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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Test Refusal = People Power

In recent months, social media has been ablaze with talk of regular folk taking action to resist the Trump agenda.  Protests are a daily occurrence, and even those who previously paid little attention to politics are now hitting the streets with cardboard signs to express their outrage.  I see girls as young as 6 years old scurrying into brownstone Brooklyn public schools with handmade, mauve-colored pussy hats atop their heads.  I would even argue that more than half of the adult population in the United States knows who Betsy DeVos is and what she stands for.  While I wish more people had been ‘woke’ under Obama, this new wave of activism – with the message of #PeoplePower at its heart – gives me hope.

Since 2013, I have been strongly encouraging residents of New York State – and beyond – to refuse the Common Core-aligned grades 3-8 state tests in math and ELA.  I still have nothing positive to say about them, and at this point – in my weary, I-give-zero-you-know-whats state – I have escalated to practically demanding that you opt out this year.  Even Betty Rosa, the new chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, said she’d refuse the tests.  Here’s what Kate Taylor of The New York Times reported in March 2016:

“Dr. Rosa has criticized the new, more difficult tests that the state introduced under her predecessor, Merryl H. Tisch, as part of its transition to the Common Core standards. She has suggested that the tests were designed so that many students would fail, giving policy makers a chance to point to a crisis in the state’s schools. On Monday, she said that if she had children in the grades taking the exams, she would have them sit out the tests, as the parents of more than 200,000 students did last year.”

People, we have power.  Refusing the state tests sends the message that we reject the further privatization of public education in this country.  Under this umbrella, we:

  • say NO to the over-testing of our youngest learners, particularly English-language learners who must also take the grueling four-part NYSESLAT assessment AFTER the state ELA and math tests.
  • say NO to school segregation and the argument that a school is “bad” because of low test scores.
  • say NO to fear and threats! NYC students ARE getting into competitive middle and high schools without test scores, and schools are not being defunded.
  • say NO to a one-size-fits-all education.
  • say NO to poorly constructed, highly flawed and developmentally inappropriate standardized tests.
  • say NO to test scores being used to label schools, students and teachers as “failing.”
  • say NO to uninspiring test prep curricula.
  • say NO to the lack of art, music and culturally responsive curricula in our schools.
  • say NO to data-mining.

Opting out is not just to protect your own child.  It also sends the message that we are looking out for ALL children.   Peter Greene, a highly respected educator and blogger, recently published a piece on test refusal in The Huffington Post.  It gives even more reasons to opt out including “the value of non-compliance,” my personal favorite.  Greene writes, “In this day and age, it is never too early for a child to learn that sometimes people in authority will demand that you comply with dumb actions. Unthinking compliance is unwise. It’s good for all citizens to learn to say ‘no’.” 

The New York State tests begin two weeks from today.  Please visit these websites to download your opt out letter.  It’s not too late to say NO, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t refuse the tests.

NYS Allies for Public Education 

NYC Opt Out

 

Recognizing Effective Teaching Without Danielson’s Rubric

Where in Charlotte Danielson’s 2013 Framework for Teaching rubric, which is currently being used throughout the United States to measure teacher practice, is the component for teaching empathy, for inspiring students and for giving them tools, as well as the motivation, to keep from giving up on life?

When I was in high school, as far as I know, administrators did not use a rubric to evaluate my teachers.  I became a college and graduate student of history, and a social justice educator, because of Dr. Rick Chase, my high school history teacher at the The Lovett School in Atlanta, Georgia. Through Dr. Chase, my interest in politics blossomed.  I discovered that I gravitated towards candidates who strived to be of service to the poor and working class. I felt deep compassion for Paul Tsongas whose dream of becoming U.S. president in 1992 was cut short due – in large part, as I recall – to his health problems.  Like Tsongas, I was a swimmer and took pride in my butterfly stroke.

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from The Lovett School’s Fall 2015 magazine

Dr. Chase’s selection of My Enemy My Self by Yoram Binur pulled at my heartstrings as I read, in horror, Binur’s firsthand account of the mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories.  Fighting discrimination and hate became a mission for me. I sought to understand the origins of genocide and, as a 21-year-old, traveled alone to Poland to contemplate human history from the railroad tracks of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

Recently, the talented film editor Michael Elliot produced a four-minute-long film honoring Eileen Daniel Riddle and James Gilchrist, two retired theater arts teachers from Agoura Hills, California who changed his life and those of many of his classmates. 40 years later, we are moved by the testimonials of Riddle and Gilchrist’s former students.  “I love this man so much,” exclaims one woman as she hugs James Gilchrist.  “They were the spark that set my life in motion,” remarks Michael Elliot who also credited Eileen Daniel Riddle with helping students find beauty through pain.

