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This Teacher Supports Common Core, Opposes Tests

New York teacher Katie Lapham shared the following letter with me, which she sent today. I believe it reflects the feelings of many educators caught in the middle between Common Core hopes and testing realities.

New York State Board of Regents and Dr. John B. King, Jr., Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York

New York State Education Department

89 Washington Avenue

Albany, New York 12234

Dear New York State Board of Regents and Dr. John B. King, Jr.,
I am an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at a Title I elementary school in New York City. This is my seventh year of teaching in the same school. Prior to becoming a teacher, I worked in sales for textbook publishers. In defining what it means to be a teacher, I have always held the belief that, first and foremost, I must serve as an advocate for all of my students. It is this deep-seated conviction that has inspired me to write to you.

Last week, I administered the grade 5 Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) test to a group of 10-year-old former English Language Learners (ELLs). Over the course of three consecutive days, they were asked to answer a total of 63 multiple-choice questions on two different answer grids, and eight short-response questions and two extended-response questions in two different booklets. In order to do this, they had to first carefully read and re-read a large number of reading passages.

Most of the grade 5 students throughout New York State received 90 minutes each day (a total of four and a half hours) to complete the tests. As former ELLs, the students I tested received an additional 45 minutes of testing time each day. Thus, they sat in a testing environment for a total of six hours and 45 minutes. If they had not received extended time, most of the students would not have finished any of the exams at the conclusion of the standard allotted time of 90 minutes. While I was impressed by the students' stamina, resilience and overall positive attitude, by the end of day two their test fatigue and frustration were visible. This week, they will receive the same amount of time as the state administers to them the 2013 Common Core Mathematics test. By the end of Friday, April 26, this group of former ELLs - fifth graders - will have tested for a whopping total of 13.5 hours.

I ask you to picture your own children and grandchildren - even your 10-year-old self - sitting for that long to complete such lengthy standardized tests. I have a three-year-old daughter and my stomach tightens at the thought of her being subjected to such excessive testing. This brings me to my next point. The 2013 Common Core ELA and Math tests come at the culmination of months-long test preparation in our public schools that include four Acuity Benchmark Assessments (two for each subject area) and countless hours of teacher-created test prep practice. This egregious amount of classroom time devoted to standardized tests is robbing our students of their right to a meaningful education.

I support the implementation of the national Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS). In lesson planning, I regularly refer to the Common Core app on my smart phone to ensure that my lessons reflect their rigor. While I've always cultivated an atmosphere of critical thinking in my classroom and have long utilized authentic texts such as The New York Times, the CCLS have aided me in taking my instruction to the next level, particularly with regards to writing. Because my school has adopted the push-in model for ESL instruction, I collaborate and co-teach with a classroom teacher during the fifth grade literacy block. Our unit on Abraham Lincoln - for example - serves as a bridge that takes students from slavery to The Civil War. Not only do we guide students through the complex, higher order thinking task of analyzing and writing about two contradictory speeches that Lincoln gave on slavery, but we constantly make connections to material already learned and to forthcoming material. Our lessons, therefore, are not taught in a random, disconnected fashion. Rather, they are overlapping and reinforcing. I am proud of the CCLS-inspired work that my co-teacher and I do, and I am proud of our ESL students - most of whom are "below grade level" - for meeting our challenges and for applying their new knowledge in other academic contexts.

An ESL student who got only 31% of the questions correct on the Fall 2012 Acuity Benchmark ELA Assessment recently brought tears to our eyes when he correctly used the word threshold in his writing, a term that had been taught to him months prior in a different unit.

What differentiates this type of instruction from that related to the state assessments is that the non-test prep work we do in our classrooms is much more inspirational and meaningful to both students and teachers. While the reading passages on state assessments and test prep materials do indeed draw from a variety of authentic, multilayered texts, students are reading only short excerpts that are unlikely to make a lasting impression. Students do not make the same kind of emotional connection to assessment material as they do when analyzing a non-fiction topic in depth or when reading a work of literature in its entirety. The tests and test prep materials neither take into consideration nor honor the uniqueness - the kaleidoscope of emotions - of each individual student. The work I do in the classroom is what motivates me to go to school every day. I am grateful for the opportunity to open children's minds and to help guide them on their pursuit of happiness. The high stakes testing, unfortunately, poses a roadblock to this.

"Lack of rigor" in our schools is not the only factor contributing to our nation's broken educational system, as our one-size-fits-all standardized testing program seems to suggest. In my school, we struggle on a daily basis with the effects of poverty and home life instability. How do we as teachers and schools ensure the academic success of all kids whose families do not appear to value education?

On top of our instructional duties, we face the Sisyphean task of getting parents more involved. In order to be successful students, kids need to come to school every day, and they need family support in being able to complete their work both at home and at school. The weight given to standardized assessments and the corresponding Common Core Learning Standards does little to address the root causes of dysfunction in our public school system.

I am deeply troubled by the path our state is headed down in assessing our elementary school students, and I strongly urge you to re-think both the design of and the importance placed on state assessments. You are making it that much harder to recruit talented individuals to the teaching profession. The tests are also souring the educational experiences of our youngest citizens, the ones we are preparing so hard for college and career readiness. However, we must also invest more in breaking the insidious, concrete-walled cycle of poverty in our nation. A much greater importance must be placed on fixing the root causes of low academic performance and educational inequities.

Sincerely,

Katie Lapham, NYC teacher

What do you think? Can educators support the Common Core but take issue with the standards-aligned tests that are coming at us?

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