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Common Core’s secrets: Why N.Y.C. students are opting out of the tests

NEW YORK — New York state’s new elementary- and middle-school tests made headlines recently thanks to public uproar over product placement in questions and a series of incredulous tweets from comedian Louis CK about his own kids’ test prep. But for anyone paying attention, the complaints began almost the minute students sat down to take the English-language-arts (ELA) tests in April.

April 3: “Two students raised their hands to tell me that a sentence didn’t make sense. I had to agree with them.”

April 5: “Unfair. Fiasco. Students shed tears. That was just day one.”

April 6: “I cringed to see the passage that required kids to base an entire essay on an 18th-century sarcastic colloquialism.”

Gripes at test time are par for the course — teachers are prone to disliking statewide tests, since they take time away from classroom instruction and are increasingly used to grade teachers’ performance as well. But in New York, the criticism has been especially hot and heavy since last year, when the state commissioned Pearson to devise new exams. Pearson, the British-based testing giant, also provides test questions in other states, including Texas, Florida and Minnesota, and was just hired to write the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests, which will go into effect in 2015.

Every single principal and teacher I’ve spoken to says that this year’s [ELA] test was much worse than last year’s.

Elizabeth Phillips

Principal, PS 321

The stated purpose of the new ELA and math tests is to be aligned with the state’s new Common Core curriculum, part of a national set of standards adopted by 45 states over the past four years to ensure that all students graduate college-ready. But many educators and parents say that thanks to insufficient state oversight and gag rules preventing teachers from publicly discussing test questions, there’s no way to tell if the new tests are even accomplishing what they’re supposed to.

“Every single principal and teacher I’ve spoken to says that this year’s [ELA] test was much worse than last year’s,” says Liz Phillips, principal at PS 321 in Brooklyn, who last month wrote a widely read New York Times op-ed that called the new tests “confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned” with the Common Core curriculum. “I keep thinking that parents who would read the tests would think, ‘Really, this is what you’re testing our children on?

Parents have not seen the tests, however. This is because of a clause inserted by Pearson that instructs educators to keep the content of the tests confidential, even after they’re completed. (The exact consequences for violating this gag order remain unclear: A New York City Department of Education spokesperson deferred to the state education department, which did not respond to inquiries on the subject.) New York state education officials did release a sampling of questions from last year’s exams, but several educators who’ve seen the full tests say the most problematic questions were omitted.

Many principals say they support the Common Core, just not the tests that come with it. “I think the standards in and of themselves are pretty good,” said Alison Hazut, principal of Manhattan’s Earth School, where about one-third of families refused to have their children take the state tests last year, helping spark a citywide “opt out” movement. In New York, parents are guaranteed the right to reject the tests and instead have their children take a one-page proficiency exam; though schools themselves are partly graded on test scores, Hazut said there’s been no fallout for her school from the high opt-out rates the past two years. But she noted that where the Common Core tries to encourage broader critical thinking in place of the compartmentalized skills that were spelled out in previous state standards, that’s not true of the tests: “Some schools that are really serious about aligning curriculum toward the Common Core do not feel like the tests mirrored at all the depth of work that they’ve been doing.”

“If you read the Common Core standards for ELA, they do want kids to read with comprehension,” agreed Phillips. The Pearson tests, she said, “didn’t really ask kids to read to comprehend the material. They were about really petty things.”

It seems that the test was more about confusing and tricking my students than it was about assessing their reading comprehension.


Third-grade teacher

On, a national website set up for parents, teachers and administrators to report on their standardized testing experiences, one common complaint is that the questions are not just hard but puzzling, with “unnecessarily confusing language” and “ambiguous prompts.”

“It seems that the test was more about confusing and tricking my students than it was about assessing their reading comprehension,” wrote Rebecca, a New York City third-grade teacher, on Testingtalk. “Many of the questions throughout the 3 days had no clear answer. There were questions I believed could have had two or three answers.”

Anna Allanbrook, principal of the New York City public elementary school Brooklyn New School, said she first noticed a dramatic change during last year’s tests. (Disclosure: The author is a parent of a BNS fifth-grader.) “With the ELA, I truly felt there were some questions where I couldn’t be sure if it was B or C,” said Allenbrook. “It’s emotionally draining when you see children struggling with questions that you know are very, very difficult to answer because they can’t make sense of what the question is getting at — and you see adults having the same issue.”

With complaints about the tests have come questions about the New York State Education Department’s oversight of Pearson, which won the state testing contract away from its competitor McGraw-Hill in 2012. When the company received scrutiny in its first year for recycling an ELA reading assignment that included questions about a nonsensical Daniel Pinkwater story about a talking pineapple, state Education Commissioner John King promised stricter supervision of future tests. Pearson was also highly criticized last year when it posted a Craigslist ad for temp workers to grade tests for $12 an hour; while the company does not reveal who actually writes its test questions, its own website states only that “a bachelor’s degree is preferred” for test developers. 

Meanwhile, the company’s outsize influence within the testing world — it is connected to a foundation that has sponsored international junkets for school officials to meet with Pearson executives — has led to accusations that it enjoys an unfair advantage over its competitors. Last week, a rival firm sued to invalidate the awarding of the PARCC contract to Pearson, saying PARCC had rigged the process so that Pearson was the only viable bidder.

Aaron Pallas, a Columbia University education professor who ran a computer analysis of a leaked version of last year’s fifth-grade ELA test — finding that it averaged a sixth-grade reading level — says New York state officials claim that all Pearson questions are vetted by actual educators, but provide few details of how this oversight is conducted; he notes that the relationship between Pearson and the state in this matter “has always been a little bit murky.” It doesn’t help, he adds, that the state education department “doesn’t have a whole lot of expertise in test design and analysis.”

Pearson officials declined to comment for this story, directing all questions to New York state. The state education department, in turn, failed to respond to numerous emails and phone calls seeking comment.

As Pearson’s role in the U.S. testing system grows larger — the company’s new contract with PARCC, covering about 7 million students at a price of $24 a pop, is likely worth more than $150 million — scrutiny of the company’s tests is only likely to grow. For Allenbrook, since 80 percent of her school’s families opted out of the tests, this meant taking the Pearson-devised math test herself to see if it had improved from last year.

“At the end, I had this deep satisfaction that I had done well,” she says. “And I thought, there is something really wrong with someone like myself feeling a sense of satisfaction that I had been able to do this fifth-grade test.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Anna Allanbrook's name. It is Allanbrook, not Allenbrook. 

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