Fred Smith on the NYSED’s Delayed Release of the 2013 Technical Report, Part I

 

photograph courtesy of the New York Daily News

Below is Fred Smith’s initial reaction to the long-awaited release of the Technical Report of the 2013 New York State Common Core Math and English-language Arts (ELA) tests. Smith, a NYS testing expert and statistician, has long been sounding the alarm on the New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) lack of transparency.  He is also an active member of Change the Stakes and has launched a campaign to Say “NO!” to Pearson stand-alone field tests, which were administered throughout New York State in June 2014. Currently, Smith is scrutinizing the item analysis data contained in the overdue 2013 Technical Report and “will be parsing some of its fuzzy verbiage.” At first glance, Smith reports, “there are a number of serious questions regarding the ELA exams that add weight to the concerns of educators and parents about their composition and use.”

Fred Smith: The New York State Education Department (NYSED) just posted the 2013 Technical Report— seven+ months past Pearson’s deliverable deadline. All 339 pages of it, in which the NYSED and the publisher have continued to deny useful information that the technical reports contained before Pearson took over the state testing program.

http://www.p12.nysed.gov/assessment/reports/2013/ela-math-tr13.pdf

So now we can see what data they are showing us about the quality of the 2013 Common Core-aligned baseline tests three months after the 2014 exams have been given. The foundational 2013 Common Core ELA and Math tests were described last year as providing a “transparent baseline.” NYSED acts in bad faith and its words peter out in sheer derision.

No matter what the selective disclosure of the delayed data shows, this is an unacceptable way to operate and the antithesis of transparency.

Here’s one piece of clever obfuscation: Embedded Field Test Items (p. 8)

“In 2010, the Department announced its commitment to embed multiple-choice items for field-testing within the Spring 2012 Grades 3–8 ELA and Mathematics Operational Tests; this commitment continued for the Spring 2013 administrations of the Common Core assessments. Embedding field-test items allows for a better representation of student responses and provides more reliable field-test data on which to build future operational tests. In other words, since the specific locations of the embedded field-test items were not disclosed and they look the same as operational items, students were unable to differentiate field-test items from operational test items. Therefore, field-test data derived from embedded items are free of the effects of differential student motivation that may characterize stand-alone field-test designs. Embedding field-test items also reduced the number of stand-alone field-tests during the spring of 2013 but did not eliminate the need for them.”

Yes, imagine if General Motors said: “And we are committed to selling cars with brakes, as it makes driving safer. But when we can’t do that as much as we’d like to, there are times we have to sell cars without brakes.”

Thank you, Fred, for your insights.  Stay tuned for Part II.

-KL

 

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Where are the 2013 Technical Reports?: A Call for Transparency at John King’s NYSED

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photograph courtesy of Susan Watts/New York Daily News 12/13/13

On April 14, 2014, sociologist Aaron M. Pallas posted an illuminating report on the lack of transparency at the New York State Education Department (NYSED) with regards to its controversial standardized testing program.  It’s posted on his blog  A Sociological Eye on Education.  I was struck by Pallas’ mention of the missing technical reports of the 2013 NYS Common Core assessments that Pearson was contracted to deliver to the NYSED in December 2013.  At present, the reports have yet to appear on the NYSED website. Did Pearson fail to deliver the reports, which is costing the state $75,000, or is the NYSED sitting on them the same way it sat on the 2012 technical reports, which weren’t made public until July 2013? Click here to read the 2012 English-language Arts technical report and here to view the 2012 Mathematics technical report.

In his latest blog post, Pallas writes:

New York sent teachers’ Mean Growth Percentile scores to its 700 school districts in August 2013, which enabled teachers to receive their overall evaluation scores and categories by September 1, 2013. But no one—neither teachers, parents, journalists nor researchers—has had access to the information necessary to evaluate either the quality of the tests or the quality of the Mean Growth Percentiles. That’s because the technical reports that tell us about last year’s state assessments have yet to be released to the public.

Let that sink in for a moment.”

Fred Smith, NYS testing expert and statistician, has long been sounding the alarm on the NYSED’s lack of transparency.  He is also an active member of Change the Stakes and has launched a campaign to Say “NO!” to Pearson stand-alone field tests, which are to be administered throughout New York State in June 2014.  Smith sent me the following note:

Aaron Pallas gives a powerfully succinct explanation about why the lack of transparency here is intellectually dishonest and beyond objectionable from a scientific perspective.

