 5th grader).  Students fell asleep, cried and shut down.  One girl – a strong reader – was immobilized by the exam, refusing to proceed after getting stuck.  Another student had an emotional breakdown and refused to take the test.

5.) Students appear to be more emotional and angry this week.

As I was leaving school today, a 5th grader told me that he’s going to toss the DAY 3 exam into the garbage tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

Katie

Floundering at the Forums: John King faces more Common Core critics

photo courtesy of WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show

Live streaming the Common Core forums taking place throughout New York state has become a type of spectator sport for me. While chopping vegetables for dinner, I cheer on my fellow advocates as they speak the truth about corporate education reform to a panel of policymakers that include Commissioner John King and Merryl Tisch, NYS Board of Regents chancellor.

On Monday, October 28, 2013, around 70 parents and educators spoke to the panel at Port Chester Middle School in Westchester County, New York. There are thousands more of us in social media, in classrooms, in offices, and in homes who share these speakers’ sentiments. We are organized and unwavering in our mission to protect our “special interests”: the children of New York state. The next forum will take place in Suffolk County, Long Island on November 6, 2013.  Here is a complete list of scheduled forums.

For those of you unable to watch the video of the Port Chester forum, I share with you two powerful testimonials.

Susan Polos:

“Dr. King, I’m Susan Polos, resident of Katonah-Lewisboro district. I am a National Board certified school librarian in the Bedford Central district.

I was appointed by Regent Cohen as a practitioner to review and revise the ELA/ESL Standards, work that was close to finished when NY accepted the Common Core Standards as a requirement for Race to the Top money. The district where I work was at first glad to accept the funds but soon realized that the costs were greater than the reward. I am talking about more than monetary costs.

In the race to ensure “college and career readiness” (as though there is one path, one type of college, one type of career), we have sacrificed the arts, music, librarians, time for interdisciplinary connections, project-based learning, experiential opportunities – all diminished or disappeared as time, money and human resources have been redirected to data collection and data analysis. In the eyes of the state, our children are numbers, our teachers are numbers, and the numbers have been clearly sorted and cut to achieve a talking point. Then those numbers – attached to names – are sold to the highest bidder.

The national obsession with competition hurts our most vulnerable children. Our children deserve play, time to grow, school librarians and much more. They are more than numbers. They are writers (and not to the test, which is how they are now taught), they are builders, they are dancers, they are dreamers. Our teachers are living through a nightmare, following directives they deplore while trying to make each day the best for every child, knowing they are the convenient scapegoat for poverty, racism, and equitable access to resources.

You would not subject your children to what you subject the masses to. We all know that powerful forces are buying our politicians and thus education “reform” has become the bipartisan gift that keeps on lining the pockets of the rich while destroying the middle class and poor and threatening Democracy itself.

Please stop this train. Not by eliminating one or two tests as appeasement, but by listening to teachers, parents and students, and by ending corporate profit’s vise on our most precious resource: our children.”

Bianca Tanis:

“This is my son and your reforms have hurt him. You mandate schools to share sensitive student data. You force students with disabilities to submit to inappropriate and humiliating testing. Only now, 5 months later, after you have had to endure public outcry, are you willing to consider changes. Where was common sense and decency 5 months ago when parents begged to for their children to be exempt and when children with disabilities were being tortured. You should be ashamed.

These reforms are not about education. They are about the agenda of billionaires with no teaching experience. The fact that your close advisors are the mysterious Regents Fellows, individuals with little to no teaching experience, who are paid 6 figure salaries with private donations by Bill Gates and Chancellor Merryl Tisch, speaks volumes. Private money comes with a price tag and that price tag is influence. We reject leadership that allows public education to be bought. That is not democracy. By the way, the Regents Fellow job description does not mention teaching experience as a requirement.

It has been said that parent opposition is typical when change is introduced. There is nothing typical about the present response. The incompetent roll out of the common core and the naked disregard that has been shown for developmentally appropriate and educationally sound practice is unacceptable. Your recent concessions are disingenuous and a case of too little too late. They do nothing to reduce the hours of testing or the inappropriate level of test difficulty. They do nothing to make cut scores reasonable or address serious problems associated with high stakes testing.

In addition to hurting children, your policies promote social inequality. Private school parents, such as your self have the opportunity to say to no to harmful testing and data sharing while public school parents are not afforded the same rights. Are you afraid of what would happen if you gave all parents a choice?

The inadequacy of our schools is a manufactured crisis. Poverty is the number one indicator of student achievement. When you factor in poverty, US schools are at the top. New York deserves real leadership that addresses real issues. If you won’t provide that leadership, we need someone who will.”

Here is the video of the Port Chester forum: http://www.lohud.com/article/20131029/NEWS08/131029001/Common-Core-Watch-a-replay-of-the-forum-in-Port-Chester

Here are blog posts about the Port Chester forums:

http://nyceducator.com/2013/10/reformy-king-john-pretends-to-listen.html

http://dianeravitch.net/2013/10/29/parent-these-reforms-are-not-about-education/

http://perdidostreetschool.blogspot.com/2013/10/not-one-speaker-supported-common-core.html

http://truthinamericaneducation.com/common-core-state-standards/stop-common-core-in-new-york-state-calls-for-john-kings-resignation/

Common Core ELA curriculum resembles test prep, lacks meaning

elaclose

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were initially sold to me as student learning goals used as a blueprint in shaping instruction. I believed – naively, I now realize – that I’d have the freedom to use my own materials and assessments within the framework of the standards. I figured I could mold them to fit the individual learning needs of my ELLs (English-language learners). I am a push-in elementary ESL teacher, which means I co-teach with classroom teachers during the literacy block (reading and writing).

