A Tale of Two School Systems: The Impact of NYS Testing on NYC Public Schools

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Here is my testimony from last night’s CEC 15/CEC 13 joint meeting about state testing. 

I am here tonight as both a District 15 parent of a third grader and as a District 15 ENL/ESL elementary school teacher.  Luckily as a parent, my daughter is in a school where the vast majority of students opt out and there is no test prep. However, as a teacher this is the hardest time of year for me. One reason I speak out against the Common Core-aligned state testing program is because it helps me to live with myself as a teacher who is forced to administer the math, English-language arts (ELA) and NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test) assessments each spring- one after the other.  I watch kids suffer and shut down, and there’s nothing I can do about it. As a veteran teacher, I feel like a fraud, complicit in perpetuating an educationally unsound and racist testing program that is designed to harm, not help, our public schools. Common Core state testing is at the heart of corporate education reform. It’s the tool, the weapon, being used to privatize public education and dismantle teacher unions.  

To me, the test scores aren’t legitimate because they come from highly flawed assessments.  Any feedback I get from the testing company is unreliable because of the tests’ poor design, developmentally inappropriate content and ever-changing cut scores. However, authentic and meaningful classroom work, created by educators, not testing companies, paints a much more accurate picture of student progress. Furthermore, Common Core curriculum that prepares students for these tests is not innovative or transformative.  Its pedagogy is anti-democratic (see Nicholas Tampio’s critique of Common Core), and it’s highly scripted and formulaic. Context and real critical thinking are lacking, and the work itself is tedious. English-language arts, for example, relies heavily on excessive close reading.

Test scores also hinder school integration efforts.  Real estate agents use schools with high test scores to lure buyers and renters to certain neighborhoods.  Some affluent families in gentrifying neighborhoods use test scores to justify their rejection of schools whose students are largely Black, Brown and poor.  By design, test scores are used to unfairly label schools, students and teachers as “failing,” and they are used to close local schools in Black, Brown and poor neighborhoods.  This destabilizes communities and adds stress to the lives of families living there. This focus on raising test scores also takes us away from the messy – but URGENT – work we must do to address school inequity and segregation.  According to civil rights investigative journalist and District 13 parent, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the thinking is: “if we can just get the test scores up we don’t have to do anything about the fundamental inequality of segregated schools.” She also shared that her daughter is doing great in her low test score District 13 public school arguing that, “the scores aren’t even reflecting what’s being taught in that school.”  Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke at the Network for Public Education’s annual conference in Oakland, CA last October.  I encourage you to listen to her entire speech.

As we all know, there are two school systems in New York City.  Hannah-Jones calls this disparity “desperate,” and she’s cried over it.  So have I. So educationally unsound is Common Core test-centric schooling that I felt like I had no choice but to leave my beloved Title I school in East New York, my second home where I spent my first nine years as a teacher.  I am now in a District 15 school with high test scores and the differences between the two are striking.

NYC schools with low test scores face immense pressure to raise scores and therefore most decision-making revolves around this goal. No one wants to be on a focus school list, which results in greater scrutiny. Teacher morale in these schools is low and this trickles down to students.  Ask your child’s teachers how truly happy they are. The schools are top-down and undemocratic and the staff is micromanaged. There is little to no freedom to teach and learn in schools with low test scores. Schools with low test scores are constantly changing reading, writing and math programs, and they aren’t teacher-created or even teacher-selected.  Schools with low test scores are pressured by districts to adopt developmentally inappropriate and uninspiring test prep curriculum such as Pearson’s ReadyGEN. Pearson, as you may know, created the first batch of Common Core-aligned ELA and math assessments. In schools with low test scores, skills-based test prep begins in kindergarten, which completely disregards early childhood studies showing that “the average age at which children learn to read independently is 6.5 years” (Defending the Early Years).

In many schools with low test scores, there’s an almost heart-stopping sense of urgency to improve students’ performance in math, reading and writing.  As a result, these schools have limited choice time and no free play in the lower grades. Any type of play must have a literacy skill attached to it. There are fewer field trips, fewer enrichment programs and fewer (if any at all) school performances.  An inordinate amount of planning and organizing time is devoted to preparing for the state tests. Out-of-classroom teachers are pulled from their regular teaching program to administer and score the tests. Countless hours are spent bubbling testing grids.  In 2013, as an out-of-classroom ESL teacher, I lost 40 days of teaching to support this massive testing operation.

English-language learners (ELLs) are the most over-tested students in New York State and very few people – including educators – ever set eyes on the NYSESLAT, the annual ESL assessment given to English-language learners every spring following the state ELA and math tests. In fact, many parents of ELLs don’t even know their child is taking it. The NYSESLAT is arguably worse than the ELA test, and it is comprised of four testing sessions, which means four days of testing.  The kindergarten NYSESLAT has 57 questions.  The reading passages are largely non-fiction, and some of the topics are obscure, outside of the students’ everyday life experiences.  The NYSESLAT is more of a content assessment rather than a true language test. It’s also excessive in its use of close reading. The listening section, for example, requires students to listen to passage excerpts over and over again.  Testing at the proficiency level is the primary way an ELL can exit the ESL program. I have students, already overburdened by state testing, that will remain at the advanced (expanding) level on the NYSESLAT because they don’t score well on standardized tests.  Like the Common Core ELA test, the results of the NYSESLAT tell me nothing about what my students know.

Is this the type of schooling our communities want? I can tell you that educators by and large reject this top-down, one-size-fits-all, corporatization of public education. Shouldn’t community input be taken seriously? What is OUR definition of equity and excellence? Does it include high-stakes testing? The Journey for Justice Alliance offers a vision for sustainable community schools in low-income, Black and Brown neighborhoods throughout the United States: relevant, rigorous and engaging curriculum that allows students to learn in different ways, project-based assessments, supports for high quality teachers, smaller class sizes and teacher aides, appropriate wraparound support for students, including opportunities for inspiration and access to things students care about, a student-centered school climate, quality restorative practices and student leadership opportunities, transformative parent engagement, and inclusive school leadership which considers content knowledge and community knowledge (Jitu Brown, North Dakota Study Group’s annual conference, Tougaloo College, Jackson, MS, 2/16/18). As Camden, NJ organizer Ronsha Dickerson put it, “We want what we need, not what you want to give us.” This, to her, is real equity.   

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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 

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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