The NYSESLAT: Mandated standardized testing for ELLs in K-2

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On November 14, 2013, the following statement was made by John King, NYSED commissioner.

“We support the drive to prohibit standardized testing of pre K through 2nd grade students. 

“There are no pre-K – Grade 2 standardized tests administered or required by the state, and there never have been.  Decisions about how to measure student progress in pre-K – Grade 2 are made by local school districts. However, we strongly recommend against the use of bubble tests or other traditional standardized tests and urge districts and their bargaining units to identify other ways to assess learning progress for these very young students.”

“In fact, the Board of Regents has a long-standing policy against administering standardized tests to our very youngest students. 

“We look forward to working together to make sure that children are protected from more testing than is necessary at the local school district level.”

This is false.  For years, our “very youngest” ELLs (English-language learners) have been mandated to take the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT), a burdensome four-part assessment (now aligned to the Common Core State Standards) that’s administered every spring to ELLs in grades K-12 to assess their English-language proficiency levels.  For the listening, reading and writing sections of the assessment, ELLs in grades K-2 are required to answer multiple choice questions by bubbling their answers directly into student test booklets.  The ESL (English as a Second Language) staff then transcribes their answers onto testing grids (bubble sheets) for scanning purposes.  Here’s the NYSESLAT sampler for kindergarten and the NYSESLAT sampler for grades 1 and 2. 

In addition to the valuable instructional time that’s lost to both the administration and the scoring of the NYSESLAT, ESL teachers (including myself) spend at least a month test prepping students for this assessment.  Not only do we feel compelled to teach them test content and test-taking strategies, but we also must show ELLs in K-2 how to take a multiple choice test.  Because NYSED data shows that former ELLs (students who test proficient on the NYSESLAT and no longer require ESL services) outperform non-ELLs on NY state tests, ESL teachers face pressure from the state to “test out” ELLs by the end of  three years of federally mandated ESL instruction.  The goal is to decrease – eliminate? – the number of long-term ELLs (ELLs with six or more years of ESL service) in New York.

Language instruction for ELLs is funded through the Title III federal grant program so I anticipate that John King will argue that the annual standardized testing of ELLs in K-12 is a federal, not state, mandate, and that I should instead discuss this matter with Arne Duncan.  However, the NYSED must have some autonomy in creating its annual assessment that holds all ELL stakeholders accountable. I haven’t seen the ESL assessments used by other states, but surely they are all different.  Commissioner King – what are your plans for the NYSESLAT in light of your 11/14/13 statement regarding standardized testing in grades K-2? Will you be making changes to the K-2 NYSESLAT? 

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Danielson 4a: A Moral Inventory of my Compliance Work

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In June, my Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates partner, Susan, and I created a 12-step recovery program for corporate education reform. For this reflection, I wish to elicit our Step 4, which reads:
We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We determined that we had allowed corporate reformers to undermine our ethics and integrity. We searched and found we had participated in unethical scripted instruction, standardization, and high stakes testing out of fear and oppression that in turn caused fear and oppression in our students.
Excessive accountability should also be added to this list. One of my responsibilities as an ESL teacher/compliance officer (what an unsavory term, no?) is to write the LAP for my school’s CEP. The LAP is a 26-page  Language Allocation Policy that is incorporated into the school’s larger Comprehensive Education Plan.  In addition to providing data on the number of ELLs (English-language learners) in our building – their years of service, ELL programs, home languages, test scores and so on- we must also analyze the data by answering 41 questions in narrative format.  It’s worth emphasizing that this document is just one component of the comprehensive education plan.
Here’s my response to the question that has left me feeling like a fraud.
Part V: ELL Programming
B. Programming and Scheduling Information – Continued
Question 12: What programs/services for ELLs will be discontinued and why?

Answer: We are discontinuing the Journeys reading program and enVisionMATH because they do not match the level of rigor called for by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  The new ReadyGEN and GOMath! Core Curriculum programs are recommended by the NYCDOE and better reflect the demands of the CCSS.

This is what I believed was expected of me to write.  The reality, however, is far different. Teachers were largely satisfied with the Journeys program, which was purchased for two years only in grades K-2. Teachers in grades 3-5 collaborated to create CCSS (Common Core State Standards) curriculum maps and performance tasks.  ELA was mostly taught through the content areas, such as science and social studies.  They also had the freedom to select their own materials.

Compared to GO Math!, Pearson’s enVisionMATH program, which was used in grades K-5 for one year only, was the gold standard of math curricula.  The teachers in my building would happily return to using enVisionMATH and Journeys if given the choice.

In reality, we discontinued Journeys and enVisionMATH due to budget cuts and high-stakes CCSS testing.  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 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 on standardized exams, there is relief in knowing that the state and city-approved materials, like ReadyGEN and GOMath!, are designed to prepare kids for the new high-stakes Common Core tests.  They are – in essence – test prep programs from kindergarten onwards.

I have yet to encounter a teacher who is satisfied with the ReadyGEN and GOMath! Core Curriculum programs.  I haven’t worked with GOMath!, but I can tell you that ReadyGEN is cumbersome, confusing and uninspiring. Due to the demands of the program, we are having to devote more periods to teaching it, at the expense of other subjects such as social studies.  I am devastated that I must use this program with my fifth graders instead of the engaging and challenging social justice curriculum that my fifth grade co-teacher and I created, and have refined, over the course of three years of teaching together.

Because I cannot write this in the LAP, I share it with you here, a place where educators can speak the truth, a place where I can make amends.