Fast forward a few years to the 2013 New York State Common Core assessments. This past winter, in preparing our students for the CCSS ELA (English-language arts) exam, we were given packets of authentic texts (both fiction and non-fiction) to use in teaching close reading skills to our students. In close reading, you isolate and analyze a short paragraph or section of a reading passage. Common Core buzzwords such as “dig deeper, critical thinking, and evidence” were constantly thrown at us in a way that implied we hadn’t previously taught these reading comprehension skills.  On the contrary, my fifth grade co-teacher and I judiciously select a wide range of authentic materials – from New York Times articles to charity/NGO mission statements – to enrich our meaningful units of study. Over the past four years of working together, we have created an engaging social justice curriculum that we will likely have to shelve due to the NYC DOE’s new “recommended” Core Curriculum programs, two of which my school adopted for the 2013-2014 school year.

Both the content and purpose of the CCSS test prep materials we were given, which consisted of a random selection of reading passages, disconnected from a larger, more meaningful unit of study, contrast with our own teacher-created materials and performance tasks. Unlike our thought-provoking social justice curriculum, the test prep materials were largely devoid of any real world knowledge that we find our students crave. I recently examined Pearson’s scripted NYC ReadyGEN Common Core curriculum that my school is using for ELA this year, and, like the test prep materials we were given for the spring tests, it closely resembles the content and skills assessed on Pearson’s NYS Common Core exams. I found the reading passages to be uninspiring, and I was confused by the objective (s) of some of the questions.

Common Core supporters often point out to me that curriculum is not mandated in NYS. They argue that schools and/or districts have choice with regards to selecting CCSS-aligned materials. They highlight a menu of already existing programs: engageny.org curriculum modules and NYC DOE recommended Core Curriculum programs, for example.  However, what they fail to mention is that schools are experiencing deep budget cuts while simultaneously being subjected to high-stakes CCSS testing. Thus, in NYC, for example, schools feel pressure to use the subsidized NYC DOE Core Curriculum programs and “free” engageny.org lessons because this spares them from having to use their limited funds to create and/or to justify the use of alternative programs. Also, in this era of school closings due to “poor” performance, there is relief in knowing that the state and city-approved materials are designed to prepare kids for the high-stakes Common Core tests.

In the wake of the August 7, 2013 release of the 2013 NYS Common Core test scores, the public outcry against these tests has been spreading like wildfire across the state.  As I see it, calling the CCSS assessments ‘invalid’ and ‘meaningless’ requires a simultaneous questioning of the NYS and NYC government-approved CCSS curriculum programs, which, together with the assessments they are designed to prepare students for, carry an enormous price tag. The Common Core professional development programs alone are costing the state $1 billion.

Because I have not attended a Pearson ReadyGEN ELA training, I wish to include excerpts from an email I received from a colleague who was trained in this NYC Core Curriculum ELA program last week.

“Walking into the ReadyGEN workshop, I had my concerns, mainly because the teacher’s guide looks similar to the math program (Go Math!) in the way it tells you how to lay out the lesson and what to say.

As the program began to unfold, I noticed that the prototype and philosophy IS very similar to what you and I do/did everyday with students. The program emphasizes complex texts and close reading (we do) as well as reading multiple texts to gain critical thinking skills and to question beliefs (we do). The critical thinking questions the program provides are pretty generic.

For teachers who have developed a curriculum or process that works and yields results, it’s almost an insult. They are taking everything we do, packaging and branding it, and selling it.

The bad part about this is there are “non-negotiable” anchor texts that we can’t change. They were supposedly chosen thoughtfully, and with a formula to measure text complexity that not only includes factors like Lexile and vocabulary, but also complex thought and ideas.

Each day, you are given a specific section to first read aloud, then read again with close reading. After that, a reading strategy is taught and assessed, and small groups are formed for the teacher to work further with struggling students, while students who get it have “extension activities” or independent reading time. The last 30 minutes of the prototype are solely for whole group writing. So, as I mentioned, very similar to how we currently operate.

The shift will be in the pre-packaged themes/texts. Some I like, some I don’t. My hope is that these texts will provide us with an opportunity to go on some sidebars, and perhaps choose supporting texts not from the ReadyGen anthology, but from the New York Times. And of course, our beautiful and thoughtful social justice work will have to take a back burner, or at least we will have to find creative ways to focus on these topics. I have yet to read any of the texts to determine whether they are meaningful.

In summary, I don’t think ReadyGEN will be as bad as expected, but I do think it will be a sad shift. I am determined to stay optimistic, because ultimately being a classroom teacher means you do have the control, and no matter how scripted a program can be, your voice is more powerful.”

Response to The Art of Teaching (NYT article)

Here is a copy of a letter I submitted to the New York Times. It wasn’t published.

To the Editor,
Regarding Invitation to a Dialogue: The Art of Teaching (4/30/13), I agree that unorthodox teachers can potentially make the greatest impact in classrooms. However, the national Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and their corresponding high-stakes testing program pose a roadblock to this. I initially supported the CCSS because of their flexibility in terms of curriculum. The standards list the skills and core concepts that students need to master without telling teachers how to teach them. Theoretically, teachers can select their own materials and can design their own curriculum while using the CCSS as a roadmap. However, the reality is far different. In New York City, schools face pressure from the Department of Education (DOE) to adopt the DOE’s recommended curriculum: scripted programs for English Language Arts (ELA) and math. One such program –ReadyGen – is published by Pearson, the makers of the New York State ELA and math assessments. Even the most well-meaning principals and teachers find their personalized craft compromised by their own fears that if they don’t use the DOE’s curriculum and test prep materials (see http://www.engageny.org) there will be dire consequences. They worry that Quality Reviews will be conducted for schools having to justify the use of their own curriculum instead of the DOE’s recommended programs, and that teacher evaluations will suffer.