In simple terms, the failure to produce or make the report available in a timely fashion has been calculated to give SED and Pearson after-the-fact wiggle room to shade its presentation in order to make poorly designed and constructed tests appear less glaringly bad. Even worse, absent the report, researchers and analysts cannot examine the quality of the test instruments.

The entire performance here is another example of SED and Pearson acting in cahoots — with SED running interference for Pearson in order to make the Common Core a fait accompli. Together they have spared no effort to preserve, protect and defend a “sloppy roll-out.”

Parents and educators in New York must continue to put pressure on the NYSED to release the 2013 technical reports.  Use #PearsonTechReports and #BoycottPearson on Twitter.  Please also read and share Fred Smith’s fact sheet on opting-out of Pearson field testing this June.

Thanks, Katie

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 

 

Day 3 – 2014 NYS/Pearson Common Core ELA exam

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Photograph of 4/1/14 P.S. 146 rally courtesy of pix11.com

Today I administered DAY THREE of the 2014 NYS Common Core English-language arts (ELA) assessment to fifth grade English-language learners (ELLs) and former ELLs who are entitled to extended time on state assessments. For the third day in a row, my kids sat in the testing room for 135 minutes (2 hours and 15 minutes). This week, my group of 10-year-olds tested in ELA for a total of six hours and 45 minutes.

Today’s 5th grade test was comprised of three reading passages, five short response questions and one extended response question. The questions were tricky and confusing, and the vocabulary and content were far from being grade-appropriate.  As the educators at P.S. 321* noted in their 4/3/14 condemnation of the 2014 ELA test, “…we have never seen an ELA exam that does a worse job of testing reading comprehension. There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages.”  The kids I tested stared into space while struggling to make sense of the questions. They also had less stamina today. Many needed to take a break after answering the first two short response questions. The students were fidgety and less focused, and many asked to go to the bathroom. Two kids complained of stomach pain. A few kids met my gaze throughout the test, pleading with their eyes for me to rescue them.  It broke my heart.  With more than a hour left in the test, one boy, slumped over in his chair, summoned me over to his seat and said, “I don’t want to do this.”

The behavior I witnessed today was not due to lack of “grit” on the part of my students. They tried their best and didn’t give up. Whenever I proctor these exams, I’m always amazed by my students’ resilience. They make me proud, but it’s disheartening to see them suffer on a test that they don’t realize is completely meaningless and, in no way, reflects the beautiful classwork they’ve done this year.

Here are some NYC elementary student and teacher reactions to the DAY THREE test

1.) The veteran teacher I most admire, a compassionate, energetic and intelligent woman, called the 3rd grade test, “so over the top…the questions were unlike anything we’ve seen.” Furious at having to administer this exam she decried, “You are asking me to be complicit in abusing kids.  I abused kids today and my penalty is a rating.”

2.) Third grade students called the tests “horrible,” “too hard” and “boring.”  They complained of being sleepy and felt worried and frustrated.  One student said, “I thought my brain was going to shut down.”

3.) Many students were scared that they would be “left back” if they didn’t finish the test.

4.) One fifth grader said the test was “exhausting”; another remarked, “my head hurts.”

5.) A fifth grade class reported that the questions were unfair. One question, they said, “has to be thrown out.”

6.) Kids cried at drop off today.  Some cried during the test and a few vomited.  One general education student had a nervous breakdown and had to take the test in a separate location.  This student’s anxiety was so intense that the teacher thought the child would run away.

7.) There were numerous reports of students answering the questions by simply copying random sentences from the reading passages.

7.) A very hard-working and capable third grader didn’t finish the test and asked her teacher, “Does this mean I’m going to fail?”

What is wrong with the NYSED? Do they realize that so-called college readiness DOES NOT mean college-level work in elementary school? Are they punishing our students, educators and parents because of the growing test resistance in New York State? The Board of Regents and John King must be held accountable for their gross mismanagement of our public schools which has, among other disasters, resulted in the unnecessary suffering of our students.

-Katie

*P.S. 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn will be protesting this year’s ELA exam tomorrow (4/4/14) from 8:15 – 8:35 am. It will take place outside the school.

