New York’s Secret Tests

Originally posted on @thechalkface on April 7th, 2014

In recent days the 2014 New York ELA tests have been the subject of much attention. It did not come as a surprise to most educators that the tests were more difficult than last year. After all, NYSED had informed teachers that this year, even 3rd graders would have to answer multiple choice questions in which all answers were “plausible.” Still, it seems that no one anticipated the unpleasant surprises that NYS had in store for this years test takers. Brooklyn principal Liz Phillips stated that she has “never seen an ELA exam that does a worse job of testing reading comprehension.” And in light of revelations that “There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages,” many parents are understandably curious about the content of these tests. But this curiosity will have to keep, because we know that teachers are essentially forced into silence by the state mandated gag order surrounding the tests. Pictures have sprung up on the Internet of outraged teachers sporting duct tape on their mouths while holding signs that read, “Ask me about the test I gave your child.” So while it is clear that parents have questions, it is also clear that there is something teachers want parents to know.
Over the course of the past year, parents have come to realize that these tests serve no purpose other than to grade teachers and feed the data monster. The continued secrecy surrounding the tests further undermines the idea put forth by NYSED that they are simply an assessment of “where kids are” and supports the assertion that the purpose they serve is much, much darker. Those in power know that if these assessments can be used to paint an image of a public school system that is failing to prepare students for the future, and if we can use them depict teachers as ineffective, there is money to be made.” Those peddling educational products, test prep materials, and consulting services aimed at fixing “broken” schools stand to gain billions of dollars off of these secret tests. The more we believe that 70% of NYS students are failing, the more willing we are to throw money at solutions to this manufactured crisis.
Education leadership would have us believe that parents who choose to refuse the tests are doing their children a disservice; without the tests, they say, how will we know where students stand on the road to career and college readiness? Left unspoken is the fact that rather than engaging in sound pedagogical practice, and allowing teachers, parents, and students to access the tests and utilize them as a teaching tool, the state has empowered corporate interests to dictate policy, and sadly, they have put our children’s interests last. Teachers are prohibited from discussing the exams with parents, even in vague terms. Test booklets are returned to the state for “secure destruction,” and students must endure needless experimental field test questions to the benefit of Pearson (with no compensation) because as part of their negotiations for a cheaper contract, NYSED has sold out students and teachers.
The questions raised by this practice are staggering. For instance, some schools have used these tests to determine placement in advanced courses or remedial courses. How do we know if these assessments are a valid measures of student ability if most people have never seen them? Are we denying students access to programs based on a flawed measurement? And if the instrument used to evaluate educators is broken, what does this mean about the teacher improvement plans foisted upon experienced, dedicated teachers? If the test is shown to be a broken instrument, who will be responsible for the costly lawsuits and legal battles that will ensue? These questions must be addressed if we are to continue to use an evaluative instrument that has never been available for unbiased scrutiny or even examined for validity.
And what exactly are we measuring? 2013 ELA test questions released on Engage NY show that students who used valid inferences in their written responses supported by paraphrased details from a passage did not receive full credit despite being correct and demonstrating a thorough understanding of the text. This is because the Common Core requires students to use a strategy called “close reading,” a strategy that requires them to support their answers using only “text-based details.” What this means is that a student who engages in higher-level thinking skills (such as inference) and who is able to explain a text in his or her own words will not score as a well as a students who simply copy text details verbatim into their response. If high-stakes testing encourages teaching to the test, could we actually be encouraging a dumbed-down, formulaic method of responding to a text? Without access to these tests, we may never know.
We must also consider whether or not it is wise to administer “secret”tests to children as young as 8 years old. Think about it. If there is indeed inappropriate content on these tests, we are essentially relying on children to act as reporters because under the current security protocols, only children may freely discuss the content. What would happen if we were to find out that these tests were in fact poorly constructed with no clear answers? Would those in power still cling to the myth that 70% of students in NYS are not on the road to career and college readiness? And most importantly, what if we were to find out that the tests we are compelling children to take for hours and days on end are in fact developmentally inappropriate in addition to being poorly constructed? Who will incur the liability for exposing children to unfair and emotionally harmful testing practices?
The secrecy and lack of access surrounding these tax-payer funded state exams is unprecedented, and eliminates the system of checks and balances that should characterize public education. Last week over 32,000 parents rejected these secret exams. While these parents may not know what was on the tests, they do know that they have the right to protect their children from being the unwitting subjects of a educational experiment.


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