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Film editor Michael Elliot with his former theater arts teacher, Eileen Daniel Riddle

Please share with Michael your story of a teacher who inspired you.  Visit shoot4education.com/teacherproject.  

While these lifelong teachers, now retired, had different teaching styles, interests and personalities, they all taught with passion and instinct, traits not measurable by a rubric. They also had freedom and autonomy, conditions that motivate teachers and boost their morale.  The current path that we are on – the standardization of teaching and learning and the narrowing of curriculum – is short-sighted and unsustainable.  It unfortunately deprives students of experiences that Michael Elliot touchingly describes in his short film.  Eileen Daniel Riddle, James Gilchrist and Dr. Rick Chase are teachers who not only inspired students to expand their learning but also created spaces in which students could feel alive.

What rubric measures that?

 

NYS Parents: REFUSE Pearson’s Field Tests

Beginning tomorrow, May 23, elementary and middle schools across the state of New York will begin to administer Pearson’s stand-alone field tests in English-language arts (ELA) and math.  Science field tests in grades 4 and 8 are also being given.  Today, the New York Post published this article about the upcoming field tests.  According to its author, Susan Edelman, the NYC Department of Education said it would inform NYC parents of the administration of stand-alone field tests.  So far this hasn’t happened and the vast majority of NYC parents are unaware that this extra testing is going on in our public schools.  Teachers, too, are in the dark. 

Edelman quoted Fred Smith, a fellow Change the Stakes member, who pointed out that these stand-alone field tests are given in addition to the trial items embedded in the April 2016 ELA and math tests that were just administered to students in grades 3-8.

“Children are being used and classroom time given to a private vendor so it can make marketable tests,” said Fred Smith, a former DOE test analyst. He said the official math and English exams given in April and May had 328 hidden trial items. Kids had no idea which items counted or not.”

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As I’ve done in past years, I compel you to find out if your school was one of 2,300 chosen by the New York State Education Department (NYSED) to administer stand-alone field tests in the coming weeks.

Go to http://www.p12.nysed.gov/assessment/fieldtest/2016fteirev2.xls for a list of all NYS elementary and middle schools signed up to field test.  Click here for a list of NYC schools by district. If so, urge your principal to refuse to give these tests and/or submit an opt-out letter to spare your child from being used as a guinea pig by for-profit testing companies and the NYSED.

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For more information, please read the following.

from Change the Stakes and NYS Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE):

What are field tests?

Testing companies often pay subjects to get feedback on experimental test questions. The information they get is used to produce and sell future exams. Since 2012, NYSED has allowed the testing company Pearson to use NYS children FREE OF CHARGE to try out test questions for the following April’s statewide exams.

In fact, your taxpayer money covers the cost of administering these tests. Field tests for grades 3-8 will take up to 50 minutes to administer. For your information, field test questions were also embedded in the April grade 3-8 ELA, math and science state assessments. This, of course, increased the length of the ELA, math and science exams.

Are parents informed about field tests – what they are and when they are administered?

In most cases, no. Many districts administer field tests to students without informing parents. You can call or email your school to find out when the tests are being administered this year.

Are field tests graded?

Field test results have no bearing on your child’s report card grades, teacher evaluations, or school rankings. The testing company and NYSED provide no feedback or information of any educational value to districts. Refusing these tests is a must.

Can we refuse field tests? How?

Of course. If you did not already check off field tests in your state test refusal letter simply send in a letter stating you do not want your child taking ANY field tests. Instruct your child not to take the test if anyone in their schools attempts to administer them.

How are schools selected for field tests?

Each year NYSED generates a list of districts, schools and specific grades within them that are assigned to administer field tests. Field tests are then shipped to them. This year, districts were asked to participate in computer-based field testing. If your school is on the computer-based field test list, it is because your child’s services have been volunteered for this latest giveaway.

Are districts mandated to administer field tests?

No. Every year dozens of districts send back field tests unopened to protect their students from the excessive and unnecessary additional testing. Last year the Board of Regents sought a regulation that would make field testing MANDATORY. The proposed regulation never came to a vote because sharp public resistance rose against it. It has not come up again.

Please send in your refusal letter for this year’s field tests TODAY and request that your district join the growing list of districts refusing to administer these meaningless assessments.

Thank you for your continued advocacy to save public schools and ensure all children receive a quality public education.

 

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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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