On NYS Testing: What John King Isn’t Telling Superintendents

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On March 24, 2014 New York State Education Commissioner, John King, published a memo to NYS superintendents regarding the administration of this year’s Common Core state tests. In true Race to the Top fashion, King opens by claiming that New York is leading the country “…toward a more rigorous and challenging system of public education that better prepares our children for college, work, and life.” Note the addition of ‘life’ as a goal. In case you are mourning the omission of the ‘readiness’ bit, worry not; it appears on page two in this paragraph:

“As we all learned last year when we first administered the Common Core assessments, the test is harder, and the proficiency rates will be lower than on the old tests that did not reflect the higher standards. This does not mean our teachers are any less effective or our students are any less prepared. It simply means we have set higher aspirations as we work to help our students be truly college and career ready.”

My favorite part of the letter, though, is when John King condescendingly tells the superintendents that:

“It is especially important that you communicate now to help correct misinformation that can cause anxiety and frustration among students and teachers. When everyone understands how the assessments help us better identify student strengths and needs and better support the growth of classroom teachers, the anxiety will lessen and the students will feel more comfortable.”

Here’s what John King ISN’T addressing in his letter on New York’s Common Core standardized testing program:

1.) From NYS Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE): “Excessive standardized testing is consuming 25% of our children’s academic year. It forces teachers to “teach to test”, costs millions of dollars, teaches children there is only one right answer, takes the joy out of learning, and creates major cheating in school districts.”

2.) The lack of transparency addressed by NYS testing expert Fred Smith: “By contract, Pearson is obligated to produce two reports each year. It is responsible for delivering a Technical Report that includes an analysis of all items—their difficulty levels and how well they functioned, including omission rates. The report is due in December. The 2012 Technical report was not posted until July 2013 (although it bore a 2012 date). This prevented scrutiny of 2012’s operational tests until after April 2013’s core-aligned exams had been given. Whatever knowledge might have been gained from the report pertinent to construction of the 2013 exams was rendered useless. This is consistent with SED’s effort to write off the 2012 exams as being transitional and not comparable to 2013.”

As of 3/24/14, the NYSED has not – to my knowledge – released the technical report of the 2013 tests that was due in December 2013. This Pearson-produced report is costing the state $75,000. Of the 2013 tests, all I know is that my English-language learners (ELLs) received a score of 1 or 2 – 1 is considered ‘failing’ – and that few (if any) are among the 3% of ELLs in New York State who “passed.” I have not seen an item analysis so the test results are completely meaningless to me. In no way do the overall scores reflect what my ELLs know and how they’ve progressed academically. I only have use for my own teacher-created assessments.

Similarly, the state’s ever-changing cut scores are unreliable.

3.) An inordinate amount of planning and organizing time is devoted to preparing for the state tests. Giving the state tests is an administrative and logistical nightmare at the school level. Out-of-classroom teachers are pulled from their regular teaching program to administer and score the tests. Countless hours are spend bubbling testing grids and organizing them alphabetically by class. IEPs (individualized education program) are examined closely to ensure that students with special needs receive the correct testing accommodation(s). These include directions read and re-read, extended time, separate location, on-task focusing prompts, revised test directions, questions read and re-read. ELLs and some former ELLs are pulled from their regular classrooms for testing because they are entitled to extended time in a separate location. Also, there is professional development for teachers on testing policies and procedures including “reporting prohibited conduct by adults, student cheating, and other testing irregularities.”

4.) ELLs with just 12 months in the system are mandated to take the ELA (English-language arts) exam. This is just wrong. Inhumane, really.

5.) The tests are developmentally inappropriate, especially for students with special needs. Here’s what I reported on the length and format of last year’s 5th grade ELA test:

Over the course of three consecutive days, they were asked to answer a total of 63 multiple-choice questions on two different answer grids, and eight short-response questions and two extended-response questions in two different booklets. In order to do this, they had to first carefully read and re-read a large number of reading passages.

The following week, my 5th grade ELLs spent three days taking the math exam. These elementary students were subjected to a total of six days – 13.5 hours – of testing in ELA and math.

John King appears to be nervous about the growing resistance to Common Core standardized testing here in New York. He should be.

Katie Lapham

 

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.

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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

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