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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Are standardized tests the new swine flu?



It was only four years ago that my family and I moved to the district where I teach.
I am really blessed with a job that I am passionate about in a district that is high achieving, but not just in the ways that high achievement matters today.  When I first started working here in the mid-1990's, I was amazed at what I saw.  Things were so different from when I was a kid. Parents were very involved with the schools. They came to parent conference nights, they advocated for their children, and they demanded creative, out-of-the-textbook style teaching that made their kids think critically. There was a huge appreciation for the arts, music & foreign language, there were unique after school activities, such as engineering clubs and fencing. You didn't get that when I was a kid!

Fortunately, the parents here still demand these things. And for that I am most grateful.



 The first weekend we ever slept in our new home, my oldest daughter didn't feel quite right. She was achy, exhausted, and had a sore throat. We were so excited to meet our new neighbors, walk around the neighborhood, and do what we wanted, that we ignored her suffering...


As it turns out, that child woke me up in the middle of the night and I rushed her to the emergency room. Before I knew it, a masked nurse came in, told me she had the swine flu while closing me in the now quarantine room with my baby girl....and not giving me a mask.

Locked in without a mask must be how many NY State parents are feeling. 
I just read a fascinating blog entry by journalist, author and professor, 
Andrea Gabor.

The New York State Department of education asked her to be on a committee that would revamp the English Language Arts standards. They debated "...how to accommodate the needs of immigrant kids who are struggling to learn English and how to account for the radically different cultural 
 experiences of the students who would be taking the tests–kids in remote rural areas, 
in suburbs, in New York City."
So far, it sounds okay...
Until it wasn't. The committee was disbanded when when New York State decided to adopt the Common Core State Standards. You can imagine how curious she was when a teacher handed her a copy of the controversial “common-core”-based 
New York State standardized tests.

Gabor writes, "The tests, which were developed by Pearson and administered to students in April, were so poorly received by both educators and parents, that veteran New York City principals mounted a grassroots campaign in opposition to what they say are “unfair” tests that take an“intolerable toll” on children."
No one's listening. We can't hear you....

"A close reading of the tests given to grades 6 to 8 raised many concerns regarding their contents. I was especially surprised to see not only how heavily the tests were skewed to non-fiction, but also the nature of those non-fiction readings, which were dominated by scienc(y) writings, with very few readings that drew on civics, American history or the urban experience."
Did I mention that Andrea Gabor is a non-fiction writer? The Common Core Curriculum is pushing non-fiction, but even non-fiction authors are concerned.

"...it is important to remember that the common core assessments are meant to test ELA (English Language Arts), not history or civics or science. Moreover, I’ve found that kids who have read Fitzgerald, Twain or Doctorow, are the ones who are most likely to read, and understand, non-fiction texts like The New York Times. Yet, the emphasis on non-fiction in both the standards—and the assessments—already has put pressure on ELA teachers to deemphasize literature; in other words, less Fitzgerald, Twain and Doctorow…"
That makes sense. Kids who read literature learn to like reading and develop as readers 
who tackle challenging non-fiction.
Not listening....still not listening.

She goes on to state, "Others have commented on the grueling length of the tests. Diane Ravitch who saw a bootlegged copy of the 5th grade tests noted: “Based on test questions I had reviewed for seven years when I was a member of the NAEP board, it seemed to me that the test was pitched at an eighth grade level. The passages were very long, about twice as long as a typical passage on NAEP for eighth grade. The questions involved interpretation, inference, and required re-reading of the passage for each question.”

I wonder how it feels to be in 5th grade and sit down with a test that is more like an 8th grade reading level. When I pour over educational research, sometimes (even though I am reading by my own choice), I just can't process the dense, academic writing. My eyes get heavy, my brain wants to fall asleep, and I put the book down until I want to try again.
 I imagine kids must feel like that.

"Each of the tests for grades 6, 7 and 8 are completed in 90-minute segments over the course of three days. The seventh grade test, for example, is about 72 pages long (there are a few blank pages added for essay questions.) It includes 14 passages, the vast majority of which are one-to-two pages in length. There were also eight short-answer questions that require writing about one long paragraph each, as well as two essay questions. Then there were the endless multiple choice questions—over 100 of them, far more than the number on earlier test, according to education experts."
Have you ever watched kids take standardized tests? It is a little heart wrenching. They start out full of optimism. After about 45 minutes, some start to fade.  I see the dimmed expressions begin to appear. I worry that the kids who finish early have rushed through, then I worry that the kids peering up and looking at the kids who finished early 
think they aren't as smart...
when sometimes the early finishers simply guess then retreat from the stress into a nap. 

"As a journalist who has spent my professional life writing non-fiction, I confess that I am puzzled by the non-fiction mania reflected in the common core and in New York State’s test. I believe fervently that every high-school student should be able to read, and understand, The New York Times...Yet, this (over)emphasis on non-fiction strikes me as excessively utilitarian and, in the end, counterproductive."
Why won't someone, anyone, in a position of power listen to reason? 
I can't hear you....can't hear you....

Oh, and I would be remiss to leave out the questioning the test company part:

"It is easy to point the finger at Pearson, which has a five-year, $32 million contract to create tests for the state. The costs of the tests, though, are just the tip of the iceberg. There is also the cost of scoring them–especially if that process is done well. Then there are the opportunity costs–the time spent on test-taking instead of learning, the costs to schools that have to hire substitutes so their teachers can score tests."

Now I teach English, but this looks like an easy equation to me:

TEST COMPANY + $32 MILLION CONTRACT + PAYING PROFESSIONAL SCORERS
 - TEACHERS IN THE CLASSROOM DUE TO LOCAL SCORING = 
CHILDREN LOSING OUT.

"The problem is this: Developing better tests that assess “authentic” work, creativity and critical thinking will be complicated and expensive. Multiple choice questions, like the ones in such abundance on the latest Pearson test, provide a minimalist view of what children understand and do little to foster critical thinking skills; but they are cheap. As Polakow-Suransky once told me, when it comes to tests “you get what you pay for.”

  From my internet research, "professional scorers" appear to earn $10 - $12 per hour.
I don't think the professional scorers are making out that great from this.
I wonder where all the money goes? 
Well, I know where it went in Pennsylvania in 2006-07...

"Top officials with a Minnesota education company that won a $201 million Pennsylvania contract employ a Harrisburg lobbyist and donated $22,000 in campaign money 
to Gov. Ed Rendell, records show."



We need to ask ourselves if we are going to really pay attention to what is going on in our schools?

High stakes standardized tests have caused many school districts to add additional standardized tests to gather data about how kids may do on the high stakes tests.
Is this really what we want for our kids?



Are standardized tests the new swine flu?
Only if we remain silent.



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