Education
The Washington Post

Parents accuse N.Y. Common Core tests of product placement

Students complain of being sold to, and educators say tests fail to accurately assess students’ abilities

“Just do it” has been a familiar Nike slogan for years, but parents and educators are wondering what it was doing on some of New York’s Common Core standardized English tests.

Brands such as Barbie, iPod, Mug Root Beer and Life Savers showed up in questions on tests that more than 1 million students in grades 3 through 8 took this month.

Educators in New York have objected to the Common Core tests for other reasons, arguing that they don’t accurately assess students’ abilities and complaining that the gag order surrounding test questions leaves them unable to prepare their students.

The Common Core initiative set forth national standards for the knowledge and skills that K–12 students are supposed to gain, and Barack Obama’s administration has urged all states to adopt them.

Deborah Poppe, of West Hempstead, N.Y., said her eighth-grade son told her the that the questions felt like ads. One particular question that drew complaints, for the second year in a row, depicted a busboy who failed to clean up some spilled Mug Root Beer — a registered trademark of PepsiCo.

“Why are they trying to sell me something during the test?” she quoted her son as saying.

New York state education officials and the test publisher say the references were not paid product placement but happened to be contained in published passages selected for the tests. The brand name placement appears to be specific to New York, advocates said.

Nike and Wrigley, the maker of Life Savers, said they were unaware they were mentioned on the tests. Other companies declined to comment or did not return messages, according to the Associated Press.

Parents and teachers have found it difficult to learn much about how questions on the test are chosen or developed because of a climate of secrecy surrounding the test material: Teachers and principals are barred from discussing them. Some New York educators have vented their concerns about the issue anonymously on online forums like Testing Talk — a site for educators to share observations on standardized exams. The site’s forum contains mentions of product placement in this year’s test.

One educator described them as being “woven through some exams.” Critics say brand mentions on standardized tests are unnecessary and inappropriate.

About 40 Manhattan principals organized a demonstration earlier this month to express their “deep dissatisfaction” with the 2014 NYS English language arts exams.

School principals in District 2, which includes many of New York’s highest-performing schools and wealthiest neighborhoods, criticized the “lack of transparency” surrounding the test questions in an open message on Testing Talk. 

Other teachers were concerned that the tests did not align with Common Core learning standards. 

The tests were "confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards,” Elizabeth Philips, principal of P.S. 321 in Park Slope, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times.

Some of the New York teachers who took part in a protest earlier this month vented their frustrations Friday.

“I felt like the students really were just being tested on how well of a test taker they were, not necessarily how great of a reader they were or how great a writer,” Ryan Zimmerman, a third-grade teacher at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, told WNYC.

The New York State Education Department said its tests were developed, edited and reviewed by area teachers. Spokesman Dennis Tompkins dismissed complaints as coming from a “small minority,” WNYC, a New York radio station, reported.

Common Core standards provide “clear and consistent academic standards,” Bill Gates, a co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said, according to the Common Core website.

“The more states that adopt these college- and career-based standards, the closer we will be to sharing innovation across state borders and becoming more competitive as a country.”

The writing of the standards was done by a small group of “insider organizations inside the Beltway, heavily funded by one organization, the Gates Foundation,” Diane Ravitch, a historian and professor of education at New York University, wrote in the Huffington Post.

“Not a single classroom teacher was included in the small group that wrote the standards ... The largest contingent on the working groups was from the testing industry,” she said.

She criticized the assumption that standards alone will cause students to achieve more and said there is no evidence to support that theory.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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